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Authors: Norris Church Mailer

A Ticket to the Circus

BOOK: A Ticket to the Circus
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ALSO BY
N
ORRIS
C
HURCH
M
AILER

     
Windchill Summer
     Cheap Diamonds

For my grandchildren,
Mattie James Mailer and
Jackson Kingsley Mailer

Well, I bought a ticket to the circus.
I don’t know why I was surprised to see elephants.

NORRIS CHURCH MAILER

A Note from the Author

E
verything in this book is true. At least, it is true for me. Memory is treacherous, and we probably all have said “Glad to meet you” to people we have met before. Sometimes we have had whole conversations—or even much more than that—with them and
still
don’t remember them, which gets complicated and embarrassing. (Once, my husband argued with a woman who claimed they had dated that she was mistaken, and then on the cab ride home, he slapped his forehead and said, “She’s right!”) But to the best of my knowledge, all of the things I’ve written about in this book happened to me.

There are instances where I have changed the names of people. If I say, for example, “Let’s call her…” it means I’m not giving her real name. I have used first names for the most part, although at times I’ve used whole names. No real reason, I just thought some people might not like to be totally identified. A few times, no name has been used at all. Those stories are probably not good ones.

It’s funny, the things that mean so much to one person and nothing to another, the small thoughtless comment that inadvertently cuts to the quick. I didn’t intend to hurt anyone in the telling of my story, and if I did, I apologize now, before you read it. Please know that I went into this with a good heart, and I hope that comes through.

Prologue

E
very evening at six, after an afternoon of writing in our studios, Norman and I would meet in the bar next to the living room for a glass of wine. We’d look out at the sea and the boats in Provincetown Harbor, watch the gulls, and talk. After a lifetime of booze—bourbon and gin and rum, scotch and vodka—now Norman liked red wine mixed with orange juice, a mild sangria punch, while I sipped a dry Kir on ice—soda pop wines, a taste of sweet, a drop of alcohol, to help us unwind. Those were hard, slow days, the last days of summer 2007. Norman was still writing, but fighting to breathe, and I had my problems, too. Eternity was on our minds a lot of the time when we talked.

“I wonder if people will remember me when I’m gone,” Norman would frequently muse. “Will they continue to read my books, do you think? Or will they just forget me?”

Most of the time, I replied, “Of course you’ll be remembered, sweetie. You’re one of the most famous writers in the world!” But he knew as well as I did that there were a lot of dead and forgotten writers who had once been famous.

“When I’m gone,” he’d continue, “and you write about me, I want you to say—”

I would invariably interrupt him. “I’m not going to write about you. I’ll never write about you. Nobody would believe it.” It was almost a game we played; he never gave up telling me what to write about him, whether it was some message to the kids, or something about his work. I always brushed him off with, “Why don’t you tell them yourself? Why don’t you write your own memoirs?”

“It’s too late,” he’d answer.

“I might go before you. You never know,” I’d say. We didn’t want to face it, which one of us would go first, so we just kept on playing the game.

Andy Warhol had once urged me to put a tape recorder on a belt and wear it around all the time. “Norris,” he said, in that soft talcum powder voice, “you live such a fascinating life. Every word that comes
out of Norman’s mouth is a pearl. It’s so easy. All you have to do is change the tape every hour, and you’ll have a complete record of your life.” I laughed, but Andy was dead serious.

I don’t believe that every word out of my husband’s mouth was a pearl—what wife does? Although now I wish I had recorded some of those pearls Norman dropped along the way.

I truly believed I would never write about Norman. And if I ever
did
write about him, it would not be as his secretary taking dictation. Even though we’d lived together for thirty-three years, Norman wasn’t my whole life; I had been married before, and had a child from that marriage. I’d had a career. Family. I once had ambitions and dreams that had nothing to do with Norman Mailer. But we met, and nothing was ever the same again.

After he was gone, I found myself haunted by our life together. It spooled across my mind at night like the reels of a movie. Vivid. Garish. Heartbreaking. Frustrating. Sexy. Comical. Too often, it had been public. I used to say I had no skeletons in my closet; they were all in the pages of the
New York Post.
Night after night, the past played out, in that space between memory and sleep, until finally I realized that Norman was going to get his way; I was going to write about him. But, as I said to his spirit, it was
my
life as well as his. I would write it on my own terms.

“Whatever you say, dear,” I imagined him replying, a smile on his face, as he continued to send me notes in my dreams.

One

M
y 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 the years.

My mule skinner grandpa Jeames (standing), my great-grandpa Benjamin Franklin Davis, and my half-Cherokee great-grandma, Mary Davis.

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.

BOOK: A Ticket to the Circus
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