Excerpt from Mistresses: A History of the Other WomanBy Elizabeth Abbott
November 12, 2011
Introduction: Meeting Mistresses
I grew up knowing about mistresses because my great-grandfather Stephen Adelbert Griggs, an affluent Detroit brewer and municipal politician, maintained what my mother scornfully referred to as a “love nest” occupied by a series of “fancy” women. Great-grandmother Minnie Langley had to tolerate this, but she exacted a price: for every diamond Stephen bought his latest mistress, he had to buy one for her. This was how his love nest hatched a glittering nest egg of rings, earrings, brooches and uncut gems, which Minnie bequeathed to her female descendants.
Great-grandfather Stephen walked a well-trodden path. I realized this as I matured and met real mistresses and their lovers. … Yet it was [not they] who inspired me to write about mistresses. It was while writing my book A History of Celibacy that I came to realize that mistressdom, like celibacy, is a crucial lens through which to explore how women relate to men other than in marriage; mistressdom is, in fact, an institution parallel and complementary to marriage. Even before I finished writing A History of Celibacy, I was already beginning the research for what has become Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman. [A History of Marriage is the final volume in this historical relationship trilogy.]
There were sources in abundance, including in the daily news; mistresses, it seemed, were everywhere. In 1997, for example, when prominent journalist Charles Kuralt died, Patricia Shannon, his mistress of twenty-nine years, launched a successful claim to part of his estate. In 2000, Toronto mayor Mel Lastman’s former mistress, Grace Louie, announced that he had sired her (Mel look-alike) sons, Kim and Todd. In 2001, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, sued for child support for their two-year-old daughter, Ashley, already in utero as Jackson advised and prayed for President Bill Clinton, under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. (Simultaneously with prosecuting Clinton, the self-righteous Newt Gingrich was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.) I began to make lists and take notes, trying to understand the nature of these relationships, the modern as well as the historic.
As in the past, today’s presidents and princes also succumb to their desires and take mistresses, though they, too, risk exposure by scandal sheets and mainstream media (unless, like French president Francois Mitterand, they were impervious to criticism and enabled by a docile press; Mitterand lived with his primary mistress, museum curator Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine, while his wife, Danielle, remained in the family home. At Mitterand’s 1996 funeral, the three mourning women stood side by side, as he would have expected.) President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a very special “friend,” the
Englishwoman Kay Sommersby. JFK dallied with many women, including film idol Marilyn Monroe. Though rivalled in prominence by the story of President Bill Clinton and unforgettable White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the longest-running scandal belongs to England’s Prince Charles. When I began my book, he was in disgrace. Years later, widowed and remarried to his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, his image and hers have been largely rehabilitated.
Legions of other provocative unions are replacing Charles’ and Camilla’s in the spotlight. Champion golfer Tiger Woods’ multitudinous sexual partners included only one, Rachel Uchitel, whom he treated as a mistress rather than a casual fling. But politicians in a steady and adulterous stream have mistresses, and often media “scoops” are the first inkling their wives have that their husbands have been betraying them.
US presidential hopeful and former Senator John Edwards ignored his fear that “Falling in love with you could really fuck up my plans for becoming President” and capitulated to his passion for Rielle Hunter, who likened it to a “magnetic force.” Edwards was prescient: their affair destroyed his career and shattered his marriage to his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth Edwards. It also produced a daughter, Quinn.
So did New York Congressman Vito Fossella Jr.’s affair with Laura Fay, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel; Natalie was three years old when Fossella incurred a DUI charge while on his way to visit his mistress and their daughter.
Congressman Mark Souder, an evangelical Christian, resigned in 2010, repentant (he said) for having “sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff.” Ironically, he and his married mistress, Tracy Meadows Jackson recorded a web video urging youth to abstain from sex “until in a committed, faithful relationship.”
Governor Mark Sanford, caught out in adultery, admitted his infidelity to wife Jenny with his Argentinean mistress and “soul mate,” Maria Belen Chapur. But he could not give her up. The scandal escalated, he resigned and Jenny divorced him. Afterward, Sanford continued to pursue his relationship with Chapur.
California State Assemblyman Mike Duvall, winner of an Ethics in America award, was a more cavalier lover forced to resign after an open microphone broadcast him bragging that “I’ve been getting into spanking her [one of his two mistresses]. I like it.”
British radio and television presenter Jonathan Dimbleby’s brief affair with his dying mistress was the most dramatic and obsessive, and it destroyed his until-then happy marriage of thirty-five years. In May 2003, Dimbleby interviewed the magnificent soprano Susan Chilcott, found her enchanting and began to sleep with her. Days later, Susan was diagnosed with terminal metastasized breast 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. I knew what I was doing but I didn’t know what the outcome would be. It was odd, but I didn’t want to be away from Bel either – I felt absolutely torn. But I was entranced; and then of course we didn’t know how long she had – it might have been a few weeks or months or it might have been a few years. It was a very powerful, overwhelming experience and also a kind of test.
