Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine


The mistress has, of course, made her mark in the movies from both the romantic and the historical perspective. The Nelson-Emma Hamilton story has been brought to the screen more than once. When Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh starred in That Hamilton Woman in 1941, art imitated life – Leigh was the actor’s mistress at the time.

French filmmakers seem incapable of making a movie that doesn’t have at least one mistress in it. The Max Ophuls classic Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de in the English version) starring the ethereal Danielle Darrieux with Charles Boyer as her husband, comes to mind. In Hollywood, the span includes the 1960 film The Apartment, with Shirley MacLaine playing the mistress, to the 1999 version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (Julianne Moore) to The Sopranos, with Tony Soprano’s endless procession of kept women.

German television recently wrapped the historical angle in a three-part documentary package called Maetressen (Mistresses). The series is divided into three sections entitled “Mistresses of Popes,” “Mistresses of Sultans,” and “Mistresses of Kings.” French television celebrated its monarchs’ penchant for multiple mistresses with a four-hour biopic centering on Madame de Maintenon, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses. Called L’Allée du Roi, it was well received by French critics and is available on DVD from the French Amazon.com.

government or various institutions, such as a bank – at least indirectly.

The basic rules alter with the times, but there is one constant – discretion. The Lady Hamilton-Nelson situation was by no means typical: the mistress, in it for the long haul, wants to protect her investment – she knows better than to flaunt it too publicly. Besides, some women will tell you that the secretiveness is part of the allure of such relationships.

The required credentials don’t change much either. A mistress is essentially a male ego-booster – and rarely have Washington male egos needed boosting as much as in today’s cutthroat political atmosphere. She needs to be a good listener, a friend, a sympathetic ear, the one who listens to his emotional pain, and above all doesn’t make demands on him, accepting without demur an assignation between 5 and 7 p.m. twice a week (the excuse: a late business meeting), and one clandestine vacation (to coincide with an annual convention).

Thanks largely to the movies, such liaisons are assumed to be romantic, hot and heavy. The reality can be different, but while they may not have the thrill and energy of a brief encounter, or the desperate urge of a one or two-night stand, on the plus side there is security, with some of the advantages of marriage without the domestic problems. The key – recounts one Washington mistress of her four-year affair with a well known figure around Washington – is to keep the relationship in perspective. To become too fond of her lover and jealous of his wife and family is fatal.

“He visits about three times a week,” she says. “I don’t know what excuse he gives his wife, and I don’t want to know. Sure, I miss some things about a more open relationship, like being able to go to a movie together on a Sunday afternoon or to an evening play. Still, I probably get more quality time than she does, and certainly more sex.”

Even so, it’s a situation that can bring sadness. This reporter knows of a single woman who, for more than a decade, carried on an affair with a married colleague. When her lover passed away recently in the bosom of his family, she learned of his death from the obituary in the Washington Post. There was no question of being present at his funeral. To this day, she does not know whether the man’s wife (whom she sees regularly in the Georgetown Safeway) was ever aware of the relationship.

There are, of course, gay affairs that mirror situations in the straight world, but it is not being chauvinist, or one-sided to say that the mistress phenomenon is so deeply rooted in society’s male-dominated past that the word “mistress” itself has no equivalent male term.

We end as we began, with Nelson. When the admiral met Emma, he was already minus an arm and one eye. The Beechy painting shows him with flowing grey hair and with his uniform lit up like a Christmas tree with gold braid, medals, and orders of chivalry. It was the way Nelson showed himself in battle to inspire his crew. Unfortunately, he was also more visible to the enemy, and at Trafalgar – one of the major battles in English history – he was shot dead by a French marksman. In his will, he asked the government to take care of Emma Hamilton, perhaps by giving her a pension. Hero or not, the British government was not about to agree to support a woman who was not his wife. Emma Hamilton died in poverty in France a few years later.



Home  |   Where To Find Us  |   Advertising  |   Privacy Policy  |   Site Map  |   Purchase Photos  |   About Us

Click here to go to the NEW Washington Life Magazine