Scandalous Love Affairs That Changed History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Unforgettable. That's what these romances are.
By Isabelle Lee
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” Marilyn Monroe breathily sang to John F. Kennedy in 1962, launching a cloud of rumors about their possible love affair. While Monroe’s friends insisted it was nothing more than a one-night stand, that didn’t curb wild press speculation. Regardless, the two alleged lovebirds weren’t the first to leave their mark on history. And the last? Hah. Join us as we dive deep into torrid romances that shaped history, the lessons we can draw, some bizarre love triangles and the rare couples who beat the odds.
first comes love
Then Comes Rebellion. At midnight on May 3, 1916, two young lovers wed in the bowels of Ireland’s Kilmainham Gaol. By first light, Grace Gifford was already a widow; her new husband, Joseph Plunkett, was executed by firing squad just four hours after the ceremony. Plunkett was the editor of the nationalist journal The Irish Review and had been helping plan a rebellion against British rule. Their brief marriage’s tragic end made Gifford the face of the burgeoning resistance, eventually propelling her to serve as a leader of the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. She never married again. Read more on OZY.
Then Comes a Religion. King Henry VIII had a mortifying string of marriages, all thanks to the Anne Boleyn affair. She insisted she was wifey, not mistress, material when he tried to strike up a relationship while still married to Catherine of Aragon. While the pope dragged his feet over whether to let Henry leave Catherine and marry Anne, King Henry decided to up and leave the Catholic church instead — launching the Protestant Reformation. Boleyn became queen but was beheaded for treason when she didn’t bear a son. The king would have six wives in all, beheading two of them; only Jane Seymour produced the male heir he desired (only to die from complications weeks after giving birth). King Henry also experienced one of history’s most famous catfishes, when he selected Anne of Cleves as his fourth wife — based on her portrait — and divorced her months later after discovering she looked nothing like the painting.
Then Comes Immortality. We’ve all been there. Your lover jumps over the side of a boat into the Nile River, so you make him an immortal god. OK, maybe just Roman Emperor Hadrian has been there. Hadrian built a city dedicated to his deceased lover Antinous, had coins minted with his visage and commissioned statues that portrayed him as Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. Believers revived the cult in 2002 as an all-inclusive, gay religion. Read more on OZY.
Then Comes Death on the Battlefield. What’s the worst that could happen when you propose — you get rejected on the Jumbotron accompanied by chants of “she said no!” from the stands? Wrong. Cyrus the Great found out the hard way when he proposed marriage to the warrior queen Tomyris, hoping to bring the rowdy Massagetae nomads under his rule. She said nah. So he imprisoned her son, who killed himself. In a fit of rage, she led the charge that decimated Cyrus’ army and personally cut off his head. It doesn’t get much worse than being slain on the battlefield by the woman who refused your hand in marriage. Read more on OZY.
God, Me and You. What do you get when a former nun and a monk get married? Lutheranism. Martin Luther had just helped 12 nuns escape their Catholic cloister, even playing matchmaker by setting them up with eligible bachelors. But when one of the nuns, Katharina von Bora, was rejected by her match, Luther married her instead. They went from engaged to consummating the marriage in about an hour. The love and stability that characterized their marriage — mainly thanks to Katharina’s patience and perseverance, historians say — inspired Luther’s doctrine of family importance in his Reformation movement. Read more on OZY.
Jefferson in Paris. You may have heard the (troubling) story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman. But before Hemings, the founding father had a remarkably steamy affair with a Parisian woman while serving as U.S. minister to France. Maria Cosway, Jefferson’s mistress for six weeks, was a Renaissance woman who knew six languages, played the harp and was a gifted painter — at 27, the definition of a muse for a 43-year-old man going through a midlife crisis. Indeed, Cosway is credited with reviving the bereaved statesman after the deaths of his daughter and his wife. But Cosway was married, and divorce was off the table. After delivering her to a carriage bound for her home (and husband) in England, Jefferson sent Cosway a 4,000-word love letter, writing: “Every moment was filled with something agreeable … what a mass of happiness had we traveled over!” Read more on OZY.
At Least We Got Frankenstein. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, 21, was married. Mary Godwin was 16. But the two ran off together in 1814, leaving behind Shelley’s wife and their child. They were finally able to wed when Percy was freed from the shackles of marriage … after his wife drowned herself in Hyde Park. While the two vacationed with friends in Switzerland in 1816, their friend Lord Byron posed a challenge to the group: Write a ghost story better than those they had been reading. The prompt resulted in Mary Shelley penning Frankenstein while still a teenager. Their affair ended when Percy drowned during a summer storm a month before his 30th birthday. Read more on OZY.
Model Mayhem. At just 5 feet tall, Evelyn Nesbit became the world’s first supermodel in the early 20th century, her copper hair the mark of the Gilded Age. After marrying the eccentric mining millionaire Harry Thaw, she revealed that Stanford White, a notorious playboy architect, had violently raped her. Thaw was incensed, and he began a campaign to oust White for the degenerate he was, ultimately killing him in 1906. The subsequent murder trial was a national sensation, during which Nesbitt was forced to testify about the assault on two separate occasions. The media portrayed her as pitting the two men against each other, hoping to generate attention from the love triangle. Thaw was found guilty and served eight years at a hospital for the criminally insane. Thaw and Nesbit divorced in 1915, leaving the onetime supermodel destitute and struggling with a methadone addiction. Read more on OZY.
