Lunch the other day. Vicious gossip with a man I’d just meet. We were discussing mutual friends, a couple. He knew the husband, I know the wife. I’d never met the husband, and I hadn’t seen the wife in years( except to run into her occasionally on the street), but as usual, I knew everything about the situation.
“it’s going to end badly,” I said. “he was naïve, a country mouse. He came in from Boston and he didn’t know anything about her and she jumped at the opportunity, she’d already gone through so many guys in New York and she had a reputation. No guy in New York would have married her.”
I attacked my fried chicken, warming up to the subject. “women in New York know, they know when they have to get married, and that’s when they do it. Maybe they’ve slept with too many guys, or they know nothing’s ever going to really happen with their career, or maybe they really do want kid. Until then, they put it off for as long as they can. Then they have that moment, and if they don’t take it…” I shrugged. “that’s it, chances are, they will never get married.”
The other guy at the table, corporate, doting-dad typing who lives in Westchester, was looking at us in horror. “but what about love?” he asked.
I looked at him pityingly, “I don’t think so.”
When it comes to finding a marriage partner, New York has its own particularly cruel mating rituals, as complicated and sophisticated as those in an Edith Wharton novel. Everyone knows the rules---but no one wants to talk about them, the result is that New York has bred a particular type of single woman---smart, attractive, successful, and…never married. She is in her late thirties or early forties, and, if empirical knowledge is good for anything, she probably never will get married.
This is not about statistics. Or exceptions, we all know about the successful playwright who married the beautiful fashion designer a couple of years older than he is. But when you are beautiful and successful and rich and “know everyone,” the normal rules don’t apply.
What is, on the other hand, you are forty and pretty and you are a television producer or have your own PR company, but you still live in a studio and sleep on a foldout couch---the nineties equivalent of Mary Tyler Moore? Except, unlike Mary Tyler Moore, you’ve actually gone to bed with all those guys instead of demurely kicking them out at 12:02am? What happens to those women?
There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of women like this in the city. We all know lots of them, and we all agree they are great. They travel, they pay taxes, they will spend four hundred dollars on a pair of Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals.
“there is nothing wrong with these women,” said Jerry, thirty-nine, a corporate lawyer who happened to marry one of these smart women, three years older than he is. “they are not crazy or neurotic, they are not Fatal Attraction.” Jerry paused. “why do I know so many great woman who aren’t married. And no great guys? Let’s face is, the unmarried guys in New York suck.”
“here’s the deal,” Jerry said. “there’s a window of opportunity for women to get married in New York, somewhere between the age of twenty-six and thirty-five. Or maybe thirty-six.” We agreed that if a woman’s been married once, she can always get married again; there’s something about knowing how much to close the deal.
“but all of a sudden. When women get to be thirty-seven or thirty-eight, there’s all this…stuff,” he said. “Baggage, they’ve been around too long, their history works against them. If I were single and I found out that a woman had gone out with Mort Zuckerman or ‘Marvin’(a publisher)---the M&Ms---forget it. Who wants to be twentieth on that line? And then if they pull any of those other stunts, like children out of wedlock or rehab stays---there’s a problem.”
Jerry told a story: Last summer, he was at a small dinner in Hamptons. The guests were in TV and movies, he and his wife were trying to fix up a forty-year-old former model with a guy who had just gotten divorced. The two were talking, and suddenly something came up about Mort Zuckerman, and then Marvin, and suddenly Jerry and his wife were watching the guy turn off.
“there’s a list of toxic bachelors in New York,” said Jerry, “and they are deadly.”
Later in the day, I relay the story to Anna, who is thirty-six, and who has habit of disagreeing with everything men say. All guys want to sleep with her, and she’s constantly chewing them out for being shallow. She’s sated the M&Ms and she knows Jerry. When I tell her the story, she screams, “Jerry is just jealous, he’d like to be like those guys, except he doesn’t have the money or the power to pull it off. Scratch the surface and every guy in New York wants to be Mort Zuckerman.”
George, thirty-seven, an investment banker, is another guy who sees the toxic bachelors as a problem, “these guys---the plastic surgeon, that Times editor, the crazy guy who owns those fertility clinics---they all take out the same pool of women and it never goes anywhere,” he said, “yeah, if I met a woman who had gone out with all those guys, I wouldn’t like it.”
“if you are Diane Sawyer, you will always be able to get married.” Said George. “but even women who are A’s and A-‘S can miss out, the problem is, in New York, people self-select down to smaller and smaller groups. You are dealing with a crowd of people who are enormously privileged, and their standards are incredibly high.
