On the surface, life can look picturesque for the residents of an advantaged suburb like Winnetka. But looks, of course, can be deceiving.
That goes double for Norman Zimmerman, a longtime Winnetkan whose secret double life is the subject of a book, “Suburban Bigamy: Six Miles Between Truth and Deceit,” written by one of its victims — his son Michael.
For more than 40 years, Norman Zimmerman was the patriarch of two north-suburban families, keeping one a secret from the other and vice versa until the lies collapsed in 2013. With the lie exposed, Michael Zimmerman began writing down memories of his father as well as details of the evolving fallout from the truth.
After Norman died in 2020, Michael considered the story complete. He turned his writings into a book, and it published (Conversation Publishing) on Jan. 17 of this year.
“It feels great to get it to this point. A lot of work went into it,” Michael Zimmerman said. “It’s a relief. I’m feeling really good about the effort and outcome.”
Michael Zimmerman grew up in Winnetka with his brother, Alan, and his parents, Norman and Ann, who married in 1967. Norman Zimmerman was a lawyer before taking over the family business, Schaumburg Lincoln Mercury, in 1976. Ann Zimmerman ran her own interior design business and was involved with the community, including activities at the Winnetka Community House.
“I look back fondly on Winnetka and my time there,” said Michael, who lives in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. “It was a great childhood. Winnetka is a privileged place and we were privileged children to grow up in that environment and that community.”
All the while, Norman Zimmerman was raising a second family just a handful of miles north in Glenview. With another woman, Norman had two more children around the same age as Michael and Alan. The other woman, however, was generally aware that Norman was dating another woman, said Michael, who added that the woman did not know the extent of Norman’s lies.
Michael said that his father “did a really good job” keeping his secrets.
“I just thought we had a pretty plain, ordinary existence that was drama-free,” he said. “And lo and behold it was thick with controversy behind the scenes. That’s the thing: how ordinary and regular it felt. He did a really good job fooling everybody.”
It wasn’t until decades later, in June 2013, when Norman’s double life was unveiled. After lying to his wife, Ann, about being on vacation, Norman had a medical emergency and was taken to the hospital. There, Norman’s two families collided, Michael said.
As Michael describes in “Suburban Bigamy,” the moment was the beginning of years of emotional and logistical challenges.
“A real intense emotional experience resulted in the aftermath of that,” Michael said. “… We went through a period of 12 to 18 months where almost every other day we were learning and getting emotionally clobbered by some new aspect of the fallout.”
After finding out about Norman’s double life, Ann filed for and was granted a divorce. Ann Zimmerman is 83 years old and lives in the Phoenix area, as does her son, Alan. She and Michael talk regularly and he called her, “a superwoman, strong, independent and still very active in her a community.”
A day after the divorce in 2013, Norman and the other woman quickly married, and by 2015, Michael had no contact with his father.
As Michael explains it, Norman’s second wife was “very unwilling to let us or any outsiders around him.”
“I think my brother and I and my mother represented what stood between her and my father legally all those years,” he said.
During that time, Michael said, Norman removed Michael and Alan from his estate plan and Michael attempted to connect with his half-siblings, resulting in disappointment.
Through much of “Suburban Bigamy,” Michael Zimmerman explores and wonders why his father continued with his secret double life. He was able to ask his father that question, but never received a satisfying answer.
“He was never willing to go back for that,” he said. “I had to speculate. … I think, ‘Gosh, how did you get yourself into this situation and stay in it?’ We’ll never know. He took that one to the grave with him.”
Now that he is a father and husband, Michael Zimmerman strives to be “interested and motivated like my father wasn’t,” a dynamic that made authoring the book even more meaningful, he said.
Zimmerman is proud of the book’s early returns and its Kirkus review, which in part says, “In the book, Zimmerman finally decides his father was a ‘sociopathic manipulator’ but also concedes, with great philosophic restraint, that he was ultimately inscrutable, an unsolvable mystery. This is a frightening story intelligently told, one that exposes the frailty of even people’s most pedestrian certainties.”
“Suburban Bigamy: 6 Miles Between Truth and Deceit” is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and, locally, at The Book Stall.
This article originally appeared in The Record North Shore, a local news nonprofit.