Once upon a time, great men’s mistresses were formidable figures in their own right. Bathsheba, who first caught King David’s eye while bathing outside his palace, led him into adultery, murder, and—for flouting the Ten Commandments—God’s disfavor. It was Helen’s decision to ditch her husband, the king of Sparta, for a prince from Troy that “launched a thousand ships” and triggered the Trojan War. To protect Egypt from the rising tide of Roman expansionism, Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Louis XV’s favored subjects shaped French foreign policy: In 1744, the Duchesse de Châteauroux persuaded her royal lover to contract an alliance with Prussia against Austria; just over a decade later, the Marquise de Pompadour lobbied effectively for the reverse. Daisy Greville, an aristocratic mistress of Britain’s Edward VII, supported the Russian Revolution, spent her fortune on programs for the underprivileged, and ran—unsuccessfully—for Parliament. These women didn’t just win hearts; they moved mountains.
By comparison, our culture’s latest crop of famous gal pals are an underwhelming bunch who seem to confirm Karl Marx’s wry adage about history repeating itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” (Compare, if you will, Cleopatra’s asp with Monica Lewinsky’s stained Gap dress. Questions?) Even when they involve such high-placed honchos as Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, these entanglements are long on tawdriness, short on statecraft. Apart from illicit sex acts and illegitimate children, the likes of Lewinsky, Rielle Hunter (Edwards’s former campaign videographer), and Mildred Baena (Schwarzenegger’s former housekeeper) have accomplished little of consequence. To the extent that they’ve played any public role at all, it’s been that of the cheap tabloid heroine.
This sorry state of affairs applies to the mistresses not just of politicians but also of entertainment and sports stars. What has Michelle McGee, Jesse James’s home-wrecking stripper of choice, ever achieved besides posing in Nazi regalia and getting a lot of tattoos? Does the fact that one of Charlie Sheen’s porn-star “goddesses,” Bree Olson, won an industry award for Best Anal Sex Scene make her worthy of mainstream-media coverage? Or Sara Leal—what is she known for, other than being Ashton Kutcher’s alleged fling? How about Rachel Uchitel, Tiger Woods’s secret squeeze? After a stint on Celebrity Rehab, she is set to appear in a reality show about her new life as a private investigator. Will this be her cultural legacy?
By such measures, female lovers undercover haven’t come a long way, baby; they’ve done just the opposite. Perhaps the degradation of their position is a victory for feminism: Nowadays, bedding a prominent man no longer, thankfully, counts among an ambitious woman’s surefire steps to success. At least in theory, women have educational and professional opportunities that obviate the need for such indirect and atavistic paths to power. The machinations of the boudoir look pointless, if not downright pathetic, when weighed against a Harvard MBA.