Years ago, I spotted an ad in the classifieds for the sale of a never-used wedding gown. Thinking I would get a column about a wronged woman left weeping at the altar by some creep, I called the number. Boy, was I wrong. It was she who had left him, she who was cavalier about the matter and she who thought the situation was nothing less than a stitch and a half. I saw no ad for a never-used tuxedo.
On my desk at the moment are two magazines, People and Life, both featuring stories about Donna Rice. I know quite a bit about her now. I know she's had breast-enhancement surgery and, of course, that she spent at least two weekends in the company of Gary Hart. From her pal, Lynn Armandt, I hear that Rice never left Hart's townhouse the one night in question and I assume, based on lots of reading about these things, that they slept together.
Now, I grant you that sleeping with a married man is not in the same league as child molestation, but it is not something to boast about either. In fact, it used to be considered immoral and therefore shameful. But shame is the one thing that Rice seems to lack totally. Renowned for just one thing, she appears determined to capitalize on it while uttering a Nixonian disclaimer that she is not a party girl. Hamlet's rebuke to Ophelia -- "Get thee to a nunnery" -- has been rejected by this Phi Beta Kappa out of the University of South Carolina. Instead, it's Hart who has not been seen since his now-celebrated lost weekend.
What's interesting about this state of affairs is how it stands conventional wisdom on its head. It echoes and amplifies all the wrong assumptions I made when I saw that ad for the wedding gown with the never-lifted veil. The wonderfully Victorian emotions I had assigned to the woman -- rage, heartbreak and, above all, shame -- are totally missing and to be found instead in the man.
In the immediate aftermath of the Miami Herald story, Hart was denounced as a womanizer. The word was uttered -- spat, may be closer to it -- with all the contempt that some people can summon. Women especially used the term as if nothing more need be said.
But I asked anyway. And I was told by women who are my colleagues that a womanizer is a bad, dishonest person. He lies to women, makes false promises, leads them on and uses them only for their bodies. I nodded halfheartedly to all of that, but then demurred. There are women, I maintained, who do not have to be led on. There are those, like groupies, who are colder and more calculating about sex than the men they sleep with. For this, I was roundly denounced and banished to my office to await an editorial rebuttal from Ms. Magazine.
But look at Rice. Where is the injured pride of the deceived woman? Where is the lady with the broken heart -- the one who was promised one thing but got another? Where is the woman who went for love but awoke to find reporters from The Miami Herald and instant scandal?
She is not there. Instead, it is Rice who, in effect, has used Hart. His career is in shambles and hers, at least for the moment, is on the ascent. For more than 15 minutes, she will be famous. She has an agent for photos, yet another for a possible book, and her celebrity status will be confirmed by an interview with Barbara Walters.
This doesn't conform at all to conventional wisdom. After all, it's men who are supposed to do the using and women who are used. It's men who -- boys supposedly being boys -- are forgiven this type of behavior and women who are denounced and scorned. Increasingly, though, this is not the case. Fanne Foxe hardly hid after her affair with Wilbur Mills was revealed; Elizabeth Ray did not slink away after she admitted that typing was not among the things she did for Wayne Hayes. No, it is the men who are ridiculed and their careers destroyed. The scarlet letter is now written in neon and worn by men. Women go on their merry way.
Long ago, I concluded that sexual morality, like airline food, was an oxymoron. But I cling to outdated notions of who wrongs whom, of what should be intimate and not public. I don't expect double suicides, but shame is a different matter -- the shame of immorality plus the shame of looking like a fool after being caught. At the very least, shame adds seriousness to an affair and marks the always thin line between romance and farce. But Donna Rice seems to have no shame. Maybe that's why Gary Hart has it all.