Part of that test was watching Susan’s last public performance, playing Desdemona and, garbed in white linen, singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch’io viva ancor, ch’io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!)
Less than three months later, Susan died and Bel Mooney, Jonathan’s wife, waited for her husband to return home to her and say, “That madness is over, let us pick up the threads of our life again.” He did not, Bel moved out and on, and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce. Susan Chilcott and Jonathan Dimbleby’s love affair was fleeting and fuelled as much by her impending death as by passion. Push back its timing to an earlier century or set it on the stage of a romantic tragedy and it looks exactly as it did at the end of the 20th century, in cosmopolitan England.
After years of research, what interested me was the structure and common denominators of the relationships between men and their mistresses, especially how mistressdom reflects the nature of marriage and male-female relations in different eras and cultures. After much deliberation, I decided to frame my exploration of mistressdom through the perspective of individual mistresses whose experiences tell the story of men and women’s relationships in their society. By grouping these women into categories that reflect different cultures and historical periods, I could present their unique circumstances while also drawing conclusions about their society’s versions of what a mistress was and how its men and women lived together. The result of this approach to my material was that I titled my book Mistresses: a History of the Other Woman.
Mistressdom is inextricably linked with marriage, human society’s most fundamental institution, and almost automatically implies marital infidelity, sometimes by the husband, sometimes by the wife. Indeed, marriage is a key element in determining who is a mistress and who is not. Though many people assume that adultery undermines marriage, many others believe that, paradoxically, it shores marriage up. 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.”
This association between marriage and mistressdom, and also Eastern concubinage, extends through time and place, and is deeply ingrained in almost every major culture. British multibillionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who died surrounded by wife, ex-wives and mistresses, commented famously that “when a man marries his mistress, he creates an automatic job vacancy.” Not surprisingly, Western models are more familiar to North Americans than those of the Eastern world, with their different and more elaborate versions, notably institutionalized concubinage and harems.
The unbreachable chasms of class and caste have also created mistresses who might otherwise have been wives. Saint Augustine, the 4th-century bishop of Hippo, subscribed to his North African society’s proscription against marrying below one’s class, and so he lived with the lower-ranked woman he loved as his concubine. When he decided to marry, his mother found a suitably well-born girl.
Caste determined by nationality, race or religion can also relegate women to the lower status of mistress. Xenophobic ancient Greece, for instance, forbade its citizens to marry foreigners, so the Athenian leader Pericles could never marry Aspasia, his beloved Miletian concubine and the mother of his son.
In many Eastern cultures, concubinage was integral rather than peripheral or parallel to marriage, and concubines’ duties and rights were spelled out in the law or in social custom. Concubines frequently lived in their master’s house, under the same roof with his wife and other concubines. In modest homes, a concubine or two assisted the wife in her daily chores. Concubines were bound by wife-like sexual obligations, including fidelity, and confined to the same domestic sphere. There were excellent reasons for this. In sharp contrast to Western mistresses, one of the principal duties of most Eastern concubines was to bear their masters’ heirs.
In a few countries, notably imperial China and Turkey, some royals, aristocrats and men of privilege displayed their wealth and power by maintaining harems of concubines, often captured or purchased. Their crowded, eunuch-run harems were turbulent communities where intrigue, competition and conflict—to say nothing of children—proliferated. Older and less-favored harem concubines were drudges consigned to household labor. Their still hopeful younger colleagues filled their empty days with meticulous grooming and plotting, with and against eunuchs, wives, relatives, children, servants and each other. Their goal was to spend a night with their harem’s owner and, if they were extraordinarily lucky, to conceive the child who could catapult his mother from obscurity into a life of privilege and perhaps even power.
In stark contrast, the laws of Western societies have almost always reinforced the primacy of marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, from the lowest-born slave to the highest-ranked duchess. Legally and culturally, fathers had no obligation to accept responsibility for their natural children and could condemn them to the ignominy and perils of illegitimacy. Indeed, the law often made it difficult, even for men so inclined, to recognize and provide for their “outside” children.
Yet some men defied their society’s strictures against supporting their illegitimate children. Royals such as England’s Charles II, who elevated so many of his mistresses’ sons to dukedoms that five of today’s twenty-six dukes are their descendants, assumed that their bloodlines were exalted enough to outweigh such niceties as legitimacy. Commoners driven by personal passions also flouted their society’s values. A few slave owners, for example, risked serious reprisals from their profoundly racist compatriots by acknowledging paternity of a slave mistress’s children. In the Western world, however, acknowledging bastards has always been the exception to the rule.
Today’s mistress rightly expects better treatment for any child she might have with a lover. Like her precursors, she is the bellwether for female-male relations, and her status reflects how these relations have developed. The improving condition of women, the liberalization of the laws governing families and personal relationships, and the growing acceptance of DNA tests have greatly increased the likelihood that her lover will recognize, or at least contribute to the support of, her child. (John Edwards is an egregious example of this. After requesting an aide to pinch one of Frances Quinn’s diapers for a secret DNA test to determine whether or not he was her father, he systemically denied that he could be or was the father until, irreparably tarnished by a public trail of falsehoods, he admitted paternity and sought forgiveness, especially from Elizabeth, his furious wife.) At the same time, the advent of accessible and reliable birth control and of legalized abortion has substantially diminished the number of those children a mistress is likely to have.
And yet, like Rielle Hunter, mistresses do have children with their lovers. Some, like Karin Stanford, have to do battle for their children’s rights. Others, like François Mitterand and Vito Fossella, Jr. offer secret financial support. But even these cooperative fathers cannot guarantee that their legitimate children will take kindly to their “outside” siblings. Ashley Stanford-Jackson’s mother complains publicly that her daughter’s siblings have no interest in her. And Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, snubbed Mazarine in the hospital where both were visiting their father. “As long as my father doesn’t speak of this young woman, for me she doesn’t exist,” he told friends. When she was thirty-four years old, Mazarine assumed the legal surname of Pingeot-Mitterrand, explaining “For nineteen years I was nobody’s daughter, but I’ve finally decided to add my father’s name to my identity papers.”
An even more extraordinary case was that of African-American Essie Mae Washington-Williams, daughter of sixteen-year-old domestic Carrie Butler and her employer’s twenty-two-year-old son, Strom Thurmond, a politician who died, still in public office, aged one hundred, and was notorious for his relentless advocacy of racial segregation. “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” he thundered. “He became an outright racist, cloaked in the ancient doctrine of states’ rights,” Essie Mae recalled. He sounded “like the ghost of Adolph Hitler.”
But in private, Thurmond offered financial support and was keenly interested in and proud of his bi-racial daughter. They first met when Essie Mae was a teenager, when she and her mother visited his office. “He never called my mother by her first name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child. He didn’t ask when I was leaving and didn’t invite me to come back. It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father,” Williams wrote. Yet she left it convinced that her mother’s relationship with Thurmond was ongoing and that they cared for each other.
At Thurmond’s recommendation, Essie Mae attended an all-black college now known as South Carolina State University. He paid her tuition and arranged occasional visits in the privacy of the office of the college President, who must have guessed at or known the nature of their relationship. So did Thurmond’s sister, Mary Tompkins, whom he delegated at least once to bring money to Essie Mae.
Yet Essie Mae never revealed her father’s identity. “It’s not that Strom Thurmond ever swore me to secrecy. He never swore me to anything. He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract,” she wrote.
Thurmond died in 2003 and only then, in Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, did Essie Mae disclose what Thurmond’s colleagues and friends had long suspected. The Thurmond family publicly confirmed her paternity and spoke of her right to know her heritage. (It helped that she had no interest in suing for a share of her father’s estate – her moral and legal right.) Her half-brother, Strom Thurmond Jr., added that he was eager to get to know her. In 2004, South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford added her name to the list of children engraved on a public monument commemorating Thurmond. Times were changing, even in South Carolina.
Feminism, expanded women’s rights and effective and accessible birth control have altered mistressdom, its parameters and its possibilities. As sexual mores surrounding pre-marital sex have relaxed and common-law living arrangements become increasingly the norm, the line between mistress and girlfriend has blurred. In many cases today, the answer must lie in the partners’ perception of their status and, to a certain extent, in society’s. Modern mistresses are less likely than their forbears to be married or to depend financially on their lovers. Today’s mistresses fall in love, usually with married men unwilling to divorce and regularize the relationship. The only alternative to breaking up is to reconcile themselves to an illicit relationship. But often these mistresses are reluctant to accept the status quo, and they hope that somehow, someday, their liaison will be legitimized through marriage, as Camilla Parker Bowles’ was.
Just as often, the love affair itself—the romance and the passion, the arousal of desire and its delirious fulfillment—is what matters. Even if guilt coexists with the excitement of sexual adventure and the challenge of defying social norms, that does not negate the bonding force of shared secrecy and the mutual trust underlying it. The relationship’s forbidden dimension also affects its balance of power, which is in part controlled by the unmarried mistress’s restraint and discretion. Though it forces on her considerable free time, especially during traditional holidays, it also liberates her from wifely domesticity into the mode and mystique of showing only her best face and her best behavior. The relationship may also feel or actually be egalitarian, with both partners bringing to it what they can and taking from it what they want.
