Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First Wives

Picture of:
Colleen Sue Downey Morse


They're showing up at movie theaters en masse--some, like the 15 members of a women's group in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in stretch limos and evening gowns. They're calling in to drive-time radio stations, like Raleigh, North Carolina's WRAL-FM, which solicited listeners' divorce horror stories and revenge fantasies--and found its switchboards lighted up like Times Square. And they're throwing parties, like the one last week for Patti Kenner's 52nd birthday, in which 60 of her female friends gathered for cocktails, then adjourned to a Manhattan theater to hoot and laugh their way through all 105 minutes of The First Wives Club. Even though Kenner and most of her guests are still happily married to their first husbands, they found plenty to identify with in the hit movie about three women of a certain age, dumped for younger models, who get mad and then get even. "Doesn't everyone, even in the best of marriages, want a little revenge once in a while?" asked Ann Oster, 45, who works in real estate in New Jersey. Living well, of course, is the best revenge of all: after the screening, Kenner gave each of her friends a special First Wives memento--a string of pearls in a little velvet pouch.
Women scorned, women afraid of being scorned--and some curious men along for the ride--are helping The First Wives Club break records. Its $18.9 million opening weekend was the highest ever for a so-called women's film and captured more than one-third of the movie-going market from competition such as Bruce Willis' Last Man Standing. The characters played by Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler are like the Furies crossed with the Three Stooges--college friends spurned by their husbands in middle age who plan a madcap payback. But for all the one-liners and pratfalls, the movie is more than satiric fluff. Like Thelma & Louise, which five years ago set audiences to cheering when Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon blasted a trucker's rig to smithereens--or last year's Waiting to Exhale, which had women yelling "Go, girl!" at the screen--The First Wives Club is dipping into a bottomless well of shared female rage. It is rage at the imbalance of power that allows men to use up the best years of a woman's life, then trade her in for an ingenue--and rage at every single element that goes into that scenario: the obsession with youth and looks, the persistent inequality in income, the devaluing of a woman's contribution to the family and to a man's success.
"We're talking about betrayal," says First Wives author Olivia Goldsmith, who was herself downsized by divorce. "These guys are stealing not only the present but also the past. And after they steal part of your life, then they steal your property." After Goldsmith wrote the best-selling novel in 1992, her publisher sponsored a First Wife contest. "We received 1,500 letters, and they were tragic," she says. "I had never been so depressed." (The winning entry was like so many others: a husband runs off with his secretary after 23 years of marriage, leaving the wife to cope with a child's cancer--it had the distinction of being written entirely in verse.)
In fact, some first wives feared that Hollywood would trivialize their plight. "I didn't think I'd like this movie," says Marilyn Nichols Kane, ex-wife of America's most famous deadbeat dad, precious-metals consultant Jeffrey Nichols, who has been jailed twice for his failure to pay the $642,550 he owes her. "I thought it might be offensive--making fun of the suffering we've all been through. But I wanted to stand up and cheer. Remember that part where Goldie Hawn strips her husband's house? I did that!" Marilyn Kane, meet fellow fan Lynn Landon, second wife of actor Michael Landon, who left her for a younger woman and divorced her in 1982 after 19 years of marriage. "I used to say, 'Death would have been too good,'" she recalls. "Of course, now that he's dead...Who could have known? But my other fantasy was that his hair would fall out. His hair was such a big thing for him."
Fourteen years ago, Landon formed a support group in Hollywood called LADIES--Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane--which has helped the exes of Gene Hackman, Leonard Nimoy and Jerry Lewis, among others, survive a breakup. "The public thinks that money makes it different for us," says Landon, "but I've seen firsthand first wives of Oscar winners who moved from mansions to little apartments"--or even, for a while, to their cars.
For middle-class first wives, that car often seems just one paycheck away. One woman, a program coordinator at a Los Angeles aerospace firm, claims her ex-husband refused to pay alimony or child support two years after their divorce. She couldn't afford the airfare or the time off work to go back and sue him for it. He "bought the boys gifts, which made him look like a hero, while I was working two jobs to pay for braces," she recalls. "I was living paycheck to paycheck, and he had a sports car, a camper, a boat." Though she has put her life back together and even graduated from college alongside her son, she feels a rush of satisfaction over her husband's medical problems. "He's in constant back pain after several operations. I always thought he'd get his. I feel vindicated."
