From Allen Ginsberg and his writer beau to Joan Didion and her co-author hubby, these six iconic writer couples will renew your faith in romance. By Kristen Cochrane.
For people who sit alone in rooms for hours at a time, writers are some of the most complicated people out there (read: we need a lot of therapy). Ridden with depression, existential crises, and wandering imaginations – to name a few – writers are notoriously (and historically) neurotic. In the face of all this neuroticism, it can be inspiring to think about successful writerly couples who had intellectually fulfilling relationships (even if they was short-lived).
Besides getting a renewed sense of hope about your future love life, you can also drop these names in your Bumble profile, e.g. I’ll be the Mary to your Percy Shelley and burn your heart on a pyre after you drown at sea.
1. Joan Didion (1934 – ) and John Gregory Dunne (1932 – 2003)
Joan Didion and John Dunne in Los Angeles in 1972.
Joan Didion and John Dunne could be likened to Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but where Zelda literally went crazy from boredom (read: Scotty locked her up because she was smarter than him), Joan and John were on par. Part-socialites and part-renaissance couple – their writing ran the gamut of journalism to heart-wrenching novels – their time together seemed like a utopicmatch made in writer heaven. In her senior year at Berkeley, Didion earned a scholarship to write for Vogue through their Prix de Paris. While Didion worked at Vogue, Dunne was a staff writer with Time magazine. Like a couple of dreamers, they ditched their jobs in New York City to move to LA together to write screenplays. Together, they wrote the screenplay to the seminal 1971 film The Panic in Needle Park, which was based on James Mills’ 1966 eponymously-titled novel. The film starred Al Pacino and was a critical hit.
Didion and Dunne wrote four other films together, and were both de facto cultural anthropologists, chronicling current events in the 1960s and 1970s. Tragically, John died in 2004 of a heart attack, and their adult daughter, Quintana Roo, died of pneumonia the next year. Didion has written books about her loss of John (titled The Year of Magical Thinking) and Quintana Roo (Blue Nights), both whom she cared for deeply. While heart-wrenching, the love the three of them shared almost makes monogamy and parenting seem worth it (if you find your John Dunne).
2. Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) and Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962)
Virginia Woolf, left, and Vita Sackville-West, right.
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West proved that it’s possible to have a passionate, intense love affair that doesn’t end in flames. Instead, it transitioned into a lasting friendship. Woolf was ten years older than Sackville-West, and this made Woolf feel self-conscious. Woolf wrote about this insecurity in her diary in 1925:
Vita shines in the grocers shop in Sevenoaks…pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung…There is her maturity and full-breastedness: her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down backwaters; her capacity I mean to take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth, to control silver, servants, chow dogs; her motherhood…her in short (what I have never been) a real woman.
And in a letter exchange between Sackville-West and Woolf, Sackville-West wrote this letter from Italy:
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it …
Their romance is said to have inspired Virginia Woolf’s sixth major novel Orlando (1928), and their story is also in pre-production for a film titled Vita and Virginia, set to be released in 2017.
3. Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851) and Percy Shelley (1792 – 1822)
I wish my lover and I were recorded in a painting TBH.
Nothing gets me hotter than imagining Percy Shelley, a young Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and their traveling pals sitting around during a trip to Geneva, challenging each other to think up the best horror story. I also love that Percy and Lord B were like, “yeah, go on” to Mary Shelley and that the boys were maybe snickering over whether a girl could write something as scary as they could. And then she went and wrote Frankenstein; or the The Modern Prometheus.
Anyway, Mary Shelley was an OG—Original Goth. They first met in a graveyard, where Mary’s proto-feminist, suffragette mom Mary Wollstonecraft was buried. Mary Shelley biographer Miranda Seymour thinks they had graveyard sex the first time they met!
Sadly, Percy drowned at sea at 29 in a random storm on the Gulf of Spezia on the north-western coast of Italy. The gothness continues; Mary kept his heart. His actual heart. It was cut from his decomposing body they found at sea. She then burned it on a pyre, inspiring goths worldwide.
4. María Kodama (1937 – ) and Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986)
Jorge Luis Borges and María Kodama, an inspirational, intellectual May-December romance.
It’s no secret that the late, Argentinian literary great Jorge Luis Borges loved women,. In his review of Edwin Williamson’s biography on Borges, Colm Tóibín noted the following:
Borges, it is true, spent much of his life hanging out with women who would neither sleep with him nor marry him. The advantage for any biographer is that if you throw a stone in Buenos Aires you are likely to hit one of these women or their many descendants, or indeed their books of memoir. Since there is nothing much to do in the city, other than bang saucepans together as a protest against government policy, discussing Borges’s love life has become as popular as polo.
While the claim that there is nothing to do in Buenos Aires is laughably absurd (Tóibín has obviously never had the pleasure of being in a porteño nightclub that casually closes at 10am, or experienced the national pride that is Argentinian asado), Borges’ pursuit of women who had him in the friendzone is maybe tragicomic. But then, his mom did the most embarrassing thing of all time and arranged a marriage for him—his first marriage ever, actually. He was 67, blind, and she wanted someone to take care of him. Not surprisingly, the marriage didn’t work out. Meanwhile, he became friends with María Kodama, a brilliant woman 45 years younger than him. Kodama became his literary secretary and travelled with him on his speaking trips in the 1970s and 1980s, where they became lovers.
Borges died in 1986, but you can still bump into Kodama on the streets of Buenos Aires today, where she is a writer, translator, and professor.
5. Aspasia (circa 470 – circa 400 BC) and Pericles (circa 495 – 429 BC)
At the studio of Greek sculptor, painter, and architect Phidias.
When I first learned about Aspasia in high school during an Ancient Greek and Roman civilization class, I was obsessed. Here was a woman who was not only a courtesan (i.e. a sex worker) for the brightest of Ancient Greek minds, but she somehow had time to be their mentor in the art of oratory and rhetoric (which actually is kind of messed up since it shows that feminine labor has always been constituted by a double shift). Today, the word rhetoric is how we characterize various political propaganda, but back then, it was the art of persuasion. Aspasia was Pericles lover—it is said that he kissed her when he left the home and when he returned home (#romantic). Apparently Aspasia was responsible for Pericles famous Funeral Oration, a speech he made during the first year of the very long Peloponnesian War.
6. Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) and Peter Orlovsky (1933 – 2010)
Allen Ginsberg, left, and the man who was basically his husband, Peter Orlovsky.
Apparently, Beat Generation hotshot Allen Ginsberg saw a portrait of Peter Orlovsky and fell in love before meeting him at Robert LaVigne’s studio in 1954. Kinda like mid-century Tinder. Awkwardly, LaVigne was Ginsberg’s lover. Ginsberg moved in with LaVigne and Orlovsky, but the jealousy was palpable. Ginsberg moved out.
Peter Orlovsky then became Allen Ginsberg’s muse (yes, men can be muses too!), and they became married, basically (Ginsberg publicly listed their relationship as a marriage in a newspaper!). In true long-term coupledom style, they travelled to Paris, North Africa, and even spent two years in India.
Sadly, there was tension because Orlovsky was bisexual and had a wife. Or, it could have been a lavender marriage, but I’m speculating here.
On the bright side, they were hardcore activists for gay rights and the legalization of marijuana. May they Rest in Power.
Peter Orlovsky, left, and Allen Ginsberg, right.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.