A Candy Box of History’s Sappiest Literary Lovers

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Jeanne Duval by Manet

Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval

Jeanne Duval was Charles Baudelaire’s ‘black Venus,’ an actress who was only too happy to help him run through his inheritance in record time. Baudelaire’s beautiful Haitian vamp companion was the perfect fashion accessory for a suave young urbanite such as himself, and the inspiration for much of his jaded, cynical, sarcastic world-weary verse.

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Lafcadio Hearn and His Wives Exotic

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Lafacadio Hearn was married to a black woman in Cincinnati — a thing illegal at the time. He left his illicit bride behind and emigrated to Japan, where he married the daughter of a samurai family.

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Francis Carco and Katherine Mansfield

French fantaisiste poet Francis Carco was a committed bohemian and exponent of free love. Novelist Katherine Mansfield was a free spirit from New Zealand in search of adventure and a fuller life than that afforded by her native land where, she claimed, her provincial countrymen “didn’t know the alphabet.” By the time she began an affair with Carco during the early years of World War I, Mansfield had already logged a number of passionate love affairs with both women and men. Carco was a wolf and a womanizer from way back, a gash hound of epic reputation. The mutual attraction between them was irresistible. Both had had multiple lovers before they met and launched themselves into a torrid fling during the throes of World War I. Mansfield, while at a field station in France, even went so far as to visit the trenches in search of her inamorato. Then they parted ways and each went on to a succession of fresh conquests and carnal adventures. Never were two souls more eerily alike. But like poles repel. Two ships passing in the night…

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Dylan Thomas and Caitlin MacNamara

From the moment they met in a public house in London in April, 1936, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and ingénue Caitlin Macnamara hurled themselves down the chute of a reckless, fifteen-year ride of desperate living, artistic glory, romantic ecstasy, poverty — often to the point of penury — and boozing. At the outset, the pair led a carefree and idyllic bohemian existence of reading, beachcombing, wandering the ragged cliffs of Wales’ wild seacoast, walking in the parks and cycling in the hills. Caitlin did her eurhythmic dancing a la Isadora Duncan. Dylan wrote, drank, published, read, and wrote and drank some more. They married. They fecklessly squandered every penny they got their hands on. He had multiple affairs. She had multiple affairs. He drank some more. She never scolded him for his drinking, nor for his profligacy with money; they knew one another’s weaknesses all too well. Constitutionally incapable of leading a bourgeois existence even though both longed for it, they lived like wild gypsy souls rolling and tumbling from one end to the other of a wild gypsy land, inhabiting a succession of cottages, houses, apartments and garrets from Swansea to Hampshire. He wrote and published and went on tour. He drank to the extent that life was becoming one prolonged debauch. His bacchanalian tendencies inflamed petty jealousies and incited fights over real and imagined infidelities. Worn out by debt and worry, and the demands of supporting a growing family, and sick in body and soul, he started to experience blackouts related to the alcoholic destruction of his brain. One night in 1953, during one of his vicious American tours, he walked into a bar and downed 17 whiskeys. He managed to return to his hotel and fell into a coma. Within days, at the age of 39, he was dead. Caitlin, whom Dylan had once described as being enveloped by an actual, all-but-palpable, physical glow, flew to New York to collect his body for burial at home in Wales. Then she composed her memoirs, slyly titled Leftover Life to Kill.

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Catullus and Clodia

To this day, Roman neoteric poet Catullus is remembered for the lines he wrote immortalizing Lesbia’s pet sparrow. Lesbia was his own pet name for his girlfriend Clodia, whose loose habits and wandering ways are plainly indicated by the title of another of his poems: On Lesbia’s Inconstancy. Born at Verona around 87 B. C. to wealthy father Valerius who was a friend of Julius Caesar, young Catullus ran with a fast crowd. Since he did not have to earn a livelihood, Catullus wrote to please himself and to entertain his friends, chief among them being the kitten Clodia who was, for him, an endless source of delight and despair.

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Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender

Through much of their lives, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender were well-acquainted. Auden and Isherwood met as school chums, and Auden and Spender first crossed paths as fledgling poets. Gay to a man, they did not form a sexual triumvirate per se. They practiced a form of musical beds by virtue of which each, at some time, was intimate with each of the others. This arrangement seems to have been patterned after the classical Greek mentor-disciple relationship in all its particulars. While Isherwood was an early exemplar and counselor to Auden, the latter remained the closest friend and advisor to Spender to the end of his days. Ultimately, Auden and Isherwood paired off in long-term partnerships with other men; by the age of thirty, Spender had converted to heterosexuality and, following a few flings with women, married twice and sired a daughter.

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George Sand and Alfred de Musset

The early decades of the nineteenth century were a time of ferment and upheaval which produced any number of extraordinary individuals. Surely, liberated French novelist George Sand (nom de plume of Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, Baroness Dudevant), who dressed in men’s clothing and adopted a male pseudonym in order to have her books published, must be counted among them. Sand threw herself into colorful dalliances with many prominent men, including composer Frederic Chopin and playwright Alfred de Musset who called such persons as Sand and himself children of the century, the distinguishing characteristic of whom was the temper of “disillusionment” they shared with their contemporaries. After calling it quits with Sand, Musset consoled himself with other entanglements, including one with Gustave Flaubert’s former mistress, Louise Colet. For her part, Sand commemorated her passionate liaison with Musset by writing the memoir She and He…

Vive l’amour!

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This piece is from Will Schofield‘s fantastic website, A Journey Round My Skull.


Gilbert Alter-Gilbert is a critic, translator, and literary historian whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals. More from this author →