Huma, Anthony … and Hillary? The famous U.S. political figures never had a triadic tryst. Still, their fates have been intimately intertwined for decades. Huma Abedin worked as a White House intern in 1996, then followed Hillary Clinton to New York when the former first lady became a U.S. senator. It was there Abedin met Anthony Weiner, a rising-star congressman, in 2001. They started dating during Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 2008, tying the knot two years later — with Bill Clinton officiating. But when the FBI began investigating Weiner for sexting with minors, they found official Hillary Clinton emails on Weiner’s personal laptop … prompting FBI Director James Comey to announce 11 days before the 2016 election that there was new information regarding Clinton’s private email use as secretary of state. The last-minute revelation was key to preventing Clinton from becoming America’s first female president.
what can we learn?
Can’t Catch a Break. J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, lost the love of his life to Charlie Chaplin. Yes, you read that right. Salinger fell in love with Oona O’Neill while at the Jersey Shore. Then, while Salinger was serving in World War II, she moved to Hollywood and fell for the famed comic actor Chaplin, marrying the 53-year-old when she was 18. Chaplin found in O’Neill what he couldn’t find with his previous three wives: lasting love. They stayed together until his death in 1977, having eight children, including two while Chaplin was in his 70s — an impressive sign of virility, although, as fellow comedian Billy Crystal quipped in When Harry Met Sally, he was probably “too old to pick them up!” Read more on OZY.
Avoid Your Friend’s Wives. It has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster legal drama: a Washington, D.C., district attorney facing off against a U.S. congressman. The setting? Lafayette Square, across from the White House, in 1859. The district attorney, Philip Barton Key II — son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner” — was considered “the handsomest man” in all of D.C. The congressman? Daniel Sickles, who was one of Key’s close friends … and whose wife was having a torrid affair with Key. When Sickles found out, he shot and killed Key, providing a stark reminder not to sleep with anyone’s wife. Read more on OZY.
Dare to Date. Take it from the ladies who were erroneously arrested for prostitution while trying to date in the 1910s: You deserve to have some fun. For many women who moved to cities in search of work and lived alone during the Industrial Revolution, dates with richer men were one of the few ways they could afford a night out on the town (it didn’t help that their pay was often a fraction of what their male counterparts received). By the 1920s, cops had given up on monitoring the newfound phenomenon of the date and these supposed loose and fast women. Dating became more commonly accepted, in no small part because restaurants and other nightlife establishments realized its potential for profits. Read more on OZY.
Live Your Best Life. No one did it quite as well as 19th century legend Anne Lister. The famously promiscuous lesbian Englishwoman not only managed her family’s estate, climbed the Pyrenees and developed coal mines — she also had a plethora of affairs that she detailed in a coded diary. She eventually settled down, symbolically marrying a woman named Ann Walker before such unions were legal. Lister’s adventurous walk through life ended at the age of 49, after developing a fever en route to Russia. No saint, demonstrating a disdain for the poor and a fair bit of intellectual snobbery, Lister once told a lover she was glad her father hadn’t raised her as a man, “because then I would not have been able to be in your boudoirs.” Classy. Read more on OZY.
all’s well that ends well
Would You Give Up a Crown? Before there was Harry and Meghan, there was Edward and Wallis. England’s King Edward VIII fell in love with the American socialite Wallis Simpson while she was still married, but that didn’t deter him from pursuing her. She divorced her second husband, ship broker Ernest Simpson, to marry Edward, who had ascended to the throne only months earlier. When the British Parliament and the Church of England protested him marrying the divorcée, he became the first English king to voluntarily renounce the throne, in 1936, declaring that he refused to fulfill his responsibilities “without the help and support of the woman I love.” The couple lived happily — albeit a little too pro-Nazi — until Edward’s death in 1972.
The Lovings’ Fight for Equality. The story of the couple at the heart of the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage is as exceptional as the case itself. Mildred and Richard Loving fled to Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was legal, after being sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for getting wed in 1958. Mildred, a Black woman, sought counsel from U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who suggested she contact the ACLU. Her relationship with Richard, a white man, became the center of the fight for interracial marriage after reaching the highest court of the land. Richard would tell the court that the only thing they needed to know about his marriage was that he loved his wife. The historic ruling marked the end not only of laws against interracial marriage but also of numerous laws enforcing segregation.
Take That, Trolls. Monica Geingos, the first lady of Namibia, is far from what her critics claim. She’s been called a gold digger and slut-shamed for her marriage to the Namibian president, Hage Geingob, who is 30 years her senior. In a powerful video released on International Women’s Day, the lawyer and former head of Namibia’s largest private equity fund, fought back against the trolls, declaring she would donate her estimated $3 million in net worth to charity upon her death. How’s that for a declaration of love?
Third Time’s the Charm. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was all set to wed his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, last year, but the pandemic put a damper on their plans. Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications director, is impressive in her own right: She advises the conservation charity Oceana on battling plastic waste and recently joined the animal rights group the Aspinall Foundation to lead their comms efforts. It would be the third marriage for Johnson, making him the first prime minister in the last 198 years to marry while presiding at 10 Downing Street.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee