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A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

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A great American love story, this warm, funny, revealing memoir introduces the world to Norman Mailer?s greatest inspiration, his wife of more than thirty years. Like Zelda Fitzgerald before her, Norris Church Mailer has led a life as large and as colorful as her husband?s?and every bit as engaging.

Growing up a strict Free Will Baptist in the South of the 1950s, Norris Church, christened Barbara Jean Davis, was crowned ?Little Miss Little Rock? at the age of three and always ...

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A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

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Overview

A great American love story, this warm, funny, revealing memoir introduces the world to Norman Mailer’s greatest inspiration, his wife of more than thirty years. Like Zelda Fitzgerald before her, Norris Church Mailer has led a life as large and as colorful as her husband’s—and every bit as engaging.

Growing up a strict Free Will Baptist in the South of the 1950s, Norris Church, christened Barbara Jean Davis, was crowned “Little Miss Little Rock” at the age of three and always knew that life had more to offer her than the comforts of small-town Arkansas. But she could never have guessed that in her early twenties she would date future president Bill Clinton (and predict his national victory even after he lost his first run for Congress), or that the following year she would meet Norman Mailer, who was passing through town giving a lecture at the local college. They fell in love in one night—and their marriage lasted thirty-three years.

Despite her enduring love for the man, Norris found life with the writer full of challenges—from carving out her own niche in the wake of five ex-wives and numerous former girlfriends, to easing her way into the hearts of her seven stepchildren, to negotiating the ferocious world of Mailer’s fame, friends, and literary life. The couple’s New York parties were legendary, and their social circle included such luminaries as Muhammad Ali, Jacqueline Kennedy, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Imelda Marcos.

Their decades-long obsession with each other, as seen in the intimate letters that Norris reveals here for the first time, was not without tests and infidelities; theirs was a marriage full of friendship, betrayal, doubts, understanding, and deep, complicated, lifelong passion.

With southern charm and wit, Norris Church Mailer depicts the full evolution of her life, from her childhood all the way through her intense marriage with Norman and his heartbreaking death. This unforgettable memoir will enchant readers with its honesty and insight into how we grow up and how we love.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Probably no one thought it would last, but the author's relationship with writer Norman Mailer endured and continued over 30 years despite a 26-year age difference, mutual infidelities, and illness. A writer in her own right (Windchill Summer; Cheap Diamonds), Mailer in this autobiography recounts her Arkansas childhood, previous marriage, meeting Norman, the subsequent move to New York to join him, their marriage, and later years together. The self-deprecating humor she employs throughout probably contributed to the success of her marriage to the famous author, which was the longest of his six unions. Her writing style is witty but also insightful as she describes the remarkable years she spent with Norman. She traveled the world, met celebrities and other literati, but also maintained a large family with strong bonds. Norris's own background is far from boring. In Arkansas, she taught art and dated Bill Clinton. Private letters and family photographs help complete this memoir. VERDICT Highly recommended for memoir enthusiasts and fans of both Mailers.—Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll., Media, PA
Carolyn See
…the tone of A Ticket to the Circus is light, intelligent, often ironic. And it isn't the story of Norman Mailer. Norman doesn't even show up until page 83. This is the story of a girl on her own who took a big chance and assumed one of those iconic roles you see every once in a while in overextended families marked by plenty of divorces…if you want to be both edified and amused, you really can't do better than A Ticket to the Circus. The title is apt.
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
…entertaining…A Ticket to the Circus is not a tell-all memoir; it's a tell-enough memoir. It's Ms. Mailer's own plucky and sometimes sentimental autobiography, written in the lemony sweet-tea mode of Southern novelists like Lee Smith…[it's] a love story, and you won't read this memoir without feeling pangs of jealousy: these two lived large, sun-drenched lives in almost every regard.
—The New York Times
Jennifer Senior
…manages to add a fat new sheaf to the public dossier on her late husband, Norman Mailer, and tells an involving coming-of-age story to boot. It's not so much that [Norris Church Mailer] gives readers unexpected insights into one of the literary giants of his day…but rather that, in her own in­direct way, she shows exactly what type of woman could tolerate and at least partly subdue such a king-size corkscrew of a man…Her voice, wobbly at first, is without a doubt her best ally—easy and unpretentious, uncomplaining and warm.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Norman Mailer's sixth and last wife holds her own in this lively memoir. In 1975, Norris (Cheap Diamonds) was a 26-year-old divorced mother and hippie art teacher from Arkansas when the 52-year-old novelist swept her off her feet. Though aged and mellowed, he is still a handful: he throws a drink in Gore Vidal's face, gets busted with marijuana, hangs with Fidel Castro and the Ramones, and womanizes compulsively. Norris has retaliatory affairs and a past that includes trysts with a young Bill Clinton. Amid the Mailer juggernaut and the ex-wives, old girlfriends and seven stepchildren, Norris asserts her independence by dabbling in modeling, acting, and fiction, by matching her spouse in repartee, and by “hitting him and scratching him.” One gets a vivid sense of the couple's mutual attraction—she reprints bawdy love letters at embarrassing length—and prickly antagonisms; Norman is a warm, vital, bombastic literary lion, Norris the spunky belle determined to tame him. The author looks beyond her marital melodrama in well-wrought scenes that include a scary portrait of Jack Henry Abbott, the violent convict-writer Norman befriended, and an evocative travelogue in postcommunist Russia. This is a smart, intimate portrait of the glitterati and their discontents. 69 b&w photos. (Apr. 6)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400067947
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/6/2010
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Norris Church Mailer
Norris Church Mailer is the author of two novels, Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds. Raised in Arkansas, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the mother of two sons, two stepsons, and five stepdaughters, as well as grandmother to two and step-grandmother to nine.
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Read an Excerpt

A Ticket to the Circus

A Memoir
By Norris Church Mailer

Random House

Copyright © 2010 Norris Church Mailer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781400067947

Chapter One


My grandpa was a mule skinner. My husband, Norman Mailer, thought that was a noteworthy fact, and he loved to toss it out there in conversation at New York dinner parties, watching the stiff smiles of the socialites as they imagined someone like the Texas Chain Saw Massacre guy skinning out a mule and nailing its bloody hide to the barn door. They'd glance at me a tad uneasily, Norman much amused, while I'd explain that a mule skinner was a mule trainer and try to change the subject. The truth was, there might have been a little flick or two of a black snake whip involved to get their attention (mules being one of God's most stubborn creatures), but they were valuable property, not to be abused, and while I'm proud of my ancestry, I don't think that particular talent dribbled down to me in any ability to skin-er, train-Norman. He loved to hear the stories of my family-he said he felt like he had married the great American novel. I guess you could look at it like that, since I have a Cherokee great-great-grandma and I can trace both sides back to the early and mid-1700s, when the first big wave of immigrants started arriving from the British Isles, looking for a better life-or maybe running from the sheriff. Nobody really knows now; it's all lost to theyears.

I don't even know for sure which country they came from, the Davises and the Phillipses, but several family stories survive, some birth and death records, and a few old pictures. My great-great-great-grandpa Stephen Phillips fought in the Revolutionary War; maybe my great-great-great-grandpa Caleb Davis did, too. He was in America then, living in Maryland, but records are sketchy. Both my great-grandpas fought for the rebels in the War Between the States, as they called it then. Down the line, the assorted grandpas and uncles married women with names such as Sarah Allen, Dicey Benefield, America Dillard, Tennessee Chronister, and Lavinia Pigg and named various of their children after George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, and Andrew Jackson. Somebody in the mix was called Seaborne Featherstone. The majority of them are now only names on a register, dates on a page, the women giving up their fathers' names to take their husbands', whole branches of family for the most part lost. They settled in Virginia or Maryland or the Carolinas, raised cotton and farmed; some had slaves. I hate that but choose to believe they were at least kind to them, because one of the slaves on record, Granny Flowers-along with her son Jasper-didn't leave the family after the Civil War but went with my great-grandpa George Washington Phillips and his wife, Sarah, to Dardanelle, Arkansas, in 1869, where they started a cotton gin. Granny helped raise their kids. It was noted that she liked to gather apples in her apron and eat them while sitting out under the apple tree.

 A few stories survive, like the one about my great-great-grandpa's sister Anthroit Phillips (she called herself Ankie, as anybody with that name would), who lived in a one-room log cabin her father built in Hendersonville, North Carolina. She never married, instead staying home to take care of her mother, Violet, which is what people did back then before nursing homes were invented, and Violet, bless her heart, lived to be more than a hundred. Right across the road from Ankie and Violet's cabin was the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the graveyard, and one rainy day there was a funeral. After the funeral was over and the cemetery deserted, Ankie looked out and saw a little girl of about six sitting on the fresh grave, crying. It was getting dark, so she walked over to see why the child was still there. She was named Ellen Morgan, it was her mother who had died, and everybody probably thought someone else had taken her, but she had no place to go, so Ankie took her home and raised her as if she were her own daughter. Because that's what people did. The good ones.

