The New York Times' Admirable Embrace of Real, Flawed Love Stories

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Sometimes, people get married, cheat on their spouse, and then marry the person they cheated on their spouse with. It's good for the paper of record to acknowledge that.

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Johnny Cash and June Carter (played here by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon) met when they were both married to other people (20th Century Fox)

Last week the New York Times ran an article about the renovated home that Babar author and illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff shares with his wife and collaborator Phyllis Rose. Writer Jacob Bernstein included the lovely couple's meet-cute.

"I was sitting next to a very funny man," Ms. Rose said, "and he had me laughing and laughing. And Laurent, sitting at the other end of the table, loved my laugh. So we sat together after dinner and I said something like, 'I hope you don't mind if I tell you how much I love your work.' And he said: 'I don't know your work. I hope you don't mind if I tell you how much I love your eyes.'"

Utterly charming, right? But wait! What did the preceding paragraph say again?

Mr. de Brunhoff was actually a late transplant to New York. In 1985, living in France and married to another woman, he discovered Ms. Rose at a Paris dinner party.

I'm listening.

In short order, Ms. Rose took Mr. de Brunhoff back to the United States, living with him at Wesleyan University, where she was a professor of English. In 1990, when his divorce was finalized, they married, and expanded their real estate holdings with a home in New York. In 1996, they bought in Key West.

This tale of infidelity-turned-marriage echoed an article featuring the wedding of Carol Anne Riddell, an anchor at a New York City NBC affiliate, and Time Warner executive John Partilla, which ran in the Weddings & Celebrations section of the Times in 2010. Riddell and Partilla met at the Upper West Side school their respective children attended. At the time, they were married to other people.

The backlash to the Times' write-up of their wedding was substantial. Slate's Dana Stevens tweeted that it was "staggeringly monstrous." Jennifer Barton of (the now defunct) Lemondrop, wrote that by appearing in the paper together, "the couple comes across as selfish and tasteless." Barton believed Riddell and Partilla were trying "to dress it up as a great love affair that overcame the odds." She speculated, as did many, that their marriage would be short lived. The ever sagacious Kathie Lee Gifford used her Today platform to both compliment and condemn the couple: "If you're going to do it, do it...I guess our big question is why advertise it, why celebrate it, why say, "Look at us!'" Nobody in love ever does that.

In reaction to the outrage, the Times issued this statement:

The Vows feature gives a close-in account of a wedding every week. Every one is different. We don't attempt to pass judgment on the suitability of the match, the narrative of the romance, the quality of the ceremony or the flavor of the cake.

The Times did well by asserting that no one love story is alike. That being said, many of the couples who appear in the Weddings and Celebrations section, and most certainly Vows, seem to live in a vacuum, a kind of alternative world to the gossip rags that feature celebrities with oily hair on supermarket runs, proclaiming "they're just like us!" Times couples aren't "like us," and readers don't want them to be. People have M.B.A.'s. Someone's grandfather arrived on the Mayflower. Husband and wife met at Yale. There is a judge or politician in the family most honored to officiate the ceremony.

For these couples, it appears that forever is all but guaranteed. Beyond the Weddings & Celebrations pages, though, is the reality offered by the National Center for Health Statistics, the government agency tasked with administrative counts of marriage and divorce rates in any given year. According to a report released on March 22, 2012, "Current estimates of divorce indicate that about half of first marriages end in divorce." The report was based on a nationally representative sample of 12,279 women and 10,403 men aged 15-44 years, taken from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth.

Key Statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth looked at the "Probability of second marriage disruption by duration of remarriage among women 15-44 years of age." From 2006-2010, ten percent of second marriages ended in separation or divorce within the first year. After ten years of marriage, that number jumped to 46 percent, up from 39 percent in 1995.

The National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends for 2000-2010 are clear: In 2010, there were 2,096,000 marriages and 872,000 divorces and annulments. The divorce rate is about half of the marriage rate, which suggests that half of all marriages end in divorce.

It seems, then, that at least half of Americans have a lot in common with Riddell, Partilla, de Brunoff and Rose. There does not, however, appear to be much backlash about the circumstances under which de Brunoff and Rose met. This narrative played a small part in Bernstein's article, the focus of which was not on their wedding or marriage, but rather their home décor. If the article had spent more time discussing their relationship, however, perhaps their 22 years of marriage would make them somewhat immune to criticism. They met in 1985 and married after de Brunhoff's divorce in 1990. They look incredibly happy in their fabulous Manhattan apartment, where they live and work together, which raises the question: Does it matter how it happened? Should their particular love story preclude sharing, or having their apartment featured? Why should it? The Times, and perhaps the people who read it, could use a bit more diversity, and continue to run these true-and-real stories, however flawed they may be. They're just like us.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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