I grew up hearing about mistresses from my mother. She would tell us about the “fancy women” her grandfather, Stephen Adelbert Griggs, an affluent Detroit brewer and municipal politician, maintained in what she disdainfully referred to as a “love nest.” Why did Great-grandmother Minnie tolerate this? Because in her comfortable 19th century world, the alternative — divorce — was unthinkable. But Minnie put a price on her husband’s philandering.
For every diamond Stephen bought his latest mistress, he had to buy one for her. So his love nest hatched a glittering nest egg of rings, earrings, brooches and uncut gems, which Minnie bequeathed to her female descendants.
My great-grandfather walked a well-trodden path, and that’s why I wrote Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman as the central book in my historical relationship trilogy that includes A History of Celibacy and A History of Marriage. Mistressdom, in fact, has everything to do with marriage. It’s an institution parallel and complementary to marriage, and it evolved to accommodate the sexual double standard that tolerates adultery in husbands but condemns it in wives. Like celibacy, mistressdom offers a fascinating perspective into how women relate to men other than in marriage.
Mistresses, it seems, are everywhere. One U.K. reviewer was startled to find the painful story of the end of her own first marriage on page four of my book. Bel Mooney’s husband, British radio present Jonathan Dimbleby, suddenly plunged into a dramatic and obsessive affair with the magnificent soprano, Susan Chilcott, who was terminally ill with cancer. Against her anguished pleas that her very new lover consider his own well-being and not ruin his life for her, Dimbleby vowed to care for her until she died, and moved in with her and her little son. “I still do not adequately understand the intensity of passion and pity that animated my decision,” he said later. “It felt like an unstoppable force.” Yet he also “felt absolutely torn” about being away from Bel and their decades-long, happy marriage.
Less than three months after her last public performance, playing Desdemona and singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch’io viva ancor, ch’io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!) Susan died. But a grieving Jonathan did not return to Bel and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce.
My retelling of their story, Bel wrote, “was a reminder that there are no easy generalisations about this subject.” But she did offer this perspective: “I admit to a suspicion that most men are susceptible to temptation. Show me a loyal husband and I’ll show you one who’s never had a real opportunity to stray.”
Well, not all loyal husbands lack opportunity, but as Bel Mooney’s personal experience suggests, opportunity is all too often irresistible. Remember when President Clinton was under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky? We discovered later that as Reverend Jesse Jackson piously counseled and prayed for Clinton, he was also cheating on his wife with a mistress who was carrying his child. And Clinton’s self-righteous prosecutor, Newt Gingrich, was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.
Both Jackson and Gingrich mistook the waning years of the 20th century for an earlier era, when mistressdom was the familiar handmaiden of marriage. That was clear when Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, successfully sued him for child support. After millennia of protecting marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, indeed even making it difficult for men to recognize and provide for their “outside” children, our new laws essentially “outlaw” the concept of illegitimacy; they also demand parental accountability. Gingrich made another kind of mistake: he gambled on keeping his affair a secret but six years into it, he got caught. The values of the media world were also changing, and the man who had been angling to run for president on a platform of “family values” had to settle for divorcing his wife so he could marry his mistress.
The values of the media world were also changing, and the man who had been angling to run for president on a platform of “family values” had to settle instead for divorcing his wife so he could become his mistress’s new husband.
Mistresses are not always ruinous to their lovers’ marriages. Some people believe that love affairs enrich and enliven marriage. Frenchmen, for example, can justify the cinq à sept, the after-ofﬁce-hours rendezvous a man enjoys with his mistress, by quoting French writer Alexandre Dumas’s pithy observation: “The chains of marriage are so heavy that it often takes two people to carry them, and sometimes three.”
The British multibillionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who died surrounded by his wife, ex-wives and mistresses, had another take on marriage and mistressdom: “When a man marries his mistress,” Goldsmith opined, “he creates an automatic job vacancy.”
In today’s North America, when most marriages are rooted in mutual love and compatibility, mistresses pose a different and often greater threat to marriages. This was not always so. In the days of arranged marriages, when parents selected their children’s spouses for economic reasons or to cement family, business or political alliances, romantic love was considered an irrelevant, self-indulgent and even treacherous foundation for marriage. Husbands and wives were expected to cohabit and operate as an economic unit, and to produce and raise children. They were not expected to adore one another or to fulfill each other’s emotional needs. Though some spouses developed romantic feelings for each other, usually respect and camaraderie were as much as anyone could hope for, and many marriages were desperately unhappy. This was the context that prompted all but the most puritanical societies to tolerate the tradition of mistresses who enabled men to satisfy their romantic and lustful urges.
The times they are a’changing, and so is the nature of marriage and therefore of mistressdom. Laws and institutions are more egalitarian. Birth control is effective and accessible. Modern mistresses are less likely to depend financially on their lovers. Much more often they fall in love, usually with married men unwilling to divorce and regularize the relationship. The alternative to breaking up is the insecurity of the status quo. Many mistresses accept it but hope that somehow, someday, their liaison will be legitimized through marriage. Today as in the past, the two institutions are inextricably linked.