Margo Howard grapples with the loss of a very special friend
Sunday, November 21, a cherished friend died. Norris Church Mailer was 61. We’d met later in life, but there was an instant bond and we called ourselves “the red-headed sisters.” We’d met at a PEN New England dinner, where each table of 10 had a literary star. Our table had two: Norman and Norris – for she had a newish book out, Windchill Summer. There was a man seated between us, and not long into the dinner we told him to move! We wanted to talk … and talk we did. Oddly enough, the Arkansas art teacher who’d worked in a pickle factory and the girl from Lake Shore Drive had many touch points. She was as reserved as I was rowdy, and it was a fabulous friendship. I really loved her. She had cancer when I’d met her, but she somehow kept on keeping on for eleven years. She did not once complain. I would ask how things were, and she would say, matter of factly, “Today’s not so good,” or “There’s quite a bit of pain.” She either had a lot of hope or was averse to goodbyes, because she was always looking forward. There was a new drug, a new trial; something good would happen. She had delicious humor. Once, when there was some commotion going on in her life, she said in an e-mail, “You know, dying wouldn’t be so bad.”
She was so much more than Norman Mailer’s last wife who lasted. Her background was art – and, in fact, she had started a portrait of me that I commissioned. I did not know the quality of her artistry until I saw a portrait of Henry Luce in a magazine, and the credit was “Norris Church Mailer.” She was a terrific writer, and her two novels that preceded her memoir, A Ticket To The Circus, have been optioned for television. She was a world-class mother and stepmother. She wrangled all the children from Norman’s previous marriages, saw that there was “together time” during summers, and made all the kids feel like siblings. When she had surgery (the first time, in Boston) all the children came to hold her hand, and each other’s. She contributed two boys of her own – Matthew and John Buffalo, of whom she was extraordinarily proud – and grandchildren.
For a gorgeous woman (she modeled a little, of course) who was annexed to a social rocket, she was unassuming, with no air of entitlement whatsoever. She was real. As for her rather public, sometimes turbulent marriage to Norman, she seemed to me to have the heart of a Texas girl. (Well, Arkansas isn’t all that far away.) Norman was her mechanical bull, and she knew how to hang on. She could see the big picture. And some of the picture she saw embraced an idea of Norman’s, which was that people who leave this earth have another life beyond. She said, more than once, she was rather looking forward to being with Norman “up there.” Good taste and friendship, I suppose, prevented me from inquiring about the other dead Mailer wives “up there.” But thinking about it now, I’m sure Norris would see to it that everyone got along.
A bittersweet PS: In the last stages of her illness, she started beading necklaces. She loved putting different pieces together. Her old art background was kicking in. The one I chose was citrine and carnelian. I am wearing it now, with a sweatshirt and jeans, just to feel the cool beads that her hands had touched. So that was my weekend. A night of joy, a day of grief. I do hope Norris was right that Norman is waiting for her, and should that be the case, I know my mother will give her a big hello. I just realized, looking at my last e-mail from her, that she may, in fact, have said goodbye … only I didn’t know it. Her message, on November 10, was:
Pray for me. I’m going to bed and try to get some rest. Love you a lot, your little sister, N.