Many first wives, it seems, indulge in revenge fantasies. But though rage at a bitter breakup may be natural, it can be dangerous too. Manhattan psychotherapist Carole Fudin reports that one of her patients shredded her husband's wardrobe. Another crashed her car into his. A third woman came within inches of running her husband down, hitting the brakes just in time. Fortunately, none of them went as far as La Jolla, California, socialite Betty Broderick, who in 1989 gunned down her ex-husband and his new young wife, an assistant from his law office, in their bedroom. "One way or another," says Fudin of her clients, "these women need to talk it out, write it out, scream it out." They must also take pains to keep the children from getting caught in the battling--something Diane Keaton neglects to do in the movie. The kids "will have their own rage to deal with," notes Fudin.
Some viewers are protesting that The First Wives Club does little more than perpetuate destructive myths about human behavior. "It's raw sexism," insists David Usher, who helps edit a men's magazine, The Liberator. "We stereotype men and women, and they act out these stereotypes, and it goes straight into the divorce courts."
Certainly women's hard-won independence--their entry into the world of work and sexual freedom--was expected to break down some of these gender patterns. In the old days, says Nancy Friday, author of The Power of Beauty, "men had all the economic wherewithal, and women owned beauty, and the wealthiest man got the most beautiful woman, and everyone understood that. When a woman lost her man back then, she lost everything." But those days were supposed to be over, and for many couples, they are. There is no shortage of jilted husbands out there. As Manhattan divorce lawyer Eleanor Alter, who represented Mia Farrow in her proceedings against Woody Allen, puts it, "In most divorces, the fault is not so unequal. Two people have a drink together and they misbehave. Two people drift apart. These aren't heinous things. That's life."
But despite the modern era of divorce, which began when California Governor Ronald Reagan (then on his second wife) signed the nation's first no-fault divorce bill in 1969, The First Wives Club has hit upon some lingering ugly truths. At about 40%, the U.S. divorce rate, which has plateaued recently, is the highest in the world. And between 1970 and 1990, the divorce rate for women between the ages of 40 and 50 increased 62%. Meanwhile, their chances of remarrying are not great: while about 75% of all divorced people eventually marry again, the rate for men is three times as high as that for women--and given men's propensity to marry down in age, the older the woman, the tougher the odds.
Divorce is traumatic at any age. But for middle-aged women whose husbands leave them for what Bette Midler in the movie calls Pop-Tarts, the emotional and economic devastation can be profound. "Remember," says Lynne Gold-Bikin, a divorce lawyer and former chair of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section, "the first wife is normally the one that lives over the store, who puts hubby through school, who works and raises the kids." The second wife gets not only the fruits of his career building but also the benefits of his midlife interest in family. "Now, when she has the baby, he's in the delivery room--he wasn't there the first time," says Gold-Bikin. "And she gets the fur coat."
Nor, for upper-class women, does a big chunk of money necessarily make up for the loss of social status. "It's more than just divorce from the husband," explains Manhattan lawyer Raoul Felder, whose clients have included Mrs. Martin Scorsese, Mrs. Huntington Hartford and Mrs. Mike Tyson, and who is currently representing the seventh Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, Larry Fortensky. "It's divorce from the star aura. I've seen the diaries that some of these first wives kept when they were married: 'We're meeting Dr. Kissinger here. Dinner at Martha Stewart's.' And suddenly it all ends. People gravitate toward money and fame. And money and fame usually go with the husband."
Of course, these are the problems of the more fortunate. Poorer women will see little in The First Wives Club that they can relate to. "This idea of leaving for a new trinket is more for people who are used to living well," observes Betty Nordwind, executive director of the Harriet Duhai Family Law Center, a nonprofit legal-aid service in Los Angeles. Among her divorce clients, if the husband has a younger girlfriend, that is likely to be "reason No. 20" for the split, with violence, money troubles and addiction the more pressing concerns.