 On my father's side, my great-great-great-grandpa Caleb Davis and his wife, Catherine, moved west from North Carolina to New Madrid, Missouri, in 1808, which was just time enough to get settled in before the great earthquake of 1811 wiped out most of the town, his house included. Fortunately, nobody was killed, so he built a houseboat, loaded it down with all the furniture and livestock and goods he could salvage, floated it down the Mississippi to the Arkansas, took a right turn upriver, and settled in Gum Log Valley, Arkansas, where he claimed nine hundred acres and built the first house in the Valley. He farmed, raised livestock, and built a Methodist church and a school. He became a county judge and was the postmaster. His great-grandson was my mule skinner grandpa, Jeames, who raised cotton and corn right on the home place in Gum Log Valley. Jeames died at forty-seven during the Great Depression, leaving my grandmother Sallie with five children and a two-thousand-dollar mortgage he had taken out to buy more land to put in cotton. My beloved father, James, who was nine, never got over his father's death. In those days, two thousand dollars might as well have been two million to a widow with small children; they lost the farm and struggled along, my grandmother cleaning houses or taking in wash or whatever she could do, until my father got big enough to go to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp and help out. Then he joined the navy right after Pearl Harbor and sent money back to support his mother and little sister, Chloe Dean.

 There are so many stories that have been passed down in this family, stories that might even be true. So many characters-judges and doctors, bootleggers and drunks; sharecroppers and cotton gin owners; grocers and truck drivers and coal miners. Somebody stole a car and did time in San Quentin; somebody was the deputy warden in the McAlester prisons. Most were farmers who worked the land and did the best they could. One great-whatever-uncle got drunk one Thanksgiving and slung the turkey down the table, scattering sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, and it landed in the lap of his brother, who calmly put it back on the platter, sliced off a piece, and finished his dinner. Another great-uncle had a goat that climbed up and ate the cloth top off his brand-new Model T, so he went into the house, got his gun, and shot it. They ate barbecued goat for a week.

 Some were good-hearted; some were as hard as new whiskey, like my great-great-uncle Phillips who, when accosted by the revenuers for bootlegging pear brandy, ratted out his neighbors who were doing the same thing, and took a deal that allowed him a government still. He invited the neighbors over for a barn dance, and-surprise!-they were locked in his barn for several days until the judge could get there. The neighbors were tried and sent to jail-although, unfortunately, not for long, and the great-great-uncle, who clearly hadn't thought the thing through, had to pack up his family in the dead of night and move to Indian territory, as the neighbors were out to kill him.

 He was not the happiest with his lot there-the only work he could get was in a coal mine-but his son made out fine. Working with an old braided Creek named Boney Reynolds, he rounded up, broke, and sold wild Indian ponies for five dollars a head, and he excelled at a game the young men played, in which they put a cow's skull on top of a high pole and tried to knock it off with a rawhide ball flung by a hollowed-out, curved stick. The games were mayhem. More than one of the men had his own skull cracked, and a few were actually killed. A white boy who could keep up with that pack earned a lot of respect. When the government gave every Creek child on the reservation one hundred sixty acres, and oil was later discovered, my great-great-uncle's son married an Indian woman. They built a big brick house, they had black servants, and he joined the Masonic lodge. He tried to set his brother up with his wife's girlfriend, Susie Tiger, but she was too fat and ugly and his brother couldn't bring himself to marry her, even for a hundred sixty acres and oil.

Then there are the Civil War stories! My great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Davis and his two brothers, who had spent months walking home across the country after the signing of the peace, were attacked by outlaws who snuck up on them in an old church while they slept and killed one of the brothers, just one day's walk away from home. Another story was of when one of the uncles pulled a gun on the battlefield surgeon who was about to saw off his leg, and then ran off with a nurse. (P.S. The leg healed.) There are a lot of Depression stories and World War II stories from my father. Every one of these people lived a life full of adventure and pain and love and drama and dull hard work. Any one of them is worthy of a book, but this is my story, my little link in the chain, my page in the great American novel. It starts in Washington state, where I was born, and ends, as far as it goes, in New York City with Norman Mailer, who, Lord knows, had his own story. I lived with him for thirty-three years. I was his sixth wife and the mother of his eighth and ninth children. Rude people (there are way too many rude people in this world) used to ask me, "Which wife are you?"

