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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: Barbara Jean Davis -From small town schoolteacher to international celebrity

When Barbara Jean Davis was born on January 31, 1949 in Atkins she came into the world as the daughter of a beauty shop owner and the grandchild of of sharecroppers. When she left this world on November 21, 2010 she had made her mark as a an American novelist, actress, artist, and model.

Just with a different name and with all her success coming in a world far away...New York City.

The world of Barbara Jean Davis changed dramatically from that of an art teacher at Russellville High School to that of a world-traveling member of he elite when she met novelist Norman Mailer at a book signing in 1975.

A 25 -year-old divorcee who had married in 1969 and worked in a pickle factory and as a bookkeeper before becoming an art teacher, Davis met her soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize winning second husband at Arkansas Tech during the book tour.

Although Davis and Mailer were both married when she met him, she because the "other woman" in his life and her son moved to New York to continue her relationship with Mailer.

She gave birth to Mailer's son, John Buffalo Mailer, in 1978 and eventually married Mailer in 1980, becoming Mailer's sixth and final wife.

In the transition, she took the name of Norris Church Mailer, which is the name she took to her grave.

As a child, she was severely affected by her mother's bouts of depression and was hospitalized and given electroshock treatments.

Davis and her family were simple country people who attended church faithfully. When she was twenty years old, she married her high school sweetheart, Larry Norris, and together they had one son, Matthew.

Shortly after her divorce from Norris, she claimed to have "had a fling" with future U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Norris and her young son moved to Russellville, Arkansas and she explored her love of the arts by working as a high school art teacher; however, everything changed when she met Mailer.

Norris was interested in writing and wrote about a hundred pages of a novel loosely based on herself as a young girl growing up in Arkansas.

Still in the early days of their relationship, Norris showed her rough draft to Mailer for his opinion, to which he responded, "It's not as bad as I thought it would be", causing Norris to put her work aside for the next several decades.

Years later, amidst a successful career as a Wilhelmina model and accomplished artist, Norris reshaped her rough draft into her first novel, Windchill Summer, which was published in 2000.

Windchill Summer illustrates the challenges of a young girl struggling to grow up in Arkansas during the Vietnam War era.

In 2007, Norris followed with the sequel, Cheap Diamonds, a story about a young woman leaving her small town home and moving to New York to become a model in the tumultuous 1970s.

Church's last work was her own memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, published in 2010, explaining that the title described her life with Mailer, his seven children by his other wives, and her own two children: "Well, I bought a ticket to the circus. I don't know why I was surprised to see elephants".

She described Mailer as "the Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle," and often defended Norman against critics who claimed he was a misogynist; she also asked for his feedback on drafts of her novels, though his response was sometimes negative.

After moving to New York, Barbara Davis changed her first name to Norris (her first husband's last name), and her middle name to Church as suggested by Mailer, who decided the name suitable because of her faithful attendance of church while growing up.

Norris soon began a successful career as a Wilhelmina model.

Although Norris Church Mailer dedicated much of her time during the 1980s to caring for her extended family, she had a keen interest in the arts and held several successful one-woman showings of her art and worked as an actress in several films and television.

Mailer's work as an actress included Jet Lag (1981), Ragtime (1981), The Executioner's Song (1982), Exposed (1983) and Chinese Coffee (2000). In 2010, Mailer portrayed herself in the documentary, Norman Mailer: The American. She also played in the daytime soap All My Children.

In 2000, Norris was diagnosed with gastrointestinal stromal tumor and was told she would probably only live for two more years. Norris beat the odds and over the next 11 years had six major operations to fight the cancer, while taking care of her ailing husband, who died in 2007.

Norris died on November 21, 2010, aged 61, at her home in Brooklyn Heights in New York City.

She was laid to rest beneath a simple granite marker next to her husband of nearly 29 years in the Provincetown Cemetery in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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