Sisters’ Keepers

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Kept Women: Mistresses in the Eighties by Edna Salamon
    Orbis, 182 pp, £8.99, March 1984, ISBN 0 85613 606 9

Keeping women, like keeping horses, is one of the many things the rich can do that other people can’t. They may do it for reasons of financial prudence but if so it’s the sort of prudence that only the rich can afford. One of the girls Edna Salamon talked to met her man in a lift: ‘I told him that I was really hard up and if he wanted to go out with me he’d have to pay me ... He asked if £500 was enough.’ She said £50 would do and hasn’t been hard up from that day to this. There must be men who don’t find it easy to keep a mistress as well as a wife but the ones Ms Salamon met in the course of her researches generally claimed that ‘it made more economic sense’ than going through a divorce. ‘He didn’t want me to have any less luxury than his wife,’ a middle-aged Texan said of her lover: ‘I always had a new car to drive – lovely clothes – memberships at the best private clubs.’ The prudence may be as much emotional as financial: an abandoned wife whose former husband didn’t want her to have any less luxury than his girlfriend would have less reason to feel grateful. Or it may not be a matter of prudence at all. Even the nicest husbands must have more fun buying zippy cars for their doxies than sedans for their wives.

Ms Salamon is careful about the distinctions to be made between one man’s wealth and another’s – ‘to describe all the men as rich obscures the extreme variations possible’ – but she can only guess at the wealth of the men she came across: the rich are always eager to spare their interlocutors the embarrassment of knowing exactly how rich they are. There are extreme variations, too, in the currency in which these men expect to be repaid. One woman has met her lover every day in the middle of the day for the past 26 years. Another spends four weekends a year with her man, and for that he has so far paid out a quarter of a million pounds. It may be that for him, and for many of the men involved in these relationships, the greatest pleasure is simply the pleasure of spending their money.

That isn’t what they say, of course. Most of Ms Salamon’s book is taken up with describing the different kinds of women who are, or who seek to be, kept but in her last chapter she compares what she has learnt from them with what their lovers have told her. ‘Men,’ she says, ‘are much more likely to claim that their appeal to their partners is personal virility while women tend to play down the sexual side of the relationship.’ These men aren’t young: the man who spends four weekends a year with his mistress is in his sixties. However much they may boast about what they do in bed, their women see it differently and talk behind their backs about ‘middle-aged problems’ and the ‘male menopause’. Neither the men nor the women were happy to talk about financial arrangements. But it seems likely that for both keeper and kept money is a larger factor than what it can’t buy.

‘A cat wearing a jewelled choker does no more than reflect glory on the owner,’ Ms Salamon (cattily) observes, and she has a point. The question is: what kind of glory? A man who goes out with a girl whom he has dressed in diamonds may think he is saying something about his virility but the only hard evidence the diamonds provide is the evidence of hard cash. And the cash exercises its own kind of tyranny. The Texan woman whose boyfriend wanted her to live in the same luxury as his wife told Ms Salamon that the only difficulty between them was that she wanted to have a career and ‘he wanted me to be free to do the things I wanted to do.’ The striking thing here isn’t his claim to know what’s best for her but his insistence that she should only want what money can supply. Ms Salamon sometimes talks about these women sinking into a life of ‘conspicuous consumption’. One might also think in terms of the conspicuous presumption of the men they are involved with.

Ms Salamon came to London from Canada in 1980 to write a thesis at the LSE about the reasons women stay with dreadful husbands, but finding it difficult to collect representative samples of every kind of marital disaster, she took her hairdresser’s advice and settled for the subject of kept women, of whom her hairdresser knew a great many. Her book is a shortened version of that thesis, dedicated to her supervisor but got up by her publisher to look like a box of chocolates. On the back there is a large photograph in which she looks very glamorous, her face half-hidden by all sorts of layers of curls. One can see that she might have occasion to visit her hairdresser quite often and one can also see why some of the men she interviewed found the experience confusing. (One of them offered to take her to Acapulco for Christmas and added, presumably when he saw the look of horror on her face: ‘You don’t have to fuck me unless you want to.’) Unlike the majority of women who write about women, she doesn’t appear to do so out of a sense of personal discontent and though concerned to show that kept women are not necessarily less nice than other women, she isn’t her sisters’ keeper.

Heaven forbid. Ms Salamon is a scientist and shares no one’s illusions. ‘I would argue,’ she says in the course of some remarks on the conservatism of kept women and their lovers, ‘that the sexual liberation of women is as authentic as the Loch Ness monster.’ Having got her PhD, she has gone back to Canada, where she teaches criminology at Simon Fraser University. Her subject, however, is unlikely to be crime, which, in university departments, has largely yielded to something called ‘deviance’. Kept women, for example, are ‘sexual deviants’ and so too, very nearly, are those who take an interest in them: ‘In writing on sexual deviance you are thought at least marginally deviant yourself,’ Ms Salamon writes in her preface. ‘Adie! How could you!’ shrieked one of her friends. In this case the term is misleading, however, since what it signifies are not unusual acts (there is nothing out of the way about the things these women do in bed, no mirrors or funny underwear or ‘unnatural’ practices) but only an unusual social arrangement – which turns out not to be very unusual at all. Ms Salamon asked one of her interviewees whether there was a part of London where mistresses tended to live. ‘If there was you’d never get in for the traffic,’ he replied. The trouble with ‘deviance’ is that those who study it may have an overdeveloped sense of what is being deviated from.

