This Age Old Issue

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811)…

[Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility. Photo by me, 2023.]

…35-year-old Colonel Brandon falls for 17-year-old Marianne Dashwood…

It must be so. She was perfectly convinced of it. It would be an excellent match, for he was rich, and she was handsome…

…and they (SPOILER ALERT! LOL!) marry by the time Marianne is age 19. Austen’s fiction tends to be about women needing to marry to attain any sort of life security. And that was certainly the real-life case in 1811.

This definite real-life about a late-1800s U.S. president and his wife appears little-known today among Americans, as Wikipedia reminds us:

Frances Clara Cleveland Preston… was an American socialite, education activist, and the first lady of the United States from 1886 to 1889, and again from 1893 to 1897 as the wife of President Grover Cleveland. She remains the youngest presidential wife at the age of 21…

The 22nd president, Grover Cleveland (who had never been married), was 49 years old when he and 21-year-old Frances married.

[Frances Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland (in office 1885-1889 and 1893-1897). Photo by me in the National Museum of American History, 2018.]

Not long before she became romantically involved with Grover (whom she had known growing up because her – by then late – father had been close friends with him), she had told her mother that she wished to marry an “older” man. As her engagement to the president was becoming known, she traveled with her mother around Europe in 1885-86 (in a very “Gilded Age” sort of tour common for a well-to-do young American woman of the era). She returned to a public that wanted to know all about her, and there is no evidence of contemporary great public disapproval of their 1886 marriage even among women. Frances became a popular and even trend-setting first lady – with some women adopting her hairstyle, too.

Also a first couple possibly becoming parents while a president was in office was up to then unheard of. All previous presidential wives had evidently been past child-bearing age. However, Grover was narrowly defeated when he sought re-election in 1888:

As Frances Cleveland left the White House, she told a staff member, “Now, Jerry, I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again.”

And they did. In a presidential first, Grover won a non-consecutive second term in 1892 and became also the 24th U.S. president. After they had had their first child in 1891 (between his terms), Frances’s second, born in 1893, was the first presidential child born in the Executive Mansion (what we now call the White House). Due to a sudden major economic crisis that began early in Grover’s second term, until he left office in 1897 Frances was probably far more popular with the public than he was.

All told, Frances and Grover would have five children and remain married until his death in 1908. She re-married in 1913 with Wells College – her alma mater – professor Thomas Preston, who was two years older than her. She died in 1947 – within the lifetimes of many people who are now still with us…

See what you can learn here? LOL!

More recently, there has also been this:

[From Instagram.]

In 1943, a new and little-known model/actor Lauren Bacall was single and 19 years old when she first met 43-year-old married actor Humphrey Bogart. “Bogie” was “Hollywood’s” biggest male star. His marriage had also been “tumultuous” for some time; his third wife (who he had married only in 1938), Mayo Methot, was about 4 years younger than him, and they had become infamous in the media as “the Battling Bogarts.”

He and Lauren began an “affair” and his marriage’s days were clearly numbered. According to one biographer of Humphrey’s, a drunk Mayo phoned Lauren as the “affair” became widely known. She screamed at the 20-year-younger Lauren (who was living with her mother) that she was a “J-w b-tch” and that she had better be prepared to wash his socks and look after him (inferring he was old).

Humphrey and Mayo divorced, and he and Lauren were married shortly after in 1945. Humphrey had long wanted to be a father; and eventually they had two children. They remained married until his death in 1957… and until the end of her own life in 2014 Lauren said that she had never really gotten over the death of “Bogie.”

Why do I review such? Well, I’m a historian. Also, uh, while we think the past is gone, it rarely ever is…

[From Instagram.]

…because as you may have seen there has been a vicious social media reaction from many about a 48-year-old currently prominent actor and his latest reported (but still unconfirmed) romance:

[From somewhere on Instagram.]

That criticism of that high-profile actor is actually one of the calmer takes I have seen. (I do think it is also worth noting given that above that any seriously argued “defenses” of him from both men and also women appear to be based on the – seemingly reasonable – assertion that what two consenting legal adults in love do in private is entirely their business, which is also the argumentative major basis for legalizing, we may recall, same-sex marriage.) In one (now deleted, and probably for the best for the tweeter) widely read tweet I saw, someone assailed him by name as an “actual s-xual pr-dator” (written out clearly, which appeared in the circumstances to have gone well-beyond just a trollish “subtweet” and could by a court even have been considered defamatory based on the facts the relationship appears consensual and both are adults). On Instagram, one commenter I read also declared that anyone who does not condemn this relationship needs to be put on “a watch list.”

Less vicious and morally accusatory, among many other opinions I have seen, one “24-year-old” woman tweeted that she could not imagine dating even a “19-year-old” man as they had nothing in common (while apparently failing to realize that in saying that she is no different from most women who lived before her; that most women do not marry men who are “5 years” younger than themselves). There is also lots of commentary bouncing around on “gradations” of maturity, and that it might be “better,” for instance, if he was “58” and she was “29″ (which while perhaps interesting as discussion, is fundamentally merely conjecture as he is “48” and she is “19”). All such were united in being disgusted by the relationship, and many appear even to think it should be illegal.