 "The last one," I would answer. I didn't even knock wood. I was certain it would be true.

 And it was.

Chapter Two


After the war, my father, James Davis, who had learned how to operate heavy earthmoving equipment in the Seabees on Okinawa, came back to Atkins, Arkansas, and worked in his cousin Check's grocery store (called Davis Groceries). One Saturday night my father and his buddy Reece drove fifteen miles to Dardanelle to hang out and look for girls. James was cute-twenty-two, tall and lanky, with curly blond hair and blue eyes, and a big shiny smile that featured a gold cap on the bottom half of his front tooth, acquired at fourteen when he stuck a broom handle into a buzz saw and a piece of it flew back and hit him in the mouth.

My mother, Gaynell Phillips, was walking down the street with her girlfriend Mary Sue when a car with boys hanging out the windows passed them. The girls pretended not to notice them, sauntered on into the drugstore, and sat in a booth at the soda fountain. My mother was a beautiful girl, with long black curls and chocolate drop eyes. The friend was maybe not so beautiful, as she had regrettable frizzy hair, but the boys didn't care. They parked and followed the girls into the drugstore and began the age-old game of "What's your name? Can I buy you a Coke?" "No, thank you. My mama said I shouldn't talk to strangers." After they had drunk their Cokes, the girls announced they had to get back before it got dark, and set out walking the two miles home. Slowly. The boys of course followed, and by then the girls had dropped the coy act and let them drive them on home. After all, a ride's a ride.

 My mother lived in the middle of a cotton patch where her mother, Annie, and stepfather, Z. T. Shepherd, were sharecroppers. Her father had died when she was three and her baby brother, George, was one. Her mother soon married Z.T., a widower with six children. My mother had two older brothers and an older sister as well, so at one time there had been eleven children and two adults living in this four-room house that was perched on rocks stacked on the ground at each of its corners. Gaynell and George were the only ones left at home to help in the fields by the time she met James. Dragging that long heavy sack up and down the dusty rows of cotton in the shadow of Nebo Mountain was hard, sweaty work, and at twenty-seven, Gaynell was more than ready to do something else. Not that she was desperate, but she was verging on becoming an old maid, as the boy she'd been engaged to had been killed in the war. James pursued her hot and heavy for a few weeks. Then one day he pulled into the yard, scattering chickens, and announced he was going out to Washington state to work on the O'Sullivan Dam and if she wanted to go with him, they could get married. By then she knew he was not the owner of Davis Groceries, as he had kind of let her assume in the beginning, but she liked him anyway. He was sweet. So, two months after they met, on January 18, 1947, they got married, packed up the old car, and headed to the Northwest to Moses Lake, Washington. They lived in a tiny homemade trailer with a bed resting on orange crates, and no fridge, but what the heck? They were newlyweds.

 After a couple of years, I came along, and they were entranced by me even though I arrived with red hair, which totally threw my father for a loop. He was expecting me to be blond and blue-eyed like him. They named me Barbara Jean, after the little girl who lived next door, and when the dam was completed, we moved back to Little Rock, where Daddy got a job building roads. When I was three, my mother saw a sign in a store advertising for little girls to compete in the Little Miss Little Rock contest, so she entered me and I won. I was by all accounts an adorable handful. On the health checkup we all had to take, I got good in all the categories except deportment, which was marked "poor."

 (In my defense, there was a category on the card marked "genitalia," for which I got a "normal." If indeed some strange doctor was examining my genitals, it's no wonder I pitched a fit and earned a "poor" rating in deportment. Examining a little girl's genitals should have been outlawed, but it was 1952 and nobody thought anything about things like that in those days. If it was a doctor doing it, it must have been all right.)

 My mother had a great time getting me all dolled up in a yellow chiffon dress with rhinestones, white patent leather Mary Jane shoes, and socks with ruffles. The mistress of ceremonies, a former beauty queen in a purple evening dress, handed me the golden trophy and put the crown on my head, and when the audience clapped and cheered, I loved it so much that I wouldn't leave the stage. 

Continues...

Excerpted from A Ticket to the Circus by Norris Church Mailer Copyright © 2010 by Norris Church Mailer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. One reviewer described Norris' life as a series of emancipations. From what or whom do you think she was liberated? Was she really able to leave her childhood and life in Arkansas, or was her life there too much a part of who she was?