At all income levels, however, divorce ends up being a better financial deal for men than for women--even though the laws in most states require an equitable distribution of property. According to 1996 data from the Social Science Research Council in New York City, a woman's standard of living declines 30% on average the first year after a divorce, while a man's rises 10%--although again, younger women are more likely to have careers to fall back on. For one thing, the man's income is usually higher to begin with, so he can afford better lawyers during the settlement. For another, says Frank Furstenberg, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a study on children of divorce, "women continue to support the children, and child support doesn't make up the difference." Two-thirds of all divorces involve minor children, and according to Columbia law professor Martha Fineman, author of The Illusion of Equality, the average annual child-support payment is only around $3,000. "Equality is being applied with a vengeance against women," she says. "Assumptions are made about women's ability to earn wages that are unrealistic, given the discrimination and different rates of pay." The trend toward joint custody can also impoverish an ex-wife, since the father puts his money toward maintaining a separate household for the kids, not toward supporting hers. The kids too get financially battered. Ultimately, the average household income for children of divorce drops 30%, while the poverty rate for children living with single mothers is five times as high as for those in intact families.
The effects of marriage breakdowns on women and children have sparked the current bipartisan movement to shore up the institution of marriage and put the fault back in divorce. Two weeks ago, at a conference in Aspen, Colorado, Republican virtuecrat Bill Bennett spoke at a seminar of investors and media executives about the social scourge of divorce. "Don't just look at young black men or at women on welfare," he said. "We've got to look at ourselves. The middle class needs to set an example of standing by your family and your children and your commitments." The Masters of the Universe, many sitting with second or third wives, were visibly uncomfortable.
Bennett and others have targeted no-fault divorce, in which one member of the couple can choose to end the marriage without citing a specific factor, such as adultery or desertion. Lawmakers in Michigan, which is at the forefront of this movement, recently introduced bills to abolish no-fault divorce and put up new barriers to both divorce and marriage. "Marriage is a commitment," says Brian Willats, a spokesman for the Michigan Family Forum, which supports premarital counseling. "It's not just notarized dating."
Other family advocates view such measures as misguided. Putting fault back in divorce, says Gold-Bikin, enables "people to be very vindictive, and it allows lawyers to make a lot of money." If unhappily married people want out, they will find a way to get out. During the days when fault was enforced, notes DePaul University law professor Jane Rutherford ominously, "there were two things that increased--desertion rates and spousal homicide rates."
Reweaving the threads of our tattered social institutions is an admirable aim, but many women will settle for the more attainable goal of retrieving their lost self-esteem. And that, say many, is what makes The First Wives Club so uplifting. "They did something constructive with the money [by setting up a crisis center] and left you feeling that they were not bitter, bitchy women," says Beverly Hills therapist Carole West. Sugar Rautbord, a divorced Chicago socialite and author of the novel Sweet Revenge, agrees. "It's not about going off a cliff like Thelma and Louise did," she explains. "It's get down to earth, raise your children, get a bank account, buy your own boat, put yourself in a position to get even if you want to."
Birthday girl Patti Kenner also cheers the movie's celebration of female camaraderie--and charity. In lieu of accepting birthday gifts, she asked friends to contribute to a women's organization. Peg Yorkin, who used some of her more than $50 million divorce settlement from producer Bud Yorkin to found the Feminist Majority Foundation in 1987, says, "Feminism gives women options they probably didn't have 50 years ago. Women who might not be as fortunate as I am at least can usually do something." Marilyn Kane, for instance, has become a counselor for the Coalition for Family Justice, a New York group that assists women going through difficult divorces.
The history of feminism goes a long way toward answering the questions, Why this movie? At this time? Quite simply, the women who marched in the '70s are now, like Keaton, Hawn and Midler, facing 50--and the specter of being traded in for a new model, at work or at home. "Everyone I know who is hitting this age feels stimulated that they have another 30 years to live, but they have no blueprint on how to proceed," says Colette Dowling, author of Red Hot Mamas, Coming Into Our Own at 50. "This movie captures their new protest. This group of women has been very vocal about everything in their life since they turned 20, and they're not stopping now." For while divorce is not something to celebrate, it does not have to be a defeat.
--Reported by Ann Blackman/Washington, Adam Cohen, William Dowell, Marguerite Michaels and Andrea Sachs/New York, Wendy Cole and Julie Grace/Chicago and Jacqueline Savaiano and James Willwerth/Los Angeles

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