Norris Church was a young woman living in Arkansas when she met and fell in love with one of the most famous and talented writers of the 20th century. She writes, “I had never met anyone like him. He was fresh and enthusiastic about every subject, politics and religion being two of his favorites…and he was determined to assert his reputation as the best lover in the world.” Thus began her long-term relationship with Norman Mailer, which survived fights, divorces, legal hassles, infidelities, world tours, ex-wives and their children, marriage --- and ended with Mailer’s death in 2007. But, thanks to this taut, well-paced memoir, that love --- and the affair it grew out of --- will live on.
Norman Mailer was a golden boy on the literary scene, one of those touched-by-magic geniuses whose first novel (THE NAKED AND THE DEAD) was an instant bestseller, a man whose many books the critics might pan but the readers rushed to buy. He also had a knack for keeping his products flying off the shelves by lecturing and promoting them with verve, at his best in the spotlight. I attended one of his promo-lectures at the University of North Carolina in the late 1960s. Notorious for his use of four-letter words, Mailer’s appearance was initially closed to female students, but that ban was later rescinded. So I got in, along with a large collocation of male professors, eager lit students of both genders and some frat boys who came hoping Mailer would wax foul-mouthed. He did not disappoint them; he started the talk with a joke so dirty I am still embarrassed to recall it. And though the laughs were only scattered, he had scored, slipping past the censors and gathering an audience of women to shock (and charm), boys to amuse, and the literati to impress.
That was typical of Mailer --- short, scrappy and sexual --- in the early days of his heady fame. Later, after six wives and nine children, he may have calmed down somewhat (Church indicates that there were quiet days devoted to her and to the kids), but Mailer always needed and attracted the hurly-burly. One of the most fascinating vignettes in a book literally stuffed with them was Mailer’s experience in Manila where he was covering the notorious “thrilla” boxing bout between Mohammed Ali and George Frazier. Before the fight, Mailer and Church were invited to meet Ali in his suite where he paced in a white caftan reciting vague, soporific poetry and playing gracious host to everyone, whispering in Church’s ear, “You’re so beautiful.” During the fight, a slow, titanic bloodbath, Church says, “I thought at times I was going to faint from the heat and the brutality, but I just sat down and closed my eyes for a minute, and then they popped open again. I had to see what was going on.”
With Mailer, a generous man who found ways to buy her gifts from their earliest encounters, Church met Imelda Marcos, Fidel Castro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Oscar de la Renta…well, the list could go on and on. The book fairly sparkles with the brightness of Mailer’s circle. Church was obviously a star of a woman destined for a glamorous life, having once had a brief affair with Bill Clinton pre-Mailer. In this frank memoir she only occasionally holds back, striking a reasoned balance between titillating tell-all and crisp factual narrative. She is a writer too after all, and a painter and former model.
In fact, between Mailer and Church, there is little to be done in this old world that they did not get a shake at. They shared the same birth date (the years did not match, of course, she being about half his age), and he gave her the name she now carries (she was born Barbara Davis), brilliantly ordaining her his spiritual, fraternal twin. She swore to him that she’d never write about him, but she has and makes a success of it. A TICKET TO THE CIRCUS is a romantic tale told by a romantic character who played an essential role in the romantic life of a romantic genius.
If Mailer’s ghost still pervades the physical world, I’m sure it is smiling --- for her, for her book, and for them.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011
A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir