Valentine’s Day is here again, and if that has you wondering how to improve your own relationship, then take a moment to ponder what we can learn from the world’s most successful and/or disastrous power couples.
Caesar and Cleopatra: Mark Antony and Cleopatra are often held up as the iconic power couple of history, for which we can blame Shakespeare (or Hollywood power couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who played them on the silver screen). However Cleopatra’s romantic relationship with Caesar, which predated her affair with Antony, was actually the key to her power. Cleopatra was sole ruler of Egypt from 51 BC, and when the Romans marched into her territory she seduced Julius Caesar as a means of staying in power. It worked, brilliantly; she ruled until 30 BC, outliving Caesar (who was assassinated in 44 BC). It was only after Caesar’s death that she hooked up with his military commander Antony. However their alliance against Caesar Augustus was profoundly unsuccessful. After losing the Battle of Actium to his forces, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra followed suit, killing herself by getting an asp to bite her.
Moral: Always date the organ grinder.
David Bowie and Iman: He was Britain’s most exciting musician, and she was the world’s most exciting supermodel, working with everyone from Avedon to Leibovitz. Few surprises, then, that the 1992 marriage of David Bowie and Iman turned out to be a lengthy, solid and successful affair. Iman, who is naturally said to be heartbroken since Bowie’s death, has been spotted walking a pet dog with one eye which is a different color to the other—a canine reminder of her Starman—in the week’s since the singer’s passing. Iman—whose name means ‘faith’ in Arabic—has maintained a dignified silence since her husband’s death, but in recent days took to Instagram to share a note that reads: "Each tear is a poet, a healer, a teacher."
Moral: If David Bowie was the coolest person who ever lived, Iman comes a close second.
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé: Bergé was the long-term partner of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, and the business brains behind one of the most revolutionary fashion brands of the 20th century. They met in 1958 and launched Yves Saint Laurent Couture in 1961. A true power couple in the sense that each needed the other to bring out their own strengths and qualities, the couple split amicably in 1976, but remained lifelong friends and business partners, with Bergé known as ‘The Dean’ in YSL circles. A few days before Saint Laurent died in 2008, he and Bergé were joined in a same-sex civil union known as a Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS) in France. During Bergé’s eulogy at Saint Laurent’s funeral, he said, “The years passed. Oh, how they passed quickly. The divorce was inevitable, but the love never stopped.”
Moral: Working together can sunder even the most loving relationship.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé: He may not be too popular with her sister Solange, but Jay and Bey’s amazing showbiz marriage, now almost eight years old, continues to chug along. And who hasn’t had the odd row with their sister-in-law? Despite frequent predictions that the marriage is about to implode, the relationship seems to have a remarkable momentum, no doubt assisted by the immense commercial and artistic success of their collaborations. Is it the world’s biggest marketing scam or a case of unlikely hip-hop true love? And who cares, provided you’re still topping the Billboard 100?
Moral: Sometimes it’s worth staying together for the quids.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: The power couple of the 20th-century art world, Kahlo and her mentor Rivera, 20 years her senior, were married in 1929. He was overweight, given to drunken posturing and understandably unpopular with Frida’s mom. They both were irascible and had numerous extramarital affairs—Kahlo had a fling with Rivera’s pal Leon Trotsky. She also had affairs with women, which Rivera tolerated. Rivera himself had an affair with Frida’s younger sister, Cristina. The couple divorced in November 1939, but were even more wretched without each other, and remarried in December 1940. Rivera was much more famous than his wife during their lifetimes—Kahlo’s recognition culminated in the purchase by the Louvre of a single painting—and this was a source of some resentment for Kahlo. Ironically, since the 1980s, and following the rise of the Neomexicanismo movement in art, Kahlo has become the more celebrated.
Moral: Posthumous success sucks.
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe: Miller was such an acclaimed genius that his marriage to Monroe in 1956 often attracted suspicion. What would a towering intellectual see in an archetypal dumb blonde? A letter he wrote her in April of that year answers that question: "I will come again to the kitchen, pretending you are not there and discover you again. And as you stand there cooking breakfast, I will kiss your neck and your back and the sweet cantaloupes of your rump and the backs of your knees and turn you about and kiss your breasts and the eggs will burn."
Moral: Burnt eggs never ruined a marriage.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who married in 1956, were the literary giants of their day, but Plath suffered terribly from depression and in 1963 she killed herself. Many of Plath’s fans held Hughes responsible for the author of The Bell Jar’s death, as he had started an affair with a German copywriter and poet, Assia Wevill, in 1962. Hughes’s critics interpreted his often-macho, muscular poetry as a sign of his lack of compassion for his wife and womankind in general. In one instance, Hughes’s name was chipped off Plath’s tombstone in Yorkshire. Wevill and Hughes continued their relationship after Plath’s death; however, he had other affairs and Wevill also committed suicide—pointedly using the same method as Plath, a gas oven. However many critics softened their opinion of Hughes after the publication of his astonishing 1998 collection Birthday Letters, his response to the suicide of Plath, which won multiple prizes.
Moral: Only two people really know what goes on between two people.
Eva and Juan Perón: ‘Evita’ was the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón. A young actress (do we detect a theme for the wives of presidents here?) she met Colonel Perón in 1944 during a charity event to benefit the victims of an earthquake in San Juan, Argentina, and the two married soon after. Perón was elected president of Argentina in 1946 and over the next six years, Eva became powerful within the pro-Peronist trade unions, primarily speaking on behalf of labor rights. She ran the Ministries of Labor and Health, founded the charitable Eva Perón Foundation, championed women’s suffrage in Argentina, and founded the nation’s first large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party. At one stage she seemed set to become vice president herself, but ill health forced her to withdraw from the 1952 election. She died the following year and was given a full state funeral, amidst unprecedented displays of public mourning.
Moral: It’s no use asking people not to cry for you if they love you.
Rudolf Nuryev and Erik Bruhn: Modern ballet would be a very different beast were it not for the long partnership of Rudolf Nuryev and Erik Bruhn. Bruhn was a gifted dancer who made his name with his May 1955 début in the role of Albrecht in Giselle, dubbed “The Matinée that Made History” in contemporary reviews. Bruhn met Nuryev, the celebrated Russian dancer, after Nureyev defected to the West in 1961. Nureyev was a great admirer of Bruhn, although stylistically the two dancers were very different. Bruhn became the great love of Nureyev’s life and ultimately gave up his own ambitions to support Nuryev in his successful attempts to transform the role of the male ballet dancer into something other than a mere support to the women. Bruhn died in 1986, officially from lung cancer, however there has been much speculation he may have been an early casualty of HIV, which killed Nuryev in 1993.
Moral: Shared interests make for a happy relationship.
Mao and Madame Mao: Jiang Qing—aka Madame Mao—and her husband, Chairman Mao, were the Bill and Hill of Chinese politics in their day. Like many Chinese political wives, it was as an actress that Madame Mao first attracted the leader’s attention, and she swiftly became his fourth wife. She used her position to take an active role in the Chinese Communist party, and became a vociferous cheerleader for the Cultural Revolution. However, when Mao died in September 1976, her grip on power slipped with rapidity. She was soon arrested and denounced as a counter-revolutionary. She was sentenced to death, a verdict later commuted to life imprisonment, but she committed suicide in 1991.
Moral: If married to the head of the Communist revolution, try and die before he does.
Honorable mentions to the following power couples who also show us how it is done (or not): Bill and Hill, Brad and Angie, Will and Kate, Elizabeth II and Phil, Portia and Ellen, Bill and Melinda, Tony and Cherie, George and Amal, Ferdinand and Isabella, Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Johnny and June Carter Cash.