Norris Church Mailer, Laura Bush, and What I Read on My Summer Vacation
I had been dying to get Norris Church Mailer's book. Dying! Some friends gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday, and I haunted the shop at the Town & Country Shopping Center, waiting for A Ticket to the Circus, Norris' memoir about life with the brilliant and irascible Norman Mailer, to hit the shelves.
Oddly, it never showed up. I kept popping in, thinking I was too early, that even though the reviews were out, the publishers still hadn't shipped copies to the hinterlands. That went on for a month. Finally, I broke down and asked a sales clerk, who consulted the computers and informed me over her pince-nez that they wouldn't be getting A Ticket to the Circus at this location. They didn't think there'd be demand for it, not at this little shop in Central Phoenix.
I could hardly believe it. Could it be possible that all of Phoenix isn't obsessed with the woman who became Norman Mailer's sixth — and last — wife? I mean, seriously! As for me, I ordered my copy (at least Barnes & Noble was willing to do that). And then I devoured it.
I did not have any such enthusiasm for the autobiography of Laura Bush, Spoken from the Heart. A friend gave it to me as a joke — as the lone person in my social circle who voted for George W. Bush, I'm often the butt of "jokes" like this. I'm sure he never thought I'd actually read it.
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I almost didn't. Even the title annoyed me. ("Spoken" from the heart? Shouldn't that be "written"? And how does a heart write a book, much less "speak" it, anyway?)
Despite the votes I cast for her husband, I've never found Laura Bush particularly interesting. My ideal First Lady is someone like Nancy Reagan: movie star thin and intriguingly Machiavellian. With her sensible shoes and librarian hair, Laura Bush reminds me a bit of my Midwestern relatives: nice, wholesome, and bo-ring.
But I never can resist a book, even one given in jest. It should come as no surprise that I read this one; what is a surprise is that I devoured it, too. Perhaps not quite as quickly as A Ticket to the Circus, which I tore through like a madwoman, but quickly enough. And, in fact, with genuine enjoyment.
Laura Bush really can write. I've said that to a few friends now, and they invariably say something like, "You mean, her ghostwriter can write." But in this case, I simply don't believe it. This book was written by someone who understands West Texas, who's thought very deeply about her parents and her childhood, who's not afraid to confess that, for a long time, she'd lost her faith in God. That's not the work of a ghostwriter.
And reading Laura Bush's book just after I'd read Norris Church Mailer's, I found myself struck by how similar these two women are.
I'm sure that even Laura and Norris, or perhaps particularly Laura and Norris, would scoff at that. Superficially, they couldn't seem more different. Norris Church was utterly glamorous, an almost six-foot-tall redhead who went from teaching high school art in Arkansas to bedding a famous novelist twice her age — and then chucking everything (including, temporarily, her young son) to move to New York and marry him. Along the way, she launched a modeling career, became an artist, and wrote two novels of her own.
It's not quite the stuff of fairy tales, but it would certainly provide Danielle Steele with the makings of a pretty good potboiler.
As for Laura Bush, well, you know her — or at least you know the facts trotted out on the campaign trail. She was working as a librarian when mutual friends introduced her to a local boy named George W. Bush. They wed (no word in Bush's book about whether they "bed" first), he got into politics, and she became the perfect Republican wife: nice, wholesome, and thoroughly uncontroversial.
Yet it's the similarities, not the differences, that really hit home in their books. Laura Bush and Norris Mailer were born just three years apart — in the late 1940s, during the biggest baby boom in American history. Both grew up in small southern towns: Norris in Arkansas, Laura in Texas. Both were only children. Both became teachers.
It would be simple to say Laura followed all the rules and Norris followed none of them. But that isn't true.
If anything, Norris was, initially, the more traditional of the two women. She was pretty, at a time when Southern women were required to be pretty. She dropped out of college and got married at 20, to a popular former football player no less. She briefly worked as a secretary. And then she promptly had a baby.
Laura Bush, meanwhile, moved to the big city (Dallas) and got a teaching job. She then briefly moved to Washington, D.C. — but missed out on a job as a congressional aide because she couldn't type. ("I didn't think that I needed to type because, in a burst of intellectual snobbery and a bit of feminism, I had decided that I wasn't going to be anyone's secretary and I wasn't going to waste my high school class time on typing lessons," she writes.)
So she moved to Houston and then Austin. She worked in a brokerage house, taught school in the inner city, and then got a master's degree in library science. It wasn't until after all that restlessness that mutual friends introduced her to George W. Bush.
And even then, even though she was 31 and "the old maid of Midland," Laura Bush makes it clear she wasn't desperate.
"Bar Bush loves to tell the story that George spent exactly one day in Kennebunkport that summer," she writes. "When he called my apartment, she says that 'some guy answered, and he raced for a plane and flew right back down.'"
Note that sly "she says": Sweet Laura Bush wouldn't brag about two-timing the future president, but she's happy to let his mother do it for her.
After this point, however, Laura Bush's book gets a lot less interesting. She marries George, they have the twins, and he becomes governor of Texas and then president. And somehow, the woman who refused typing lessons suddenly becomes something of a Stepford wife: a stay-at-home mom and a loyal helpmeet to her high-achieving husband.
It would be interesting had she delved into the transition. But she doesn't. Their courtship gets one lousy page; their wedding, another. There is a stoic quality about Laura Bush throughout her book, but it really kicks in at the point she trades one life for another.
In the book, she openly regrets her loss of anonymity. But I kept wondering whether she regretted getting married. She never says.
