The Magazine

People and Adultery

The taint on a magazine's "greatest love stories."

Apr 29, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 32 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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IS IT WORTH remarking, at this late date, on the near-total acceptance of adultery in contemporary society? Or is it like noting that it is dark at night, or that the car has replaced the horse-drawn carriage? It seemed to happen so fast, really. One day, adultery was an acknowledged evil, a grave sin against God, outlawed by the Ten Commandments. Then seemingly overnight, it was as ordinary as laughter, or gardening, and anyone who raised an objection to it was a prude, a mental dinosaur, a zealot.

These thoughts are occasioned by a bible for today, People magazine, which devoted a special Valentine's Day issue to "The Greatest Love Stories of the Century." Predictably, it was fun to read, offering as it did short biographies of 30 dream couples, adorned with sigh4nducing photographs. There were Bogie and Bacall, Liz and Dick, Gable and Lombard--even Sid and Nancy, of punk-rock notoriety. But as the stories unfolded, an unwitting theme persisted: These unions, many of them, were founded on adultery. They were made possible by the betrayal of some husband or wife. And People scarcely bothered to notice, hardly pausing to acknowledge the injured ones to whom vows had been made. Yet there they were, hovering in the background like ghosts. They were the victims of these "greatest love stories," and normally it is victims who receive the lion's share of attention in People. But these discarded spouses were unwelcome guests at this party. They were mentioned briefly, with annoyance, if at all, then set aside, as in life, so that the action could proceed.

Of People's 30 romances, 14 involved adultery (that is, began with it; for some, adultery came later). Oh, there were the token square couples among the 30, like the Rev. Billy Graham and his wife Ruth, and even a cartoon pairing (Popeye and Olive Oyl). Also, there were instances like that of Charlie Chaplin, who was an Olympic-caliber adulterer but happened to be between marriages to mid-teenagers when he met Eugene O'Neill's daughter. In three of the 14 cases, both parties were married; in 10 of them, the man alone was, and in one, only the woman was. Eight of the 14 couples never wed; five of the 30 later divorced, and others may yet.

The celebration kicks off with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Both were married when they combusted on the set of "Cleopatra." People records that, "despite numerous flings," Burton was "still joined to his first wife, Sybil, the mother of his two young daughters." Taylor was married to her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher (who had left Debbie Reynolds to marry her). Alarmed by press rumblings, Fisher flew to the set "to stand guard." But "it was too late." At some point, Burton apparently was tempted to return to his wife, but he overcame it. The Vatican, for its part, denounced Taylor with a phrase that deserves common currency: "erotic vagrancy." When Burton died, his fourth wife prevented Taylor (who had married him twice) from attending the funeral, which People makes out to be unsporting. And, in a way, it was, considering how casual these arrangements were.

Did you know that Mrs. Simpson had a husband when she met the prince, later King Edward VIII? That there was, in fact, a Mr. Simpson? Yes, and his name was Ernest. People paints him as a cooperative sort, for he "soon slipped into the background, and the Prince began squiring Wallis alone." Later, the love-respecting Windsor "orchestrated their divorce," and the rest is abdication and other history.

The account of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner is particularly instructive. He was married, with three children, when "he and Ava started partying in 1948"--"started partying" being a new euphemism for a sin that now dares not speak its name. (The word "adultery" does not darken the pages of the special issue.) The MGM studio, which employed Sinatra and Gargner, was none too pleased with its stars. Explains People, "It was, after all, the age of morals clauses in contracts and puritanical public opinion," and here we have true colors, as vivid as they can be: opposition to adultery and to the destruction of family as "puritanical."

Ably representing the Communist view are Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who, though not among the Adulterous 14, were anything but opposed to adultery and, with raised consciousnesses, practiced it enthusiastically. Of her husband's prolific philandering, Kahlo remarked, "Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade"--a neat summation of a point of view that used to be identified almost exclusively with the Left. Marital fidelity was a shackle of the old, oppressive order, bourgeois and religious, which the new utopia would smash.