Louis B. Mayer, at the height of his power as head of MGM in the 1930s, the most highly paid man in America, maker and breaker of studio executives, the supreme Beverly Hills poobah, came down with an unconsummated crush on a would-be starlet.
He courted Jean Howard with fatherly advice about doctors and dentists, avuncular offers to help with any problems she might have. When Mayer finally asked her out to dinner, she told him she had a date with a woman friend. Undeterred, he took them both. “He never grabbed me or tried to kiss me or do anything that almost everybody else had,” Jean Howard later recalled.
At the time, she was having a stormy affair with an agent, later a producer, named Charles Feldman who, she had just found out, was also seeing someone else. When Mayer asked Jean Howard to go to Paris with him, she agreed, but only if her woman friend could come along as chaperone.
Soon after they arrived at the hotel, an MGM press agent called, urging Howard to come to Mayer’s room where he was clutching a sheaf of papers—-a detective’s report on her comings and goings with Feldman. “How could you do this to me?” Mayer screamed, gulped a tumbler of whiskey and tried to heave himself out the window. It took Howard, her friend and the MGM man (who broke a thumb) to wrestle him to the floor.
After being sedated by a doctor, Mayer meekly agreed to arrange Howard’s return to the States. In the taxi, on his knees, he swore he would divorce his wife and begged her to marry him, but she left for New York, where Feldman was waiting. (She married and later divorced him but kept living in the same house, a tempestuous Hollywood life in which her greatest achievement was taking pictures of the rich and famous at parties she hosted.)
At about the same time that Mayer was succumbing to passion, the King of England gave up his throne to be with the “woman I love” whom he would not be allowed to marry. No sexual innocent as the Prince of Wales, King Edward VIII had cut a wide swath through a generation of young British women before succumbing to the charms of Wallis Simpson, an American about to be divorced from her second husband.
After his abdication of the throne, the couple spent the rest of their lives in Café Society as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, she an imperious figure with a fondness for jewelry, he trailing her with a sad face and the couple’s dogs.
Obsessive love touched me when my best friend left his wife and two children to marry a younger woman who had bewitched him. No philanderer, he had interviewed and written sympathetically of such women as Jacqueline Kennedy, Ingrid Bergman and Princess Grace.
When sex researchers Masters and Johnson wanted a book in their name on love and commitment, they asked him to write it with them. It ended with the assertion that “in their later years, it is in the enduring satisfaction of their sexual and emotional bond that committed husbands and wives find reason enough to be glad that they still have another day together.”
No so for my friend. Soon afterward, his young wife casually betrayed him without bothering to hide it. He literally took that to heart but even on his deathbed implored me to help in her career as a magazine editor. I kept that promise and gave the eulogy at his funeral with a heavy and troubled heart.
I draw a confessional veil over details about the woman who inspired obsession in me with her grief after a traumatic divorce that left her face as if in a glaze of broken glass, setting off romantic rescue fantasies that broke my heart but never touched hers. She took every ounce of my passion and the comforts that came with it, as if by divine right, and gave back only permission to be adored. After thirty years, it still hurts.
The men in these stories did no harm to the objects of their passion, quite the opposite, yet are seen as addled predators, but no note is taken of the women’s use of them on their impervious paths to totally self-absorbed lives while leaving behind the kind of deep endless pain they themselves were incapable of feeling.
Perhaps Dante was lucky to have met Beatrice only briefly before she inspired his passion for “The Divine Comedy.” In real life she married a rich man in Florence and lived a very ordinary life.