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Adele Mailer

Of all the vivid characters who came and went in the tumultuous 84-year life of Norman Mailer, perhaps none played such a sensational role, and then vanished so completely from the public eye, as the author's second wife, Adele. Forty-seven years ago Tuesday, during an all-night blowout party at the couple's Upper West Side apartment, Mr. Mailer, who died last weekend, came home in an alcohol-soaked rage and stabbed Adele Mailer near the heart with a penknife he'd found in the street.

The event became the stuff of lore, familiar to even casual collectors of literary gossip. But what is far less known, four Mrs. Mailers and nearly a half-century later, is that Adele Mailer is still alive, living in a straitened obscurity that stands in stark contrast to the larger-than-life fame and prosperity her late ex-husband enjoyed.

"I can't believe I've come to this, and a lot of that is due to him, because Mailer wouldn't help me," lamented Mrs. Mailer, who is now 82. "I'm living in poverty."

An abstract painter and former window display designer, Mrs. Mailer lives by herself in a wildly disordered, rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment on East 78th Street near First Avenue in Manhattan amid a turbulent sea of thrift-shop clothing, cardboard boxes and urban flotsam salvaged from street corners for collages. Every inch of the floor is strewn with clutter.

"It's very embarrassing," she said, explaining why she generally resists letting visitors into her home. "It looks like a crazy woman lives here." Her explanation? "It's the apartment of a depressed person, where I just gave up."

The building itself, a weather-beaten red-brick tenement, is not in much better shape. On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Mailer stood on the curb and hollered at a drug-addled man who was on his knees urinating in the building's vestibule. "You're bad!" she yelled at the man, whose frequent use of the vestibule as a toilet has given the area a permanent, eye-stinging stench. "Boy, if your mother could see you now!"

Composing herself, she ambled down the street, wearing a thrift-shop overcoat several sizes too big for her slight frame. "This is Norman Mailer's wife," she said to no one in particular, shaking her head. "It's riches to rags, honey."

A few doors down, Mrs. Mailer sat on a stoop and pulled from a plastic bag a copy of her rueful memoir, "The Last Party: Scenes From My Life With Norman Mailer," which was published 10 years ago by Barricade Books. Standing beside the young author in the cover photograph was an arrestingly beautiful young woman with dark, Gypsy-like eyes and a bohemian mop of black hair.

The couple met in 1951, when Adele Morales was 26, and Mr. Mailer 28. She was a budding painter and he was already a literary celebrity, thanks to the publication three years earlier of his war novel, "The Naked and the Dead."

The two moved in together in a six-story walk-up on East 64th Street, and in between bouts of heavy drinking and fighting, tit-for-tat affairs and the occasional orgy, they found time to get married in 1955.

Around then, she recalled in her book, Mr. Mailer sold the film rights to "The Naked and the Dead" to Charles Laughton for the princely sum of $100,000, and in 1956, the couple moved to a farmhouse in Bridgewater, Conn. Mr. Mailer built an art studio for his wife in the attic, and money was plentiful; the level of luxury they enjoyed, Mrs. Mailer said, makes her current circumstances especially hard to take.

"We had parties, I had a maid, a live-in nanny," she recalled wistfully. And although Mr. Mailer was very generous to her for a time, she said, the author gradually turned into someone completely different; "it was Jekyll and Hyde."

Both Mailers were also drinking hard in those years, and after the couple moved back to New York, Mr. Mailer's increasing volatility culminated in his nearly fatal penknife attack on his wife. Mrs. Mailer chose not to press charges, she recalled, for the sake of the couple's two daughters, Danielle and Betsy.

"Mailer really owes me," she said, speaking of her late ex-husband in the present tense, as she often did last week. "In one minute he destroyed my life, and it took me years to make it back."

Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't last, and Mrs. Mailer raised the couple's daughters on alimony and child-support payments from her famous husband.

Around 1980, after the girls were grown and their child-support payments had stopped, Mrs. Mailer moved to the walk-up on East 78th Street, where her monthly rent is $628. There, she supplemented her reduced income with window-display work and a job selling jewelry at Henri Bendel. She now receives about $2,000 a month in Social Security and alimony payments, she said, which will continue even after her ex-husband's death.

She remains close to her daughters. She hopes to one day mount a mother-daughter show with Danielle, who is a painter, and she has a standing movie date once a week with Betsy, a writer.

For many years, Mrs. Mailer said, she didn't think much about her daughters' father, but even before his death he began looming larger in her mind. "The poorer I get, and he prospers, it just sharpens my anger," she said. "The contrast is enormously painful."

After the reeking homeless man had left her vestibule, Mrs. Mailer shuffled back and laboriously climbed the two flights of stairs to her apartment. Once inside, she waded through piles of clothes and plastic bags and unearthed two half-finished collages. A small cockroach crawled across one of them. The other was a pink plastic box in which green and purple teddy bears and a pair of legs cut out of a magazine were ensnared in a tangle of Slinkys.

Nor are clutter and art projects her only companions.

A day after the death of her former husband, Mrs. Mailer said on Wednesday, "I felt there was something in that apartment, that little tiny hole, with me."

"And I looked up, and there he was, all dressed up in this suit, totally still like a statue — I couldn't see through him like in those corny movies. And my first reaction was anger: 'Get out! I don't want you here!'" she said.

"I'm not cuckoo," she added, "but he's been visiting me."

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