The Big Question April 2013

What Was the Worst Marriage Ever?

Henry VIII, serial killers in love, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (x 2), and more
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Graham Roumieu

Q: What was the worst marriage ever?


Raoul Felder, divorce lawyer

If you’re a New Yorker, you might have heard of “the Bride of Wildenstein.” Jocelyn Wildenstein was a socialite who used plastic surgery to turn herself, little by little, into a cat. She and a team of private detectives burst in on her husband, Alec—my client—with a 19-year-old girl. He pulled a gun, and from there the case went downhill.


Susan Squire, author, I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton exemplify a long-forgotten rule of wedlock that we ought to keep in mind: intensity, sexual or otherwise, is the antithesis of stability. You can’t have both for long, as Liz and Dick proved. Twice.


Paul Theroux, author, The Last Train to Zona Verde (out in May)

Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, Adele, during a party—a rather ungrateful thing to do. And Claire Bloom wrote extensively about her unhappy marriage to Philip Roth; he countered with his novel I Married a Communist.


Kate Bolick, Atlantic contributing editor

One of my favorites is the unconsummated six-year union of the Victorian writer John Ruskin and his wife, Effie Gray, not least because of his traumatic wedding-night discovery that she, unlike the ancient marble statues of his acquaintance, had pubic hair. After their marriage was annulled in 1854, she remarried and had eight children, and he fell in love with a 10-year-old girl.


Elizabeth Gilbert, author, Eat Pray Love and The Signature of All Things, due from Viking in October

If measured by the number of lives it destroyed, then you can’t find a worse alliance than the marriage between the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church, sealed with the Reichskonkordat treaty in 1933. Like many abused wives, the Church initially thought it would be protected by its powerful husband (from Communism, in this case), but instead became complicit in unthinkable psychopathy.


Robert and Michelle King, show runners, The Good Wife

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, the now-divorced Canadian serial killers. Marriage serves as an enabler. It can increase love or, in this case, depravity. In that sense, their happy marriage caused at least three murders.


Caitlin Flanagan, author, Girl Land

Anita Bryant and Bob Green were the pie-in-the-face champions of evangelical Christianity’s engagement with the homosexual menace. She was a former Oklahoma beauty queen; he was her handsome sidekick. They attempted to make straight the path of the Lord in Dade County, but the sole victory of their campaign against “deviant lifestyles” was their 1980 divorce.


Kati Marton, author, Paris: A Love Story

Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. The Greek shipping tycoon offered the former first lady unlimited wealth and security, and a private island. But in return for her golden cage, she lost her iconic place as the grieving nation’s heroic widow. Looking bored and unhappy, she soon returned to New York as an editor and a demoted mother.


Maria Streshinsky, editor, Pacific Standard

Patricia Hale found out about V. S. Naipaul’s frequenting of prostitutes from a magazine interview she read while in remission from breast cancer. As Naipaul himself put it, “She suffered. It could be said that I had killed her … I feel a little bit that way.”


Ayelet Waldman, author, Red Hook Road

Burt Pugach was a man in his 30s cheating on his wife with a girl barely out of her teens. When Linda Riss ended the affair, he hired thugs to throw lye in her face. Fifteen years later, she married him. She went on to defend her “wonderful, caring husband” when he was charged with threatening yet another woman. When Linda died in January, a sobbing Burt called their marriage a “storybook romance.”


Laura Kipnis, author, Against Love

My nominees for the ickiest marriage ever—although the couple saw it as a great love story—would have to be Burt and Linda Pugach. There’s a strain of romantic thinking that goes, “Those who hurt us the most also love us the most,” which would be fine if the injuries were symmetrical—it’s just that they rarely are.


Emily Yoffe, Slate’s “Dear Prudie” advice columnist

I once got a letter from a young woman who thought that her mother-in-law, who liked to get her alone and tell her how much she hated her, was trying to poison her. Every time the woman visited her in-laws, she became violently ill. Her husband refused to believe anything was amiss, so I suggested that the next time they were at his mother’s, she swap plates with him. Sure enough, that night he was deathly ill. When she explained what had happened, her husband looked at her with “hatred in his eyes” and accused her of trying to poison him. She packed her bags and called a lawyer.


Gloria Allred, attorney

Henry VIII’s marriages were nothing resembling equal partnerships. His wives had no legal representation, no rights. He accused them of crimes they might not have been guilty of, and tried to create new laws or interpret older ones in a way that gave him supreme power. I wish I could debate him on how he treated his wives.


Kitty Kelley, author, Capturing Camelot

I'd say the “worst” prize goes to Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife. The story is that he was drawn to her portrait but that when she showed up in person, he found her "no better than a Flanders mare." When the political winds changed, he got the six-month marriage annulled on the grounds that it was never consummated. She could have fared worse, though—at least she wasn’t beheaded.


Stacy Schiff, author, Cleopatra

The European Union. The who-ruined-whose-credit accusations followed right behind the honeymoon. Plus, the EU is polygamous. And shouldn’t marriage be greater than the sum of its parts? This one has sabotaged the siesta, those gorgeous lire, French-baked baguettes. Down this road lies a Starbucks on every Slovenian corner. Marriage is meant to unite true minds rather than produce one mind; give me the variegated, the motley, anytime. At least until you get to lobster mac and cheese, the other worst marriage in history.


William Deresiewicz, author, A Jane Austen Education

Thomas Carlyle was a Victorian social critic and famous curmudgeon. The novelist Samuel Butler would later write of Carlyle and his wife, Jane: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable instead of four.”


Lori Gottlieb, Atlantic contributing editor

If Nora Ephron once said the secret to happiness is to marry someone who was unhappily married for years so that, by contrast, the new marriage will seem good, then I’d say that the worst marriages are those of people like the Obamas, Calvin and Alice Trillin, and Paul and Linda McCartney, whose enviable unions can’t help but engender utter dissatisfaction with our own.  


This is an expanded version of April 2013’s Big Question. See how other readers answer this question here, and submit your own answer—or suggest a future question—by emailing bigquestion@theatlantic.com.

 

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