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When Love Was The Adventure

9 minute read
Liz Smith

What romances defined love in the 20th century? Many come to mind. There was Mrs. Strauss aboard H.M.S. Titanic, refusing to be rescued and declaring, “We have been living together for many years. Where you go, I go.” Then there was actress Marion Davies. When her lover, publisher William Randolph Hearst, fell on hard times, she sold off her real estate, stocks and jewelry to keep his creditors at bay. There was the scandal of Charlie Chaplin, who married the very young Oona O’Neill and actually got to live happily ever after with her. And of course Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, battling and drinking in their epic ’50s melodrama. Ernest Hemingway said all great love affairs end in tragedy: either disillusion sets in and people “settle” or separate, or one member of the affair dies, leaving the other alone. By that reckoning, all romances are equal, the more famous ones no better, no worse, no more desperate or idealistic than thousands of others. But five relationships kept us spellbound in the 20th century. Extraordinary because of the attention we lavished on them, they are our emblems of that most irrational of emotions and our insights into what we expected of our own hearts.


He was America’s first hero of the century. She was the shy, self-conscious daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Together they were one of America’s first celebrity couples in a media-crazy century. With his encouragement, she wrote memoirs of their life that made her one of the country’s most popular and famous diarists. Early in the relationship, as Anne wrote ecstatically in 1928, when the couple were “together, alone–all gold, that extra golden bloom over everything!” But, as Lindbergh’s biographer A. Scott Berg writes, “their ‘storybook romance,’ as the press always presented it, was, in fact, a complex case history of control and repression, filled with joy and passion and grief and rage.”

Lindbergh wanted his wife to be an independent, modern woman–and yet he wanted to remain the focus and center of her life. She stuck with him through heartbreak and controversy, including the murder of their son and Charles’ infatuation with Hitler’s Germany. But she was capable of quiet rebellion. She made Charles jealous by becoming smitten with French aviator and writer Antoine de St.-Exupery in 1939. In the ’50s, as the marriage stagnated, she allowed a friendship with her doctor to blossom into a short-lived affair. But though Anne believed she and Charles were “badly mated,” she deliberately chose to play the role of the hero’s wife. As her daughter Reeve told Berg, “Mother enjoyed wearing her hair shirt.” Reeve wrote in her own memoir, “It was sometimes an uneasy and uncomfortable union, but my belief, nonetheless, is that neither one of my parents felt fully alive, or truly like himself or herself, unless the other one was there.”


Avant-garde writer and culture impresario Gertrude Stein was a stolid, heavy presence, monolithic, unladylike. She liked to gossip and had a great laugh. She boxed with welterweights for exercise. Art expert Bernard Berenson described her as looking “like a statue from Ur of the Chaldees.” Alice B. Toklas was a chain smoker with a slight mustache, given to exotic dress, Gypsy earrings and manicured nails. They met in Paris in 1907. Alice, 29, found Gertrude, 33, “a golden brown presence.” Gertrude insisted that Alice had heard bells heralding Stein’s “greatness.” Alice said Gertrude was simply struck by love at first sight.

They became inseparable. Alice cooked, typed manuscripts, fended off the unwanted, did promotions and chatted up the wives and significant others of famous men, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. Alice was “Pussy” to Gertrude; Gertrude was “Lovey” to Alice. And if out walking for a while with a friend, Gertrude would say, “We must be getting back to Alice. If I am away from her long, I get low in my mind.” Discussing homosexuality, Stein once told Hemingway that men were disgusted after sex together but “in women it is the opposite. They do nothing that they are disgusted by…afterwards they are happy and can lead happy lives together.” After Gertrude died in 1946, Alice lived on, serving Stein’s reputation as always and, in the end, choosing to find religion because, as their friend the composer Virgil Thompson said, she wanted a ticket into the afterlife, “since Gertrude, she could not doubt, was immortal.”


