The evolution of the mistress

The Other Woman has always been fundamental to our understanding of marriage. Now her role is changing

By Elizabeth Abbott

Published August 27, 2011 10:01PM (EDT)

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

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. The first, whom I encountered during the summer after my freshman year in university, was a young woman who shared her sometimes exciting but mostly wretched experiences with me. Katerina was an exotic, sloe-eyed East German who fled to West Berlin two weeks before her high school graduation, forfeiting her diploma in exchange for freedom. Kati was a governess -- actually, an exalted babysitter -- for the same family that employed me during summer vacation at their resort hotel in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Despite (perhaps because of) my parents' objections, she and I developed a curious sort of intimacy. What they frowned on as fast and cheap, I admired as sophisticated -- Kati's lean, tanned and flat-chested body proudly exposed by her signature strapless tops; the hennaed rope of hair that swung nearly to her knees; the guttural, heavy accent that transformed me into "Elisabess," or "Bess" for short.

That first summer, Kati was not yet a mistress. In fact, she longed to be a wife and was actually engaged to marry Charles, an RCMP officer who came calling in a long, white Cadillac convertible. But after Charles abruptly called off their wedding, Kati's never very stable life fell precipitously apart. Not long after that, I returned to Montreal for my second year of university.

A few months later, Kati resurfaced in my life when she phoned and practically begged me to bring her a bag of groceries. She had money, she explained, but was temporarily bedridden and could not go out shopping. Kati had become the kept woman of a married lawyer who grudgingly supported her in a cramped room sublet from the unfriendly tenant of a shabby apartment. Unexpectedly, she had become pregnant.

I bought Kati the food she requested. My modest gift, it turned out, was all that she had for post-abortion sustenance. She had endured an illegal abortion alone, the abortionist having prudently banned anyone but his "clients" from the premises. I tried to ease her through the bout of severe depression that followed; shortly thereafter we resumed our very different lives.

Over the years, I saw Kati less and less. The last time was on a lake in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains. She was perched on the bow of a powerboat, her stunning mane loose and whipped by the wind. I called out and waved, and the man at the helm of her boat slowed down and steered over to my smaller craft. Kati seemed startled to see me, and she immediately put her forefinger to her lips as if to forestall my embarrassing her in front of her glamorous companions.

I understood, greeted her briefly, then smiled goodbye. I never saw her again, but I heard that she had married and then divorced. For a long time afterward, when anybody spoke about mistresses, an image of Kati came into my mind.

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. Mistresses, it seems, are 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 François Mitterrand, they were impervious to criticism and enabled by a docile press; Mitterrand lived with his primary mistress, museum curator Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine, while his wife, Danielle, remained in the family home. At Mitterrand'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 rivaled 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 longtime mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, his image and hers have been largely rehabilitated.

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.

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.

In all societies and at all times, the custom of arranged marriages has been most likely to produce mistressdom and concubinage because parents or other relatives selected their children's spouses for economic reasons or to cement family, business or political alliances and usually dismissed romantic love as an irrelevant, self-indulgent and sometimes even treacherous foundation for a marital relationship. Husbands and wives were expected to cohabit and operate as an economic unit, and to produce and raise children. They were not expected to quiver at each other's touch, to adore one another or to fulfill each other's emotional needs.

Sometimes romantic love developed after the fact but more often, regard, tolerance and resignation were as much as anyone could hope for, and many marriages were desperately unhappy. All but the most puritanical societies permitted men unwilling to suppress or sublimate their romantic and lustful urges to satisfy them extramaritally by taking mistresses or concubines. Women, however, were almost always discouraged from straying and punished severely if they were caught. Many went ahead and took the risk.

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 Mitterrand 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."

Feminism, expanded women's rights and effective and accessible birth control have altered mistressdom, its parameters and its possibilities. As sexual mores surrounding premarital 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 forebears 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.

Elizabeth Abbott is a research associate at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and, from 1991 to 2004, was the dean of women. She is the author of several books, including "Sugar: A Bittersweet History," "Haiti: A Modern History" and "A History of Celibacy." She lives in Toronto.

Adapted from "Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman." Copyright Elizabeth Abbott, reprinted with permission by The Overlook Press

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