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Norris Church Mailer, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist's last wife, dies at 61

Norman Mailer and the future Norris Church Mailer pose for a photo before entering a barbecue joint in Americus, Ga, in August 1976. The couple were married in 1980. Mrs. Mailer died Nov. 21 at age 61.
Norman Mailer and the future Norris Church Mailer pose for a photo before entering a barbecue joint in Americus, Ga, in August 1976. The couple were married in 1980. Mrs. Mailer died Nov. 21 at age 61. (Peter Bregg/associated Press)
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By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 12:29 AM

Norris Church Mailer, 61, who was the sixth and final wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer and was also a model, a painter and a respected author in her own right, died Nov. 21 at her home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mrs. Mailer had been contending for a decade with gastrointestinal cancer and had undergone numerous surgeries and extensive treatments.

In her 20s, divorced and the mother of a small child, she was an art teacher in Arkansas when she met Norman Mailer. They married in 1980, and through her celebrated husband she met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Imelda Marcos, Woody Allen and Fidel Castro, among others.

Over the years, Mrs. Mailer demonstrated the emotional resources to organize her husband's often-tempestuous life, defend his reputation and withstand his critiques of her work as well as to combat the debilitation of disease.

In addition to dealing with the routine challenges of living with the oft-married literary lion and his many offspring, she overcame the devastation of discovering that after years together he had been straying from the path of monogamy.

That was just one of the events that made it plausible that, after two novels, she could produce "A Ticket to the Circus," an evocatively named 2010 memoir that could be considered worthy of a place among the chronicles of American life and lives.

Her husband, who died in 2007, was inevitably a part of the book, but reviewers noted that it was about her, and the fascinations of her life, which included youthful employment in a pickle factory and a later romance with an Arkansas politician named Bill Clinton.

Its charms were seen as those of the granddaughter of sharecroppers who flourished in a more glamorous world and who, when asked which of her husband's many wives she was, had the wit and grit to reply: "The last one."

A review in The Washington Post described the memoir as the story of "a girl on her own who took a big chance." She made her way, at least partly, according to the review, as "the perfect combination of sex symbol and gangly good friend."

Although her family was from Arkansas, she was born in Washington state, where her father was working on a construction project. Her birth name was Barbara Jean Davis, and her birth date was Jan. 31. 1949. Norman Mailer was born the same day 26 years earlier.

Religion played a major role in her upbringing in Atkins, Ark. Her middle name, Church, was given to her by Mailer in recognition of that. Norris was the surname of her first husband, Larry Norris.

In 1975, she was teaching art and Mailer had come to Russellville, Ark., while promoting his new book on Marilyn Monroe. She had a copy and decided to get it signed.


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