More than ever before (it is speculated) women of 44 are marrying or having affairs with men of 22.
And why not?
"Well," you might easily say to Jane Seskin (in her 30s) who has committed a book, "Older Women, Younger Men," "the women in your book all seem to spend a lot of time agonizing over any wrinkles they discover."
Seskin opened her blue eyes wide, as if she never heard of any obstacle to these May-December romances, and said:
"Maybe it's just for six months, and even that may be enough for some woman."
All along, Seskin had the feeling that these liaisons between older women and younger men were a lot more common than they used to be, and now - without any statistics to speak of - she is certain.
"It's a common enough thing in novels of the past," she said, setting down a huge briefcase and accepting a chair held for her, "as you recall in 'Madame Bovary' and 'The Red and the Black.'
"And everybody knows the celebrities, Gloria Swanson is 80, after all, and Princess Margaret and Doris Day and all the others whose involvements with younger men are well known. But now, all of a sudden, it's just the woman from Queens."
And there were the movies such as "The Graduate" starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman and more recently "Moment by Moment" with Lily Tomlin and John Travolta.
"I have no ax to grind," Seskin said. "I have never had that kind of relationship, so I'm not advocating it for everybody. But it seems to me one further step in freedom of action and more options for people."
She had six beautiful years of freedon, a sense of abandon, that a man has from the before his death nine years ago.
Seskin seems quite trim and athletic, and sure enough she was bounding about on a trampoline one day when she ruptured a disc and spent weeks in a hospital and forever in recovery, and now will not reach down to pick up fallen magnolia petals and things like that, nor carry weights above five pounds.
A bit at a loss, she became a writer.
"At least you have a place to go," she said as her eyes wandered about The Washington Post. "I write at home, and everybody assumes I'm just playing around."
"People always assume the worst about writers," she was informed, "and usually they're right. But from your research, how normal did you find the younger men in these relationships with older women?"
"Normal?" she inquired. As if it were the most usual thing in the world for a man of 22 to marry a woman 44.
"Completely normal. Within the usual range, you know.
"Older women are going with younger men both out of choice and out of necessity."
Women's liberation folk get all bothered if you call a woman a sex object, but among the liberated women choosing younger men one thing is utterly clear in the book:
Older women positively drool over young men and, not to split hairs about it, sometimes lust for them in their hearts.
But this is commonly followed by a relationship in which tenderness and compassion flower.
"If a man of 60 marries a woman younger than his daughter, nobody thinks that's odd," said Seskin.
"Is that because men have had the money, and social authority, to simply enforce their preference for younger women in bed?" I asked.
"We're not talking about just sleeping around," she said somewhat primly, "but of stable relationships like marriage or long-term affairs.
"But yes, I think it is simply the cultural heritage that has made us think older men-younger women is normal, but older women-younger men is somehow perverse. As Liz Smith (a columnist) said, when men have money and power they choose younger partners. Now it's the same with women."
Among women who preferred younger men for closeness, the following have attracted notices:
Princess Margaret, 47, and Roddy Llewellyn, 30.
Jeanne Moreau, 49, and William Friedkin, 38.
Doris Day and the 11-years-younger Barry Comden.
Louise Fletcher, 44, and Morgan Mason, 22.
Kim Novak, 44, and Bob Malloy, 37.
Seskin is fond of the "biological time-clock" theory. According to that, men reach a peak of sexual enthusiasm at 18, and commonly complain their wives are not interested as they ought to be.
And then, as men wear down, so to speak, women decide sex is very nice and become more desirous than their husbands.
So it makes sense, from that theory, for younger men and older women to get together in the first place.
Actress Gloria Swanson is quoted as observing:
"A woman biologically is not as old as a man. You must remember the menopause. For a woman, this is great. My God, she doesn't have to worry about getting pregnant. She has a sense of freedom, a sense of abandon, that a man has from the beginning."
Seskin and her co-author, Bette Ziegler, ran little ads in college newspapers and other likely outlets asking for confidential interviews with anybody who was, or had been, a partner in one of the May-December liaisons, and were astonished at the number of replies.
"Of course some people were unsure what was meant by older woman-younger man," she said.
"One couple responded that the woman was six months older than the man and wondered if that counted."
Her interviews turned up such domestic scenes as this:
"Joe taught me that sex could be fun; on the floor, in the shower, on the grass at a local park, and in the car. There were times I felt extremely paranoid. Loyal, faithful mother, president of the PTA and sex slave to a man over 10 years my junior. When I went to him at our different meeting places I felt like a spy, disguised with my collar pulled up and a huge pair of sunglasses.
"Then I'd run home to serve Spaghetti-O's and help the children with their school work."
Her husband commented, eventually, that she seemed happier.
"He was proud of my paintings, and thought that returning to art was the key.
"Joe and I are no longer lovers, but still friends. He'll be getting married in a few months and I couldn't be happier for him . . . While we were together I never felt old. The years just peeled away and I felt rejuvenated.
"I am back to being faithful wife and have no desire to stray. (My husband and I went on a second honeymoon a while back and it was sensational.)"
Ben Franklin used to advise young men to sleep with older women to get practice, and perhaps polish, especially since the women were "so grateful."
Seskin rather deplores that condescending approach, and pooh-poohs the inquiry whether some of these men choose older women because it's easier, the competition is less, etc.
One thing she and her co-author have noticed is that many young men have escaped the old macho ideals, and feel no need for a dominant position. They are commonly more sophisticated than earlier generations of males, and (chalk up one for the male team) are looking for greater depth, sophistication and serenity than they find in young women who are always laying down the law about something. If it's not careers, it's orgasms. So that, Seskin says she finds the men feeling it's a relief to turn to older women who have fewer hang-ups, more certainty in sexual matters and an easier view of life.
Seskin is still young, but how does she see herself in decades to come:
"I plan to be a feisty old lady," she said.
And is building dandy foundations. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Copyright (c) Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.; Picture 2, Author Jane Seskin, by Lucian Perkins