The Mistress Season
Roland Flamini goes where (too many) men have gone before
BY ROLAND FLAMINI
Wary of public censure,“the other woman” inhabits a secret world with her own pleasures – and
frustrations. But it wasn’t always like this. From 19th century Britain to modern-day provincial
Washington, Roland Flamini reflects on the paramour’s life and death
"Great Britons,” the outstanding recent exhibition of British portraits at Washington’s reopened National Portrait Gallery, includes a likeness of Lady Emma Hamilton by the 18th century artist George Romney (of whom, incidentally, Republican presidential candidate Mitt is a direct descendant). Near the painting is a wall text explaining why La Hamilton qualifies for inclusion with Queen Elizabeth I and II, Princess Diana, William Shakespeare, etc. We learn that she “fell in love with Admiral Lord Nelson when she and her husband William Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples, offered hospitality to the wounded victor after the Battle of the Nile (1798).” We also learn that “(their) affair was an international scandal, but it enhanced Nelson’s reputation as a romantic hero.”
In short, Emma Hamilton was Horatio Nelson’s mistress; but the word “mistress” has faded from use somewhat, and the wall text, for want of a better one, has to settle for a lengthy description of the couple’s notorious liaison. And notorious it certainly was – a very public ménage à trois consisting of the admiral, the ambassador and Emma Hamilton, who was the Paris Hilton of her day, but without the money – a louche exhibitionist with no talent other than the talent for self publicity.
The Emma-Nelson affair unfolded in a period of sexual permissiveness in early 19th century England, characterized by the debauched behavior of Prince George, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who kept a mistress (the famous Mrs. Fitzherbert) but then cheated on her. The exhibition also has a well-known likeness of Nelson himself by George Duncan Beechy, and one wonders why the equally well-known Joshua Reynolds portrait of Hamilton did not complete the threesome.
But Washington is not 19th century England. In the exhibition, the Nelson and Emma Hamilton portraits are not even placed together. There is discreet distance between them, as though the museum wanted to avoid the couple being caught together by the paparazzi – vintage Brangelina, coming out of Café Milano.
Our sexual terminology is more circumspect. We use vapid code-words to describe relationships – “gay” for homosexual, “girlfriend,” “lady friend,” or just “friend” for the female partner in a long-term affair with a married man – the true definition of a mistress. There’s also “paramour,” if you want to be fancy, and “long term companion” if neither of the partners is married – plus a few terms that are less complimentary.
If the term has largely faded from use, the same is hardly true of the situation it describes. When the point of departure of a network television hit show – Brothers and Sisters – is the family’s discovery following the death of their father that he had for years been having a secret affair – a classic mistress situation – you know that the mistress factor is alive and well.
When it comes to sexual activity, this is not one of the capital’s more open and frenetic periods. A First Family exuding respectability sends discouraging signals toward sexual flamboyance. A White House that mounts sermons on family values tends to dampen the hormones. Senior foreign diplomats have, from time to time, added a foreign flavor to the mistress business. But when one diplomat explained to President Bush that he was in “a relationship,” and Bush jocularly (but pointedly) asked when he planned to marry, the diplomat took the hint and promptly did so. The episode was widely seen by the diplomatic community as a sign: casual domestic arrangements are frowned upon. There is even a story that the protocol office discreetly reminded embassies that girlfriends – however “official” and long-standing – were not to be seated at formal dinners as though they were wives.
Washington’s current “Monica” problem – as Washingtonian magazine recently pointed out – reflects a shift in White House improprieties between one presidency and another. Whereas the Clinton-era Monica (Lewinsky) was at the center