LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
He had like a halo around his head of stars.
—Miss Maryland about Frank Sinatra,
Father “Jake” was a priest without borders. He had seen and done it all: served prisoners and gangsters, worked in slums, heard confessions in bars, run a nonprofit restaurant, and counseled Kennedys, royalty, and superstars. If anyone knew men, he did. But he was at a loss about Rick the fire captain. “I don’t know . . . ,” he told me on the phone. “Rick has something. What? I have no idea. I mean, we used to have coffee at this little place on MacDougal Street, and the women! They sort of appeared and were all over him.”
A month later, Rick arrives at my door and boom-ting: there’s that certain “something.” He’s perhaps in his late sixties, with a square cartoon-cop’s face, and eyes that sparkle like black mica. He’s a powerful presence, a man who gives off licks of electricity. Over a glass of port (his present), I finally ask, What is it about him that sets off women?
He’s not much help. He leans back, cracks a smile, and reminisces. Years ago, he recalls, he got lost in a maze of back streets in Dublin when a young blonde approached and asked if she could help. He invited her to lunch, and two hours later they were in his hotel room and “naked in three minutes.” “But here’s the thing,” he says, “every time I go to Dublin to this day, I see her. She’s just a lovely person.”
Maybe he knows and isn’t telling, or maybe he’s just as baffled as everybody else about charisma, that je ne sais quoi some people radiate. Within seconds, we feel it; we’re fascinated and strangely elated. Normally associated with politicians and media personalities, charisma has been studied, lab-tested, and reduced to a familiar formula: self-confidence, an aura of authority, and communicative brilliance.
Many experts, however, caution that the spell cast by people is “a very complex one,” especially in charismatic ladies’ men. As psychoanalyst Irvine Schiffer observes, sexual spellbinders are a subtle species—less cocksure than diffident, unassured, and enigmatic. Yale professor Joseph Roach thinks contradiction is at the core of “It,” a play of opposite personality traits that transfixes us. Mythologists stress the impact of early deities and the primordial shaman, “the charismatic figure par excellence.” These priest-magicians who engineered ecstasy and channeled cosmic sexual energy, they claim, still have a powerful hold on the collective unconscious.
There is no agreement on any front. Charisma, notes The Social Science Encyclopedia with studied understatement, is “one of the more contentious” issues. But you can’t mistake men with that wow factor. They crackle, they phosphoresce, they create a whirlpool of sexual allure that sucks up every woman in sight. Why, we may never know for sure. We can, though, mine the available knowledge on the subject and gain some hints. We can analyze the ladies’ men’s allure and zero in on the mystery—the tidal pull to that man across a crowded room.
If you can’t live with gusto, find another guy.
The man was poor, semi-employed, and lived in the seediest part of Venice Beach. Patti Stanger of The Millionaire Matchmaker would have kicked him to the curb. By all rights, Marisa Belger wouldn’t have looked at him either; she was a bookish freelance writer and international traveler from a world of privilege. But Paul blew her away with his surging élan and “firecracker sense of humor.” He boogied like James Brown, played guitar, and made her laugh so hard she ached. She had never met a family like his, a large Irish clan who whooped, made music, and danced on tabletops. The most alive man in the room, Paul infected everyone with his vitality. When he asked her to marry him, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I would be honored and humbled to spend my life with you.”
Joie de vivre packs huge sexual charisma. As Mae West quipped, “It’s not the men in my life; it’s the life in my men.” German nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber identified charisma with the life force, “the thrust of the sap of the tree and the blood in the veins.” Exuberance and eros are cross-wired in our brains. When we’re passionately in love, we’re flooded with euphoria; it’s like an adrenaline hit, say scientists, that induces a giddy, near-manic high. Philosopher José Ortega y Gasset even defines love as a “splendid triggering of human vitality.”
As an aphrodisiac, gusto can’t be beat. “Exuberance is seductive,” claims Nobel laureate Carleton Gajdusek, and can “engender devotion and love.” Mythology may account for part of this élan allure. If we’re turned on by a seducer’s brio, say cultural anthropologists, we have only to look at the fertility gods. These charismatic deities, which flourished throughout culture, personified phallic energy, the generative force of existence. The Greek Dionysus, a Western prototype of the ladykiller, incarnated zöe, the spirit of “infinite life.” A gorgeous heartthrob, he wandered the earth distributing enjoyment, followed by a band of besotted women. His names were “the exultant god” and “the joyful one.”
Dionysus cast the mold for fictional ladies’ men to come. “In no love story,” remarks Roland Barthes, “is a character ever tired.” Chaucer’s Wife of Bath ranks Solomon as history’s supreme lover because “he was so much alive,” and women are bewitched against their will in Mozart’s opera by Don Gio-vanni’s “exuberant joy of life.” Effi Briest, the heroine of Theodor Fontane’s German version of Madame Bovary, betrays a perfect husband for an “animated and high-spirited” roué. Heroes of women’s popular romances (a window onto female fantasies) come prepackaged with vim and masculine vigor.
Real ladies’ men pulse with ebullience. Nineteenth-century French Romantic poet Alfred de Musset won the hearts of half of the Parisian female population with his “delicious verve.” A vivacious dandy, he bounded into drawing rooms in tight sky-blue trousers, bubbling over with bon mots. The actress Rachel doted on him, and a duchess, princess, and leading belle rushed to his bedside when he fell ill. His greatest coup, though, was his conquest of literary celebrity George Sand. Deploying an élan assault, he paraded his vitality before her like a “peacock before a demure, quiet little peahen.” Victorian Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, aka “Lord Cupid,” put his “puckish high spirits” to the same erotic ends, as did such master lovers as twentieth-century David Niven and Kingsley Amis.
