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Putting two of the great romances of the 20th century in perspective.

Actress Carole Lombard and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy were both attractive, intelligent and talented women.  One was married to the "king of Hollywood", Clark Gable and the other to the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy.   But what they shared in common most of all was the fact that they were both married to unrepentant serial philanderers. 

If you look at their many photos from the time of their famous marriages both women are invariably shown wearing wedding rings.  Yet their husbands are not -- not even on their wedding days.   Both women apparently loved their husbands yet both also had serious reservations about their conduct. 
People ask whether a marriage can survive the discovery of an affair. Carole Lombard and Jacqueline Kennedy dealt with this issue on an almost daily basis. They knew the men that they married and apparently thought they could change them.  They both made heroic efforts to create a home life for their husbands that met all of their needs as they saw them.   But they failed to stop their straying cat behavior.  Interestingly neither man was particularly well endowed, nor were they particularly good at the act of making love.  It wasn't sex that kept them together.  So what kept them in their marriages?



Both of these men continually took risks that jeopardized their marriages. And both did so in a way that disrespected their wives. 
In the memoirs of the summer intern who had an affair with JFK, she states very clearly that she was seduced initially in Jackie Kennedy's own bedroom in the White House and on her very bed.


Clark Gable was notorious for sleeping with just about any available script girl and hat check girl in Hollywood.  On their first date he invited the woman who became his fifth wife into his home and said to her "why don't you go upstairs and take off your clothes?"   Now there were only two bedrooms in Gable's home, his and the one that his wife had used.  Carole was dead, but sending someone up to disrobe in her bedroom was not the sign of respect for his date nor that of being a deeply grieving widower.


Both men felt a need for constant sexual activity and felt entitled to it. Yet when married they both expected their wives to be loyal and respectful of them and understanding of their needs.

There certainly were compensations that both women were well aware of.

                     Jacqueline Kennedy as first lady at a White House reception.
   Jacqueline Kennedy watching the America Cup races with the president in 1962.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the GWTW world premiere
Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the premier of "Gone With the Wind" in Atlanta (above) and in Los Angeles (below).

From an article by Julia Stuart

Clark Gable and John F. Kennedy, like so many serial philanderers, possessed of transcendent charm. But like so many men - and women - time and again drawn to infidelity, the colourful charade cloaks the stark reality. This is a psychological condition with dark consequences for the individual and those around them. The stage set is real; sex with others when you've made serious promises to do otherwise, is not entertainment but a potentially life-shattering cataclysm. Cheating is a serious psychological condition.

"Obsessional thrill seeking - when you can't be without it - falls into the category of perversion," says Martha Stevns, a Cambridge Jungian psychoanalyst. "The individual is constantly looking for fulfilment but the contact they desire never happens. So they begin again. When behaviour is repeated it moves from the normal into the realm of compulsion - like a shoe fetish or any other prop. It is tragic and sad."

Terri Apter, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, recognises the pattern. "Some serial adulterers just love the excitement of sex. Others are more attracted to the power of it. You can rejoice in being desired or being in control. To feel you can ask something so intimate of someone, and so often, is essentially narcissistic. It can be a way of avoiding genuine communication or an attempt to make contact. A Don Juan can have a deep dislike of women and is out to demean or humiliate them."

Sex addiction is not only a male phenomenon. History has thrown up some eye-watering female examples. Catherine the Great was celebrated for having sex with everyone including her own horse. Messalina, wife of Emperor Claudius, challenged the chief of Rome's prostitutes in a public contest as to who could have the most men in a day, retiring exhausted.

Commonly though, women who whisk their way through endless lovers thrive on attention and adulation.  "Women are immensely flattered by being desired,' remarks Dr Apter. "Sex can become the arena where they feel the most powerful." This certainly applies to Nora. Gorgeous and lissom in her late twenties, she calculates she has had dozens of men, but maintains a steady boyfriend in what she calls a "companionable relationship". 

Dr Apter says that there is "evidence of a genetic component in all addictions, and the susceptibility is often inherited. But it doesn't mean a sex addiction is inevitable. Past experience and environment play their part." Another favourite belief of serial philanderers is that, far from reprehensible, their behaviour is actually good for their marriage. "Well, it can keep it stabilised," says Dr Apter. "In the Clintons' marriage, for example, Hillary's dominance, which Bill clearly admires and likes, is counterbalanced by his errant sexual behaviour. For an addictive personality, sex is preferable to, say, alchoholism, which would be more disastrous to the marriage and family. Sex addiction cannot be said to be always bad."

