Ladies of a certain age

In praise of... younger men

Barbara Amiel August 7 1978

Ladies of a certain age

In praise of... younger men

Barbara Amiel August 7 1978

Ladies of a certain age


In praise of... younger men

Barbara Amiel

Her movements are as careful and calculated as a Siamese cat’s. She stretches on the edge of a couch, fitted grey suit emphasizing a line of throat and waist, pencil skirt directing the eye to sheer stockings and high-heeled pumps. She is an elegant and wicked study of the sophisticated woman in heat. From the smooth line of cared-for hair to the flickering smile on painted lips, her face conveys a message of relentless predatory sensuality. Her quarry, the young man with fire in his loins but an adolescent foot in his mouth, doesn’t stand a chance. The on-screen action dissolves in a whirl of red silk underwear and creamy skin.

The role of the seductress,

Klari, in the film of Stephen Vizinczey’s novel In Praise of Older Women (to be released next month) is dangerously close to typecasting for 38-year-old Canadian actress Marilyn Lightstone. Apart from considerable professional credits (The Dyhbuk, Lies My Father Told Me), Lightstone epitomizes the “not growing older, just getting better” set. Says Lightstone herself: “I was born to be an older woman. 1 never felt the quintessence of my life would be in my teens or 20s.” In her personal life she continues to enjoy an 18-year-long liaison with a younger man, Moses Znaimer, now 34, president of a Toronto television station, CITY-TV. Unlike many actresses she seems more secure professionally, and more attractive, with each passing year. Though she professes some embarrassment about the film’s seduction scene—“I didn’t think my body was up to it”—those who have watched young men wistfully eye her at showbiz get-togethers consider Klari to be a character tailor-made for her.

Indeed, the film itself is tailor-made for our times. Thirteen years after its initial publication, Vizinczey’s classic novel has come into its own. When the book was published in 1965, its story of the “amorous recollections of András Vajda” and his sexual education was seen as an assault on the mores of the period. But today the older woman/young man syndrome is a media event. La femme d’un certain âge is being wooed, interviewed and merchandized with

North American thoroughness. How much of this new ascendancy of the Older Woman is myth—this season’s hot item on the huckster’s list—and how much actually reflects a genuine shift in society’s attitudes is difficult to sort out.

If the older woman is achieving new prominence as an object of sexual desire for all ages of men, then part of that desirability may well be a case of making a virtue out of necessity. In the past, women in their 20s were considered the only suitable objects of a man’s ardor. “Older women” from 30 to 45 were supposed to bake brownies or retreat to the support of latex and the veil. But demographic shifts are drying up the supply of younger women. The famous post-war baby boom gave us the ’60s and the illusion that everyone was under 25. The rallying cry of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” echoed from the wrinkle-

less faces of millions of young people whose intolerance toward older segments of society seemed based on a Peter Pan view of their own complexions. In the decade between 1961 and 1971 the percentage of the Canadian population between the ages of 20 and 29 increased while the percentage of those in 30 to 39 age bracket dropped. It seemed there was to be a limitless supply of age-mates for the young-atheart. But as Canada moved away from the post-war baby boom, birthrates and population growth began to zero out.

Explains University of Toronto Associate Professor of Sociology Lorna Marsden: “The usual trend is for men to marry women three to five years younger than themselves. But many men are going to find in the next few years that there are simply not enough women of that younger age to marry the last of the baby-boom boys. One natural conclusion is that they may have to look to older women.” Current projections for the 1980s and 1990s point to a growing shortage of younger women as the population bump moves into the 30s, 40s and 50s age group. To complicate matters, current divorce trends in Canada are producing more divorcees in their 30s and 40s. “These are the women,” theorizes Marsden, “who just may be choosing men from the baby boom for their affairs or second marriages. But at the moment we simply don’t know. And we have to remember that we can’t judge the situation by what’s going on in Toronto or Montreal. In the country as a whole, more people seem to be doing more conventional things than ever. Marriage as an institution is strong and the tradition is still, clearly, to marry a younger woman.”

In spite of the trendiness of the big-city lifestyle, what goes on in Montreal, New York or Vancouver, generally filters down in a diluted form to influence the whole population, from Des Moines to Moose Jaw. So there may be a message in preliminary scans of marriage statistics from California (a state that seems eager to compile statistics on anything that wriggles) where a comparison is under way of records for the years 1973 and 1976. Early indications are that the records show an increase in marriages between men aged 23

to 29 and women 30 to 36. Part of this new relaxation of the hard and fast rules about marrying women in the under-30 set may have to do with a decreasing emphasis on the importance of having children. As more couples opt for the higher standard of living and flexible lifestyle that a childless marriage gives, the premium on a woman’s youth becomes less important.

Judith Kelly Howard, convent-educated and the product of a strict Australian upbringing, was 22 when she married her first husband in 1959. He was a dentist, five years older than Kelly, and already set up in practice in his native Montreal. After 11 years of marriage, Kelly had cornered her piece of the Canadian Dream. She had a home in Westmount, two children, household help and a comfortable, secure life. By anybody’s standards, including her own, life had been generous to her. Then the spirit of the ’60s swept across the parquet floors of her home. Her husband began talking wistfully about “swinging” and “open marriages.” One day, after a domestic spat, he looked at Kelly and said, “You’re getting old.” A switch went on in Kelly’s head. Rage swept thick and corrosive into her mouth. “I’ll never be old,” she hissed. “You’re too old for me.” She left town, taking the two children with her.

Five years later she began dating a young man. Today, Kelly Howard, 41, is social columnist for the Ottawa Journal and wife of Dan Howard, 29, architect and professional photographer. When Kelly does the diplomatic circuit for her job in Ottawa, tongues wag. A CBC interviewer doing a mini-documentary on her career couldn’t wait to get to the nitty-gritty question: “Everyone is just dying to know,” he smiled. “How old is your husband?”

The advantages of the marriage seem clear to the Howards. Kelly says “older men seem to equate assertiveness in a woman with aggressiveness. But Dan doesn’t worry about that. He doesn’t feel threatened by the fact that at the moment I’m the star of the family.” Says Dan: “I don’t mind walking three steps behind her. And I can calm her down, act as a complement to her dynamism.” Emotionally and sexually they consider it ideal. Says Dan: “Older women have a wealth of experience and a great deal to talk about. Kelly knows what she wants and she’s not shy or inhibited. We’re continually reassuring one another and trying to map out what we’ll do when the age thing becomes more apparent, but I think it’ll be super. Instead of two retired people, I’ll have the energy to look after Kelly properly. She calls me her future investment.” Kelly herself faces the future unsentimentally. “Sure I’m worried about what will happen in 10 years when Dan is a successful architect and hitting that crisis when men start looking around. But you see I married a good man five years older than myself, just like I was supposed to, and that didn’t work out. What’s the point of worrying about this?”

The celebration of the 35-year-plus woman has been building over the past two years, and when Harper’s Bazaar published its list of America’s 10 most beautiful women last April, not one (from model Cheryl Tiegs to actress Candice Bergen)

was under 30. The article was also a new peak in the breathlessness of the glossy mag approach to over-30 women. Sighed Harper’s Bazaar, apparently entranced by its own daring: “When Candice Bergen went public about turning 30, she almost single-handedly seemed to turn around the American way of approaching what, till then, was often an unmentionable age. ‘Turning 30,’ she said, ‘is a good way to talk about age-ism ...’ ” In Canada the subject has been inspected recently on CBC radio and television as well as Moses Znaimer’s CITY-TV. The Toronto Star informed readers of the phenomenon in an article entitled “Love’s lovelier when your man’s younger” and illustrated it with pictures of Adrienne Clarkson, 38 (current boy friend author John Ralston Saul, 30) and Princess Margaret, 47 (current beau would-be rock star Roddy Llewellyn, 31). Suddenly it was the new chic. Homosexuals had just finished deserting closets in droves. Now it was the turn of the youth-snatchers. Female celebrities competed with one another in the disparate-age-stakes. Revealed author Erica (Fear of Flying) Jong, 36 and wife of Jonathan Fast, 30: “What a gag, I thought, what a gas to seduce a kid.” Said 78-yearold Gloria Swanson when she married her sixth husband, 60-year-old writer William Duffy: “Men would like to think when a woman reaches menopause, it’s the end of romance. But it’s really the beginning of everything, because there’s no worry about whether to get pregnant or not.” Actress Valerie Perrine, 34, bubbled enthusiastically about “going steady” with 23-yearold Neis Van Patten: “Older men are so stuffy, I find,” explained Miss Perrine. “They’re always trying to be macho. I don’t need that. I just need someone like Neis who’ll take me roller-skating.”

