"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Harridan Or Heroine–Stendhal, Shylock, And Difficult Women

Billy X married twice – once to his college sweetheart, a beautiful girl of talent, sexual allure, and promise; and the second a girl of rectitude, honesty, and principle. No two women could have been farther apart in looks, personality, character, and temperament.  The second marriage was an anodyne to the first, a resetting of Billy’s moral compass, one which now pointed to the principled North and the polar opposite of his previous heading towards the unprincipled South. 

Billy was born and raised in New Brighton, a small city in New England which in the days between the Civil War and The Great War was one of the most important in America.  Its industries provided armaments and material for the successful fights against Southern secession and German expansionism.  It was the home of the captains of industry who had managed its great industrial expansion, and their sons and daughters who kept alive a very Anglo-American patriotism. Billy’s mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and his ancestors had fought at Bunker Hill; and his father was an even more prestigious member of the Society of the Cincinnati the ancestors of whose members were officers in the American Revolutionary Army.

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Billy went to an exclusive country day school, a top-tier New England prep school, and of course, Yale.  He was born to greatness, and his future carefully husbanded.

Yet Billy’s genes and his disciplined upbringing were not enough to keep him focused on his parents’ particular vision of America.   Perhaps it was living on the cusp of the socially revolutionary Sixties that led him across the tracks to Marilyn Palumbo, daughter of a steam fitter at the local factory, a goomba Italian who beat his wife and drank rotgut and smoked cheroots.  Or her dark, wiry-haired thorn bush of forbidden delight in white, blonde, country club New Brighton.  Marilyn was tough, case-hardened, ambitious, and predatory.  “Shit, Billy”, said his roommate, a cultured, high society heir to the Gamble fortune, rower, Fence Club, high-dicked Big Man on Campus.  “It stinks of pussy in here”.

Marilyn had come down to Yale on the New York, New Haven & Hartford, dressed like a Malley’s mannequin in a cute bellhop hat and frilly London skirt, ready to consummate the affair.  “We are married now”, said Marilyn after she had given Billy a taste, but no dinner, enough as far as she and her father would be concerned, for marriage.

Why Billy had not learned his lesson, given New Brighton Italians wide berth, and not returned to his roots, was a big question.  More puzzling was his alliance with another woman of, in the eyes of his family, illegitimate origins – a beautiful, talented, intelligent, socially savvy, but deeply Mediterranean woman  whose grandparents came from Bari.  She was dark, sultry, and seductive; but even more African, said his relatives, than anyone from Marilyn Palumbo's Sicilian family. She was an intellectual match – a Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley, summa cum laude, top of her class, feted and honored.  “Watch out”, said Billy’s mother.  “She’s simply a higher-toned Marilyn.  Don’t  be fooled”.

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Laura Boniface was no Marilyn Palumbo, but her roots were not that far removed.  Her father was Marilyn’s father in tweed, a wife-beater held in check, a man savvy enough to know when to hold his fists. His daughter was his pride and joy.  He had managed to send her to the best schools because of the ‘collateral associations’ she would make there– those friendships which would rub off and give her an acquired social cachet.

So Billy X still smarting from his failed dalliance with Marilyn; still humbugged about doing the right, blonde thing; but still and always seduced by dark, Mediterranean women, fell in love with Laura Boniface.  She was the perfect compromise – the daughter of back-door guinea but WASP aspirant, a man who at least understood the fundamentals of American high culture and no longer grasped at the the 19th century peasant hooks of the Boot.  She was Ivy League, socially savvy, and noticed. She was the Mlle. de la Mole of Le Rouge et le Noir, a woman of breeding and intelligence who used her class, status, and social position to intimidate all men who sought her attention.  She was bored by them.  An affair with Julien Sorel, the carpenter's son, would do just fine. 

Their marriage was announced in the New York Times, more because of Billy’s pedigree than the bride’s blooming artistic career.  “A protégée of Leonard Baskin”, the marriage announcement read, “the foremost graphic artist in America”, and then glossed over her parentage and background.

Laura in the eyes of most of her classmates was a vixen – an arrogant, ambitious, duplicitous woman who wanted to catch, bed, and humiliate Anglo-Saxon American dupes.  She was the incarnation of  Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s harridan who neuters her husband and dominates her lover, and Miss Julie, Strindberg's aristocrat who sexually toys with the valet.  Life would be drudgery without feminine sorcery, said Stendhal, Ibsen, and Strindberg; but Billy who never saw it coming, was bushwhacked by Laura Boniface who was far, far out of his league.

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Marriage was neither what his mother had planned nor what he had expected.  It was neither the settled life of equally-matched partners nor the sexual delirium of romance novels.   It was a battle of wills, sexual ambition, female determination, and male defensiveness.  By marrying Laura, he had won a  prize – an incomparably beautiful woman of any man’s dream; but he had not seen the thresher coming – the sharp blades cutting row by row, indiscriminately, without passion or interest. He was left on the curb.

Billy licked his wounds, retreated from society, and would have become a recluse if if it hadn’t been for Marian Jones – an ‘in- betweener’ as his mother described her. American to the core, rugged Westerners whose ancestors were early settlers in Ohio, the Great Plains, and California. Marian was everything Laura was not – as intelligent but complaisant, attentive, simple, dutiful, practical, and responsible.  She was what Billy needed – a refuge from the maelstrom of the drug-addled, Mafiosi, Factory, rag trade faggotry of New York into which his first wife had led him. 

Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice insisted on his pound of flesh, the collateral he held on a highly risky loan which suddenly had to be repaid.  Women who are not as determined and fearless as Ibsen's Hilde Wangel and Rebekka West or O’Neill’s Christine Mannon (Mourning Becomes Electra)  - women who dominate men -  prefer to rule by a thousand cuts.  Marian Jones never confronted Billy, challenged him, or defied him.  She simply worked around the edges, wearing away his patience with her dunning, irritating reminders of what Billy should and shouldn't do. Before he knew it Billy had become a stick figure in an architectural rendering of a Middle Class Marriage.

Who was the harridan and who was the hero?  His first wife, Laura was certainly a harridan, a succubus out to claim and destroy, but what would life be without little feminine sorcery?  His second wife, Marian, was indeed pesky and exhausting in her principles, but without her his tendency to jump where he shouldn't would become the norm. 

Love comes in waves, in and out with the tide, very predictable; and despite occasional tropical storms or lunar lulls, uninteresting.   Of course much is made of the dramatic failures of marriage in Shakespeare, O’Neill, Albee, Tolstoy, and Williams – but they are for an audience, actors in a fanciful drama.   For the rest of us, marriage is muddling through, setting for the inevitable disappointments, dealing with them, and moving on.  Those who have made it through marriages with the likes of Laura Boniface but also been able to stanch the blood from the thousand cuts of Marian Jones are the winners.

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