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The lovers

Duncan McLaren looks at lovers through history – beautiful, gay, volatile, tragic and enduring

Duncan McLaren | January/February 2016

ETERNAL RODIN, 1886
Bicep calls to breast, hand to hip and marble to flesh in a work of art that aspires to be timeless. Or does it? Rodin’s sculpture was inspired by a passage in Dante immortalising a 13th-century couple who had fallen in love while reading about Lancelot and Guinevere in Arthurian legend. In the sculpture, the lips don’t meet – the kiss has been neither given nor received. Why not? Because the Italian noblewoman depicted was married to someone else and the couple were killed by the disgruntled husband. History’s lovers are advised to kiss carefully.

STAR-CROSSED PYRAMUS AND THISBE, 19TH CENTURY
Ovid wrote the story as a tragedy, but it is Shakespeare’s humorous version, embedded in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, that our culture treasures. Bottom and Flute turn the story into comedy. Yet when Bottom as Pyramus says: “O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall,” there is longing. And when Flute as Thisbe responds: “I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all,” there is pathos. José Maria Arango’s painting reverts to a tragic interpretation, but do you not yearn for Pyramus to rise from the dead, complete with “lily lips”, “cherry nose” and “yellow cowslip cheeks”?

STORMY SINATRA AND GARDNER, 1951
Ol’ blue eyes and beautiful green eyes, two of the most pampered pets on the planet. They could sleep with anyone they wanted to – and did. When they embarked on an affair, Ava Gardner had been married twice already, while Frank Sinatra and his first wife had three young children. No careful kissing here. What could possibly go wrong? Together, they were highly strung, possessive and jealous. Gardner would scream at Sinatra, who would storm out of the house. Mutual attraction kept pulling them back together, but the relationship was soon over. Later, both described the other as the love of their life.

SAME SEX WHITMAN AND DOYLE, 1865
Walt Whitman strenuously denied that there was anything sexual in his relationship with young men, claiming that he’d fathered six illegitimate children (though biographers could trace none of them). But for several years he was inseparable from Peter Doyle, a bus conductor. He wrote in “A Glimpse”: “Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and seating himself near.” What powerful words to write in the middle of an ostensibly heterosexual century. The poem ends: “There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.”

ROCKING HARRY AND STEIN, 1976
Is this 1976 clinch between Debbie Harry and Chris Stein the sort of thing Rodin was trying to capture in stone? Perhaps, but the originators of Blondie knew that a generation of record-buying teenagers of both sexes wanted endless images of her finely chiselled features alone. After years of chart-topping and world-touring, the band was defunct and Stein was seriously ill. Harry oversaw his return to health, and although they ceased to be a couple shortly after, the band reformed by the late Nineties and is still recording and touring. And so the slightly doctored post-punk pop song rolls on: “Oh, Deb-bie, doo-be-do, we’re in love with you, Deb-bie, doo-be-do…”

CINEMATIC JULES ET JIM, 1962
Jules and Jim are not the lovers in François Truffaut’s film. The two men are friends who both fall for the free-spirited Catherine. It’s Jules who marries her first. Later, Jim embarks on an affair with Catherine that Jules sees as his best chance of remaining in her orbit. However, Jim rejects Catherine, who kills him as well as herself. Jules is left to preserve the memory of the love triangle that has defined their lives. A few years later, Truffaut directed “Two English Girls”, by the end of which one of the characters is dead and the other two estranged. Tricky things, Truffaut triangles.

ROYAL ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, 1747
What do Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra have in common? Not just that Shakespeare wrote about them brilliantly: in each case, the man thinks his lover is dead and kills himself in despair, only for the woman, still alive, to come across him and to kill herself in turn. I don’t think this suggests that either men or women are more gullible or manipulative, rather it’s a device to showcase individuals’ feelings. Mind you, the Queen of Egypt killed herself not principally for love of Antony but in order not be humiliated on the streets of Rome by the new Caesar.

MODEL SHRIMPTON AND STAMP, 1963
Two faces that seduced the Sixties also seduced each other. David Bailey introduced his muse, the first supermodel, to the leading man who had already dated Bridget Bardot and Julie Christie. Jean Shrimpton split up with Terence Stamp after a three-year relationship. He said: “She didn’t leave me for no reason. She left me because I was a lunatic.” She said: “Terry has said that I was the love of his life, but he had a very strange way of showing it.” Both have given thoughtful interviews recently which suggest that they had hidden depths as well as surface splendour.

INTERMITTENT VON FÜRSTENBERG AND DILLER, 1978
This photo was taken in Studio 54, when the fashion designer best known for her wrap dress was going out with the media billionaire whom she eventually married. Barry Diller appeared in Out magazine’s 2013 Power 50 List. When questioned about her husband’s sexuality by Interview magazine, Diane von Fürstenberg claimed that they had been lovers, on and off, and that it had been the most real relationship she’d ever experienced. When they got married in 2001, he gave her 26 wedding bands, one for each year they’d been with each other. And before that, when she turned 29, he gave her 29 loose diamonds.

ROVING WARREN BEATTY, 1967
If this (you’re so) vain young man is rubbing the palms of his hands together to a version of “Mambo No. 5”, then the words might go like this: “A little bit of Warren in your life. A little bit of Warren by your side. A little bit of Warren in the sun. A little bit of Warren all night long. A little bit of Warren here I am. A little bit of Warren makes me your man.” Beatty, who is reputed to have slept with thousands of women (Britt, Madonna, Carly and Julie among them) in the course of his amorous career, calmed down when he married Annette Bening in 1992. But does the narcissistic one still walk into a party like he was walking onto his yacht?

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jj_reads - January 18th 2016

get some ;)