The ups and downs of married life

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The cherry blossoms in full bloom the day before last. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021. A wet and sometimes rainy day yesterday in New York with temps in the in the low to mid-50s, followed by a much wetter and heavier rainy night with temps dropping into the mid-40s. It’s that moment in early Springtime when the cold seems colder than the winter cold and its lower temperatures. However, the buds have broken out on the trees outside my windows.

The blossoms underfoot yesterday afternoon.

I had dinner last night with an old friend whom I haven’t seen since early last year when the pandemic moved in to replace everything. My friend is in the public relations business, and so we talked about how business is beginning to pick up (although prices for rents and services — in her business — are falling). Inevitably such conversations turn to individuals, namely clients and their surrounding social world. 

We talked about people we’ve seen and not seen in this extremely quiet time.  My friend mentioned a very nice woman who happened to be the daughter of a famous heir to a huge family fortune, whom I’ll call “Rex.” Rex and his daughter’s mother were divorced when the child was pre-teen, He very soon thereafter remarried another socially prominent woman, also a divorcee from yet another prominent (and even famous) family.  

Then the conversation last night turned to “Rex,” the father and his second wife Margaret. Although his great family wealth made the name famous in certain circles of power and money, the public images of Rex and his wife Margaret — both of whom have moved since on to their Maker — were very conservative. 

He had been a handsome man in his youth, liked and even admired by associates and acquaintances and friends. He was a true gentleman. In his youth, he had the looks that people associated with matinee idols. Coincidentally or not, during those early days, he pursued a serious “business” career in Hollywood — where he was often photographed with beautiful young stars on his arm. 

He could have become a famous film tycoon. Interestingly, although he was considered very eligible and equally as enthusiastic to the Hollywood crowd, he never took one of those beauties to the altar. Instead he first married a woman about his age (late 20s) and after their divorce he very soon after remarried Margaret with whom he remained for the rest of his life.

Margaret image was matriarhal, and she appeared to dominate her husband’s life. Whether or not that was true, he was so mild-mannered — at least publicly — that it seemed clear that she was “the boss” and liked the role immensely.

Back in the late ‘80s I had been assigned by a major publisher to do a bio story on “Rex” and the family. It seemed like a natural American story of wealth, ambition and philanthropy. So it surprised me that, almost immediately, people I knew who knew the couple told me they “couldn’t  talk” to me. Madam had gone out of her way to let people know. By that time in her life (late middle-age) she had taken on a grandness that could look pass for royal to an American eye. And she was accepted as that by her social crowd. It wasn’t affected; it was her natural self-image.

My research was stymied because of Margaret. The assignment wasn’t even discouraging; it became a bore. I could only imagine that there was nothing interesting about this family to make it interesting for the reader — other than a woman full of her own self-importance, which was clearly the result of her husband’s great fortune. At that point, I could have cared less. The family “story” was almost non-existent or at least nothing to write home about.  I went back to Los Angeles where I was living at the time. 

Charles Feldmand and Jean Howard, ca. 1935. Jean Howard Papers, Acc. #10714, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

I had a friend out there named Jean Howard. Jean, who was a generation older than I, had been a famous Ziegfeld girl and later wife of Charley Feldman a prominent agent and producer. Jean had a natural charisma. She could have been an actress because of a great quality of specialness about her. She lived in a hacienda style house on Coldwater Canyon that she and Charley Feldman built in the mid-1930s; one floor, decorated by Elsie de Wolfe and later Denning and Fourcade. From the 1930s through the late 1980s, Jean had led a very socially sophisticated life both there and in New York and Europe. When the social and the celebrated came to Hollywood, they came to see Jean. 

Shortly after I returned to LA, she invited me to lunch. She knew the project I was working on because she knew Rex himself during his Hollywood days. 

“He was once stuck on me,” she remarked matter-of-factly when asking me about my project on Rex. Because Jean never talked about her private life which I’d heard was active after she and Charley divorced, I was surprised by her mention. She was not a gossip, nor was she inclined to talk about others.  So that piece of information led me to naturally ask her if they had an affair. 

“No.” She shook her head, but not with any real interest. 

I asked her why.

And, sitting at the table, Jean suddenly placed her right elbow on the tabletop, lifting her right hand and pointing her index finger straight up … before immediately pointing her index finger straight down.

I laughed. 

“But,” she added, very business-like, “there’s a woman in New York, what we used to call a ‘lady of the night,’ who he kept on retainer. I think she’s still in the phone book,” she mused, adding, “And she would sometimes be invited up to the estate in Greenwich, picked up by their chauffeur, and perform with the Mrs. in front of him!”

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