Norman Mailer was the most charming man I had ever met…and, well, he has wonderful eyes.
Norman’s baby blues, alas, were no harbinger of domestic tranquility, though they were the weapons of a blitzkrieg seduction. “It was in 1963,” remembers the author’s fourth wife, Beverly Bentley, now 48, “and Norman and I met in P.J. Clarke’s. I knew Norman was in trouble with his wives, but I was attracted to the vulnerability beneath his tough act. He walked me to my apartment. That night he was wonderful in bed.”
Wed 10 months later, Mailer and Bentley have been estranged since 1969 but only now are finally dissolving their 15-year marriage. The recriminations could give divorce a bad name. Bentley is suing for custody of the couple’s two sons, Stephen, 12, and Michael, 14; $52,000 a year in alimony plus child support; and the Mailers’ $135,000 Provincetown, Mass. house. She describes the rough-and-tumble Norman, 56, as an impenitent rotter who sidetracked her acting career and humiliated her with his womanizing.
Beverly has little patience with Mailer’s claim that his finances are in chaos and that he owes $100,000 in back taxes. “Listen, he said he was broke when I met him, and it’s the same story now,” she fumes. “Norman is a corporation. He’s screaming poverty, but he makes $347,000 a year.” (Mailer’s account of the Gary Gilmore case, The Executioner’s Song, will be published this fall. Then he will return to his long novel, for which he has reportedly received a $1 million advance.)
Herself the child of a broken marriage, Beverly Rentz found refuge from a strife-ridden home studying drama at Sarasota (Fla.) High School. “I was happy on stage, being someone else,” she recalls, but she was forced to leave school at 16. It was while running a diner and living with her mother in Pensacola that she met Arthur Godfrey, appearing at the local Naval air station. Later she looked him up in New York and became one of the Toni twins on his CBS-TV show. “There was no affair, but Godfrey was very kind to me,” she says. “Once he introduced me as Beverly Bentley. I asked, ‘Why Bentley?’ He said, ‘It sounds better.’ So I changed my name.”
In New York Beverly was married briefly to an advertising executive and worked as hostess and fashion commentator on a series of TV game shows. After starring opposite Peter Lorre in Mike Todd Jr.’s Smell-O-Vision movie, Scent of Mystery, she played her first lead on Broadway in The Heroine. “In court Norman said the play ran one week,” she bristles. “We ran four weeks.” The day after the show folded, she met Mailer, then his mother and his four daughters by earlier marriages. Norman proposed when Beverly learned she was pregnant on their way home from a Las Vegas prizefight. “I wanted a home and children desperately,” she admits. “I go toward difficult men.”
Living with Mailer, says Bentley, proved to be as prickly a proposition as marrying him. “He argued and beat on me all day,” she maintains, “and then he wanted to go to bed at night. He wanted to fight me.” In 1966 the marriage got bumpier, after Mailer and Bentley started a playwrights’ workshop. She says he rejected her for the lead in his play, The Deer Park, “because he didn’t want to see me doing the love scenes” and made fun of her during auditions. Bentley concluded, “He doesn’t want to share the limelight. He enjoys humiliating me—that’s his problem.
“With me, he wrote eight major books and won the Pulitzer Prize,” Beverly figures, but Norman’s philandering eventually scuttled their marriage. “I stayed home with the kids and he screwed around,” she charges. “When I was pregnant he had an airline stewardess. Three days after bringing home our baby, he began an affair.” Bentley hung in there, and eventually had an affair of her own, she admits—with a 21-year-old bisexual. “Norman’s ego was shattered,” she says, “because I’d done it in his town.”
Soon afterward Mailer brought home his pregnant mistress, Carol Stevens (“I can’t make love without making babies,” he told Bentley), and then yet another girlfriend with whom Bentley fought. “I may have hit her,” Beverly concedes, “but she invaded my nest. Anyway, she was a karate expert and she beat me up. I had a black eye. Norman watched, and when it was all over he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if she got the house?’
“He knows it’s my house,” she counters, “but because I’m being ‘naughty’ he won’t give it up. He claims he has all these other women to support. Well, he only supports one ex-wife, Adele, and she gets $11,000 a year.” (Mailer has eight children by six women, four of them wives. The previous three: Beatrice Silverman, now a doctor; Adele Morales, an artist, and Lady Jeanne Campbell, a journalist. Silverman and Campbell later remarried.)
Anxious to resume her acting career, Bentley has landed a small part in a movie and is up for a Broadway play. Her new Brooklyn apartment is only two blocks from the fashionable brown-stone co-op that Mailer shares with his current companion, Norris Church, 29. “It’s beautiful and furnished with the designer furniture I selected,” Beverly complains. “Norman always said it was crummy, but he has it.” Her older son, Michael, moved in with his father after enrolling in a private school chosen by Beverly. “I was a single parent for years,” she says. “Norman was never interested before. He was too busy. Now he wants custody so he doesn’t have to pay for me.”
Mailer is a good father, she concedes, “but I won’t let the boys grow up like him—to treat women the way he does.” She pauses, contemplating the latest of her romantic successors. “Norris says, ‘I want to be famous,’ ” says Bentley, “and I guess she is. But she’ll get hers. Norman tells you stories about his other wives to make you feel sorry for him. All his ladies do for a while. And then he tramples them.”