*****Page 1 – Love in the Second Act *****
While waiting in line to buy tickets at the Loews movie theater on Broadway at Nineteenth Street, my friend Barbara asks if I’m in the mood to be fixed up. “Fixed up?”
“Fixed up! You know, fixed up on a date. I know a Jewish folk singer that’s divorced. I also know a magazine editor who liked your last book.”
If a heart can be likened to a violin, now that my last relationship is over and the beautiful music has stopped, I can’t imagine that music will ever again resonate from these strings.
“You must be kidding,” I respond, giving her a fishy look.
The line inches forward.
“I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” Barbara says combatively. “You’re not getting any younger.”
I bristle. “Where were you when F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives?”
“I guess I was having one. Where were you when Oscar Wilde, or maybe it was Samuel Johnson, said that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience?”
Barbara’s posture is faultless; her voice has an air of soft aridity. She squeezes my arm. “In back of my addled brain, I seem to remember something about how life begins at forty. Or is it fifty? Look at me. I didn’t get together with Warren until I was pushing fifty. As you well know, at that point I’d been around the block more than a few times.”
Today—the first cold blowy day of autumn—I’m wearing a new wool coat with the collar turned up. There’s dampness in the lambent air. Shaggy clouds dangle in the sky. Barbara’s not much older than Madonna. She always brightens whatever she wears with some arresting splash of color. Today she’s wrapped a mango-colored scarf smartly around her throat. Her cheeks are pink and warm to my lips when I kiss her hello or good-bye. We’ve been friends for nearly twenty years.
“Fitzgerald was no fool,” I add in a steely tone.
“At least ungird your loins!” she suggests. “I’m living proof that Fitzgerald was an idiot. You should hear my friend Beatrix White kvell. In the middle of her life, after about a million failed relation ships, when she was about ready to throw in the towel, Bea found Mark. Or Mark found Bea. Indecorous exteriors be damned!”
“Okay. Okay. Okay, ” I say to shut her up. And that’s where the traveling symposium that has become this book began.
I’d been licking my wounds after the breakup of a relationship. Looking for some bulwark in life, I’d come back to New York after twenty years out west. New York—the city where I grew up—is Tara. Though I didn’t feel prepared for the rigors of city life, I’d come home. Shortly after my conversation with Barbara, through a set of coincidences, I met Charlotte, a career woman who married for the first time at sixty. When she showed me the wedding announcement that had appeared in the New York Times, I noticed in it the mention of a biographical update she’d sent to her alumni newsletter that said: No trips taken in years; no children; obviously no grandchildren, no husband .
Then, she went on a two-week Smithsonian-sponsored trip to Ireland. That first morning on the tour bus she sat next to Mike Chamberlain, a retired radio announcer from San Francisco. They began to talk. One thing led to another and –
On January 23, they were married in the creaky wood-paneled chapel of the Convent of the Sacred Heart on Fifth Avenue… Like the actress Katharine Hepburn, Charlotte Mary Cassidy is partly regal, partly tomboyish. Now 60 and a learning specialist at the Trinity School in New York, Miss Cassidy wears her long gray hair in a Hepburnesque bun and loves fresh air so much she opens the windows even in winter.
…Like her many roommates, Miss Cassidy also expected to marry young, but instead she remained single. “I wasn’t surprised that she never married,” Gabriella Befani Canfield, a friend, said. “Some of us, of our generation, are what I call women in between. We are much too independent and outspoken to be the right women for men of our generation.”
…When Charlotte left for Ireland last summer, she told friends she hoped to bring back some pretty dish towel. Instead she brought back the towels and a new love. “What are the chances of this happening at our age?” Maudie Davis, a guest at her wedding, said. “A friend of mine died last week of cancer. Here is one contemporary who has died and the other is getting married . In your sixties , it can go either way.”
My ponderings percolated to the point that I took up Barbara’s challenge. I began instigating conversations with people (like Charlotte and myself) who’d reached, or passed through, that juncture of midlife when the knack for self-deception has weakened and the face in the mirror is no longer quite our own.
I’d had my moment in the mirror one hazy afternoon, when I caught a glimpse of myself in a window of Gristede’s supermarket on Eighth Avenue and did a double take because the visage returning my look was not quite the one that had always been there. In my case the sensation was a little like being aboard an airplane that encounters turbulence and realizing that I’m helpless to stop it. That feeling, along with my move east, my breakup, and the dismal state of the world, were the catalysts that got me to begin to muse on my life, my career, and the stasis I was in.
After publishing five books relating to World War II and the Holocaust, I realized that the time had come for me to write about life not death, romance or comedy if possible, rather than savagery and evil, love not hate. Since I was responding to love stories both bitter and sweet, I also began clipping wedding announcements and bits and pieces that I chanced on. I labeled a file folder “Into the Good Night,” and slid all the clippings inside.
In the interviews with lovers that I was conducting, I was turning into a latter-day Kinsey. Surprisingly often, those I questioned became enthusiastic and offered to relate their own experience or one that belonged to someone they knew. Over the course of what became a stormy and snowy fall and winter, while traveling or at home, while eating and drinking, I took part in an extremely engaging, often surprising, series of dialogues on love and age.