American composer George Gershwin was as effervescent as his music—foot-tapping classics like “I Got Rhythm,” “Things Are Looking Up,” and “’S Wonderful.” He was “exactly like his work,” said a girlfriend; he took “a joyous delight” in everything he did. What he did, besides produce some of the nation’s finest music, from songbook standards to Porgy and Bess, was enthrall women. He was a stellar ladies’ man, adored by a cast of hundreds.
Gershwin lacked the requisite matinee-idol looks. Of medium height and dark complexion, he had a broad hook nose, thinning black hair, and a prognathic chin. But when he walked into a room, women sat up. Each mentioned the same aphrodisiac: “his exuberant vitality,” “gaiety,” and “many-sided zest for life.”
The ladies in his life were legion. A fancier of smart, attractive women, he romanced the glitterati of the social, show business, and musical worlds. His more serious amours included French actress Simone Simon and Hollywood star Ginger Rogers, who told reporters, “I was crazy about George Gershwin,” and “so was everyone who knew him.”
Kitty Carlisle, then a rising ingénue in film, recalled how seductively he flirted; he would sing at the piano at parties and insert her name in love songs. He never married, but he sustained a ten-year relationship with musician Kay Swift, his collaborator, muse, and “utterly devoted factotum.”
Biographers have long speculated that he found the woman in his life in 1936, the just-married actress Paulette Goddard. He wrote the ballad “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” for her, and urged her to leave her spouse, Charlie Chaplin, for him. But Gershwin died a year later, at thirty-eight, of a brain tumor.
The loss to music was incalculable. But the greater loss, said those who knew and loved him, was his ebullience. “He loved every aspect of life, and made every aspect of life loveable,” said lovers and friends. “People thought they would never sense that special joy again.” It’s no coincidence that charisma is related to the Greek chaírein, “to rejoice.”
All love begins with an impact.
—André Maurois, “The Art of Loving”
If you see Vance behind the counter of his Manhattan gourmet store, you may get the wrong idea. Dressed in khaki pants and docksiders, he looks like a midlife version of Charles Lindbergh from a staid suburban enclave. But in two minutes, you feel that zoop!, that sexual voltage. When I ask about his reputation as a ladies’ man about town (before his conversion to monogamy), his cobalt-blue eyes blaze.
“Believe me,” he says, over a glass of 2005 Margaux in his office, “it was a wonderful time. And very easy. I must say, I was sought after. Oh, there must have been dozens.” “Why?” he reflects. “In simple terms: passion within, passion, passion.” A man of keen interests who raced cars and gambled, he was never laid back with women. Once, he tells me, he saw a stunning blonde on the sidewalk, swung a U-turn, knocked on office doors until he found her, and said, “Let’s get out of here.” “I’m very aggressive, firm, but sincere,” he explains. “I loved that gal. I’d fly to LA just to have dinner with her.”
Ladies’ men aren’t slow-pulsed, impassive islands of calm and Zen indifference. They fire on all cylinders. “Emotional intensity,” exceptional personal force, is one of the hallmarks of charisma. It also defines erotic passion. Casanova credited his conquests to his sheer ardor: “I turned the heads of some hundreds of women,” he wrote, “because I was neither tender nor gallant nor pathetic. I was passionate.”
Romantic love is one of the most extreme human experiences. As philosophers say, love is “strong stuff.” Under a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, passionate love looks like a lightning strike; centers deep in the midbrain flare up and release a torrent of dopamine and norepinephrine. It’s so close to what happens when we’re angry or afraid that psychologists believe any intense feeling, in a “spillover effect,” can ignite desire.
A woman at the end of a double-shift day doesn’t always want an exciting partner. But as a rule, women like their lovers, real and imaginary, charged up. Sometimes that includes a spritz of danger. After all, Dionysus was a two-sided god, like eros itself, with a potential for discord and violence. His appearances were awesome, “disquieting” events; he revealed himself with a numinous bang, often masked and swathed in ivy.
Fantasy erotic heroes are impassioned creatures who seethe, like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, with teeth-gritting desire. Balzac’s ingénue in The Memoirs of Two Brides has her pick of the Parisian beau monde, but she chooses an ugly, mono-browed Spaniard because of his ferocity. Which is why Colette’s heroine of The Other One junks her husband; he’s lost his fire. “God, how slow he is!” she rails; at the least, he should show “passionate violence.” To qualify for the romance leagues, the hero must be “deeply intense,” a model of coiled manhood, whether a count or a carpenter.
A number of ladies’ men are high-strung powerhouses. Nineteenth-century pianist Franz Liszt was “demoniac” in his fervor. Tightly wound and “aggressively ardent,” Liszt targeted women with one of his fiery looks, and they went down like sacks of sand. A century later, conductor Leopold Stokowski was an equally fortissimo phenomenon, as were Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Sinatra.
No one, though, surpassed the fifth-century BC Alcibiades for charismatic intensity. A renowned Athenian politician and general in the Peloponnesian War, he was a byword for sex appeal. “His personal magnetism,” wrote Plutarch, “was such that no disposition could wholly resist it.”
