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.

Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, another Stalinist couple, were both married when they met, but "they eventually got rid of their respective spouses" (who go unnamed). Hammett and Hellman never wed, but "stood by each other, most courageously during the communist witch-hunts of the '50s."

"Courageously"? Let us not suppose that People shrinks from judgment. Its language fairly abounds in judgmentalism, steering the reader in ways both subtle and not. Clark Gable "was tiring of his second wife," who "had no interest in duck shooting or fishing, his chief passions." When his affair with Carole Lombard was reported, "the exposure hastened Gable's divorce from the reluctant [Mrs. Gable]," who, it is implied, need not be wept over, because "she walked off with a sizable able settlement." (Her name was Ria.) People's evident position is that the union of two such beauties as Gable and Lombard was so urgent, so desirable--practically demanded by the heavens--that only a selfish and myopic wretch could stand in the way.

So too with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. People describes Tracy as "a guilt-ridden Catholic, old-fashioned enough to be scandalized by the brusque actress in rumpled trousers"--but not so guilt-ridden and old- fashioned as to refrain from committing adultery with her for decades. After Tracy's death, Hepburn telephoned his wife, Louise, who gave her, "I thought you were a rumor." "The rebuff stung," says People, "but Hepburn's love had given her thick skin." The depth of Louise Tracy's skin is not considered. She is merely resented for refusing to grant her husband a divorce, thus cheating a love more glamorous.

Humphrey Bogart may have been married when he met the sizzling Lauren Bacall, but People hastens to assure that it was "a deteriorating rating marriage (his third)," and besides, the woman drank. Bogie and Bacall were thoughtful adulterers: For a full year, "the two held clandestine trysts wherever they could--always careful not to further enrage" Mayo Bogart.

Mrs. William Randolph Hearst is rapped for not releasing her husband to the showgirl Marion Davies. Hearst's sons "thought Marion an interloper" and, after the old man's death, "banished her from the empire." Boris Pasternak had his real-life Lara, a mistress, but about Mrs. Pasternak the magazine is silent. Not even her name is given.

Seldom is People shy about imposing a moral view on what it reports. Here, for example, is what it says about Chaplin's inclinations toward Stalinism: "His outspoken support for Russia's plight against the Nazis contradicted the nation's growing anti-Communist sentiment." It takes a champion manipulation of words to cast totalitarian politics in such a light.

"And not to judge adultery is, in fact, to pass judgment-on its victims. The liberal, broad-minded soul who declines to judge adultery says to those betrayed, "I do not respect your suffering enough to criticize or scorn those who caused it." This same soul would not hesitate, of course, to condemn a Klansman, not merely because of the repugnance of Klan ideology but also because he would not wish to break faith with the Klan's many victims.

Historically, America has had a point of view about adultery. It has been against. And certain American elites have always considered this a sign of national immaturity: The Europeans are so much better, so much more adult, about this kind of thing, unbeholden to the Pilgrims" silly pieties and superstitions. But in recent decades, America has, sadly, grown up, and its stance against adultery and for faithfulness has significantly weakened.

After all, if you wanted to appall a right-thinking person in 1992, you might have tried saying, "I'm not sure that a blatant adulterer should be president." Public discussion of adultery in that campaign year was largely hushed. Candidate Clinton announced on "60 Minutes" that it was none of our business, and that, pretty much, was that. When he was elected with 43 percent of the vote, there was relief in some quarters that, at long last, known adultery was no longer disqualifying for higher office. Americans were starting to loosen up, starting to behave more like their European betters--were becoming less "puritanical," People might say.

Further proof of progress came when Henry Cisneros was installed in the Clinton cabinet. He had been forced from his job as mayor of San Antonio, but, in this new day, he would not be barred from a place of honor, no matter that he had paid off his mistress, then lied about it. What did marital fidelity have to do with running the government, anyway?

So, Hester Prynne could breathe more easily on this side of the Atlantic. Joyless Americans were measurably less apt to plaster As onto the waywardly adventurous.

To find the old values--the judging of righteous judgment--even in high places, one might look to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela has distinguished himself as perhaps never before in his long career of moral example. Last month, he stood in court, erect and unflinching, and did what he had dearly wanted to avoid: ask for a divorce from Winnie Mandela. Through everything, he had stood by her--had even believed her when she claimed she was innocent of kidnapping and torture--but one thing he could not abide, and that was her "brazen infidelity." "If the entire universe tried to persuade me to reconcile with the defendant"--he would not utter her name throughout the proceeding--"I would not." He had not wanted to reveal his wife's adultery, but was moved to do so when she represented to the nation that the divorce was for other reasons. It was not. It was only for one, and when Mandela stood rock-like on principle, he, not for the first time, made the rest of the world look Lilliputian.

Many social observers in America predict another "awakening," or contend that even now one is underway. Still, it seems unlikely that adultery will regain the infamy it merits anytime soon. The few who bring it up are still regarded as freaks by respectable society. Suggest that Martin Luther King's faithlessness to his wife diminishes his heroism, despite his accomplishments in the public realm, and you will be treated, if not with indignant disbelief, with pity, as one would respond to a retarded child. The same is true of FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ--and of the exalted lovers of People magazine. Who, after all, has heard of Sybil Burton? Of Louise Tracy? Of the first Mrs. Sinatra? Of the "reluctant" Mrs. Gable? But there they are, or were: silent accusers, tear-stained witnesses, rebuking those who forsook them and sobering those who would pause to remember.

Jay Nordlinger is associate editor of The Weekly Standard.