Don’t Mind the Gap

A defense of “May-December” marriages like Hugh Hefner’s.

A rule of thumb for determining the social acceptability of the age gap between romantic partners is to divide by two and add seven. If a man is 60, for example, his companion must be at least 37. If a woman is 30, her beau must be at least 22. Hugh Hefner has a simpler rule: His age doesn’t matter, but she needs to be in her 20s.

Hefner first married in 1949. She was a student at Northwestern University. He was 23. They divorced 10 years later. Hefner didn’t remarry for another 30 years, when his bride was 27-year-old Playmate Kimberly Conrad. They separated in 1998. Then, on Monday, the 84-year-old Playboy founder announced on Twitter his engagement to 23-year-old Playmate Crystal Harris. *

The May-December marriage—one person in the spring of life, the other in winter—is often seen as illustrating everything that’s wrong with American society: Rich old horndogs, interested only in beauty, taking trophy wives interested only in money or fame. Hefner surrounds himself with one nymph after another (sometimes two at a time), each more plastic than the last. Anna Nicole Smith weds an octogenarian billionaire, presumably for the money, only to overdose before she can cash out. Donald Trump trades in Ivana for Marla for Melania.

But is there really anything wrong with May-December marriages? The research is thin, but there’s little evidence that marriages with wide age gaps between partners turn out any worse than marriages between people born around the same time. Presumably, at least some of the time, these arrangements fit each person’s needs better than marrying someone the same age would.

Marriage experts like to cite age difference as a “risk factor” for any couple—much like a difference in religion or race, or a gap in income or education. But the numbers tell a different story. A government study conducted in the United Kingdom in 2005 examined marriage data since 1963 and found that age disparity isn’t a significant factor in determining whether couples get divorced. A Canadian study found that an age gap can correlate with a higher likelihood of divorce—especially if the woman is older—but it can also make divorce less likely: “Divorce rates are lowest when the husband is two to ten years older than the wife or when the magnitude of their age difference is extremely large.” Numbers are harder to come by in the United States, but age difference wasn’t a strong enough predictor of divorce to make it into this divorce calculator. (It’s possible that the divorce numbers skew low because one partner dies before the marriage turns sour. But on the other hand, perhaps a reminder of impending mortality is just the spice a marriage needs.)

The list of successful (i.e., not ending in divorce) celebrity age-gap marriages is long. The most famous May-December couple—if you don’t count Menelaus and Helen—was probably Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944, and despite their 25-year age gap (he was 45, she was 20), they married the next year. * Bogart agonized over the age difference, Bacall writes in her memoir, thinking that “[h]e could be my father, I’d never stay with him, it couldn’t last.” There was also “the fact that I was just beginning my career. Would I want to give it up? Should I be asked to?” But Bogart handled the disparity well. When Bacall developed a crush on Leonard Bernstein, Bogart “had the patience and trust in me to let me grow. He knew I was an innocent, never having had the chance to spread my sexual wings, so he allowed me my intermittent crushes.” They stayed together until Bogart’s death in 1957.

Bogart shouldn’t have worried so much—he wasn’t alone. In 1943, 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin * married Oona O’Neill, the 17-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill (a 38-year gap). The couple had seven children and never divorced. Fellow comedian Groucho Marx followed in 1954, marrying his third wife, Eden Hartford, when she was 24 (40 years apart). Both men paved the way for Woody Allen to marry Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow. They wed when Allen was 62 and Soon-Yi was 27 (a 35-year difference). Farrow herself had married a 50-year-old Frank Sinatra when she was 21 (29 years apart; their marriage lasted only two). Other couples who tied the knot despite wide age gaps: Tony Randall and Heather Harlan (50 years), Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (25 year gap), and Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall (62 years).

It’s not just Hollywood celebs either. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas married four women, the last of whom was 23 to his 67 when they wed in 1965. Former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina married a former Miss South Carolina when he was 66 and she was 22. “The Thurmonds typify a tendency of many May-December couples: they strive to be more normal than normal,” said a feature in Time in 1969. ” ‘I love her and I’m very happy,’ says Thurmond. ‘We have so many things in common.’” Newt Gingrich married his third wife Callista, 23 years younger than him, in 2000.Fred Thompson’s wife Jeri got the “trophy wife” treatment during the 2008 presidential campaign because she was 24 years his junior.

Media figures form their own age-gap cabal. Larry King married his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick, in 1997, when she was 38 (26 years younger than he). Rupert Murdoch wed Wendi Deng in 1999, when she was 31 (37 years younger). And Tina Brown and Harold Evans married in 1981, when she was 28 (25 years younger).

Age-gap marriages get a bad rap because everyone assumes they exist for the wrong reasons: Money and beauty. And sometimes they do. An older person may idolize a younger person for his looks, while the younger one idolizes the older one for her worldliness and maturity. Celebrities, who get showered with praise all the time, may be especially susceptible to the trap of spouse-worship. Howard Hawks, who directed To Have and Have Not, once said that “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”

But every relationship has power imbalances, whether in terms of income, intelligence, or social status. The age gap is different only in that it may be more visible. It therefore gets blamed when a marriage goes bad. “A couple with an age disparity can stop right there and say they’re not getting along anymore because the older person’s gotten too old or too sick,” when in reality they might just have a communication problem, says Gayle Luster, a marriage counselor who is herself the May to her husband’s December. (Maybe more like August to October—she’s 53 and he’s 68.) When a couple gets divorced, other people are likely to blame the age gap, too.

There’s also a squirm factor in age gaps. Hefner likes oversharing about his Viagra-fueled libido, as do his many girlfriends. Woody Allen and Morgan Freeman struck up relationships with the daughters (and in Freeman’s case, the granddaughter) of former wives or lovers. And of course no one likes to think about Fred Thompson’s unclothed body. As the priest in Harold & Maude puts it: “I would be remiss in my duty if I did not tell you that the idea of intercourse—your firm, young body, comingling with withered flesh, sagging breasts, flabby buttocks—makes me want to vomit.”

Gap haters ignore the benefits of age disparity. Older people tend to have more stability in their lives—financially and emotionally—that could appeal to a young person adrift in his 20s. Likewise, an older person may benefit from proximity to youth. Sure, one person could fall into a parental role while the other is infantilized. But that’s a risk in any relationship.

But the best reason not to hate May-December marriages is the same reason not to hate any marriage that’s not your own: What’s the point? In the case of marriages like Hugh Hefner’s, you’re arguing against an ancient biological imperative for men to marry women of child-bearing age, and the need for material security in which to raise those children. Likewise, there will always be young men who don’t want or already have children and who are attracted to older women. And anyway, even if it is a mistake, one partner is likely to expire before the marriage does.

Click here  for a slide show of celebrity May-December romances.

Correction, Dec. 29, 2010: This article originally misspelled Crystal Harris’ first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Dec. 30, 2010: This article originally misidentified the film To Have and Have Not as To Have and To Have Not. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Jan. 5, 2011: This article originally misspelled Charlie Chaplin’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)