In a culture that enshrined moderation, Alcibiades was an emotional extremist, “man of many strong passions,” who riveted men and women alike when he stepped into the agora. Aptly, his shield depicted Eros armed with a thunderbolt. Handsome and showy, he dressed in fancy sandals and long purple cloaks instead of demure white togas. He drove chariots too fast, caroused with flute girls, and was so intense in his affections that he frightened his friend Socrates. Women, his wife included, worshipped him in spite of his excesses and infidelities.
This “second Dionysus,” however, imitated his patron deity once too often. On the night before he was to lead a Sicilian expedition against Sparta, he defaced the sacred phallic totems, a crime punishable by death. He fled to the enemy and lived in Sparta for two and a half years, where he enchanted the populace with his “rare and incomparable presence.” The king’s wife numbered among them and was so unrepentant about their affair that she called their son “Alcibiades” in public.
Driven to flight a second time, he took refuge in Persia, only to be recalled, then exiled once more from Athens after he lost a key sea battle. Finally, his enemies hunted him down. They found him on the frontier in Thrace in the arms of a courtesan and felled him with javelins. Afterward, the heartbroken courtesan wrote a poem to commemorate her lover—a charismatic dynamo whose name became synonymous with the seducer for millennia.
The subject of this treatise does not concern men who lack
a sexual temperament.
Women in Trenton, New Jersey, prowled the streets and committed crimes in hopes of meeting this man. Joe Morelli, the strapping cop in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mystery series, is a smoking ladykiller with a string of conquests and a one-track mind. Whenever he greets Stephanie, he hooks a finger inside her tank top, and it’s off to big O’s in the bedroom or the shower, where he does her favorite thing. On “-fierce-romance blogspot” readers put Joe at the top, not just for his sexy wisecracks and rescue instincts, but for his “hot Italian libido.”
Sexual energy is the heartbeat of sexual charisma. As sexologists point out, sex drive lies on a continuum from take-it-or-leave-it to can’t-get-enough. Ladies’ men occupy the lusty end of the spectrum. According to Søren Keirkegaard, that’s the essence of their magnetism—pure “sensuality” and carnal appetite.
Primeval religion and myth may help explain this magnetism. Throughout deep history, ancient peoples worshipped the virile principle and fashioned penis-shaped relics capable of miracle cures and spells. At Dionysian festivals men filed through the streets brandishing huge phalluses to celebrate the divine force of male sex-energy. This is sexual charisma at its most primal; the root meaning of fascinating is “fascinum,” Latin for “phallus.”
Women’s dream lovers are more sexed up than usually believed. These fantasy studs are so stoked they get hard at the sight of the heroine’s hand and singe the sheets. The “walking orgasm” in one novella is up and at ’em minutes after a -cupboard-rattling session on a kitchen counter. “It’s bath time,” he announces. “Watch me.” Vadinho, the Brazilian satyr of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, dies at Carnival waving a cassava tuber, but he returns to life, like the deathless phallic principle, to sexually satisfy his wife again.
Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century authorities claimed women cared little for such gross satisfactions; they didn’t like sex as much as men, preferring soul unions and evenings à deux with a good book. Two great lovers of the 1950s proved them wrong. Aly Khan and Porfirio Rubirosa won their romantic renown on the strength of their prodigious sex drives.
“Don Juan Khan,” as Aly Khan was known, had “charm in neon lights.” The last of the post–World War II playboys, he transcended the breed. More than a jaded womanizer, he combined old-world courtliness, fondness for his lovers, and skill with a strong libido. Trained as a boy in the esoteric techniques of the Middle East, he was endowed with a sensitive touch and such “physical fortitude” that he could bed and sate three women in a day.
Like Aly Khan, Porfirio Rubirosa stood above the crowd. A Dominican diplomat, sportsman, and cosmopolite, he had an illustrious career as a lover and cocksman, with the emphasis on cock. (Large pepper grinders have been named for him.) He married five times, most famously to heiresses Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton, and was embroiled with Zsa Zsa Gabor in a tabloid romance for years. But he added supreme “class” and romance to his high sexual gear, not to mention expert swordsmanship. Said a blissed-out girlfriend, “Rubi is so virile his sex glands will go on functioning even after the rest of his body is dead.”
The eighteenth-century duc de Richelieu, however, got there first. A precursor to the playboy, he was a distinguished figure in French history—diplomat, marshal of France, confidant to Louis XV, and the general behind important victories against the British, such as the brilliant capture of Minorca. He was also a “hero of the boudoir.” “Profligate,” adorable, and hypersexed, he lived so long and lustily, people thought he might be immortal. He sired a child in his eighties and died, still virile, at ninety-two.
He was no more handsome or clever than anyone else at the courts of Louis XIV and XV, but he had a sensual oomph, an “unbridled animal magnetism.” With his sweetness, charm, and wolfish grin, he “could ruin a woman with a smile.” Even as a boy at Versailles, his sexual precocity drew admirers, and at fifteen he was thrown into the Bastille for hiding in the Dauphine’s bedroom. Afterward, women swarmed. He received ten to twelve love letters a day and made the rounds, romancing two princesses, tradeswomen, courtesans, and nearly every noblewoman in Paris. Women were “wild” for him.
So “wild” that Richelieu generated one of the most colorful scandals of the day. Two grandes dames who were competing for his favors decided to settle the matter with a predawn duel. On March 14, 1719, the contesse de Polignac and the marquise de Nesle arrived at the Bois de Boulogne “clothed as Amazons,” leveled pistols at each other, and fired. As the marquise toppled to the ground drenched in blood, she cried that her lover “was well worth it.” “Now,” she shouted, “my love will make him wholly mine.” She survived, but like his countless conquests, she was to be disappointed. This vainqueur de dames was too charismatic, too monumental a sexual force, to belong wholly to anyone.
