RIP Bambi, Mrs. Mailer–examples of two ways women are exploited.
Two figures on the periphery of American literary culture have died. Laurie Bembenek was a hard-luck beauty who escaped from prison in 1990, inspiring public sympathy and “Run, Bambi, Run” t-shirts. Norris Church Mailer, by contrast, enjoyed an elegant life as Norman Mailer’s last and most loyal wife.
Both women died relatively young. Bembenek was 52, Church 61.
Bembenek was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1981 death of her husband’s ex-wife, but she maintained her innocence until the end. Just last week the Wisconsin pardon board announced it would not forward her most recent petition to the governor because it was incomplete.
Often mischaracterized as a Playboy model, Bembenek never posed nude. Actually she worked briefly as a bunny at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club before joining the police department. She was fired as a cop for falsifying a police report to help a friend arrested for possession of marijuana, but married a recently divorced police officer.
The murder case against Bembenek seemed sketchy at the time — 4 out of 5 Milwaukeeans believed she was innocent — and the passing years have not strengthened the evidence against her. With the help of the brother of another prisoner, Bembenek squeezed out of a window and escaped in 1990, living in Canada for four months before being captured.
In a convoluted deal, Bembenek pled no contest to the murder charge and was released on time served — which sympathizers
viewed as state acknowledgment of her innocence. But the no contest plea meant she could never appeal the conviction, regardless of what new evidence might come to light.
Bembenek tried to resume her life, writing a book called Woman on the Run, which was turned into a TV movie starring Tatum O’Neal. (Another TV movie featured Lindsay Frost as Bembenek.) But her poor luck continued.
While waiting to appear on the Dr. Phil show in 2002, she suffered a panic attack and leapt or fell from a second-story window, breaking a leg so badly it had to be amputated. She won a settlement that allowed her to live quietly in Portland, OR, where she died on Saturday of liver disease.
The life of Norris Church Mailer was as fortunate as Bembenek’s was ill favored, except, of course, for the fact she was married to a powerful man who relentlessly cheated on her.
. She was a 26-year-old art teacher and single mother when she met Mailer, who was on tour for his book Marilyn. He was 52. She followed him to New York and they were soon married.
“She became a model and an actress and exhibited her paintings,” writes Carolyn Kellogg in the L.A. Times. Mailer published a well-received memoir earlier this year, A Ticket to the Circus.
“It felt good because I got to relive all the happy early stuff and I got to wade through all the bad stuff and sort it out in my head,” Mailer said few months ago. “I didn’t want to make anybody a villain. I just wanted to tell my story.”
Mailer battled gastrointestinal cancer for the last 11 years of her life. She died Sunday in Brooklyn.
As a wise man once said, it does not matter how long you live — we all die young.