The same, perhaps not surprisingly, might be said of kept women themselves. Most of the ones Ms Salamon writes about were quite happy to talk about sex, although, like the men they have it with, it doesn’t always feature much in their lives: ‘With the sheik I probably have sex a couple of times a year – that’s not much is it?’ Nor do they make a pretence of loving the man who keeps them – some do love him and some don’t. One woman who makes a habit of being kept, as many of them do, refers to all her keepers as ‘Willie’: Willie I, Willie II, Willie III, Willie IV – like the kings (or keepers) of England. Similarly, they aren’t on the whole disturbed by the thought that their lovers are married to someone else. In fact, it sometimes seems that one of the pleasures of being kept is that it enables you to be more wife than a girlfriend and less wife than a wife. ‘I think it’s a fine game and no small work of art,’ one of them boasted: not only did she ‘travel extensively and enjoy the company of world-renowned classical musicians’ but her fellow, while making all this possible, also ‘mows the grass and takes out the garbage’. One might be forgiven for thinking – though it isn’t the impression Ms Salamon wishes to give – that these women live in a perfect world. The chief evidence that they don’t is their extreme reluctance to talk about their means of support. The reason no doubt, as Ms Salamon surmises, is their fear that they might be mistaken for common-or-garden prostitutes: a fear made all the more intense by the fact that what largely drives them into taking money in the first place is their greed for social success: ‘I have arrived – so to speak!’ said the woman who enjoyed the company of classical musicians.

The social success that they want is of course the kind that only money (or, in some cases, power) can bring, and one of the most striking things about them is the distinction they make between the money that supports them and can’t be spoken of and the money that is casually spent on them and is spoken about all the time. Some kinds of kept women – Ms Salamon calls them ‘professional opportunists’ – spend their lives cooking up situations in which their lovers will find themselves in a shop handing out cash in preposterous quantities. Ms Salamon cites the case of a woman who ‘manipulated her lover into a top boutique in Switzerland, selected several outfits and feigned astonishment when the bill came to slightly over £11,000’. Another on her first date always suggests a rendezvous at Harrods. ‘If he fails to buy her something from the vast assortment featured there he is definitely not attracted enough to be worth her while.’ The point of these expensive acquisitions goes beyond their mere expense. The more a man spends on you, and the more ‘tasteful’ the things he buys, the greater the status he confers. ‘She contrasted her own situation with that of her friend who was kept by an Arab man. She commented that while her friend had dozens of pairs of shoes, none of them was handmade and while her friend’s lover had bought her a house in a fashionable London mews, it was not really a very nice mews house.’ Many of Ms Salamon’s opportunists are upper middle-class women with degrees, confident that what they are getting in return for their favours is simply what they deserve to have.

Not all kept women are equally cynical. Even in Ms Salamon’s book there are women who fall in love with men who just happen to be rich. Nor are they all equally interested in money. ‘If he hadn’t been so good at his job I wouldn’t have looked at him twice,’ Ms Salamon was told by a ‘senior executive’ in a cosmetics firm who was being kept by the managing director: ‘I’m very ambitious myself and I need that mental stimulation in a relationship.’ Women who are kept by their bosses – ‘career women’ in Ms Salamon’s categorisation – may be glad of the opportunity to talk about work to their lovers in the way husbands talk about work to their wives. What must be even nicer, however, is the encouragement they get – ‘my lover is my true friend because he wants me to make the most of myself’ – and, nicer still, the chance to make it to the top smoothly and ahead of everyone else. Colleagues may not like it but that’s their bad luck and easily attributed to jealousy or incompetence. ‘Although they have achieved high positions through dubious means, the members of the Career Woman category appear aggressively sure of their own abilities,’ Ms Salamon reports with admiration and dismay. The anxieties of deviance might have seemed more impressive if we had heard from women who’d been kept and dumped.

The impression one gets from reading Ms Salamon’s book is that the unusual element in these women’s lives is merely the unusual degree to which they allow ambition (or self-interest) a free rein. Women, as feminists often tell us, are the victims of their own wish to please. No one would say that of the women Ms Salamon writes about, though one might, if one were tender-hearted, say it of the men who keep them. ‘What is past is past,’ she was told by an American who’d been kept by four different men. ‘During the relationship I usually enjoy myself and grow as a person. And from there one just goes on.’ Maybe, as the women themselves argue, they’re not that different from everyone else – ‘I think I am quite normal in saying that I love to be spoiled with attention and gifts’ – but know what they want and worry less than students of deviance think they should about how they get it.