The Secret Bonds of Matrimony
Outlaw Marriages Proves That Successful Gay Marriages Have Been Around Forever
by Rodger Streitmatter
(Beacon Press, $26.95)
With her signature line, "I vant to be alone," Greta Garbo's expertly crafted thick faux-Russian drawl communicated more about her personal life than most of her audience probably realized. According to Rodger Streitmatter's Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples, Garbo's almost-30-year relationship with Spanish American socialite Mercedes de Acosta was the primary external force behind Garbo's success as a film star and cultural icon. Streitmatter describes how the glamorous de Acosta coached Garbo—a poor Swedish immigrant—to walk, talk, and deliver dialogue, sometimes even writing the lines and designing the costumes that shaped Garbo's immortal stamp on popular culture. He highlights the rises and falls of the couple's sometimes tumultuous relationship—which the fiercely private Garbo insisted be kept from the public eye—from topless romps on private islands and nude sunbathing in terraced urban gardens to Garbo's final dismissal of her openly lesbian partner.
The prologue to Outlaw Marriages concludes with this sentence: "Two people joining together to create an outlaw marriage plays a central role not only in the couple's extraordinary achievements, but also in each individual partner's very being." The seemingly obvious nature of this statement in no way diminishes its importance—and Streitmatter expertly threads together the historical backgrounds and incredible courage of these couples as they lived and loved through eras far less open to same-sex relationships than today.
The book's presentation is quite simple, a tidy series of case studies about influential same-sex couples whose relationships deeply affected their artistic, political, academic, and cultural contributions to society. With histories of famous couples such as Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, Aaron Copland and Victor Kraft, and Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, as well as lesser-known names like Martha Carey Thomas and Mamie Gwinn, Outlaw Marriages had the potential to be a monstrously detailed text, attractive only to other researchers or those with a strong penchant for academic jargon. But Streitmatter perfectly executes his mission to make these stories accessible, and while the book is obviously influenced by his journalistic and academic background, it's a damn good bunch of stories told in a very approachable 160-ish pages.
As often happens with biographies, Outlaw Marriages is full of tasty little personal details: Whitman wrote "O Captain, My Captain" in response to his partner's witnessing of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. De Acosta was an early lover of one of my most cherished icons, Isadora Duncan. Tennessee Williams was a subpar college student who spent more time writing for pleasure than studying. Outlaw Marriages delves into the personalities and passions of these complicated and incredibly fabulous people with equal respect for their public and private lives, accomplishments and low points. We all love, succeed, fail, try, and settle, and the influence of the people around us—primarily of our partners—is an integral part of those processes. When these partnerships have to be kept secret, on the down low, from one's family or colleagues, the courage and strength required to keep working, living, and loving is huge (HUGE). Outlaw Marriages gives some of these couples their long-overdue recognition.