I was gazing out at Provincetown Bay through the enormous picture window in Norman Mailer’s home. Betty Friedan’s classic analysis, The Feminine Mystique, sat open on my lap.
Jessica, an administrator of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, entered through the patio door, bringing in the chilly fall air and the news that Norris Church Mailer had died. Jessica, a fresh angular woman with long locks of curly strawberry-blond hair, stood with her cell phone (undoubtedly still warm from the call informing her of the news), in her hand. I looked out at the water, the last light of the sun shone brightly enough to let me see gulls suspended on air currents above the receding tide.
As I write, I am on a retreat at the Colony—based in Mailer’s home—doing research for a memoir. When I received the news of Norris’s passing, the raw materials for my project, understanding my reluctant and frustrated mother, laid scattered in unruly piles upstairs in the master bedroom that Norman and Norris shared.
During her life with Norman, Norris had spent decades here and her influence permeates the house. In her book, A Ticket to the Circus, published this year, she describes sitting at the home bar with her husband, both tired from a day of writing, sharing a drink, and looking out at this same view.
Her collections of beige-and-black woven indigenous baskets, decorative clay figures, and Southern Gothic lamps with elaborate beaded shades fill the shelves and tables. Photos of Norman stripped to the waist, or landing a blow on his sparring partner’s jaw, or posing with the literary lights of his day fight for air against dark flowery wallpaper. A pair of Norman’s boxing gloves hangs in a bay window. Her bright color-saturated paintings of members of their families share walls with his tall orderly bookcases. The third floor of the house is all Norman. His writing studio appears to be the one spot he didn’t tolerate Norris’s beautification. The wheels of his small short-backed wooden writing chair have worn tracks in the polished wood floor as he skittered behind him to the towers of files of research for his final book, The Castle in the Forest. A stolen street sign that reads “Bellevue” served as a reminder to never again get so drunk as to stab another wife (Adele, not Norris) and get himself recommitted.
When I arrived at the Mailer home, I unloaded boxes of research material including a collection of my mother’s date books stretching from 1956 to 2008, a travel journal from my parents’ only trip to Europe in 1967, and some photographs from her childhood and from mine. My goal is to penetrate into the mind of the most perplexing person in my life, my mother Wilma. In various drafts of my manuscript she’s been a demon, a savant, an impenetrable wall, a hostile army, and an invincible Olympian God — everything but a full person. I have felt that one of the keys to understanding her was to study the political context for women already embroiled in family life at the beginning of the women’s liberation movement. It seems important to finally read the one book my mother cited as a lighthouse directing her out of the kitchen and back into life’s turbulent current, The Feminine Mystique.
My mother was certainly a member of Betty Friedan’s target audience, and I suspect that Norris was as well. It may surprise people who’ve heard of her defense of Norman that she calls herself a feminist in her memoir.
Friedan’s book describes women who gave up careers or left college to retreat into the alleged safety of marriage. The pressure to achieve in the greater world receded while a bubble of chores buffeted housewives until their independent identities shrank into nothingness. By the time the book appeared in 1963, my mother had a calendar full of children’s doctor appointments, Red Cross classes, Junior League obligations, and cookie and cake commitments. She had three kids to raise and seemed destined to be forever known as Mrs. John J. Sinnott III. Her life needed Friedan’s analysis.
By contrast, in 1974, Norris already had a career as a high school art teacher. She divorced her first husband and marched independent and confident into the world. So confident, in fact, that one year later she packed up her life and entwined it with Norman’s, a man famous for both his writing and his rakish history with women.
I imagine this house, bursting with Norman’s nine children (eight biological from six separate women and one, Norris’s first, informally adopted). Norris brought them all together for Provincetown summers and mothered the whole lot. Hot summer days unfolded with kids dragging sand in to this large living room while Norman stayed cooped up in his steaming attic studio, writing out his books in longhand. The enormous dining room table where Norris served dinner must have been loud with fresh stories — Norman at its head commanding much attention.
In the middle of all of this Norris apparently managed to grow and change, sometimes with the support of her pugnacious and undeniably talented husband, sometimes in spite of him. Through painting, modeling, and writing, she realized that human desire to strive and stretch—to grow beyond the role that 1950s society (and more than a few husbands) imposed on women—that Friedan helped to rediscover and revitalize in her contemporaries and all of us who came of age later.
I’m still trying to answer many questions about my mother. During this protected retreat at the Mailer house, I’ve found some clues about her life hidden in the minutiae of appointment books and grinning photos. I’ve talked with an almost-lost cousin Mom cut out of our lives in the 1980s after my Aunt died and a few years of holiday cards went unreciprocated. Yesterday, for the better part of an hour, Mom’s best friend and I chatted about the old days in Utica and how the women’s movement invigorated the two of them, pushing them to begin their own consulting business. Even after all this work, I still suspect there are sides of my mother I’ll never quite understand. I wish Mom were still around to quiz. She would, no doubt, continue to infuriate me with her guarded un-illuminating responses. But even an evasion is better than nothingness.
I met Norris only briefly, a month ago, at a fundraising gala for the Colony. She was tall and fragile, thinned from the cancer that eventually took her life. I gushed at her about my summer here at the Colony and how grateful I was to be headed back in the fall, but the gala was one of those demanding events and she smiled wanly and floated away.
Jessica told me that Norris requested one of her favorite Tiffany lamps be lit in her honor. Jessica went out to the bar where Norris and Norman used to sit and joke about who was going to leave life first. The soft light shone in the big window lighting the room and reminding me of Norris’s warm influence and my mother’s drive for a full and engaged life. Norris and Norman are both gone, but their spirits inhabit the house and the tradition of writing here continues.