Behind Every Great Man

Meet the Women Behind Some of the Most Famous (and Infamous) Men in History

Author Recognizes 40 Forgotten Wives, Mistresses, and Partners in New Book

While political, cultural, and celebrity figures such as Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, and Frank Sinatra often receive their own chapters in history, the women in their lives barely register a footnote despite having their own remarkable stories and contributions.

In her latest book, Behind Every Great Man: Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Famous and Infamous (ISBN: 9781492603054; MARCH 3, 2015; $16.99 U.S.; Biography/History; Trade Paper), author Marlene Wagman-Geller features 40 women who were overshadowed by the alpha males in their lives, yet merit their own place in the annals of history.

Meet the untold half of history, including:

  • Literary Wives—Constance Lloyd (Mrs. Oscar Wilde), Ann Charteris (Mrs. Ian Fleming), and Joy Davidman (Mrs. C.S. Lewis)
  • Hollywood Wives—Alma Reville (Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock), Oona O’Neill (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin), and Jane Nebel (Mrs. Jim Henson)
  • Political Wives—Kasturba Kapadia (Mrs. Mohandas Gandhi), Cyla Müller (Mrs. Simon Wiesenthal), and Emilie Pelzl (Mrs. Oskar Schindler)
  • Infamous Wives—Ethel Greenglass (Mrs. Julius Rosenberg), Ruth Alpern (Mrs. Bernie Madoff), and Althea Leasure (Mrs. Larry Flynt)

This collection of 40 short biographies highlights the powerful women who stood behind their men, for better or for worse, and helped steer the course of history.

 

PROLOGUE
REMEMBER THE LADIES

Over the centuries, the saying, "Behind every great man is a great woman" has proven to be more than a girl-power chant. As it turns out, the long shadows cast by alpha males throughout history have obscured many stories of truly intriguing women who acted as their right hands and muses, the magicians behind the screen. For these intrepid females, supporting their famous husbands and partners by helping them achieve their destinies was frequently a Herculean task, accomplished in spite of sagas of alcoholism, infidelity, breakdowns, divorce, and despair (usually on the men's part).

How did these women do it? Were they members of some more evolved species than the rest of us-equipped to handle the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of power? By casting light on the wife (or girlfriend) behind the famous man, we can begin to understand these "better halves" who left indelible lines on the visage of history through their husbands and their own works. The fairer sex has consistently been relegated to the footnotes of time under the label of "so-and-so's lover," "wife," or "widow." As Dorothy Parker observed in "The Little Hours," "Oh, well, it's a man's world." It is time for them to emerge from the shadows, both because their stories shed new insight on the famous men featured in history and because their own lives are equally as fascinating. In the feminist essay, "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf stated, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Behind Every Great Man explores the biographies of those who never received a room of their own to shine or whose rooms and stories have never been properly explored.

Wives have generally been the untold half of history, so this book offers a different perspective on history than what we expect: it tells the story of these famous men (and one woman) from the wives' point of view. Public lives and private lives are indivisible, and the detail of the marital relationships of some of the most well-known men gives a rounded picture that helps history come alive. Each chapter explores the real-life Lady Macbeths and Carmela Sopranos whose love humanized their men while often dehumanizing themselves.

But the women profiled here are not those who commandeered time in the spotlight themselves, as their biographies and stories are already part of our cultural psyche. Hence there are no chapters devoted to Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Rodham Clinton. The criteria for inclusion entail marriage to a famous spouse who outshone them in the pages of time. While Oscar Wilde is known as the literary great imprisoned for "the love that dare not speak its name," few know of Constance (an apt name for Oscar's semper fidelis spouse), who found herself wed to Europe's most (in)famous homosexual. Mohandas Gandhi is a world icon, depicted with his ever-present spinning wheel, but what about Mrs. Mohandas? She bore him four sons, fasted when he was imprisoned, and died in Aga Khan Prison for complicity in fighting to wrest her country from the yoke of the British Raj. While everyone is familiar with Germany's notorious Nazi dictator and his trademark mustache, few know much about his mystery woman, Eva Braun-Hitler's consort for fourteen years and wife for forty hours. Their relationship leaves lingering questions: was she the First Lady of Nazism or just an apolitical blond who lived in his Bavarian mountain retreat, oblivious to the genocide of which her lover was architect? Can one love a monster and yet not be evil oneself? Find out the answers to these questions and countless others about the remarkable yet little-known women behind history's famous (and infamous) men.

After the joy that ensued from my first three books, I desperately desired a fourth, but inspiration, like love, does not come when summoned. In this case, I found it in the most unlikely of places: former First Lady Laura Bush sparked the idea for Behind Every Great Man. In a White House roast, she likened herself to a character from television's Desperate Housewives. She told the audience, "I am married to the president of the United States and here is our typical evening: nine o'clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I am watching Desperate Housewives. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife!"

After reading this, I rolled my eyes-she was married to the president, her daughters look like they posed for a Norman Rockwell painting, and her wealth was as vast as her native Texas. She, I felt, couldn't possibly know what it was like to be a real desperate housewife. Many American wives congregate every day at work, at home, online, anywhere, bemoaning their lives plagued by drug-addicted family members, threats of foreclosure, and credit card bills with as many digits as phone numbers. But then I wondered if there was more to Mrs. Bush's quote, and it led me to think of the real desperate housewives of history, those who lived and died with their lives forgotten, swallowed by the long shadows cast by the alpha males who garnered the spotlight. Creation is a conjugal act; it is a miscarriage of justice for the great men of history to skimp on spousal credit due to their wives and partners who helped them become who they were (or are). Behind Every Great Man helps settle the score.

