In 1975, Norman Mailer was at a cocktail party in Russellville, Ark., when he met a striking 26-year-old single mother who asked him to sign her copy of his book on Marilyn Monroe. Mailer, 52, was in the process of breaking up with his fourth wife while already entangled with his fifth, but he made time for another attraction. She left the party with him and later mailed him a love poem. He mailed it back—copy-edited, in red pencil.
Ms. Mailer was born Barbara Jean Davis and raised in Arkansas in a home with an outhouse, said The New York Times. A one-time Little Miss Little Rock, at 20 she married “her high school sweetheart, Larry Norris, but they divorced after five years.” She subsequently enjoyed a “string of boyfriends,” according to her 2010 memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, including a local politician, Bill Clinton. (Prior to its publication, a friend had joked, “I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you.” She replied: “Sorry—I’m afraid he got us all.”)
After moving to New York, Ms. Mailer worked as a model and changed her name, choosing “Church,” at Mr. Mailer’s behest, as a nod to a childhood spent at a Free Will Baptist congregation. The couple’s son, John Buffalo, was born in 1978, and they married in 1980, said the Los Angeles Times. She “likened their banter to the rapport between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.” But her husband was perennially unfaithful. “One day Norman is a lion, the next day he’s a monkey. Occasionally he’s a lamb, and a large part of the time he’s a jackass,” she once told an interviewer.
An artist in her own right, Ms. Mailer mounted exhibitions of her paintings and wrote two novels in addition to her critically acclaimed memoir. Despite her husband’s infidelities, she stayed with him until his death in 2007. “I knew I was going to be with him for the rest of his life, and I think he felt the same way,” she wrote. Ms. Mailer battled cancer for a decade, but in her memoir she concluded, “If I go tomorrow, I will still be ahead.”