The ultimate “younger man” of the celebrity set these days is actor John Tra-

volta, who has just finished making a movie with 38-year-old comedian Lily Tomlin. She plays a chic Malibu housewife who falls in love with Travolta as a 19-year-old delivery boy. In real life, Travolta lived for several years with actress Diana Hyland who died of cancer last year when she was 39 and he was 23. As he said in 1976: “I like older women — but when you’re 22, most women are older.”

In fact there is nothing new about actresses or indeed any prominent woman taking up with a man younger than herself. It’s a tradition far older than Madame de

Staël and celebrated in literature from Euripides to Colette and Brian Moore. Observers of human nature have never missed noting the sexual magnetism between older women and younger men—or, for that matter, between younger women and older men. Exceptional women (and men) have always been able to indulge themselves. What may be new is that now ordinary people can enjoy such alliances. This is in part because of economic shifts in our society. In the past most women were financially resourceless and young men were broke. Today women are in the labor Q market and can afford to date whomever z they please. Calgary’s Laura O’Connor,

0 46, separated after 25 years of marriage, is “ back working as a receptionist. She enjoyed z dating a man of 29 for a year. Now she

enjoys the company of men in their early g 40s.

3 In Vancouver, ex-lecturer Mark Budgen m notes the rising phenomenon of the universi sity campus as a divorce ground. “In the y ’50s and ’60s,” says Budgen who taught in g the United States as well, “the campuses

1 were hunting grounds for young girls looking for husbands. Today with older men and women returning to school and meeting younger people with new ideas and fresh outlooks, one tends to see the Junior Common Room as a divorce centre.”

University of Calgary psychologist Kathleen Cairns, 35, married sex counsellor Brian Woodward, 28. When the two first met several years ago Cairns’ friends were disturbed by her evident interest in a 24-year-old student. “You’re not going to get involved,” they all cautioned. “Bloody hell, I am,” she replied. Her mother’s initial reaction was tentative: “Kathy,” she worried. “I want you to be happy—but a boy scout?” Today both Cairns and Woodward lament the fact that society’s emphasis in evaluating such relationships still seems to be based on whether or not the woman is sexually attractive and well preserved.

There’s no question that advances in medical care, plastic surgery, cosmetics and fitness and health attitudes have postponed the more immediate effects of aging. > It’s increasingly difficult to pinpoint the o age of a woman between 20 and 35. Model elling, the first area to reflect society’s attife tudes to wrinkled skin, has expanded the g life-span of a good female model by half a dozen years at least. “In my day,” says exmodel and Toronto model agency owner Eleanor Fulcher, a chic and vibrant 44year-old, “a model was considered over the hill at 25. Today a good model can work well into her 30s. Of course clients still specify we want a 24-year-old. We just send them the pictures and the girls that match their requirements and half the time they choose models well over their age limit.”

One of Canada’s top models, Lynda C. Hill, 31, currently booked out of Toronto until September on assignments in New York, Paris, Tokyo and Barcelona, claims

“there’s no age limit on models anymore. Ten years ago all the agencies were into the Twiggy thing. Now the look is that of the sophisticated woman.” Hill herself currently spends her time with a man three years her junior. She refuses to become frantic about exercises and diet. “I just do whatever my body tells me,” she says waffling down a steak and salad.

