x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The incredible adventures of Norris Church Mailer

Among Norris Church Mailer's great achievements was surviving her irascible husband.

It took an extraordinary woman to endure, and outlive, Norman Mailer, the pugnacious, much-married, alpha male and one of post-war America's most celebrated, and denounced, literary figures. But for 32 years the striking, auburn-haired Norris Church Mailer (with eyes to match), stood by the irascible writer, bringing order to his life and something as close to contentment as he was capable of. When asked "Which wife are you?", she would reply, "The last one".

Born Barbara Jean Davis in Atkins, Arkansas, her father was a road builder; her grandfather a muleskinner. At three she was crowned Little Miss Little Rock - she was always beautiful. At 20 she wed Larry Norris, a childhood sweetheart. They had a son, Matthew, but the marriage did not survive Norris's service in Vietnam and they divorced when she was 25.

In 1974 the celebrated Norman Mailer visited Russellville, Arkansas, to promote his book on Marilyn Monroe. Barbara, then a high school art teacher, sought his autograph. The attraction was instantaneous and within months she was living with Mailer in Brooklyn. The alliance was not without its complications. Mailer had been living with the mother of his seventh child but was still married to his fourth wife.

He was like Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle and renamed her Norris (after her first husband) Church (because she had attended Free Will Baptist services three times a week as a child) Mailer. In 1978 she gave birth to John Buffalo Mailer. In 1980, an eventful year, Mailer divorced his fourth wife, married his fifth (to legitimise his seventh child), divorced her in Haiti and wed Norris.

She worked as a model in New York, and later as a portraitist. She would eventually write two novels, Windchill Summer (2000) and Cheap Diamonds (2007), about an Arkansas girl, not unlike herself, called Cherry Marshall. Mailer judged the first "not as bad as I thought it would be" and the second "better than the first". This year she published her memoirs, A Ticket to the Circus.

But her real achievement was to bring Mailer's scattered brood together. All nine children would holiday together and when she first had surgery for stomach cancer (that would eventually kill her) the nine, their spouses and children, Mailer and his sister gathered in her hospital room to accompany her to the operating theatre.

Speaking of a typical day she told The Sunday Times in 2007: "Finally I say my prayers. I was terribly religious when I was younger, but now I've kind of made my own religion. I carry my church with me, I guess. It sounds sappy, but I drift off to sleep, so thankful for this life."

She is survived by her two sons and seven stepchildren.

Born January 31, 1949; died November 21, 2010