Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Famous and Infamous by Marlene Wagman-Geller, offers a collection of short biographies, usually six to ten pages, of the wives of famous men. From Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen (aristocratic wife of Karl Marx) to Eva Gabrielsson (common-law wife of Stieg Larsson), from artists and scientists to dictators and activists, Wagman-Gellar investigated women who were both married to historically significant men and seemed to have “dwelled in the shadows.” With her investigations she aimed to pay tribute to the women who influenced their famous husbands. Many of the women profiled were equal partners in the events that brought their husbands’ fame only to find themselves left on the sidelines of history.
Not all of the wives profiled are particularly interesting in their own right, nor is there always much biographical information available about them. This may be why some of the profiles are thin on the details of the wife and read more like a biography of the husband with the wife tacked on as an afterthought. It’s nearly two pages into the section on the wife of Douglas MacArthur before we finally are introduced to Jean Faircloth, and only after rushing through an outline of MacArthur’s prior love life. By the time the section concludes we know plenty about what MacArthur was up to, but very little concrete about Faircloth other than the assessment that she was brave and stubborn and refused to leave the Philippines during WWII.
However, many of the entries are fascinating and revelatory. Ruth McCue Bell, the wife of Billy Graham, turns out to have beeen a smart, feisty woman who refused to allow her husband to turn her into a subservient wife and who kept Graham’s feet firmly planted on the ground. Similar is true of Betty Dean Sanders, wife of Malcolm X. Malcolm wanted Betty to follow the Nation of Islam’s strict rules governing the relationship between husband and wife, but Betty would have none of it. She told Malcolm, “When you teach a man, you teach a community, when you teach a woman, you raise a nation,” thereby changing Malcolm’s views on women. And then there is Althea Leasure, wife of Larry Flynt, who is revealed to be the one who really ran Hustler and turned it into the famous magazine everybody knows about.
Only a few of the biographies barely mention the husband at all; Betty Ford’s section is one of them. Her life seemed to come straight out of a 1950s TV show. Before she married Gerald Ford, she was married to a traveling salesman who was hardly ever around. Just when she decided to leave him he had a near-fatal medical emergency. Betty stayed with him for two years, nursing him back to health while working full-time in a frozen food factory to pay the bills. Because of her divorce and Ford’s political ambitions, Gerald Ford almost didn’t marry her. As First Lady, Betty dedicated herself to equal rights for women and influenced her husband to appoint women as ambassadors and bestow a Medal of Freedom on Martha Graham. By all accounts she was a down-to-earth, fun-loving woman who managed to overcome her addiction to painkillers and alcohol. With funding from recovering alcoholic and millionaire Leonard Firestone, she opened the Betty Ford Center for which she worked with great compassion until the age of eighty-seven.
One famous couple profiled in the book were not husband and wife: Gertrude Stein and Alice B.Toklas. In spite of Stein leaving Alice all of the famous paintings she had collected, the attorney of Stein’s great-nephew found a legal loophole and while Toklas was away from the Paris apartment receiving treatment in Italy for her arthritis, the great-nephew absconded with all of her belongings. Toklas returned to the apartment to find it empty except for an eviction notice. Destitute, in 1954, Toklas wrote The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook that included the recipe for her famous hashish brownies along with reminiscences of her and Stein’s life together in Paris. And apparently, Alice’s surname is where the word “toke” comes from.
As to Wagman-Geller’s writing style, she frequently attempts to inject humor into the entries but unfortunately often comes up short. Rather than coming across as witty, her humor comes off instead as cliché or just plain groan-worthy. The entry for Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, concludes:
“Trudie Styler, as the queen of several castles has so many blessings she needs a calculator to count them, the main one being she still walks in fields — and everything else — of gold with the man she loves. And for others, like the sun in the jealous sky, therein lies the sting.”
Oftentimes her attempts at humor are downright tasteless. Of the lonely Eva Braun, Wagman-Geller writes that Hitler was immune to her pleas for attention because he was a busy man, “there were the Reichstag elections to win, the chancellorship to obtain, the masses to whip up, the Jews to persecute.” And for a book claiming the intent of bringing women out of the shadows to assert that Cosima d’Agoult, wife of Richard Wagner, was “born to be the spouse of a megalomaniac,” is not only insensitive but lacking in imagination. No matter how obsessed with art or Wagner Cosima was, she was never born to be anyone’s spouse.
In spite of its flaws, Behind Every Great Man is one of those perfect books for reading before bed, or while waiting for the bus or an appointment. Its bite-sized entries forgive droopy eyes and distractions and you find in the end you actually have learned a few new and interesting things. Wagman-Geller is also good enough to provide decent source notes for every entry in case readers want to follow up and learn more about each woman.