A few years back the public was much titillated – and news organs predictably excited – over a young woman who suddenly disappeared on the eve of her wedding. After police scoured several states for her, she finally called to say she had been abducted by a man, but was unharmed. Upon returning to her frantic family, however, she admitted that she had invented the entire story. She simply took a powder because of anxiety over the impending wedding. The groom said he still wanted to marry her, and presumably all ended well.
My private suspicion – unsubstantiated by any hard evidence – was that the “runaway bride” and the prospective groom cooked up the whole stunt to garner publicity which might produce a book and even a movie deal. Who knows, it might have worked. (As Paul Harvey used to say, “I’m sure they would want me to mention their names…”)
The media – evidently bored at the time with war, politics and the endless Washington merry-go-round – relished every scintillating detail of the bride-story. Part of their fascination stemmed from the fact that it ran counter to the natural order of things – a kind of “man bites dog” story. In the real world, goes the conventional wisdom, the groom is always the swine who aborts the wedding. So the runaway bride was big news.
Except that it ain’t necessarily so, although perhaps it once was. Statistics show that most wedding cancellations – perhaps as high as 75% – are actually initiated by the bride, not the groom. Nevertheless, the stereotype endures of the cad stranding the little woman at the altar. It is celebrated in story and song, including Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic opera, Trial by Jury.
Trial – the dynamic duo’s first production – opened in 1875. Gilbert’s libretto parodied actual cases of the time. A jilted bride has sued her erstwhile suitor for Breach of Promise. He has broken off their engagement and taken up with another woman. The scorned bride sweeps dramatically into court dressed in her wedding gown – all outraged virtue and blushing beauty. The (male) jurors fall instantly in love with her and vow to deal harshly with the “monster” who has wronged her.
The defendant pleads that he was simply a lovesick boy lured by a scheming woman. She became progressively more boring until one morning he became “another’s lovesick boy.” When the jury denounces him, he changes his argument and claims that he “smokes like a furnace” and is “always in liquor – a ruffian, a bully, a sot….” “She couldn’t endure me a day,” he declaims.
The madcap defendant proclaims his unfitness while the bride fervently declares her love. Finally, the groom offers to “marry one woman today and the other tomorrow.” The judge advises the bride to consider this “reasonable proposition,” but her attorney objects, declaring that
“In the reign of James the Second it was generally reckoned
As a rather serious crime to marry two wives at a time.”
The judge complains that “no proposal seems to please you” and he cannot sit there all day. To resolve the matter he offers to marry the bride himself.
All ends happily with the much superannuated judge carrying off his winsome prize and the defendant going his way with his new love. “Oh joy unbounded, with wealth surrounded – the knell is sounded for grief and pain…” sings the cast in the rollicking finale.
In reality, though, not every such marriage is (or was) “joy unbounded.” A few years ago my wife and I toured the town of Newport, Rhode Island, where the uber-rich of the late 19th century built mansions that boggle the mind. Among the princely summer homes along the coastline, the magnificent Vanderbilt “cottage” – built by railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt for $6 million in the 1890s – is exceptional. One bedroom belonged to his daughter, Consuelo.
Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlboro (from thefrenchsampler.blogspot.com)
One of the great beauties of her day, Consuelo Vanderbilt was just seventeen when she married the ninth Duke of Marlboro1 in 1895. Their wedding was the talk of two continents. Playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, said, “I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlboro get into her carriage.” (She certainly was a dish.)
Miss Vanderbilt had no interest in the 9th Duke (or any other duke), however, as she was secretly engaged to Winthrop Rutherfurd of New York. The ducal marriage was arranged by her mother, who locked the young woman in her room when she learned of her plans to elope with Mr. Rutherfurd. Friends said Consuelo was weeping behind her veil during the wedding ceremony. She went through with it because her mother had claimed her health was threatened by the girl’s opposition. (“Egad! I think I shall swoon…” – very original.)