Although sex and romance among those who are middle-aged or older is often viewed with gooey eyes through an offensive Golden Pond-like lens, the experiences that were described to me were passionate, mad, tempestuous, complex, and bittersweet. The people in these interviews had all, in one way or another, moved beyond that moment in the mirror and decided to go on and search for, or open themselves, to love. (Or, in the case that love isn’t an opening-out but a closing-in, to close themselves around love.) To “rage against the dying of the light.” The age range in this collection goes from forty-three through ninety-seven; the younger subjects are children of the fifties and boomers in midlife, the older are lively octogenarians and nonagenarians nearing their final curtain. Though many had experienced disappointments and failures, they are vital folk who hospitably invited me into their private lives. And this is what struck me the most as I began to assemble twenty five of these interviews and various other materials: In the second act, love and partnering is not only possible, but can be hot and delicious, life-giving and hope-giving. Both passion and heartbreak are as profound at fifty as they were at twenty.
From the sociological side, we’re well aware that life expectancy has lengthened considerably and, as Eva S. Moskowitz writes in In Therapy We Trust about this moment in time, happiness [has become the] ultimate goal, and psychological healing is the means. We’ve entered an era of changed possibilities demanded by older, more active, more vigorous, physically fit, sexually empowered women and men. If being who and what you are isn’t enough, for men who choose to give nature a little assistance, there’s Viagra, Levitra, Cialis ( tempting men with what Robin Williams, in a comedy act on turning fifty, laughingly called “the dick from hell”) and for women there’s testosterone, HRT, synthetic pheromones and more.
A suitcase full of life-enhancing pharmaceuticals is available: There are memory enhancers, hormone replacements, bone boosters, serotonin elevators, wrinkle creams, stress and depression relievers, and various rejuvenators. There’s also surgical help to offset the physical ravages of time: makeovers, renovations, augmentations. Perhaps these artificial enhancers have influenced our expectations of what post-midlife should offer? Perhaps they are false hopes? They can be embraced or not, the choice is there. The limits of childbearing or adopting have expanded; gay as well as transgender communities have joined the mainstream; celebrities retain their glamour and sexuality as they trudge toward the sunset. (Actor Helen Mirren: “I was never gorgeous. Ever. When you’re young you want more than anything to be beautiful, but as you get older, you don’t have that desperate need and it’s a great feeling.” Jack Nicholson to Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give: “I’m sixty three years old and in love for the first time in my life.”)
Post-feminist sexuality prizes boldness. Sex and the City was one of many examples. Mating practices have changed; resources that provide romantic connections are a growth industry that includes online dating services, matchmakers, personals columns, speed dating, mixers and so on. Learning, traveling and sharpening the mind are de rigueur for the retired. The model for love from the Middle Ages through to this century is young love: Dante and Beatrice, Romeo and Juliet, the romantics who mostly died young, rebel without a cause, too fast to live, too young to die, and so on. This long-established model has been breaking down. Take Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Ha Jin’s Waiting and Kundera’s Immortality. Finally, there are romantic role models older than Dante and Beatrice, older than Romeo and Juliet, who are more like Antony and Cleopatra.
That is the real revolution!
Approaching a “big” birthday, Paul Theroux, the novelist and travel writer, returned to Africa where he had spent his young manhood. He writes in Dark Star Safari :
What all older people know, what had taken me almost sixty years to learn, is that an aged face is misleading. I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think, and they are insulted to be regarded as feeble. They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy. Don’t be fooled by the thin hair and battered features and skepticism. The older traveler knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful , and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise. Old age is Strength.
Over the course of my search, certain similarities and themes rise like steam over our coffees and conversations. Although each story is unique, I’ve organized this offering into nine sections in an attempt to highlight significant patterns—each encapsulating a few of the themes my interlocutors have underscored in relation to their coupledom.
IN LOVE WITH LOVE: No matter how much heartbreak or grief women and men have endured in past relationships, they’ll usually have another go at love.
LIBIDO: Human beings never stop being sexual. Getting older doesn’t have to mean getting colder.
180-DEGREE TURNS: It’s possible to radically change career and house and ambition and lifestyle in the second act.
COMFORT AND STABILITY: Degrees of intimacy and steadiness not accessible earlier in life may be achieved in the second act.
BLIND LOVE: Some couples, who’ve remained together through both acts, through many changes, experience love as immutable.
SECOND VIRGINITY: Certain subjects discovered that they were wrong when they thought there would only be one “first time.” Love keeps changing and there are always new firsts.
HOMECOMING: Sometimes there’s an experience of returning to an earlier self in later life.
DETERMINATION: Certain subjects demonstrated that almost any one who truly wants love and sex, if willing to work at it, can find it. In other words, if act one has been screwed up, or if fate has been unkind, perseverance pays off.
TIME IS ON YOUR SIDE : My subjects demonstrated that no matter how old, shopworn, tainted, dogged by disappointment one is, it’s never too late. There’s time. Ironically, many of these couplings would not have been thinkable in the same way a generation back.
Making these trips and having these conversations became a pleasure indeed. I was entertained and charmed by these human targets into which the beautiful naked blind winged boy with the bow has been shooting his sharp arrows. In a few cases, either by request or because I thought it best, the names of the subjects have been changed and identifying facts blurred. For those of us who are in the wings garnering the willingness to step onto the stage, I’ll say this: If a lonely heart can be likened to a violin whose music has stopped, in these many interviews, I heard the sound of music resonate again and again from its strings.[Love in the Second Act is available on Amazon as a paperback or was a kindle]