The Mailers: Norman And Norris

Norris Church Mailer and Norman Mailer 2001 CBS

As sweethearts embrace Valentine's Day this month, CBS News Sunday Morning profiles four couples with 113 combined years of relationship experience. Why has Cupid's arrow has pierced them for so long while more than half of marriages today end in divorce? For Sunday, Feb. 4, Correspondent Martha Teichner focuses on author Norman Mailer and his sixth wife, painter and novelist Norris Church Mailer.
Norman Mailer and his wife, Norris, were both born on Jan. 31 -- but 26 years and one minute apart. This year, on his 78th birthday, her 52nd, their non-celebration involved coming to New York for the screening of a TV pilot.

Three of Norman Mailer's eight children by his six wives showed up, plus Norris' son by her first husband. In the TV show, called Street Time, the author turns actor. Mailer plays an old gangster just out of jail.

Mailer's son, Stephen, plays his parole officer.

It all sounds like something out of a novel -- a Norman Mailer novel.

These days, the story set in Provincetown, Mass., where the Mailers live now.

They met in Russellville, Ark., in 1975, when Mailer was in town, visiting an old Army buddy. Norris wangled an invitation to a party given for him.

"I had just read Marilyn, and said, 'Oh, this is so exciting to me! A real writer like Norman!' And no thoughts of romance at all. You know, maybe get an autograph or something," she recalls.

She was Barbara back then, Barbara Norris, 26 years old, a high school art teacher and would-be writer, divorced, with a small son.

Norman Mailer was 52 and married (not entirely happily) to wife no. 4 at the time. He was also famous, not just as a writer, but for his role in the nation's most visible controversies. On Oct. 21, 1967, 200,000 protesters marched on the Pentagon to end the Vietnam War. Mailer was one of them. He wrote himself into his book on the protest and won the first of his two Pulitzer prizes.

Was it love at first sight?

"It was interest at first sight," Norris replies. "I came to see the writer, and I think I found the man first."

Of Norris, Norman says, "She had an essential confidence that wasn't arrogant, and I just felt there's a talent there, a talent for life, that I just have to admire... You fall in love with what's all together in a person, and I fell in love with her looks. I fell in love with her easy style. I fell in love with the way her mind worked. I adored her. But, particularly what I fell in love with, was that she adored me back."

For her part, Norris says, "He had this vitality, this energy, and I thought, 'This is an interesting guy.' And he was a bad boy. I think we're all attracted to bad boys."

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The public knew him as the bad boy who stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife after a drunken fight. Recently, 41 years after the fact, she announced she's suing him for more alimony. The incident seems to have taken on a life of its own. But, in Norman's relationship with Norris, it was never been an issue.

Says Norris, "I've never worried about it, because he's never made me feel like I had to worry about it."

She quit her teaching job, got on an airplane for the first time in her life, and moved to New York. Barbara Norris became Norris, the Wilhelmina model. She thought that if the adventure did not work out, she could always go back to Alabama and teach.

But it did work out, and it's been 26 years so far.

After modeling, Norris moved on to acting and then painting. John, the son she and Norman had together, is now 22. But there are no distinctions, no "his, hers, or theirs" among their nine children. Over the years, they have become one family, a close family, and that is one of the cornerstones of the Mailer marriage.

Norman Mailer thinks marriage works best according to what he calls the "58-42 principle." He says "50-50" is bad. The shifts in the balance, the asymmetry, in his opinion, keep things interesting.

"There's a thousand threads in a relationship and, as the years go by, the threads get stronger or the threads break," says Norris. "But you're bound together by all these shared experiences, by your family, by history, by all the things that you know about each other. You know how someone takes their coffee, how someone likes a certain dish. There's so many things that make up a long marriage, and one thing happening can't cut all those threads at once."

The Mailers' marriage has survived Norman's painfully public infidelity and, recently, Norris' cancer.

"When I lost my hair, he told me how beautiful I was bald," she recalls. "When a woman has chemo and her hair falls out, that's a huge issue for someone who...has always had nice hair. He said, 'You look like a beautiful alien.'"

But words are not always the Mailers' preferred method of communication. Asked, f he wanted to say something to his wife about his regard for her, how he would you do it and what he would say, Norman replies, "I'd grin at her. I'd give her a wink. I don't have to say it. We've been together so long, we don't have to make speeches back and forth."

A day in the life of the Milers begins separately. Norman does a crossword puzzle to get himself ready to write. (He compares it to an athlete's stretching exercises.)

Eventually, he makes his way to the third-floor study no one else is allowed to set foot in to work on his next novel. Subject: undisclosed.

Meanwhile, in her own study, Norris, too, is writing. Her first novel, Windchill Summer, was published last year. It is slightly autobiographical, the story of two girls coming of age in a small Arkansas town during the Vietnam War. She is now at work on the screenplay.

Then, after not talking to each other all day, they meet. And if they go out to dinner, they say it is sometimes almost like having a date, even after 26 years. Do they flirt with each other?

"As much as I can," says Norris.

"Yeah. Oh, she's a flirt," adds her husband.

And it still works?

"Much more often than not, yeah," replies Norman with a laugh.

Or they may just discuss German poetry.


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  • Dan Collins

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