On Loving and Living with Literary Greats

Norman and Norris Church Mailer, 1977. Photo courtesy of the Norman Mailer Estate Archives.
Norman and Norris Church Mailer, 1977. Photo courtesy of the Norman Mailer Estate Archives.

Of course there are exceptions, but alongside almost every great literary figure there is a great, often just as creative, other half. He or she is there to support, love, and inspire; to help nurture ideas, foster breakthroughs, talk through artistic dilemmas, and be there during hard times or failures. The partners of famed writers have written some of the most fascinating firsthand accounts of these unions, and we’ve compiled this list to showcase some of our favorite portraits of well-loved authors and the relationships that helped to define them.

A Ticket to the Circus” by Norris Church Mailer

The union of novelist, journalist, and political candidate Norman Mailer with writer, painter, and model Norris Church Mailer resulted in one potent power couple brimming over with charisma. Known to pal around with folks like Bill and Hillary Clinton (Norris had a fling with Bill the year before she met Norman: “He was pretty hard to resist, I must say. So I didn’t . . .”), Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Gore Vidal, and Jackie Kennedy, the Mailers led exciting lives filled with legendary parties and world travel. Norris writes about the blissfully loving and unsurprisingly difficult sides to her relationship with Norman in “A Ticket to the Circus.” She offers a lengthy background of her early life (born Barbara Jean Davis) and includes love letters she and Norman exchanged during the thirty-three years they spent together until his death in 2007 at eighty-four. (She was half his age and his sixth, and last, wife.) He writes in an early letter to her, “You were an oasis on a long trip.”

Elegy for Iris” by John Bayley

British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch and her husband, the literary critic, novelist, and Oxford professor John Bayley, managed to achieve the kind of relationship perhaps every writerly couple wishes for: one of constant support and mutual affection, along with a healthy dose of freedom and independence. Murdoch, a critically acclaimed novelist (ranked twelfth on a list of “The 50 Greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times of London in 2008), was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the mid-nineties and died from it in 1999 at the age of seventy-nine. Elegy for Iris” is Bayley’s simultaneously loving yet heartbreaking tale of his life with Murdoch, before, during, and after her battle with the disease. Bayley splices painful anecdotes of a deteriorating Murdoch with rich and often amusing stories of their rich life together, including Murdoch's uncharacteristic arrival to a ball wearing a “flame-coloured brocade” and subsequent fall down a flight of stairs.

About Alice” by Calvin Trillin

From his work as a novelist, poet, and journalist for the The New Yorker since 1963, Calvin Trillin might be the more widely recognized writer in this relationship, but it’s obvious from his writings about his late wife -- the writer, educator, and muse born Alice Stewart -- that she was equally exceptional. “About Alice” is his heartfelt tribute to her and the story of the cherished relationship the couple shared until Alice passed away as a result of treatments she was undergoing for lung cancer (on September 11, 2001, no less). In the bite-sized book -- it’s just under eighty pages -- Trillin, with characteristic wit, brings their love story to light from their early courtship through Alice’s brave battle with the fatal disease. After Alice’s death, as Calvin is going through a pile of letters from empathetic fans, he receives one that sums up the magic of Calvin and Alice Trillin: “Yet I got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, ‘But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?’”

Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter” by Antonia Fraser

When playwright Harold Pinter and biographer Antonia Fraser met, they were both taken; Fraser to Sir Hugh Fraser, a member of Parliament, and Pinter to actress Vivien Merchant. But that didn’t stop them from quickly falling for one another, leaving their respective partners, and becoming involved. Less than nine months after they met, the two began living together, marking the beginning of a thirty-three year relationship that lasted until Pinter died from liver cancer in 2008. “Must You Go?” is a very detailed --sometimes too detailed -- account of their shared life told through a series of diary entries written by Fraser. Though it drags on a bit, there are certainly delectable moments to relish, such as the time Pinter enters the room and seizes Fraser’s diary and writes in it, “I love you wildly and that is my solace.” Though they didn’t find each other until they were in their forties, their love seems like kismet.

At Home in the World: A Memoir” by Joyce Maynard

Many people have surely fantasized about writing notoriously reclusive author J.D. Salinger a fan letter, though the list of people who have received fan letters from Salinger is presumably much shorter. Joyce Maynard is among them. When she was eighteen, after writing a cover piece for the New York Times Magazine, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life,” Maynard received a letter from Salinger praising her story and cautioning her about fame. This single letter turned into a series of correspondences, and after twenty-five or so exchanges back and forth, Maynard dropped out of Yale and moved in with Salinger, who was a good thirty-five years her senior. In “At Home in the World,” Maynard reflects on their almost-year-long affair and the lasting effect its abrupt ending had on her afterward. (Salinger tired of Maynard rather quickly, though the feeling was, to say the least, not mutual.) Years later, as she looks over the letters one last time in preparing to sell them to an auction house, she writes: “I came to a passage warning of the extraordinary danger of letters from strangers, and the power of words on the page. Jerry Salinger was right: A letter can be a dangerous thing, as I now know well. Ironically, no letter I ever received exerted more destructive force then the one I was even then holding in my hand.”