Norris Church Mailer (1949–2010)

aka: Barbara Jean Davis

Norris Church Mailer, born Barbara Jean Davis, became an artist, actress, and author after moving to New York City to be with renowned writer Norman Mailer following their brief chance meeting in Arkansas at an event in Russellville (Pope County). She published two semi-autobiographical novels, Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds, as well as a memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, which centers on her three-decade marriage to Mailer.

Born on January 31, 1949, in Moses Lake, Washington, Norris Church Mailer began life as Barbara Jean Davis, being named for a little girl who lived next door. Her parents were homemaker Gaynell Phillips Davis and construction worker James Davis. They had briefly relocated from Arkansas to Washington state for her father’s work on the O’Sullivan Dam near Moses Lake. After the family returned to Arkansas, Barbara Jean Davis grew up in Atkins (Pope County), where the family lived a simple life in the country, without hot running water in the house or an indoor toilet. They attended a small, strict fundamentalist church several times a week.

When Davis was three years old, her mother saw an advertisement for the Little Miss Little Rock Contest and entered the child, who won.

The family moved from the country into town when Davis was in first grade. There, they lived in a house with modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing. She had a childhood friend named Cherry, which later became the name of the heroine in her two novels. She attended school in the Atkins School District. After graduating from high school in 1967, she enrolled at Arkansas Polytechnic College (which later became Arkansas Tech University) in nearby Russellville.

In 1969, Davis married her high school sweetheart, Larry Norris. Two years later, they had a son, Matthew. In 1974, the marriage ended in divorce. With her young son, she moved to Russellville, where she worked as a high school art teacher.

In 1975, Barbara met renowned writer Norman Mailer at a party in Russellville when he was there on a visit. The party was held at the home of a mutual friend, author Francis Irby Gwaltney, who at the time was teaching at Arkansas Tech. Gwaltney and Mailer had become friends during World War II and remained close through the years.

She stated in her autobiography that there was instant chemistry when she and Mailer met. Although she was several inches taller than Mailer, half his age, and from a vastly different background, she said she knew the two would be together.

At the time they met, Mailer was in the process of breaking up with his fourth wife and seeing the woman who would (for the space of one day) become his fifth. Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, the Harvard-educated Mailer was a bestselling author whose World War II novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) brought him early fame. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for Armies of the Night and another Pulitzer in 1979 for The Executioner’s Song.

After meeting Mailer in Russellville in 1975, Barbara followed him to New York. Their son, John Buffalo Mailer, was born in 1978. The couple married in 1980 (the same year he divorced his fourth wife and then married and divorced his fifth), with Barbara becoming Mailer’s sixth and final wife.

When she began a successful career as a model, her husband suggested she change her name to Norris Church Mailer. The name was composed from her previous married name and “Church” based on her religious background when growing up in Arkansas. She and Mailer often entertained top-tier celebrities at their homes in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Billed as “Norris Mailer,” she appeared with her husband in the movie Ragtime (1981) and also had small roles in films such as Jet Lag (1981), The Executioner’s Song in 1982 (as “Norris Church”), Exposed (1983), and Chinese Coffee (2000). She appeared as herself in a 2010 documentary, Norman Mailer: The American.

Her first novel, Windchill Summer, was published in 2000, depicting a coming-of-age story about a girl named Cherry Marshall growing up in Arkansas during the Vietnam War era. Its sequel, Cheap Diamonds, released in 2007, followed Marshall’s story as an aspiring model from Arkansas arriving in New York City during the 1970s.

Her memoir, published in 2010, was titled A Ticket to the Circus and described her tumultuous life with Norman Mailer. She said the title was derived from her feeling that by marrying Mailer, she had essentially bought a ticket to a “circus” and therefore did not know why she was surprised “to see elephants.” In her memoir, she claimed she had a brief romantic relationship with future president Bill Clinton, who was in his late twenties at the time. She says he invited her to campaign with him in his 1974 congressional race against John Paul Hammerschmidt. She also described being impressed with Hillary Rodham Clinton, especially for her intelligence. Later in life, the Clintons socialized with the Mailers in various venues. In her memoir, Mailer stated that she considered the Clintons to be friends, “if distant ones.”

In 2000, Norris Church Mailer was diagnosed with a malignant gastrointestinal tumor. At the time, she was told she would probably live about two more years. Defying the odds, she lived ten years, nursing her husband through his final illness until he died in 2007.

On November 21, 2010, Norris Church Mailer died at her home in New York City. She is buried in Provincetown Cemetery in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

There is a scholarship called the Norris Church Mailer Fellowship in Creative Writing at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was established in 2004 during her husband’s visit to the campus.

For additional information:
Berger, Joseph. “Norris Church Mailer, Artist and Ally, Dies at 61.” New York Times, November 21, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/books/22mailer.html?scp=1&sq=norris%20church%20mailer&st=cse (accessed March 3, 2022).

Brantley, Max. “Norris Church Mailer Dies at 61.” Arkansas Times, November 22, 2010. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2010/11/22/norris-church-mailer-dies-at-61 (accessed March 3, 2022).

Mailer, Norris Church. Cheap Diamonds: A Novel. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.

———. “My Date with Bill Clinton,” Daily Beast, July 14, 2017. https://www.thedailybeast.com/my-date-with-bill-clinton (accessed March 3, 2022).

———. A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2010.

——— Windchill Summer: A Novel. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

“Norris and Norman: Love That Lasted Against Odds.” National Public Radio, April 10, 2010. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/125783909 (accessed March 3, 2022).

“On the Same Page with Norris Church Mailer.” Arkansas PBS. https://www.myarkansaspbs.org/programs/onthesamepage/norrischurchmailer (accessed March 3, 2022).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated: 03/03/2022