But maintaining a life of constant deceit does place tremendous demands on anyone who sets about juggling their life this way. And it carries with it the constant shadow of discovery. According to Dr Apter, sex addicts minimise the risks in their own mind: " Those in the public eye close their minds to the likely outcome, which is probably exposure. We all do this when we want something badly enough. Everyone is skilled at self-deception. We want to feel we are good people. So we become adept at minimising destructive and demeaning behaviour."

Martha Stevns believes that "on a psychological level, sex compulsives often want to be discovered, because maintaining this kind of serial infidelity is ultimately unbearable. Only then do they get the chance to find real fulfilment in a satisfying mature relationship. There is a psychological concept, the puer aeternus, the Eternal Boy, the Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and take on real responsibilities.  The challenge of the new conquest promises that the next relationship will bring the satisfaction they crave." 

Both psychologists agree that this kind of addiction, what they prefer to call compulsive sexual activity, is ultimately self-destructive.
"It is often an infantile inability to repress any desire," says Dr Apter. Ominously... she adds, "The very privileged often do not develop this self-control and become self-indulgent, feeling entitled to make constant sexual requests."

Martha Stevns is even gloomier for the future. "Having affairs is ultimately about not relating to someone properly. It feeds a constant desire to repeat the exercise in the futile hope of finding fulfilment. It can lead to severe depression. In order to treat someone like this, we would need probably years of therapy. It is a serious disorder pointing to deeper problems."

And it clearly is not all fun on the sex circuit. Big time Fifties womaniser David Niven bemoaned his constant search for sex as "like being tied to a mad parrot" ( reported mistakenly by a friend as "like being tied to a mad carrot") and Michael Douglas,  had the indignity of having the treatment for his "condition" trumpeted to the world.   Errol Flynn, Clark Gable all confessed in their era to a compulsion for sex that had begun to take control of them.

Clearly life for these women was not a bed of roses.  For Lombard the great love of her life, Russ Columbo, was dead.  She made the most of her marriage to Clark Gable.  Jacqueline Kennedy had children and was the first lady.  Whether her marriage to John Kennedy would have lasted past their term(s) in the White House, we shall never know.



Explanation for adultry very typical

There were no surprises here, in terms of the psychologist's explanation of adultery and obsessive sexual encounters. I have read these summaries many times, and I'm sure most other readers have as well.

I don't think JFK's sexual behavior was all that important to Jackie Kennedy. While she did know the tragic consequences of divorce, her own parents had separated when she was very young child, she also felt that some men were more inclined to have casual affairs than others, she followed a more liberal, european code of expectations, than most calvinistic American housewives. From all I have read of Mrs. Kennedy, she loved her husband, and felt that as long as she was his "special" favorite, she did not feel threatened by his casual affairs. For sure, she had frustrating moments with him, as when she allegedly found a pair of panties that were not hers, under her pillow. She also knew about the young clerks and "interns" her husband bedded. She did not like him being indiscreet, but that is different than a hystrionic response to learning of a spouse's extramarital encounter.

In terms of Carl Lombard and Clark Gabel, I am not familiar with either of them, except that Hollywood lifestyle was very different from the rest of America. Adultery was very common in movie making. Some actors feel this might be a response to getting deeply involved in portraying a character & responding to their leading man/woman. It's very likely that Carol Lombard accepted her husband's infidelities as being a normal part of life as a Movie Star. They were both beautiful, glamorous people whose lives were very untypical. Carol & Clark both went to the beat of their own drummers. Clark Gabel's most famous line, from Gone With The Wind, "Frankly My Dear, I don't Give a Damn" summed it up for both of them.

As long as both parties agree to accepting some infidelity, what does it matter? Recently, America was shocked again, by another dark Kennedy episode. Robert Kennedy Jr.'s wife was found dead, in a barn located on their estate in New York. She had hung herself. Some of the public quickly condemned Robert Kennedy as an evil, sadistic man for taunting his deeply disturbed wife with his cheating. It's interesting to note, how quickly Mrs. Mary Richardson-Kennedy, was cannonized into Sainthood shortly after her death. The anti-Kennedy public failed to understand the cold facts, that Mary Kennedy was 6 mo. pregnant when she married RFK, Jr. Further, he was married when she herself, seduced him into an affair. Regardless of how one looks at this tragic spectacle, it is a reminder of how painful adultry can be for some women. In spite of her pre-marital affair with RFK, Jr., she expected him to be a devoted husband. The harm of adultery lies in how the spouse feels about or reacts to it. Some marriages do fine in spite of it, others not.