Norris Church Mailer clearly didn't regret it — a point she tackles time and again. Just as Laura Bush's life becomes a whole lot less interesting once she meets her famous husband, Norris Mailer's becomes a lot more so. As Mrs. Norman Mailer, she finds her true calling. Clearly, this was not a woman who was meant to stay in Arkansas.
That's not to say it was easy. Perhaps the biggest revelation in Norris' book is just how difficult the whole thing was: There were five ex-wives to deal with, the seven children Norman sired before meeting her, and all the resulting alimony and child support.
And Norman Mailer, God bless him, was ridiculously difficult even beyond his tangled marital history.
At one point in the book, he invites an ex-girlfriend to dinner and expects Norris to cook for her. The woman is, not surprisingly, a complete bitch to Norris.
Norris writes, "He did things like that purely for the novelistic curiosity of seeing what would happen, I think. Although I would prefer to believe that he was a curious novelist than to think he was just an insensitive clod." Indeed.
Later in the book, her heart nearly breaks when she learns he's been cheating on her — with a veritable bevy of women. "How could I have been so ignorant all this time?" Norris cries.
"It's not hard to fool someone who loves and trusts you," her husband replies. The cruelty is staggering.
And yet she continues to love him. At one point, after she confronts him about the cheating, she plans to leave, and she tells him so.
"Norman began to talk then," she recalls. "He used all his talents and abilities and charm, which were considerable. Somehow — I still don't quite know how — before dinner was over, he made me believe that he did love me and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He was ready to give it all up, all the other women, everything.
"Maybe I was still naive, maybe it was just that neither one of us wanted to have to go out and find another apartment," she continues. "No matter; we went home intending to stay together and somehow make it work." And they did.
There's a similar resilience that runs through Laura Bush's story. No, George never cheats on her, or at least she never writes about him doing so. But she endures a serious tragedy — one made all the worse by her culpability in it.
Speeding along a rural road late at night, she runs a stop sign. Her classmate, a good friend who just happened to be in another car on the road that night, is killed.
Thrown from her car by the impact of the crash, the teenaged Laura sees the carnage. She has an inkling that her friend Mike Douglas was in the other car — and that Mike is now dead. But she refuses to believe that it's actually him.
In the hospital that night, she pleads with God. "I couldn't stop asking God, over and over in my head, to keep this other person alive."
It was, of course, too late.
"I lost my faith that November," she writes, "lost it for many, many years. It was the first time that I prayed to God for something, begged him for something, not the simple childhood wishing on a star but humbly begging for another human life. And it was as if no one heard . . . The only answer was the sound of Mrs. Douglas's sobs on the other side of that thin emergency room curtain."
But later she learns a hard lesson. "Life's largest truth may be that everyone faces tragedy," she writes. "Learning to accept those tragedies, learning to accept that life is riddled with events large and small, events that you may cause or that may happen to you, events that you can never control, is perhaps the hardest lesson of all.
"In that wrenching fact," she concludes, "I have faith that no one is ever alone."
My friend Robyn McKay, a psychologist who works as a counselor at ASU, is writing a book about creative women, or, as she calls them, "Smart Girls." And in her Smart Girls research, Robyn came across a revealing study about women and "eminence."
As you might guess from that charmingly old-fashioned word, the study in question, a doctoral dissertation, was written nearly 100 years ago. Its author, an otherwise obscure woman named Cora Sutton Castle, combed six different encyclopedias in 1913, searching for women who'd gotten entries. Then she analyzed how they'd made the grade.
Castle hoped to find 1,000 women eminent enough to merit encyclopedia entries, Robyn tells me, but she could find only 868. And even those, Castle noted, weren't always included for their own accomplishments: Many were married to famous men, and their glory was "reflected from their husbands."
Other than marrying an eminent man, a woman had only three real options to get her own encyclopedia entry, Robyn says, summarizing Castle's findings: "rocking the boat, writing a book, or ruling a monarchy."
To a modern woman, the idea of marrying into eminence seems like a cheat. And yet after spending a few days immersed in the world of Norris Church Mailer and a week in that of Laura Bush, I have new appreciation for the merits of marrying well. Certainly, reading Laura's book, I suspect that George Bush would never have become president if not for his wife's intelligent, steely presence.
She writes about how, after a long weekend watching him get soused with their friends, she confronts him: "Maybe it's funny when other people's husbands have too much to drink at a party, but I didn't think it was funny when mine did. And I told him so." After that weekend, George W. Bush quit drinking — a decision that likely changed the course of history.
As for Norman Mailer, he'd already written a number of critically acclaimed books before meeting Norris. But I don't think it's a coincidence that his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Executioner's Song, came after she moved into his life.
That's not to say she was responsible for the book. He was the genius. She was just a housewife, albeit a gorgeous one who painted and modeled on the side.
But plenty of geniuses genuinely need a housewife. Having someone around to take care of the practical things allows them to be, well, the genius.
Norris writes about how Norman had five wives before her, and left them all. "I should have been worried that I, too, would be next in line for heartbreak, but I wasn't," she writes. "As naive as I was, as farfetched as it seems looking back now, I was right. He never left me, in spite of some heartache along the way. Whatever qualities I had, they were something he needed . . .
"Some have said that I have a calm centered quality that appealed to and balanced his fiery personality," she notes. "I do know that I ran his life like a tidy ship" — and then, she details all the things she did, from shopping and cooking to bookkeeping and home repair. "He was always grateful and said that I allowed him to write and not have to deal with life," she writes, "and that's certainly true."
That kind of labor, I realize, might not ordinarily merit an encyclopedia entry. But after reading these two books, I'm convinced that it could help your brilliant husband win a Pulitzer. Or even get your not-so-brilliant husband elected president of the greatest country in the world.
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