Passionate pairings, dysfunctional marriages, and jealous love triangles stoked many writers’ creative fires, producing the nine memorable works below. Joni Rendon and Shannon McKenna Schmidt are the authors of Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads.
Could T.S. Eliot have imagined the bleak world of The Waste Land if he hadn’t been driven to the brink of madness by his manic depressive wife? Would we have Tender is the Night if the Fitzgeralds’ own marriage hadn’t come undone in the south of France? Some scribes used writing as a way to work through conflicted feelings, while for others a romantic partner was the secret weapon that cemented their fame. Then there were the opportunists who exploited real-life scenarios for the sake of a good story. The writerly urge to kiss and tell may have wrecked the occasional romance, but readers reaped the rewards.
After the Fall
By Arthur Miller
Audiences reacted angrily to Miller’s play After the Fall and its unflattering portrayal of his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. In his thinly disguised dramatization of the pair’s tempestuous marriage, he re-styled Marilyn as a vulnerable and self-destructive singer who dies of an overdose. Although Miller began working on the play well before Marilyn’s own death, he was accused of exploiting her grim fate for dramatic purposes.
The Waste Land
By T.S. Eliot
“To her the marriage brought no happiness… to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land,” admitted the poet of his doomed union with Vivienne Eliot, who was eventually committed to an asylum. The pair’s neurotic eighteen-year partnership produced numerous mutual breakdowns and fueled the despair that drove Eliot to produce his modernist masterpiece.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
By D.H. Lawrence
Lusty Frieda Lawrence believed she deserved equal credit for her husband’s novels since she was the one who tapped into his amorous side. Lawrence liberally drew on her traits and experiences for his characters, including Lady Chatterley, the adulterous noblewoman who cheats on her wheelchair-bound husband. The novel mirrored the writer’s own struggle with impotence, which put an end to the couple’s once-active sex life and prompted Frieda to take a lover.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
By Gertrude Stein
It wasn’t until Stein looked to her longtime love for inspiration that she finally found fame as a writer, sharing the couple’s life story in Alice’s voice. The middle-aged celebrities made front page news while touring the U.S. to promote the memoir, charming audiences with anecdotes about their unconventional life and legendary Parisian salon attended by the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, and Man Ray.
The Kreutzer Sonata
By Leo Tolstoy
“It humiliated me in the eyes of the world and destroyed the last vestige of love between us,” Sophia Tolstoy said of The Kreutzer Sonata, her husband’s searing diatribe against marriage. In the novella, a man describes marriage as a prison and murders the wife he has come to hate. Embarrassingly for Sophia, the public immediately perceived the book as being based on the Tolstoys’ stormy relationship.
By Simone de Beauvoir
Chicago novelist Nelson Algren became the subject of malicious gossip as “Lewis Brogan,” the American lover of de Beauvoir’s alter ego in her roman à clef The Mandarins. Beauvoir fell in love with Algren (and was buried wearing his ring) but refused to leave philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom she had pledged lifelong devotion. Her novel, a fictionalized take on her Left Bank intellectual circle, centers on an adulterous woman torn between two men.
By Gustave Flaubert
It’s no coincidence that Flaubert rekindled an affair with his ex-mistress, Louise Colet, just as he began working on Madame Bovary. Before breaking her heart a second time, he surreptitiously mined intimate details from her life to include in the tale. Nothing was off limits to the brazen novelist, including the couple’s titillating first tryst in a carriage, which he enthusiastically likens to “tossing about like a boat” in the novel.
Sonnets from the Portuguese
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Better known as Elizabeth Barrett’s husband than for his poetry, Robert Browning was earnestly supportive of his wife’s career. When she presented him with forty-four sonnets she had secretly written during their courtship, he declared the intimate verse the finest since Shakespeare and persuaded her to publish them. The collection boosted her popularity even more among readers, who swooned for passionate lines like, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Tender is the Night
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Not one but two romantic relationships influenced Tender is the Night: Scott’s tempestuous marriage to Zelda and his infatuation with teenage actress Lois Moran. Like the novel’s Nicole Diver, who leaves her husband for a mercenary soldier, Zelda once considered dumping Scott for a French aviator. In retaliation, Scott blatantly squired Moran around Hollywood. It’s not known for certain if the pair’s relationship ever turned physical, but the actress made enough of an impression to inspire beautiful young temptress Rosemary Hoyt.