Love of Women
Destructive, damnable, deceitful woman!
—Thomas Otway, The Orphan
Ashton Kutcher is more than just another Hollywood hottie with a toned physique. Smart and multi-gifted, he has created and produced popular television shows (among them Punk’d and Beauty and the Geek), launched a most-visited Twitter site, and acted in over twenty movies. At the same time, he’s—in fanzine-speak—“a honey-dripping chick magnet.” Linked to many coveted women and once married to megastar Demi Moore, he has a unique brand of charisma: he “love[s] the company of women” as pals, equals, and lovers. Like many lady-killers, he has his mother and their close relationship to thank for it. She told him to “treat women right, to take care of them, to respect them.”
Men who appreciate and enjoy women aren’t that common. Boys are raised to boycott the girls’ club and bond with each other. The “bromance” tradition is ancient and deep-dyed, a devotion to male friends that can be “wonderful, passing the love of women.” In the extreme, it tips over into misogyny, as the “player” movement and movies like Carnal Knowledge and Roger Dodger attest. By contrast, ladies’ men like women inside and out and seek their companionship.
Such gynephilia makes a man hum with charisma. Scientists track it to the mystery of connectivity. When someone empathizes and synchronizes with us, the effect is galvanic. Mirror neurons light up, explains MIT psychologist Alex Pentland, and our bodies kick off opiate-like endorphins. We endow rapport artists with “chemistry”—incandescent sexiness.
Mythology’s premier ladies’ man Dionysus was the one god who treasured women. Unlike the macho deities in the Greek pantheon, he grew up “surrounded by women”—flocks of foster mothers, mermaids, and sea goddesses. He was so fond of his mother, Semele, that he restored her to life and made her immortal. His traveling companions were throngs of female votaries.
Women-friendly seducers inevitably triumph in fiction. Anton Chekov’s rake in “The Lady with the Dog” is gray and faded, but he enamors a spirited young married woman because he’s a female aficionado; he’s at ease and knows “what to say.” Rowley Flint of Somerset Maugham’s Up at the Villa is another unlikely ladykiller—ill-favored and slovenly—who profoundly “like[s] women” and lures a glamorous guest at a Florentine estate away from her rich, handsome fiancé. “Women are more important than baseball,” says the hero of Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, as he walks off with the pick of the town.
Casanova was never a man’s man, although he excelled in daredevil masculine pursuits like spying and dueling. Coddled by his grandmother and other ministering angels as a boy, he was “madly in love with the eternal feminine,” and preferred the society of women. Prince Grigory Potemkin was one of Russian history’s most dashing figures—general, statesman, lover/-advisor to Catherine the Great—and a sultan of seduction. Deluged by devotees all his life, “he loved women passionately” and was at home with them, having been pampered since infancy by his mother and six sisters.
Warren Beatty has the same pedigree. He was raised in a hothouse of strong, doting women—sister, aunt, and mother—where he acquired a lifelong “sweetly endearing appreciation for females.” “He’s just wonderful to women,” said Lana Wood, Natalie’s’ sister, “just wonderful. He genuinely likes them, all of them.”
Jazz composer and orchestra leader Duke Ellington soared over the racial divide of his time, not only professionally but also romantically. An African American born in 1899 at the high tide of segregation and prejudice, he became a national celebrity, honored by the White House and the musical establishment. He became the ultimate “sweet man” in the process. Six foot one and deadly sexy, he enchanted women of all colors. “Spoiled rotten” by his mother and aunts, he “liked women as well as loved them,” and drew them “like flies to sugar.”
His love life was robust. Married once at eighteen and separated, he had three long-term mistresses over a lifetime: Mildred “Sweet Bebe” Dixon, a dancer at the Harlem Cotton Club; Beatrice “Evie” Ellis, a half-black, half-Spanish model; and white nightclub singer Fernandae Castro Monte, christened “The Countess.” Then there were road ladies, colleagues, and squads of besotted fans, including two Chicago debutantes who got their hands on him. Women “absolutely adored him.”
Throughout the high-volume sex, though, Ellington always revered and valued women. He regarded them “as flowers, each one lovely in her own way.” Flirtatious and captivating, he would say to a secretary on the phone, “Is this the beautiful department?” or tell an actress, “Does your contract stipulate that you must be this pretty?” He played the piano for women; he pinioned them with his bedroom eyes. But perhaps the greatest part of his “charismatic presence” was something less usual: he truly appreciated and honored women and was “marvelous” with them.
The more feminine the man . . . the higher the
hit rate with the opposite sex.
—“The Evolution of Homosexuality,” The Economist
In the swinging sixties, Essex Junction, Vermont, was the “in” place—a hippie enclave full of pony-tailed hunks and braless lovelies in search of sexual liberation. In that department, one man got all the action. Women trooped miles to his house in the woods for sleepovers—as did men. Clay’s uncanny sexual magnetism was the talk of the communes. As frail and thin as the Little Match Girl, he had bad teeth, a Fu Manchu mustache, and a whispery alto voice. But he had a mantra: “Bi or Bye-Bye.” In that hive of counterculture machismo, Clay cast one of the oldest sexual spells in the book: androgyny.
Counterintuitive as it seems, gender ambiguity is immensely seductive. In theory, the Darwinian he-man ought to get the valentines, but oddly enough, a man in touch with his inner femininity frequently has the romantic edge with women. As cultural critic Camille Paglia says, the androgynous person “is the charismatic personality.” Why though? Why do gender-benders throw off such erotic magic and entice women as they do?
Scientists have located some clues. Researcher Meredith Chivers has found that women differ from men in their sexual tastes. When she attached female subjects to a photoplethysmograph while they watched erotic movies, she discovered that they shared a marked predilection for bisexuality. Other studies show women consistently preferring computerized images of feminized male faces and choosing more androgynous men in audio interviews.
This is not news to the psychiatric profession. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought both genders posses an inner bisexuality in the repressed depths of the psyche. Later thinkers conjectured that we never lose an unconscious striving for a synthesis of male and female. This amalgam, writes religious scholar Mircea Eliade, represents ideal wholeness, the peak of “sensual perfection.”
It’s embedded in our cultural mythology. In many creation stories, the “great He-She” created life on earth, and the Hindu fertility god, Shiva, assumed both sexes to attain “divine sensual delight.” Often shamans achieved their “mana” (air of sacred authority) by assuming a double-sexed persona. The “Man-Woman” Dionysus perfumed his curls and wore women’s saffron robes tied with a flowery sash.
Erotic fantasies are replete with androgynes. Just when we expect a hulking warrior to carry off the heroine, we find the effeminate Paris abducting Helen in The Iliad and gentle Lanval of Marie de France’s twelfth-century tale infatuating the queen of the fairies.
In a recent shift, romance idols have begun to blur gender. The “Woman Whisperer” Cash Hunter in Maureen Child’s Turn My World Upside Down is a soul sister in the body of a linebacker. When his love interest suffers, he cradles her cheek, extracts her story, and bleeds for her: “Ah God. Empathy washed over him.” Daniel of Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe not only behaves like a best girlfriend—baking, gardening, and church going—but he looks like one. He wears green silk shirts, sandals, and scented dreadlocks.
Whether subtle or pronounced, many great lovers have a -distinct feminine streak. The Athenian homme fatal Alcibiades showcased his femininity, wearing his hair long and braiding it with flowers before battles. Casanova, too, had an overt -distaff side—an aesthetic sensibility, a sentimentality, and a penchant for cross-dressing. Byron’s androgyny was so apparent that the sultan Mahmud refused to believe he wasn’t “a woman dressed in man’s clothes.” Emotional and epicene in dress and speech, Byron resembled a Renaissance blend of Greek god and goddess.
Ironically, the icon of tough, cool-guy masculinity, Gary Cooper, owed his fame as a ladies’ man to his “ravishing androgyny.” In more than a hundred movies over thirty-five years, he cemented the twentieth-century ideal of a “real man,” the slow-talking honcho with quick fists and nerves of steel. But women saw a different side of him. Six foot three and “more beautiful than any woman except Garbo,” he merged a feminine sweetness, tenderness, and artistic sensitivity with his masculine swank.
The hybrid proved knee-buckling. “Coop” was set upon by women the moment he arrived in Hollywood in 1925. Said director Stuart Heisler, they “fell over themselves to get him to take them to bed.” And he complied. He slept with nearly every leading lady, from Carole Lombard to Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, and moonstruck each of them. Helen Hayes said that if “Gary had crooked a finger I would have left Charlie and my child and the whole thing.”
He was seriously loved. After their affair ended, -twenties film star Clara Bow continued to come if he whistled, and actress Lupe Velez stabbed him with a kitchen knife when he tried to break up with her. He married socialite Veronica “Rocky” Balfe in 1933, who adored him so unconditionally that she endured his countless affairs, even a serious one with Patricia Neal. Attempting to explain his “hypnotic” effect on women, movie and TV personality Arlene Dahl referred to his “combination of unusual traits.” The secret of that “combination,” said actor-writer Simon Callow, was “the perfect balance between his masculine and feminine elements.”
Creative types have increased sex appeal.
—Rusty Rockets, Science a GoGo
Adam Levy, a painter of dark, surreal canvases in the movie Love & Sex, looks like a date-challenged dork: he wears camp shirts over baggy cargo pants and has the face of an overfed hamster. But women engulf him, and he snaps up the smartest and prettiest of the pack. “That’s why I started painting,” he explains, “to get the girls in high school.”
What is it about artists, those “unfit” creative guys who have all the luck with women? They may lack the right biomarkers—money, looks, and solidity—but they have sexual charisma to burn. As poet Rainer Rilke observed, art lies “incredibly close” to sex. Creativity is a knockout aphrodisiac, seductive at a gut level. Professional artists and poets, studies report, “have more sex appeal than other people and twice as many sexual partners.”
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller chalks it up to sexual selection. Art, he theorizes, originated as a courtship display. More than fitness and status, early womankind sought mental excellence, says Miller, creative intelligence in particular. The suitor who produced the best creations and delivered the greatest aesthetic pleasure won the prize females. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran has located the center responsible for this artistic ability, the angular gyrus, and thinks prehistoric men may have wooed mates by advertising musical, poetic, and drawing talents as a “visible signature of a giant brain.”
Primitive mythological and religious figures may factor in too. The shaman, “an archaic prototype of the artist,” beamed with sexual charisma. It was his job to draw down the sex force of creation through magical song, drama, dance, and visual art. The cave paintings are thought to have been his handiwork, his inseminations “in the womb of the earth.” The business of the sex gods was creation—new shapes and forms ad infinitum. Greek god Dionysus founded tragedy and comedy, choreographed dances, and composed “the songs of the night.”
Artist-lovers seem always to have haunted the romantic imagination. Like the legendary Greek Orpheus, who charmed man, woman, and beast with his lyre, Chaucer’s “Nicholas the Gallant” of “The Miller’s Tale” seduces maidens by singing and playing his harp. Bob Hampton, the painter of The Handyman, barely has time to clean his brushes amid the pile-on of lust-crazed housewives. Creative heartthrobs fill movies, from Titanic sketch-artist Jack to the dishy novelist in Purple Violets, to Bleek the trombone-playing ladykiller of Mo’ Better Blues.
A disproportionate number of ladykillers trade on the sexual charisma of creativity. History is chocked with poets, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, and “creatives” who prospered with women. A quick once-over reveals a list of banner names: Lord Byron, Alfred de Musset, Franz Liszt, Gustav Klimt, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Casanova owed no small amount of his luster to his artistic achievements as a violinist, inventor, and author of poems, plays, and books.
Rock star “Mick the Magic Jagger” has made spectacular capital on this appeal. A throwback to the total theater of shamanistic rites, he admits that sex is at the center of his Rolling Stones’ performances. He puts a sock in his crotch to simulate an erection, undulates like a “strip-tease[r],” and chants and rocks the audience to “mass orgasm.”
He’s an all-caps ladies’ man, impossibly magnetic, lovable, and unleavable. Despite his nonstellar looks (the raddled features of a very old chimp), he has been bathed in adoration by a long line of superior women, including his wife, Bianca, Marianne Faithfull, Marsha Hunt, Carly Simon, Jerry Hall, Carla Bruni, and his current girlfriend of eight years, designer L’Wren Scott. He’s neither mature, sober, nor faithful, and he would catch hell from a relationship counselor. But he has hundred-proof charisma on his side; as Marianne Faithfull put it, she felt as if she had “her very own Dionysus.”
Artist Lucian Freud’s draw, like Jagger’s, was primeval. Poet Stephen Spender compared him to the “male opposite [of a] witch,” and Freud himself equated his creativity with “phallic energy.” Dubbed “the greatest living realist painter,” by New York Times art critic John Russell, Freud did not paint canvases for calm contemplation. Warts-and-all portraits of nudes from odd angles, they are designed to “astonish, disturb, [and] seduce.”
Seduction he knew. The British Freud, who died in 2011 at eighty-nine, had the career of a supernova lover. Married twice (once to siren Caroline Blackwood), he fathered at least nine children and was passionately involved with “umpteen” women. At seventy-nine, he shocked the nation by taking up with a waifish twenty-nine-year-old and later moving on to Alexandra Williams-Wynn, fifty years his junior. In a 2005 painting, The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer, she sits nude at his feet clutching his leg and caressing his thigh.
Every woman cited the same allure: his “intense sexual charisma.” Being with him, said a lover, is like “being wired up to the national grid.” Freud was an amorous master. He quoted poetry to his models, served champagne and delicacies between sittings, and gave “the best hugs.” He was also an elegant figure, with a fine, hawk-like profile, a cockade of gray hair, and a rakish scarf looped around his neck. But it was Freud the artist who slayed women; it was his work, they said, that was the “potent aphrodisiac.” To sit for him, said a girlfriend, “felt like being an apple in the Garden of Eden. When it was over, [she] felt as if [she] had been cast out of paradise.” This was the work of an ur-artist, the sexual sorcerer with “the most primitive form of charisma.”
Don’t Fence Me In.
Kurt is a thirtyish German photographer and downtown Casanova who looks like a dancer in an avant-garde ballet troupe. He’s a study in fluidity, with his loose jeans, ruffled dark bob, and feline stride. Asked about the charisma for which he’s famous, he throws up his hands: “It’s just part of you and you radiate that in a certain way.”
What he’s radiating is the foxfire of free, unbound manhood. Like many ladykillers, Kurt is a mover and quester, indifferent to social constraints. At twenty-five, he gave up a banking career, left home, built a photography career on pioneer techniques, and now goes where the wind blows him. “I’m a boat-rocker,” he laughs.
Charismatic men are laws unto themselves, renegade souls who give the raspberry to the rule book. A zing of transgression defines charisma. People with that “irresistible magnetic mana” flout authority and live on their own terms, unfettered in mind and body. There’s an intangible “apartness” about them. Women, to official dismay, don’t necessarily fall for providers and staid nest-builders; they’re often swept off their feet by free-souled nonconformists.
The charisma of these unbridled mavericks may not be accidental. Many psychologists contend that superior personhood demands psychic elbow room and a defiance of established norms. A woman in quest of alpha genes may do better with a restless rebel than a company yes-man.
Then again, archaic history plays in. Ancient deities like Shiva, Osiris, the Norse Freyr, and the Celtic Dagda defied conventions and traveled the earth dispensing fertility. The phallic Hermes was “God of the Roads.” Perpetual wanderer Dionysus mocked institutions and social custom and “freed his worshippers from every law.”
Free-range ladykillers have particular charms for women. “Libertines” hold out the seductive promise of escape from the traditional feminine fate of domestic stasis and conformity. The “eccentric” rover of Knut Hamsun’s nineteenth-century Mysteries arrives among a group of restive women at just the right time. Over the course of the summer, he beguiles the entire female population of a Norwegian seaport with his mystic promise of freedom and revolt. Even the exemplar of feminine domesticity surrenders, crying, “You upset my equilibrium!”
One of the staples of popular romance is the solitary hero unburdened by sidekicks who disdains social dictates—-
roving renegades like Robert Kincaid of The Bridges of Madison County. In The Ground beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie takes the convention and transmutes it into great literature. “Bombay Casanova” Ormus Cama is a prismatic musical genius who renounces orthodox culture, slips the traces, and “step[s] off the map” into pure possibility.
Not every great lover bucks the establishment and goes his own way. But those who do exude an edgy excitement. Casanova was his “own master”—oblivious to regulations and in love with the open road—and no one could restrain pianist Franz Liszt, a vagabond spirit too overscale for civilized confinement. They’re among a fleet of freewheeling originals: ladies’ men such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Jack London, and H. G. Wells.
This footloose, anarchic spirit can be cerebral and work just as forcefully. Twentieth-century philosopher and tombeur Albert Camus was physically curtailed by tuberculosis, but inwardly was a dedicated maverick and roamer. Nonconformity and freedom were the watchwords of his “Absurdist” doctrine. “I rebel,” he wrote, “therefore we exist.”
Don Juan was one of his existential heroes, an enlightened lover who seduced women not to score but to spread amorous joy. “It’s his way of giving and vivifying” before the axe falls. A romantic adventurer, Camus was as good as his word. Women found him drop-dead attractive—a French Humphrey -Bogart—and he loved them “without bounds.” The year before he died in a car crash, at forty-six, he was balancing three women in his life, plus a devoted wife. And he “managed to keep them all happy.”
Had Camus known, he could have found his Don Juan across the channel: Denys Finch Hatton. Fabled lover, iconoclast, daredevil, and “eternal wanderer,” Finch Hatton was immortalized as Isak Dinesen’s überlover in Out of Africa. But Danish author Dinesen no more captured Finch Hatton in her idealized portrait than she did in real life. He eluded any attempt to pin him down. A born dissenter, he refused to be curbed by Edwardian social sanctions, raised Cain in school, and at age twenty-four fled to the wilds of East Africa for adventure and breathing room.
Women were mad for him. Six foot three and beautiful, he had enormous charisma, a valence that drew people to him “like a centripetal force.” At one point “at least eight women were in love with him,” and he chose fastidiously—strong, glamorous, bohemian individualists.
Dinesen, nom de plume of Karen Blixen, was his longest amour. They met in 1918 on her Kenyan coffee plantation, where she lived with her faithless husband, Bror, and entertained a revolving crew of tourists and big-game hunters. Their affair lasted until his death in a plane crash in 1931. She lived and breathed for his sporadic visits, catered to his whims, thought him a god, and hoped desperately to marry him.
But Finch Hatton “belonged to the wild nomadic world and he never intended to marry anyone.” At the end, he paired up with the adventurous aviator Beryl Markham, who said, “As for charm, I suspect Denys invented it.” The invention wasn’t original; it was the “absolute magic” of the charismatic, unchained love god. He was “like a meteor,” said a female friend. “He arrived only to go off again . . . he wanted the wild.”
The flaw that punctuates perfection
—Hillary Johnson, Los Angeles Times
Every woman at the University of Virginia in the 1970s was a little bit (or a lot) in love with this professor. He had strut and movie-star looks—a trim red beard and safari outfits with biker boots and bush shirts. That day in class, he was talking about guilt in a Kafka story. “Say a policeman knocked on the door,” he asked. “How many would think he’d come for you? Me? I’d know for sure.”
He might have been right. Douglas Day was notorious: fast cars, exploits south of the border (in his own plane), and women everywhere. Married five times, he had window-rattling sex appeal, charisma that took your breath and heart away. More than his beauty and brilliance, it was his walk. He had a mysterious gimp leg, and when he limped down Cabell Hall, women dissolved.
Pop psychologists and coaches who tout ironclad confidence as the key to sexual charisma may need a reality check. A hairline crack in a man’s aplomb, a hint of vulnerability—either physical or psychological—can turn a woman inside out. Joseph Roach traces this to the nature of charisma itself, the necessary flux of vulnerability and strength. To psychoanalyst Irvine Schiffer, minor defects, which he calls “straddling characteristics,” create the highest sexual amperage; they encourage approachability and generate “instant glamour.”
Women find a soupçon of fallibility in a man especially erotic. “The things I find most endearing” about lovers, says Erica Jong, “are their small imperfections.” Perhaps maternal impulses are at work or an attempt to equalize the power imbalance between the sexes. Psychiatrist Michael Bader probes deeper; the female yen for injured manhood, he hypothesizes, stems from an impulse to neutralize fears of rejection and male violence. Author Hillary Johnson goes for the intimacy explanation. Scars and flaws, she writes, suggest “a way to get inside” masculine armor.
There’s a mythic kicker too. Wounded men inherit some of the star shine of the earliest fertility gods. Adonis was gored in the groin by a wild boar, and like the maimed Osiris, Dionysus, and Freyr, he was healed and restored to life each spring. Just as shamans incur a “disease of God” during initiation to access the power source of creation, heroes acquire a permanent scar (similar to the tell-tale gash in Odysseus’s thigh) in the archetypal male journey to maturity.
The trope lives on in hundreds of love stories, from the gouged Guigemar in Marie de France’s story to the crippled and blinded Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. The emotionally or physically damaged man, says novelist Mary Jo Putney, is a hero of “incredible potency.” Readers can find injured ladykillers for every taste on romance sites: a dyslexic duke, a Dominic with a deformed hip, and a psychologically impaired Lord Evelyn.
The sexiest man to enter a fictional bedroom is the one-armed biker Lefty, of Rebecca Silver’s story “Fearful Symmetry.” He caresses her nipples with the “delicate prongs” of his steel hook, then flings off his prosthesis, props himself on his stump, and flips her out of her senses on the futon. Women from one end of Texas to the other covet Hardy Cates, Lisa Kleypas’s troubled “blue-eyed devil” who has been traumatized by a violent, alcoholic father in a seedy trailer park.
Great lovers with a “divine defect” are surprisingly numerous. Aldous Huxley and Potemkin were nearly blind, and Charlemagne, Talleyrand, and Gary Cooper limped. Lord Byron, with his club foot and bruised sensibilities, devastated women, just as Jack London’s and Richard Burton’s tortured souls played havoc with female hearts.
A grand prix identity that harbors a psychic wound can be an incendiary mix. “Great seducer” Jack Nicholson is a powerful presence with the strong ego of a talented actor and three-time Oscar winner. But what melts women is the fissure of hurt beneath the “King of Hollywood” persona, the insecurity intercut with confidence. Illegitimate, he was raised by a grandmother who masqueraded as his mother, and was so fat as a boy that he was excluded from sports and nicknamed “Chubs.”
He’s open about the scars and therapy, and his lovers are both protective and committed, with Anjelica Huston staying with him for seventeen years. Although he cheated openly on model-actress Cynthia Basinet, she explained why she couldn’t leave him: “I saw such a wonderful vulnerable person . . . I vowed never to hurt him.” It was, she said, part of “his spell,” the “old Jack Magic.”
The more extreme the flaws, the greater the need for compensatory attractions. Russian writer Ivan Turgenev may be one of the least heroic yet most lovable ladies’ men of the nineteenth century. Author of such masterpieces as Fathers and Sons and A Month in the Country, he was plagued with neuroses, having been brutalized by a sadistic mother who faked death scenes to get her way. He was a weak-kneed, nervous “gentle giant,” prone to hypochondria, hallucinations, and melancholy.
Nor did he strike a bold figure. Tall and stoop-shoulded, he had grayish eyes that gazed dreamily out of a “round, mild, handsome,” somewhat feminine face. But he possessed surprising reserves of strength and an audacious, trailblazing genius. Ignoring his mother’s curses, he expatriated, broke rank, and became a major “innovator” of Russian literature.
His weak/strong alloy, among other charms, made him a heart-stopper. Seduced by a chambermaid at age fifteen, Turgenev was avalanched by women, among them a Berlin mother of four, an aristocrat who called him her “Christ,” and quintessentially, mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. She was besieged by suitors, but he scattered them all with his gifts and white--lightning compound of frailty and personal force. Viardot took him home to France, where she lived with him and her husband in a lifelong ménage à trois.
Despite the propaganda, bulletproof self-esteem and a perfect package aren’t the ticket. It’s an “enigmatic tang” of injury, a pinch of flaw in the confidence brew that fells women every time.
Charisma: Refining the Definition
Women can just feel a ladies’ man on the premises. Suddenly the room is charged with ions and thrumming with sexual tension and promise. He doesn’t need every charisma attribute: joie de vivre, intensity, creativity, titanic libido, tear-away originality, fondness for women, or manly self-esteem tinged with androgyny and fallibility. A great lover can throw sparks with just a few choice allures; they are that potent.
Erotic charisma, though, isn’t easily coded and formulated. Mysteries remain. Why, for example, are men like Al Gore, Bill Gates, and comedian Robin Williams non-sizzlers when they fit the criteria? Why don’t the standard recipes—big self-belief, expressivity, rapport, and communication skills—work? And what about the evolutionary psychologists’ precepts, such as status, wealth, and stability?
The topic, as James M. Donovan highlights in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, is largely unexplored. Charisma, he writes, is “much more bizarre than commonly assumed,” and bears little relation to any special personality type. Scholars agree: it’s been relegated, they say, “to the back burner of research,” and confusion reigns—even about the definition of the word. We can tease out traits, float theories, but we can’t demystify that magic radiance—yet.
What we can say for sure, though, is that we know charisma when we see it, and are bespelled. When women encounter a magnetic man, they imbue him (similar to transference in psychotherapy) with their “forbidden impulses and secret wishes,” investing him with what they crave and aren’t getting. As such, the ladies’ man is a valuable resource, a Rorschach of women’s deepest, unmet desires.
Can men en masse acquire charisma, or is it an innate “gift” as the ancients believed? I ask Rick the fire captain, and he says he knows only one thing: you can’t fake it. Biologist Amotz Zahavi and others have confirmed this in studies, and maintain that top lovers are authentic because women have always seen through false sexual advertisement.
“The feeling has to be real,” Rick continues. And beyond that? Rick takes a sip of port, waits a beat, and sighs. “All I know is, life is good, I invent stuff, I travel. I never follow the crowd. And I do love women. Ever tell you about the time Vivien Leigh invited me up? She told me three times, ‘If there were ever a real Rhett Butler, it would be you.’ ”
Reprinted from SWOON: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau. Copyright © 2013 by Betsy Prioleau. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.