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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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.