Consuelo brought an heiress’s dowry of $2.5 million to the marriage – a non-trivial item to English nobility in the late nineteenth century, since many estates were heavily mortgaged from centuries of riotous living by family wastrels. Consuelo produced the tenth Duke in 1897. This, plus the dowry, completed the most important part of her duties as Duchess.
Consuelo stuck it out for 26 years, but she and the Duke finally divorced in 1921. She then married the famous French aviator and veteran of the Great War, Jacques Balsan. Their marriage – a love-match as ever was – continued until Mr. Balsan’s death in 1956, at age 88. Consuelo died in 1964 at 87. In their case, money didn’t buy love, but love eventually surmounted many obstacles.
Jacques Balsan and Consuelo (ca. 1933)
Although it is diverting to reflect on Consuelo’s story, and on madcap “runaway brides” like Claudette Colbert in the 1934 classic, It Happened One Night, the fact is that runaway grooms usually do more damage – even if they are in the statistical minority. While a groom can find a new bride with relative ease, the jilted bride might not be so lucky. An event I witnessed many years ago illustrates this truth.
An acquaintance in the church we attended was a single guy of about 30. A very serious young man, Art was well respected. He had been elected Elder, although he lacked some qualifications by being unmarried. Sara – also a member of our church – was an attractive young woman around his age who had two young sons. She was divorced, her husband having abandoned her and the boys several years earlier.
Both Art and Sara were active in the ministry of a national religious organization which advised Christians on Biblical living. They became close friends, and Art began to court Sara. Eventually, they made plans to marry. Because of their strong religious convictions, they did not live together, but Art had integrated himself closely into the family life of Sara and her boys.
Finally, the wedding day arrived. Hundreds of friends and relatives, happy for these fine young people, crowded into the church. Curiously, though, the attendants and the bride did not process to organ music in the usual fashion. Instead, Art and Sara strolled down the aisle, arm in arm, and stood before the crowd. Art announced that they had decided not to marry because of certain important “principles.” He invited everyone to join them for a celebration reception in the church hall.
Their “celebration” had all the ambiance of a wake. People stood around in shock. Some were crying. Others were angry and outraged. The day was dreadful. Although she tried to put on a brave face, Sara looked as though she had been mortally wounded. Of course, she had been.
Later, it came out that the leader of the national organization Art and Sara volunteered for had learned of their marriage plans and phoned Art just before the wedding. He advised Art not to marry Sara because she was a divorced woman. A strong stance against remarriage by divorced Christians was one of the Biblical “principles” advocated by his organization. Art accepted the remonstrance and agreed to cancel the wedding.
The pastor of our church pleaded with Art not to do this, but he could not be persuaded. Some of us later concluded that the ill-timed call played to a groom’s natural jitters and was the perfect “out.” (I could never understand this, as I had withstood my mother’s strong objections in order to marry. I doubt if a call from the President could have dissuaded me.)
The “un-wedding,” as it came to be called, produced a significant loss of confidence in that national organization and its leadership among members of our church. Many who had supported it ended their association. Art moved to another church and eventually married a different woman. Sara never married, so far as I know. Her boys grew up fatherless.
When the minister delivers the charge during a wedding ceremony, he typically cautions the couple that marriage should not be entered into lightly or frivolously, but reverently and in the fear of God. That’s right, of course. But if I had anything to say about it, I would add to the pre-marital counseling protocols a caution that marriages shouldn’t be cancelled frivolously, either. When they are, people can get hurt in ways that don’t heal very easily – and sometimes not at all.
It’s popular to say that marriage is not for the faint of heart. But it’s not for fools, either. We have laws about nearly everything. Too bad there isn’t a law about that.
- Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and the 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871-1934), were first cousins because Mr. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895), was the brother of the 8th Duke (1844-1892). As young people, Winston and Consuelo formed a friendship which lasted through their entire lives. Mr. Churchill honored that friendship, when he was Prime Minister, by helping Col. Balsan, Consuelo’s second husband, to escape from France, where he had been assisting Free French forces during World War II.
Consuelo with Winston Churchill at Blenheim (ca. 1900)