Tracy and Hepburn. If there was billing, that was it. That’s how they both wanted it. America’s quintessential outspoken Yankee, Kate Hepburn, met the fantastic actor Spencer Tracy when she was 33 and he was 42. They felt an instant attraction and, in an arrangement very much like the films they made together, what he wanted to do, what he wanted to eat, what he desired was what she always did, in the end.

Hepburn once said men and women should live next door to each other, and for years, she and the very married Tracy kept company but never lived together, never went out together. Only when he fell ill, after years of binge drinking, did she retire from films to care for him at the estate of George Cukor, where they lived. After he died, she called his wife and said, “You know…you and I can be friends.” “Well, yes,” Louise Tracy said, “but you see, I thought you were only a rumor.”

It was a “rumor” Hollywood stood in awe of. The public never seemed to get the aura of the word adultery, for Hepburn and Tracy seemed so very like the attractive people they played in nine films together.

She described herself as being too selfish and ambitious to have children. Yet she surrendered all to him–of her own volition. In various passages from her autobiography, Hepburn, the daughter of a suffragist and birth-control crusader, sounds disconcertingly unliberated: “We passed 27 years together in what was to me absolute bliss. It is called love. I could never have left him. I wanted to protect him. I struggled to change all the qualities I felt he didn’t like. I was his.” And then there is this startling admission: “I have no idea how Spence felt about me. He wouldn’t talk about it.”


The Prince and the twice-married American met in 1931, and within four years, the rest was rapidly becoming history. Their romance shook the British Empire, rocked the Church of England, changed the succession and foretold the dissolution of the power of royalty. He made a radio broadcast, one of the most famous public declarations of love in history: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

But what a strange kind of love it was. His letters to her reveal a Peter Pan with urgent needs for a dynamic, motherly woman. He pleaded for her love like an infant; she lectured back on behavior and “being your best.” Theirs was a mother-son relationship, “psychical rather than sexual,” wrote Winston Churchill. But to the Prince, the financially beset social climber was “the perfect woman.” And David, as Wallis always called the man who would not be King, insisted to the end that they had never been lovers before they married.

This “fairy tale” disintegrated into a cafe-society postscript. Living in exile in France, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they were officially styled, benefited from air fares and hotel suites paid for by nouveau riche hosts. They decorated the best nightclubs, the Duke always looking a bit bewildered. (There is a photo of them at El Morocco wearing matching paper crowns.) When the Duke died in 1972, he left Wallis 3 million [pounds] and a small tribe of pugs. She lived into a sad senility.


“Her breasts would topple empires before they withered…she was the most sullen, uncommunicative and beautiful woman I had ever seen,” said Richard Burton in 1953 of his first look at Elizabeth Taylor. Nine years later, while married to others, he and she began a relationship that enraged the Vatican and caused the gainful employment of hundreds of paparazzi. On the set of Cleopatra, what Liz and Dick called le scandale just went on and on. The public saw them in bathing dishabille, in drunken brawls and other feats of extreme behavior.

And they embarked on a life of extremes after he divorced and she divorced to marry each other. There were furs, dogs, yachts, incredible cars, houses, gigantic jewelry. But there was also an intensity that resulted in bantering and not-so-bantering insults. They likened themselves to “a pair of scissors” or, as Taylor put it, “chicken feathers to tar.” Yet she admired and studied his skills at Shakespeare, poetry and literature, and he loved her ability to keep up with him–in everything. But booze, gross amounts of it, did in the marriage. In 1973 they split. Miserable apart, they remarried in 1975, only to break up in four months.

When he died in 1984, she was barred from the funeral by the last Mrs. Burton. Elizabeth nonetheless received the most condolences. Today she says Richard was “one of the two great loves of my life.” The other was Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash. But most of her friends know that Burton was the man she fought hardest to keep–and the man she would probably have tried to win back again had he lived.

Liz Smith’s syndicated column appears daily in more than 60 newspapers across the U.S.

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