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
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

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