Monday, June 11, 2007

Trophy Wife

[posted by Callimachus]

What, exactly, is a "trophy wife?" Is it defined simply by age? By age-difference? By being not-the-first-wife? By some combination of the three? Can a poor man have a trophy wife, or is this a class-based slur?

Romantic relationships are complex things. Each one is a universe unto itself, with its own physics and gravity. You cannot know why another couple loves.

I'm married to an intelligent career woman 10 years younger than me, a blonde Parker Posey, and much too beautiful to be a physical match for an old fat grouchy ogre.

I look back on my romantic history and do the math. For a long time I was engaged to a woman 15 years younger than me. She pursued me, at the start of it; I refused to accept that there was any serious possibility of a relationship across such a gulf of years and tried to peg her as "just a friend." At the time I was involved with two women my own age (not quite simultaneously), and a host of troubles.

The younger one brought a maturity and stability and order I couldn't have imagined. She organized and focused my life and my energies. She liked the idea of a man old enough to know who he was and what he wanted. And I was someone she could literally throw herself against when she needed to, and not worry that he'd fall apart.

On the other end of the scale, when I was 23 I had a short, beautiful fling with a woman of 39. I met her at the old Central Park roadhouse club in Wayne; she was a butterfly who looked young enough to be there with the band; turns out she was there to hear the band because a son of her co-worker was in it.

Sixteen years up. Fifteen down. Was than an age range for me, then, or an accidence of numbers? I have no inclination to extrapolate from my experiences to anyone else's. Nor should I be so arrogant to assume I am very much different than anyone else.

Fred Dalton Thompson, born August 1942; married to Jeri Kehn, born January 1967. A difference of 25 years. Trophy wife?

James Madison: 17 years older than Dolley Madison. John Quincy Adams: 18 years older than Louisa Adams.

John Tyler, widower president, married in 1844 to Julia Gardiner, thirty years his junior. Grover Cleveland bachelor president, married 1886 to Frances Clara Folsom, 27 years younger than him. He was the same age as her father.

If it is to be a "trophy wife" first lady, let's at least allow that the republic has endured it before and survived.

UPDATE: What is probably not generally realized, too, is that of the wives of the first seven presidents, four had earlier been married to other men. That speaks less of the social mores of the times than of the mortality rate among young adults in colonial and Revolutionary America. But that fact itself had a controlling impact on what was regarded as a typical family or household -- which was anything but nuclear.