2. How did you relate to Norris' childhood with regard to her religious upbringing? Did you see it as harsh or loving? How far should you go in allowing religion to dictate your life?

3. Upon beginning life with Norman, Norris realized that public perception of him was often greatly at odds with the man she knew. How should she have handled ugly comments about the man she loved?

4. Being with someone who is so successful in their field can be intimidating, especially if you have aspirations in the same field. Did Norris do the right thing in putting her novel away when Norman was less than enthusiastic about it? Or should she have ignored it and continued writing?

5. Being related to a famous man is a double-edged sword, at best. As the wife of a controversial celebrity, was it harder or easier for Norris to succeed?

6. The age difference didn't seem to be an issue between Norman and Norris for quite a long time, but it was hard in later years. In what ways did their age gap bolster their relationship, and it what ways did it put strain on it? What roles do age and life experience play in relationships, especially marriage?

7. Knowing Norman's history and reputation as a womanizer, should Norris have been more guarded? Why or why not?

8. Being a step parent is a difficult relationship, for many reasons. Why do you think Norris had such a good relationship with the children? How does the definition of what it means to be a mother or father extend beyond shared DNA?

9. At one point, after Norris discovered the extent of Norman's infidelities, she describes herself as having taken a step away from him in her heart. Is it necessary to do that, if you want to protect yourself? Can you ever take that step back again and have a relationship as close as it was? If not, then what kind of relationship is possible? How do you move on? Can you control it?

10.  Discuss how you viewed Norman Mailer before reading A Ticket to the Circus, as well as after. Did Norris' intimate, private account of life with a very public man change your opinions of him? Are we ultimately better defined not by what we do, but by the people we love—or more importantly, who loves us back?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 21 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 23, 2012

    If you like memoirs

    I read this for a library book discussion group and we all liked it. Norris Church Mailer was the last wife of Norman Mailer, married to him the longest. She has an easy style of writing and manages to make you laugh and have sympathy. An interesting life from Arkansas to New York to Provincetown and all over the world.

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  • Posted February 15, 2012

    A love story

    What drew me to this book before I even know what it was about was the cover. A little girl with a redstripe back ground and a big ticket. The title says it all, A Ticket to the Circus. This book is a memoir that was never to be written, by the 6th wife of the late writer Norman Mailer. The title came about after a conversation Norris had with a girlfriend when speaking of her life. It has indeed been a ticket to the circus.
    Norris also exposes here affair with a young charismatic candidate from her home state of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
    In a chance meeting she cross paths with Norman Mailer and it continued to his death. This book is funny, touching, and shares the story of a modern romance.
    The author opens her life in which she shared with one of the greatest writers of all time, Norman Mailer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2011

    Loved this book!!

    What an interesting read! Never knew much about Norman Mailer let alone Norris Church Mailer but sure do now. What an enchanting life they had together. I went right along with them on their world travels - and then lived with them at their various homes and apartments. Good writer - will read her previous works too.

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  • Posted July 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful read!!!

    A wonderful book. Easy reading yet she told so much. I give her credit for staying with Norman all those years....I have always liked him...but he would have been quite the challenge. She is a nice woman who survived!!

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  • Posted June 14, 2010

    I loved It!

    This book is one of the only books I've ever been able to read from start to finish. I read an article about her in a magazine I had purchased, the article was so interesting that I had to buy the book!! I didn't want the book to end! I could have read more and more about her life......it's well written and very easy to read. She seems like such a nice person. I would strongly recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2010

    Captivating

    Norris Church Mailer draws you in with her friendly tone and lively story. She is a charming woman and I felt as if I were having a conversation with her. This book is not a nasty tell-all; she disguises the names of many people and writes about her own affairs as well as her husband's. This is an excellent glimpse of literary history for fans of Norman Mailer by someone who knew what motivated and moved him.

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  • Posted May 12, 2010

    Disappointed

    Barbara Mailer pretty much does nothing but name drop through the entire book. There are some insights into Norman's life also but nothing great. I am sorry I spent the money on this book.

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  • Posted May 10, 2010

    Great Read!

    Written by a beautiful and brave woman who isn't afraid to take risks loving and living! Norris Church Mailer writes with honesty, and her book is entertaining and her humor engaging.

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    Posted May 24, 2010

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