“And then there are all your friend. Look at you,” George said. “there’s nothing wrong with any of the guys you’ve gone out with. But we always give you shit about them.”
That was true. All of my boyfriends have been wonderful in their own way, but my friends have found fault with every one of them, mercilessly chewing me out of putting up with any of their perceived, but in my mind excusable, flaws. Now, I was finally alone, and all my friends were happy.
Two days later, I ran into George at a party. “it’s all about having children,” he said. “if you want to get married, it’s to have kids, and you don’t want to do it with someone older than thirty-five, because then you have to have kids immediately, and then that’s all it about.”
I decided to check with Peter, forty-two, a writer, with whom I’ve had two dates. He agreed with George. “it’s all about age and biology,” he said. “you just can’t understand how immense the initial attraction is to a woman of childbearing years. For a woman who’s older, forty maybe, it’s going to be harder because you are not going to feel that strong, initial attraction. You will have to see them a lot before you want to sleep with them, and then it’s about something else.”
Sex lingerie, perhaps?
“I think the issue of unmarried, older women is conceivably the biggest problem in New York City.” Peter snapped, then thoughtfully added, “it provides torment for so many women, and a lot of them are in denial.”
Peter told a story. He has a woman friend, forty-one. She’d always gone out with extremely sexy guys and just had a good time, then she went out with a guy who was twenty and was mercilessly mocked. Then she went out with another sexy guy her age, and he left her, and suddenly she couldn’t get anymore dates. She had a complete physical breakdown and couldn’t keep her job and had to move back to Iowa to live with her mother. This is beyond every women’s worst nightmare, and it’s not a story that makes men feel bad.
Roger was sitting in a restaurant on the Upper East Side, feeling good and drinking red wine. He’s thirty-nine, and he runs his own fund and lives on Park Avenue in a classic-six apartment. He was thinking about that I will call the mid-thirty power flip.
“when you are a young guy in your twenties and early thirties, women are controlling the relationships,” Roger explained. “By the time you get to be an eligible man in your late thirties, you feel like you are being devoured by women.” In other words, suddenly the guy has all the power. It can happen overnight.
Roger said he had gone to a cocktail party earlier in the evening , and, when he walked in, there were several single women in their mid-to late thirties, all Upper East Side blond, wearing black cocktail dresses, and one wittier than the next. “you know that there’s nothing you can say that’s wrong,” Roger said. “for women, it’s desperation combined with reaching their sexual peak. It’s a very volatile combination, you see that look in their eyes---possession at any cost mixed with a healthy respect for cash flow---and you feel like they are going to Lexis and Nexis you as soon as you leave the room. The worst thing is, most of these women are really interesting because they didn’t just go and get married. But when a man sees that look in their eyes---how can you feel passionate?”
Back to Peter, who was working himself into a frenzy over Alec Baldwin. “the problemis expectations. Older women don’t want to settle for what’s still available. They can’t find guys who are cool and vital, so they say screw it---I’d rather be alone. No, I don’t feel sorry for anyone who has expectations they can’t meet. I feel sorry for the loser guys who these women won’t look at. What they really want is Alec Baldwin. There isn’t one woman in New York who hasn’t turned down ten wonderful, loving guys because they were too fat or they weren’t powerful enough or they weren’t rich enough or indifferent enough. But those really sexy guys the women are holding out for are interested in guys in their mid-twenties.”
By now, Peter was practically screaming. “why don’t those women marry a fat guy? Why don’t they marry a big, fat tub of lard?”
GOOD FRIENDS, LOUSY HUSBANDS
I asked that very question to Charlotte, the English journalist. “I will tell you why,” she said. “I’ve gone out with some of these guys---the ones who are short, fat and ugly---and it doesn’t make any difference. They are just as unappreciative and self-centered as the good-looking ones.”
“by the time you get to your mid-thirties and you are not married, you think, why should I settle?” Charlotte said. She said she’d just turned down a date with a beautiful eligible, recently divorced forty-one-year-old banker because his unmentionable was too small. “Index finger,” she said.
Then Sarah beeped in. she’d just gotten money to make her first independent film, and she was ecstatic. “this idea of women not being able to get married? It’s so small-minded, I can’t even deal with it. If you want to get these guys, you have to shut up. You have to sit there and shut up and agree with everything they say.”
Luckily, my friend Amalita called and explained it all to me. Explained why terrific women are often alone, and not happy about it, but not exactly desperate about it, either. “oh honey” she cooed into the phone. She was in a good mood because she’d had sex the night before, with a twenty-four-year-old law student. “everyone knows that men in New York make great friends and lousy husbands. In South America, where I came from, we have an expression: better alone than badly accompanied.”