In style, the differences between the way a 45-year-old woman dresses and the clothes her daughter uses have all but vanished. Complains one 42-year-old Toronto mother: “Forget about discussions over who does the dishes or whether or not she can go to Nice with a 40-year-old. Our most vicious arguments come when my 18year-old daughter wants to take my entire wardrobe with her to college. Every morning while she was at high school it was like a guerrilla attack. She’d come silently, sneaking into my closet.” Explains Eleanor Fulcher: “Enrolment is up in the middleage group of women in our self-improvement classes. And one of the first things I explain to them is that you don’t have to try desperately to look young. Be your age. It’s those women who are still trapped in the clothing styles and makeup of their youth, the hard lines of the ’50s, the structured clothes and lacquered hairdos of the early ’60s who look old. Get rid of their fixation on youth as they remember it and they’ll look a dozen years younger.”

Reports from across Canada indicate that while the media may well have exaggerated the instances of older women taking up with younger men, like all well publicized trends the exposure given to such relationships will gradually make them more acceptable. Twenty years ago marriages between Catholics and Protestants (never mind racially mixed unions) were enough to ostracize a couple in many communities. But today, whether or not instances of mixed marriages have increased is beside the point. Public acceptance of such marriages has. Still, right now in many communities, women may be enjoying younger men—but behind lace curtains. Gary Lynch, 25, a transplanted Torontonian now in Prince Edward Island, has often dated older women. “But here,” he says, “you’d get raised eyebrows.” Explains Jean Perry, 43, of Charlottetown: “It’s the nature of the community that keeps me from being more open in friendships with younger men. At my stage I have a lot of older friendships and some younger friends. But I play down the younger men. In a larger centre I could go out for a meal or a drink with a younger man and nothing would be thought of it. But here . . .” Whatever the magazines say, the stigma of aging is still very much operative in our society. When CBC’s Take 30 tried to do a show on older women and younger men they had to postpone it after running into blanket refusals from women who simply didn’t want to publicize their age. Researchers and journalists looking into the subject find themselves plagued with phone

calls from women on the day after interviews with tearful requests not to publish their ages. More sadly, women who in interviews laid claim to happy marriages of

15 years, would, after an hour or so of reflection, confess that the real secret of their youthful looks and vitality lay in their younger lover. Explained one woman: “I love my husband deeply. But by now I could put on 30 pounds and paint my face blue and he’d love me just as much and never notice. The reason I keep my figure trim and don’t slide comfortably into old age is the magic my younger man gives me whenever he looks at me. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone over 40 to be married and stay young without a lover.” And in the world of mass-marketed pulchritude the older woman may be recognized but her attractiveness still has very definite age limits. When Playboy did a pictorial feature last year on “The Mystique of the Older Woman,” the models were, with one exception, in their late 20s or early 30s. Torontonian Eva La Pierre Gord was featured in the article. “I was 29 when the pictures were taken,” she explains, “and the Playboy people genuinely felt I was an older woman. For their eight million readers they follow a philosophy that a woman, like a flower, unfolds her petals and has a moment of bloom. Then she’s finished. Useless. That moment comes between 18 and 23. Twenty-three is very sticky, but they’re prepared to gamble. After I did the photography session, the vice-president of Playboy Enterprises sent me a letter thanking me for being ‘the most beautiful older woman’ they had ever photographed.”

Still, society is changing. As talk of mixed-age marriages increases we may be seeing the end of the youth culture. We may also be seeing the reflection of a society’s lack of interest in increasing or maintaining its own numbers. An older woman may be more interesting, more experienced and more selfless than her 20-year-old counterpart, but the one thing she cannot do is have children. The cynical may detect another force at work in this elevation of the older woman. The generation that grew up in the ’60s may be the first in history to shift intact the narcissism of their youthful 20s into their sober 30s. It does not seem a coincidence that many of the leaders in the cult of older women are the same trend setters who sold us youth worship 10 years ago. The only hope the really aged in our society have is that youth cannot extend its borders indefinitely. Jogging, cosmetics, transcendental meditation and plastic surgery can only do so much. The flower children of the ’60s may extend their youth by

16 years but they are still putting a premium on youth and appearance. It’s a losing battle. At one point youth disappears. Other societies—and our own in ages past—have regarded youth as its own reward and reserved power and veneration for older people. As the 1960s’crowd ages, perhaps this bit of common sense is being rediscovered.^