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11.02.10

A Literary Love Affair

Perhaps no one can better appreciate Antonia Fraser’s memoir of her marriage to playwright Harold Pinter than Norris Church Mailer, who finds surprising parallels to her own life with Norman Mailer.

Following a long battle with gastrointestinal cancer, Norris Church Mailer, the widow of famed novelist Norman Mailer and an author herself, passed away on Sunday. “She was the pilgrim soul who captured and won Norman’s heart and mind and who shared with him the last three decades of his life,” said Mark Olshaker, the president of the Norman Mailer Society, in a post on its website.

Earlier this month, Church Mailer reviewed Antonia Fraser’s memoir of her marriage to playwright Harold Pinter, finding surprising parallels to her own life.

Lady Antonia Fraser has written a rare memoir, taken from her diary and, of course, her memories, about her life with her second husband, the renowned playwright Harold Pinter.  (A “real” lady, she is Lady Antonia, courtesy of her titled father, the Earl of Longford, not “Lady Fraser,” acquired from marrying a Lord.)

Gallery: Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter’s Love Story

Lady Antonia is a renowned historian, and I tended to pick up her memoir with a small bit of trepidation, as the only book of hers I had read was on King Henry the VIII (I am a sixth wife, myself). I had dipped into two or three of her others but never finished one, not that they weren’t well written, they certainly were. It was just that for an American, or at least this particular one, all the Charleses and Georges and Jameses tend to get confusing, not to mention the surrounding cast of characters, the Cromwells and others of that sort. There is so much more of British history than America’s rough and tumble 300 plus years. 

So I was intrigued and happy to find, with each page of her memoir, how similar Antonia and Harold’s romance was to my own with my second husband, Norman Mailer. Although Norman was 26 years older than I, Harold and Antonia were the same age, somewhere between the two of us. They lived together from August 1975, for 33 odd years, as did we. In her preface, Antonia quotes from Shakespeare, Richard II’s courtier who said, “O, call back yesterday, bid time return,” and she then added that writing this memoir was her means of doing so. I wrote my memoirs for much the same reason. I wanted to re-live the wonderful, happy moments of my early life in our relationship and—perhaps—exorcise the bad ones. Thankfully, it seems that Antonia and Harold had fewer bad moments, or maybe it was just British manners and circumspection at work, not spreading everything out there like a picnic for the public to paw over. At any rate, reading her memoir there were times when I sighed and wished I could have had a love as easy as theirs seemed to be; others when I was grateful for my unpredictable and outrageous husband. 

In the early days of their courtship, Harold told Antonia, “I am loopy about you: I feel 18.” Antonia said she preferred the word "dippy." In our own early days, Norman leaned in toward me once in a most dangerous, intimate way and growled, “I’m ape-s*** about you.” I think both terms get the job done, and it is a matter of personal preference, I suppose, which one elicits the thrill. But he, of course, being Harold Pinter, did have his own way with a word. He described her as “joyous, dangerous and unavoidable” to his friend Kevin Billington, not bad Pinteresque words. Indeed, I think she fell in love with his mind in much the same way I did with Norman’s. 

There are the familiar stories of predatory females who have no interest in “the wife.”

The men had two minds that could never be replicated, although Harold, perhaps, wrote better poetry:

You turn and touch the light of me.
You smile, your eyes become my sweetest dream of you.
Oh, sweetest love,
My heart is not a beat away from you.

What woman wouldn’t melt under such sugar?  Although Norman did write some wonderful poems to me, they were maybe a little earthier.

Antonia was married the first time to a nice man named Hugh and they produced six children, who seemed to get on well with Harold and accept the situation. Harold was married to a woman named Vivien who perhaps drank too much—well, no perhaps about it, since she died of it some years later—and they had one son, who seems to have fit into the yours, mine, and ours family just fine, choosing to live with his father and Antonia when things were sorted out. To further the parallels, I had seven stepchildren from Norman and his previous five wives, my own son from my first marriage, and Norman and I produced a son together. Children can be the glue (or perhaps the honey?) that sticks a family together—or just the opposite, the substance that gums it all up—and in both our cases, it seems as though they helped the situation.  

There was, of course, the guilt, the back and forth of "should I tell my spouse, should I not ... I am madly in love and I don’t care who knows," and “Where is all this passion leading? . . . The trouble is that when I am with him I don’t care about anything and when I am not with him I don’t care much either, as I am always thinking about him,” she said. How true it all was, for all of us. 

I will stop now with the comparisons of the two of them and the two of us, because they do continue in quite amazing fashion, like trains on parallel tracks, except that I was a divorcee with no husband to consider and Norman’s marital life was so convoluted that it would take a book (Oh. There is one!  A Ticket to the Circus) to sort it all out. They had their trials with the British press, who, if possible, are even more voracious than the American press about scandal, and who hounded them unmercifully. 

book-cover---must-you-go
Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter. By Antonia Fraser. 336 pages. Nan A. Talese. $28.95. ()

In any case, it is evident that they got together, married, and had a wonderful life. There are the familiar stories of predatory females who have no interest in “the wife,” such as the one (a girlfriend of Beckett, actually, who should have known better) who was ignoring Antonia one evening to the point that it was angering Harold and became embarrassing even to the woman herself, who finally turned to Antonia and said, “I should be interested in you as a writer because you are a woman, but of course it’s Harold I’m interested in.” Antonia, much classier than I was in those situations, replied, “So that’s two of us.” (I always wanted to slap their faces, but of course, being the product of a well-bred Baptist background, I never did. But I did make some well-chosen remarks from time to time.)

I would so love to pick out the juicy bits of Must You Go? and give them all here, it is a book and a life filled with lovely parts, with all the famous people Harold and Antonia knew, the plays he wrote, her brilliant books, which I am now determined to read (at least a few more of them), their political activism, and so much more, but space limits prevent me. 

Her story is also filled with considerable pain as most lives are. Harold and Norman, one last comparison, if I may, both passed away in long, drawn-out circumstances, both with large, loving families around them, both with considerable fanfare and love and even laughter. Most people don’t have as much when they go, and they both were truly blessed. 

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The late Norris Church Mailer is the author of the memoir A Ticket to the Circus. She is survived by two sons, two stepsons, and five stepdaughters, as well as two grandchildren and nine step-grandchildren.