The Shelf Life of a Trophy Wife

Billy Joel and his famously young third wife, Katie Lee Joel, split last week. From Donald and Marla to Sarkozy and Carla, VIEW OUR GALLERY and read our guide to the art of marrying up.

Ever since older men caught on that younger women have a thing for money and the finer things in life, they have been getting themselves trophy wives. The trophy wife, a title that entered our lexicon in the 1950s after appearing in an article in The Economist, is typically defined as the second or third spouse of an older, successful gentleman. She is publicly derided behind the closed doors of her husband’s contemporaries as arm candy or a bimbo. Her own friends cringe at the thought of their pal having to hop in bed with such a wrinkled old codger.

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But it’s these very women, the ones who hooked up with a man two or three decades their senior in what should be the prime of their lives, are often the ones having the last laugh. To the trophy wife, the period acting as nursemaid, arm candy, and perhaps even bimbo is a transitory stepping stone into a better life, and it doesn’t have to last forever. In fact just the opposite: The shelf life for the typical trophy wife—the time it takes her to increase her monetary and social standing for the rest of her days—is typically two or three years. Less than the time it takes for most doctors to finish their medical training. Consider, for instance, the five-year union of Billy Joel, 60, and Katie Lee Joel, 27, who announced last week they were getting divorced. In a joint statement to The New York Daily News’ George Rush, the couple’s publicist explained, “After nearly five years of marriage Billy and Katie have decided to separate. The decision is the result of much thought and consideration. Billy and Katie remain caring friends, with admiration and respect for each other.” The rumor mill has been buzzing for months that Katie Lee has been tiring of Billy and has been stepping out on “dates” in Miami with handsome Israeli fashion designer Yigal Azrouel, 36.

Joel reportedly has an iron-clad prenuptial agreement with his third wife so it is unlikely that she will walk away with the Grammy winner’s millions, but she is still expected to receive a healthy chunk of change and the couple’s swank Greenwich Village townhouse. In the near half-decade that Katie Lee Joel spent as Mrs. Piano Man, the former restaurant fishmonger transformed herself into a food critic, television host, and cookbook author. She became a fixture on the Manhattan social scene (where celebrities are often offered fees for party appearances), and will from now to eternity retain her status as the third wife of one of the best-known musicians on the planet. That’s not too shabby.

It is a relatively small price for most women to pay to be set for the rest of their lives. The initial value of their investment, Vi, is only a few years of youth but the final value, Vf, is a life of luxury. It’s a return on investment Warren Buffett would surely appreciate. Recall ex-stripper, Vicki Lynn Marshall, better known as the late Anna Nicole Smith, who flashed her ample assets for oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall, 63 years her senior, and after a 13-month marriage (her hubby died of natural causes) was able to parlay her wealth into a second career as a reality TV star. Smith reportedly never lived with Marshall so she was rarely around to change his diapers, but she contended until her death in 2007 that she truly loved the old man and that money had nothing to do with her decision to marry him, however briefly.

Real-estate magnate Donald Trump’s most famous trophy wife (he is still married to his most recent), Marla Maples, only walked away from their six-year union with about $1 million, but with enough property and child support to keep her in high heels and private jets for the rest of her life, in addition to the titles of socialite, actress, and spiritual adviser. “Golddigger” was among the kinder epithets used to describe the second marriage of Paul McCartney to former waitress and ski instructor turned model Heather Mills. But the often contemptuous blonde was paid dearly for enduring the six years of criticism from Beatle fans over the 26-year age gap between the two.

They merely have to grin and bear it for less than a decade—kiss some wrinkly ass, smile pretty, maybe give the old guy a roll in the sack, and they will walk away with a more secure future than a Wharton School graduate.

After a wicked and highly publicized divorce, during which Mills famously doused McCartney’s divorce lawyer with a cup of water in the courtroom, she received a lump sum payment of around $50 million in addition to $35,000 a year in support.

And in the ongoing high-profile split between United Technologies Corp. Chairman George David, 66, and his estranged wife, former Swedish socialite Marie Douglas-David, 36, she claims she deserves more than the roughly $43 million set out in the couple's post-nuptial agreement for six years of marriage. She wants to walk away with at least $100 million in cash plus $130,000 a month in support. Mrs. Douglas-David’s weekly expenses include $4,500 for clothes, $1,000 for hair and skin treatments, $1,500 for restaurants and entertainment, $8,000 for travel, $700 for limousine services, $2,209 for an assistant, $1,570 for horse care and $600 for flowers.

Call them bimbos all you want, but these ladies have enough brains to realize that while the rest of us are slaving away at assistant jobs in our 20s, living in tiny shared apartments and blowing thousands on higher education that will ultimately only catapult us to the upper middle class. They merely have to grin and bear it for less than a decade—kiss some wrinkly ass, smile pretty, and pose for pictures. Maybe, pop a Valium and give the old guy a roll in the sack once a week (month?), and they will walk away with a more secure future than a Wharton School graduate.

These women will always have the last laugh.

Johanna Piazza wrote the Full Disclosure column for the New York Daily News. A master's candidate in religious studies at NYU, she has contributed to the New York Times, Glamour, Blender, and is a regular contributor to CNN.