The women profiled were chosen by the following process: First I thought of a colorful famous man, and if his wife dwelled in the shadows, I investigated. If her life was an intriguing one and shone light on a hitherto unknown aspect of her husband, she merited a chapter. To illustrate the forgotten wives and partners are not bound by geography, I included ladies from various locales: Emilie Schindler (Germany), Betty X (the United States), Gala Dalí (Spain), and many more. During this process, I discovered fascinating, strange, and sometimes inspiring new information. For example, when Warren Buffett's wife, Susan, departed for San Francisco to become a "geriatric gypsy," she asked Astrid Menks, a middle-aged, never-married, Latvian immigrant to look after her husband. Soon, Christmas cards were signed "Warren, Susie, and Astrid." After Susan passed away, Buffett married his mistress, making her the spouse of the world's second-richest man. This certainly offers hope to all middle-aged Latvian cocktail hostesses.

As with all relationships, upon the conclusion of Behind Every Great Man, I dwelt on the ones that got away-chapters not included. Katharina von Bora, disenchanted with life as a nun, escaped her convent hidden in a wagon that delivered herring. From this odorous start, she became the wife of the great reformer, Martin Luther. The bell tolled for the poet-priest John Donne when he secretly wed the seventeen-year-old daughter of Sir George More. His none-too-pleased father-in-law had him thrown in Fleet Prison where he wrote his wife: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone." They don't make 'em like Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil anymore, wife of the world's most prolific pornographer, the Marquis de Sade (who gave us the word "sadism"), her tale lost in the shadow of the Bastille. She stood by her sadomasochist spouse through his sex scandals and jail terms and lived in a convent to provide him with the luxuries he felt his due. There was also the tale of Charles Dickens and the woman-his wife-who bore him ten children before she was supplanted in his affections by actress Ellen Ternan, his muse for Great Expectations. Bugsy Siegel named his Vegas hotel after his lover Virginia Hill, whom he nicknamed "the flamingo" due to her long, slender legs. Both casino and mistress led to his Mafia murder.

The desperate housewives of Greek mythology had nothing on their nonfictional counterparts. There is a nod to these archetypes: the Harpie (Mrs. Salvador Dalí), Galatea (Mrs. Richard Wagner), and the vast spectrum of wives and partners in between. And no self-respecting bird's-eye view of marriage would be complete without the eternal love triangle. While the trio of Paris, Helen, and Menelaus caused the Trojan War, the one between Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn caused England to divorce Catholicism.

It is time to honor the historic helpmeets, the real-life Suzy Homemakers and muses whose loyalty to their famous men-for better or worse-proved far more extraordinary than what they ever imagined. For these women, the exchange of vows of love (whether formal or not) often equaled trauma-ever-after. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, who journeyed to Samoa with her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson, expressed this anti-metronome existence, "My life resembles a wild ride on the crest of a wave that rolls and never breaks."

Abigail Adams, the Founding Mother, admonished in a letter to John, "remember the ladies." It was her plea that the new American Congress not overlook women as they proclaimed freedom from tyranny. Alas, in the end, women were relegated to the shadows, though it did not stop them from leading from the sidelines. In the same way, the wives in Behind Every Great Man became marginalized by history, but never by their impact, though this may not be an insight to which even they were privy. However, sometimes self-effacement was voluntary. As an anonymous Russian literary spouse stated, "The more you leave me out, the closer to truth you will be." But as with the other wives profiled, their remarkable lives do not bear this out.

I hope in this volume you glean some interesting biographical tidbits and, in doing so, let great female figures emerge from the dustbin of time. Perhaps beleaguered spouses today can also take solace that no matter what insensitive or egregious acts their husbands or partners may have committed ("I can't believe you didn't take out the trash again!" or admittedly far worse for some of us), their experiences are likely nothing compared to those of these historic women. It is interesting to ponder, if in retrospect, these intrepid wives, when standing at the altar, had they been privy to what lay ahead (in the vein of "If I Knew Then What I Know Now") would have said "We don't" in lieu of "We do."

In a variation of the title of James Agee's classic novel, let us now praise these unfamous women and let them step out of the cloak of anonymity in which they have long been shrouded. Behind Every Great Man parts the curtain, allowing the wives of the famous or infamous to finally take their place on center stage. I hope Abigail Adams would be pleased in this remembrance of the world's great ladies.

 

Synopsis
Meet the Women Behind Some of the Most Famous (and Infamous) Men in History Author Recognizes 40 Forgotten Wives, Mistresses, and Partners in New Book While political, cultural, and celebrity figures such as Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, and Frank Sinatra often receive their own chapters in history, the women in their lives barely register a footnote despite having their own remarkable stories and contributions. In her latest book, Behind Every Great Man: Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Famous and Infamous (ISBN: 9781492603054; MARCH 3, 2015; $16.99 U.S.; Biography/History; Trade Paper), author Marlene Wagman-Geller features 40 women who were overshadowed by the alpha males in their lives, yet merit their own place in the annals of history.
Wagman-Geller received her BA from York University and her teaching credentials from the University of Toronto and San Diego State University. She currently teaches high school English in National City, California, and lives with her family in San Diego.