Re: Explanation for adultry very typical

The fact that there were no surprises in the comments by the psychologists explanations of serial adultery does not negate their validity.

Both women learned to tolerate their husbands almost daily trysts with interns and script girls. They expected at least some discretion. They also had to deal with the Lanas and the Marilyns who frankly didn't give a damn. Their married lives certainly had their compensations but they couldn't have been easy.

Edited at 2012-08-28 12:44 am (UTC)


Re: Explanation for adultry very typical

Adultery is, unfortunately, typical in relationships, married or not, and in my opinion selfish, hurtful and abusive to the person one is supposedly committed to. It's highly doubtful Jackie Kennedy took her husband's philandering "with a grain of salt." Being a victim of divorce (especially at a time when it was so unacceptable) for a child such as Jackie, in my own experience (being a child of, the spouse and mother of) and observing the effects of many I've known, and seen go through, it is devastating and can have traumatic psychological repercussions to all involved for the rest of their lives.

It's hard for me to believe that "being a special favorite" for Jackie, would make it any easier to accept the infidelity of your spouse, in particular, being a public figure at the status of "First Lady." If anything, I think it would make it harder. In most cases, the mode of heavy denial can relieve or assuage a broken heart first, and an underdeveloped ego as well, but still leaving the victim feeling abandoned, disrespected and unloved!!! Just as they felt as a child when their parents break up. And... when you're a public figure, honored and revered as Jackie was, or Carol Lombard, the pain, betrayal and embarrassment, must be overwhelming. Honestly!!!

Carol Lombard was obviously very young and very much in love when her devoted lover was accidentally killed. Clark Gable, America's "hero" the "king" was clearly the one who could win her heart and help her heal. They obviously had chemistry, or at least in the beginning. She innocently gave their relationship her all, and was basically slapped in the face and left in the dust, by this narcissistic man who had no conscience, after all I've read about him....Unfortunately, he was one of my all time favorites, and I thought their relationship was that "story book" romance we all dream of. It "appears," it was, but only according to the lies of the tabloids, being paid off by the studios. Doesn't it make sense that this proud woman, who had a mind of her own, would be destroyed emotionally by this man's infidelities and blatant promiscuity?

Hollywood, or not, cheating is cheating!! Her style though, was to have a the kind of comeback that could "hit below" the belt....literally....referring to "the king" as a lousy lover and then some!! Despite the fact that she lost her first love, I believe she thought she might find it again with a man as beloved and revered as Mr. Gable was. Thus, her heart was broken again, but for a very different reason this time.

If the marriage starts out with misguided intentions, perhaps marrying for financial security and the love was never there to start out with, maybe then one could "appear" to be "doing fine" with the exposure or knowledge of faithlessness. People will stay in marriages out of fear, embarrassment, for the children, and yes, money and fame. In Lombard's case, even if her love for Gable would never be what it was for Russ Columbo, she was privately and publicly dedicated and loyal to the man who basically led her to her death.

Getting into the phycological aspects (alcoholism, addiction, parental example, genetics, etc. ) of a "serial cheater" would be the only defense that might excuse this abhorrent behavior. Bottom line, though, we all have choices. Knowing right from wrong is a start....seeking help and the fervent desire and commitment to change is a solution..but that's another topic.

Re: Explanation for adultry very typical

You wrote about Carole Lombard...."she was privately and publicly dedicated and loyal to the man who basically led her to her death."

Sad but true and very difficult for the cult worshipers of Gable and Lombard to accept. The fact that Carole was almost never separated from Gable after they were married is a sign to me not of her adulation of him, rather it is a sign of her distrust of him based on a realistic sense of what he would be up to in her absence. Her presence on the flight that led to her death was directly tied to her knowledge of what Gable was all about.

"And all the king's horses and all the king's men" couldn't change what happened. So in the best Hollywood tradition they simply rewrote history to give the story the glow of a Hollywood ending. And guess what? Most of the public bought it then and still do today thanks to the endless regurgitation on the internet of the publicity articles that were put out by Howard Strickling of the MGM Publicity Department on Gable's behalf.

Edited at 2012-08-31 07:22 pm (UTC)

Jacqueline Kennedy

An interesting article that goes into depth on how Jacqueline Kennedy coped with her husbanbd's infidelity and the toll it took on her.