Émilie du Châtelet
Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s mistress, was … uncommonly intelligent and uncommonly well educated, and she became the mistress of a celebrated philosopher. Émilie was the child of an enlightened era, and her lover was a progressive thinker. … As her formidable intellect matured, she focused on physics, literature, drama, opera and political ideas, including the startling proposition that women and men should have equal rights.
[ She married] Claude du Châtelet, colonel of a regiment, scion of a fine old family and an agreeable man twelve years her senior. Their arranged marriage was convenient and amiable, and quickly produced a daughter and a son. Émilie spent much time in Florent’s Paris townhouse, and he spent even more on garrison duty. As was quite acceptable among spouses who had already produced heirs and whose marriages were primarily family alliances in which romantic love played little or no part, Émilie took lovers. Her belief that a good wife behaved well and loyally toward her husband by allying herself only with lovers of quality and discretion was typical of her aristocratic social milieu.
When Émilie met the witty and clever Arouet de Voltaire, he was nearly forty and much sought after by women eager for the reflected glory of associating with France’s most famous writer and one of the philosophe movement’s leading lights. The philosophes were engaged in revaluating, in the light of “reason” and “rationality,” the entirety of the human experience. Besides ascertaining the truth, their objective was to compile a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge. … Much of the philosophes’ interaction took place at certain Parisian salons, where Émilie and Voltaire developed their deepening relationship.
Voltaire’s assessment of Émilie as a dynamo of energy and purpose was correct. She was fascinated by physics and the theories of Leibniz and Newton, and studied them with a discipline that put other scholars, including Voltaire, to shame. She also found time to dine with friends, attend social and artistic events and—alas!—to gamble away small (and sometimes not so small) fortunes at the gaming tables.
Émilie and Voltaire began to travel together, and in 1734 they settled down in Cirey, in her husband’s decaying family château. Florent was most cooperative about this arrangement. He would sometimes visit his wife and her lover, but he considerately slept apart from Émilie, and took his meals with his son and the tutor. Above all, he was delighted with the spectacular renovations and redecorating that the lovers undertook with money lent by Voltaire at a low rate of interest.
…She and Voltaire began a regime of study and literature that came to be known as his Cirey Period. Émilie was now Voltaire’s recognized mistress, and she conducted their affair as if it would last a lifetime. But unlike most 18th-century lovers, who resorted to subterfuge in the name of discretion, she and Voltaire cohabited. This took some managing. Whenever she was forced to spend time with her husband, she treated him with affectionate respect. In fact, Florent’s very presence belied the fact that she was actually living in sin with Voltaire, and it gave the arrangement a certain legitimacy, something all three of them desired.
Émilie, immensely disciplined and organized, established a regimen of study that focused the more disorganized Voltaire. The day began in Voltaire’s quarters, with late morning coffee and discussion. At noon, Émilie and Voltaire sometimes popped in to greet Florent as he lunched with his (and her) son and the tutor, then retreated to their separate studies to work. Sometimes they took a break, snacking and chatting before returning to their books. At nine, they met for dinner, a leisurely and well-provisioned production, and followed it with conversation, dramatic productions in their own tiny theater, and poetry readings. At midnight they dispersed again to their studies, and Émilie worked until about five in the morning. When she retired to her blue and yellow bedroom, so color-coordinated that even her dog’s basket had matching blue and yellow lining, she slept for a refreshing four hours. If she had set herself a personal deadline, she would reduce this to one hour and jolt herself awake by plunging her hands into icy water.
Under Émilie’s erudite tutelage, Voltaire assimilated (but never mastered) the principles of physics, particularly Leibniz’s and Newton’s, and incorporated them into the core of his thinking. He generously acknowledged Émilie’s influence and dedicated his Elements of Newton’s Philosophy to her. He even implied that he had been little more than her amanuensis rather than she his muse.
… Until just before her premature death, Émilie was immersed in translating and elucidating Newton’s Principia. In public as well as private, Voltaire was the first to acknowledge that his mistress was his intellectual and sexual partner and equal. He read aloud what he had written each day and eagerly welcomed her critiques and suggestions. Her keen mind convinced him that women could do everything men could. In a letter to a friend, Voltaire paid Émilie the ultimate compliment: “I [cannot] live without that lady whom I look upon as a great man and as a most solid and respectable friend. She understands Newton; she despises superstition, in short she makes me happy.”
Émilie du Châtelet’s story is an edifying narrative of purpose fulfilled, love reciprocated and passion (usually) requited. The constraints on her—principally the refusal to publish her memoirs, though her translations of men’s works were rushed into print—burdened all women. Even at the time, Émilie and her contemporaries knew that her status as Voltaire’s mistress rather than her genius guaranteed her a significant place in history.
Émilie’s alliance with Voltaire was widely known. Voltaire went out of his way to acknowledge her enormous contributions to his work, and in his private correspondence with Europe’s leading thinkers, he reiterated how greatly he was in Émilie’s debt.