Only the two of them know what they see in each other and why – and maybe they won’t even be “together” next week. Nevertheless, the anger vented by so many over that relationship is curiously occurring in our 2023, in which we are supposedly far more accepting of (and even willing to bless and encourage) all manner of personal relationships between consenting, unrelated adults. (Or we are told we should be.) Based on this meltdown over “Leo,” as a historian I am also amazed at how so many seem to consider events of the present as if we do not have a past we can consult for help in terms of us trying to understand, and it is easy to believe that if today there was a U.S. presidential marriage similar to the Clevelands’, or an acting one like the Bogarts’, or even if a newly published fictional one such as Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood were to become a “bestseller,” many on social media would plainly go bananas.

I do tread here lightly as this has always been an emotional and difficult subject because it is fundamentally about relationships, love, and aging, and lots of people have strong opinions about those – and particularly when it comes to other people’s lives and their choices. Full disclosure: The biggest age gap between myself and a woman with whom I was involved was about 5 years – we met when I was 28/29 and she was 23/24. However, my eventual wife, who I met some years after, and I were born a calendar year apart – so we are about the same age.

One objection raised repeatedly about “Leo” and his 19-year-old (again, unconfirmed as of yet) girlfriend is a presumed “power imbalance” (as in that Insta comment above) between an older man and a younger woman – likely because of his great wealth. As we saw with Cleveland and Bogart, there is absolutely nothing new in that historically. It is also worth remembering that throughout time it has almost always been a woman (of any age) who is generally sought by a man for marriage, with prospective husbands in all societies having tended to be at least a bit older than a wife usually because he needed to be able to support her and any children – and usually had to prove to his future father-in-law and mother-in-law that he could do so. And that reality still very much exists today.

[Photo by cottonbro studio on]

Also, the major reason for any “age gap” in many especially second marriages particularly before 1900 – when women often died before men, in particular due to complications from childbirth – was a man who had lost his wife, and who may have already been a few years older than her, would frequently re-marry with a woman who could have children; female relatives/friends would often match the widower up with that (even younger) woman (who herself might have also been a widow; men did die youngish, too). The result was usually that “48-year-old” widower was unlikely to re-marry with a “48-year-old” widow or “spinster” (the latter merely meaning a woman who had never been married) because it was unlikely she could have children (or more children). Again, we do tend to see much the same re-marriage behavior today from men.

Thinking on that led me also to remember an even older man I had known for a while in the 1990s. He was about age 40, and had a crush on a woman friend of mine who was slightly younger than me. Once he let his guard down when talking with me – and some of our talk eventually made its way into one of my novels two decades later (because that is what authors do… LOL!):

[From Distances. On Kindle for iPad/iPhone. Click to expand.]

To my then decade or so younger ears, what he was saying there had seemed a bit “old-man-ish” at the time; but I came I think better to understand his perspective as I too grew even older. Although he was having trouble finding a woman to marry, he had known that women preferred men who are capable of keeping a roof over her and her children’s heads. A “man-child” has always been the last thing a woman usually wants in marriage – and an older man is much less likely to be, well, immature and incapable of “providing.”

Marriages occur for a myriad of reasons. In the 1700s and 1800s, a woman expecting financial security was certainly one reason she married (or her family hoped she would); but it was also not usually the only one. Sometimes plain love was involved. Yet even today, when women do not as readily need to marry for money reasons, there are still many women who consider financial security an important factor in marrying.

[Photo by Jeremy Wong on]

Another perspective is perhaps that actor is uninterested in marrying at all and wishes only to socialize with women who may not want to marry yet – meaning maybe that “19-year-old” is building her career at this point and is uninterested in marriage and will not seek it from him unlike a “29-year-old” or a “39-year-old?” What is also so, and has been since the beginning of time, is if at “age 48” any man who is still unmarried and unattached wishes finally to find a wife and start a family, he has little choice but to marry a woman perhaps at least a decade younger than him and probably more. And if at “48” he chooses to wait still another ten years, she will then have to be probably at least “20 years” younger than him.

Compared with Jane Austen’s “1811,” we – including men – some two centuries on take gender equality far more rightfully seriously. With that determination many now reasonably also believe marriage between a man and a woman should be similarly “equal” in terms of age. That said, it is worth remembering that many happy couples of course have always also been close in age (for instance, George Washington was 8 months younger than Martha) and still are.

Is our determination to see greater equality between men and women more generally perhaps also underlying the vitriol and ridicule from so many over this “Leo” dating stuff? For why does anyone truly give a damn about his personal love life? Is social media aflame with attacks on him because he is so rich, globally famous, and involved in so many “progressive” social causes, while his dating behavior maddeningly serves as an unwelcome reminder that the aim of greater gender equality still fundamentally has to give way to the fact that even in 2023 a man can still have children whenever he wants in life as long as he is with a woman of child-bearing age, while no woman can really “equally” have children after “age 45” or so?

[A 1797 scene from Tomorrow The Grace. On Kindle for iPad/iPhone. Click to enlarge.]

About all we can say for sure is this age old issue of the “proper” age gap in relationships and in marriage is one of those social questions that has in its way always been with us, and will – at least for the foreseeable future – probably always be with us.

Have a good day (and a, uh, Happy Valentine’s tomorrow), wherever you are. 🙂