I couldn’t help but notice that the New York Times obituary this past week for Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer, failed to mention the occasion that first brought their love affair to public attention. If the institutional memory of the Times has failed in this instance—which I doubt, since the obit is full of charming anecdotes about Ms. Church Mailer—it is worth resurrecting the story.
In the late 1970s, a convicted Utah murderer and bank robber named Jack Henry Abbott wrote to Norman Mailer to complain that Mailer’s writings about Gary Gilmore—another Utah murderer executed in 1977, and the subject of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1980)—were based on Gilmore’s exaggerated accounts of prison life. Abbott offered to write a more truthful memoir, and Mailer encouraged him. Indeed, Mailer grew so impressed by Abbott that he, and other Manhattan luminaries such as Jerzy (Being There) Kosinski, lobbied state officials in Utah to grant Abbott an early parole. In due course, Abbott was released from prison simultaneously with the publication of his memoir, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison (1981) by Random House.
As often happens in these instances, Abbott was received in New York as a literary lion, celebrated, interviewed, and shepherded around town by Mailer and his entourage. But in the early morning hours of July 18, 1981, six weeks after his release from prison, Abbott went with friends to a small restaurant in Manhattan where he got into an argument with the owner’s 22-year-old son-in-law, an aspiring actor named Richard Adan, who told him that a certain bathroom was reserved for employees. Abbott stabbed Adan to death. The following morning the New York Times published a rave review of In the Belly of the Beast.
In his subsequent, well-publicized trial for manslaughter in January 1982, where he pleaded self-defense, Abbott was daily accompanied in the courtroom by Norman Mailer, Mailer’s friend Norris Church, and other well-known supporters, including actor Susan Sarandon. Abbott, however, was convicted—and killed himself in prison in 2002. Norris Church and Mailer were married in 1980, and Mailer died three years ago. Sarandon subsequently had a son in 1989 with actor Tim Robbins, who they named Jack Henry.