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.

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske