Book review: Behind Every Great Man by Marlene Wagman-Geller - the unsung heroines

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm


Behind Every Great Man
by Marlene Wagman-Geller

International Women's Day fell earlier this month, and a viral video from the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation had the message "we're not there yet", meaning we've a long way to go before the end of the discrimination and oppression of women.

This is the sentiment inspired by Marlene Wagman-Geller's Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World's Famous and Infamous, a well-crafted exploration into the lives of 40 women who were coupled with some of history's and pop culture's most prominent personalities.

The majority of these women did not have happy lives. The book offers exceptions (baseball's Jackie and Rachel Robinson and US General Douglas and Jean MacArthur stick out as relatively happy couples, though they too had their battles), but most of the men either were unfaithful to their partners, abandoned their partners and/or children in times of need (of Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma's first and only child being born: "He was absent during the delivery, explaining he could not bear the suspense") or both. Or worse.

Francoise Gilot, Pablo Picasso's longtime girlfriend, decided to leave him after his public affairs and private verbal abuse, and he blacklisted her in the art world and cut off all contact with her and their children for the rest of his life.

After Mahatma Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, picked up the same frugal dietary habits at home as he did while imprisoned, he wrote: "I am not in a position to come and nurse you. If it is destined that you should die, I think it is preferable that you should go before me."

In a drunken, jealous rage, F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed a gun at girlfriend Sheilah. (Her response: "Take it and shoot yourself, you son of a bitch. I didn't pull myself out of the gutter to waste my life on a drunk like you.")

The list goes on.

But while much of the book resonates with the wide range of horrors these women went through at the hands of their lovers, its focus is on their own strength and power that inspired change to the world.

Alma Hitchcock suggested, against Alfred's wishes, that Janet Leigh die in the first third of Psycho, and that the shower scene include music. (He wanted silence.)

Gala Dali often dictated what her husband, Salvador, should paint.

Although she never received credit, Mileva Einstein collaborated with her husband, Albert, on the theory of relativity.

That list goes on, too.

At times the cheekiness of the commentary can be a bit off-putting, but such distractions aside, the book's easily digestible format of short chapters noting the highs and lows of these women's lives is enlightening, proving that although we might not know their stories, we should.

In the issue of gender equality, we may not be there yet, as the Clinton Foundation's video reminds us. But giving a voice to women such as these is a vital step.

Tribune News Service