Norma Mari Lancaster

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Norma Mari Lancaster (Anderson)

Death: July 21, 1988 (70)
Santa Monica, CA, United States
Place of Burial: Los Angeles
Immediate Family:

Wife of Burt Lancaster
Mother of Bill Lancaster; Private; Private; Private and Private

Managed by: Eilat Gordin Levitan
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Norma Mari Lancaster

Shortly after the film [The Killers (: Burt Lancaster's first film role] wrapped on June 26, Lancaster drove east, where a telegram from hellinger reached him... Jubilant over the response to the film's previews, the producer crowed, "I'm afraid you're destined to be a big star, you poor guy."

Lancaster had a compelling reason for returning home that summer. On June 30, Norma [Burt Lancaster's girlfriend] had given birth to his child. It was a boy, whom they named James... But the new parents would not wed until the end of the year. It is unclear why they did not marry in New York while they had the chance, but it may have been that Burt and his first wife, June Ernst, had yet to divorce. Indeed, June's sister, Mary, and family friend Frank Robie maintained that Burt and June did not formalize their estrangement until Burt's involvement with Norma.

Fishgall, pages 59-60: On Saturday, December 28 [1946], Burt took another hiatus--to marry Norma Anderson in Yuma, Arizona. His best man was Army buddy Irving Burns... Yuma was chosen as the site of the wedding because, unlike California, Arizona did not impose a three-day waiting period. The border town sported several wedding chapels, and the courthouse issued marriage licenses twenty-four hours a day. "A lot of movie stars came in," explained Carol Brooks, curator of the Arizona Historical Society - Yuma, because "they were guaranteed that they could arrive and get married, and there would be no publicity."

Because of the death of Burt's brother William on November 23, the affair [i.e., the wedding] was low key... Quickly returning to Los Angeles, Burt settled his new bride and son in the home he had rented in Malibu...

Buford Though Norma [Lancaster's wife] and not he was the alcoholic and they were hardly childless like the Delaneys, the central regret of a shotgun marriage is common to both the movie and the life. "We all make mistakes," Doc pleads with Lola in one of th emore convincing scenes. "So what? We've got to keep on going, don't we?" When Lancaster is given more reative things to do as Doc--attack Booth with a kitchen knife, collapse in a screaming, drunken fit--he forgets the circumscribed movements of an older man, the strange eyebrows slashed over half his forehead, and just emotes. Booth, working hard, as Lancaster would remember, to unlearn her stage movements for the movie camera, cautioned him: "Burt, once ina while you hit a note of truth and you can hear a bell ring. But most of the time, I can see the wheels turning and your brain working." Yet, when she overheard someone deride the choice of "gymnast" Lancaster at a Chateau Marmont party during production, she countered, "Don't sell him short. He's called me at three in the morning, not even realizing what time it is, to ask me to explain a scene. One day he'll be a great actor."

The reviews were largely respectful when the picture was released at the end of the year, with raves for the performance that won the forty-five-year-old Booth an Oscar. Lancaster's new effort set him up for some ridicule, as he knew it would. "Burt Lancaster," reported The New Leader, "far outside his normal range of habits, manages to give off an air of infinite repose, like a statue of Lincoln in a public park." But The New Yorker's John McCarten marked the particular accomplishment: "To my astonishment and delight . . . a man I've always associated with acrobats who used to peform while people were being seated in the old Keith [vaudeville] houses, is highly effective. . . ." Lancaster's own dry assessment was, "Alas, for the first time sinc eI can remember, I was called on to really act. Bear with me." He delighted in what he rosily recalled as "extraordinarily interesting reviews for the first time," concluding, "that was a progression in my career."

The audience absorbed another twist in the Lancaster star zigzag. At the end of Sheba, Lola recounts a dream in which she and Doc are at the Olympics and suddenly her transformed husband picks up the javelin and throws it into the sky wher it never comes down again. There is an eerie movie moment when Booth is looking at Lancaster and the audience is looking at the guy who just played Jim Thorpe.

Fishgall, page 109:

Filming [The Crimson Pirate] in the tropics [Fiji]... In August, Norma [Burt Lancaster's wife] arrived with eldest son Jimmy, with Billy and Susan following shortly thereafter. (In September, the boys were enrolled in the Lomeri Catholic Mission School; three-year-old Susan was too young to attend.) Fishgall, page 249:

But real life was not "fun" for Burt as 1966 came to an end. He waited until after the holidays, but on January 4, he separated from Norma. They had been married for just over twenty years.

Did his relationship with Jackie [Bone] precipitate the breakup? "I think it had a lot to do with it," she said in 1993. "I said to him one time, 'Burt, this is ridiculous. Your marriage is a mess. You've got to decide what you want to do. . . . I don't care if we stay together or not, but you've got to do something about yourself.'" He did not answer, but he did not disagree.

Would Burt have left his wife if he and Jackie had not met? "Maybe, but maybe not," said Bone. Still, she observed that the couple's problems were deep, going beyond Burt's infidelities--or, for that matter--Norma's alcoholism. "They had drifted away from each other," the actor's companion recalled. She further maintained that Burt wanted Norma to seek the divorce, and it took more than a year for her to accomodate herself to the idea.

A friend of Norma' disagreed with Bone's assessment. "Jackie had nothing to do with the divorce at all," he asserted. "Booze did." He was not even sure that Burt wanted the marriage to end, but believed rather that it was Norma's decision. "She was miserable," he said. "She wanted to get away from here."

On 24 September 1968, Burt Lancaster was experiencing a period of self-destructiveness and apparent depression. When police tried to pull him over for speeding, he instead accelerated and fled, leading the California Highway Patrol in a three-mile chase that ended in the driveway of his home. Fishgall, pages 260-261: Burt's divorce became final on June 27, Norma having finally filed in Santa Monica, charging her husband with extreme cruelty. She was awarded custody of the three minor children, and they divided the community property, valued at least $2 million...

Electing, as any gentleman would, to avoid mentioning Norma's drinking problem, [Lancaster said in a press conference] "I can't say we split up because she's a difficult woman and I couldn't live with her or vice versa..."

...In spite of the divorce, Lancaster felt a great sense of responsibility toward Norma, a family friend asserted. Thereafter, he said, "Burt came over for certain Christmas things, he stopped by with the family. And he always watched out for her, always. Her whole staff was kind of like Burt's minions, they kind of reported what was going on. But he always watched out for her. With a lot of love. Booze just wrecked the marriage." Jackie Bone, however, asserted that after the divorce "Burt was very uncomfortable around her [Norma]. He didn't want to be around her." It may well be that both parties are right.

Buford, page 234: in July 1988, as Burt was consumed with a film about lost chances and death, Norma Lancaster [his ex-wife] passed away at the age of seventy-one. The date was July 21. Although the official causes were pneumonia and a stroke, her death certificate revealed alcoholic liver disease. According to one friend, her drinking had progressively worsened during her final years. "She was as hopeless an alcoholic as you could ever run into towards the end," he recalled. "She had serious things happen to hwere doctors would tell her, 'Now, Norma, if you take another drink, you're going to die.' And she'd stop for two weeks, and then she'd go back to drinking by degrees."

On July l26, her body was cremated at the Angeles Abbey under the auspices of the Neptune Society. Her children held a memorial service for a gathering that included members of the local school boards and municipal government. Burt, a friend recalled, came late and stayed briefly, but his appearance was appreciated.

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Norma Mari Lancaster's Timeline

July 30, 1917
November 17, 1947
California, United States
July 21, 1988
Age 70
Santa Monica, CA, United States
Los Angeles