The History of the Mistress

What is it with the other woman? Alluring seductresses — or just someone who can't find a man of her own? A new book gives the lowdown.

Camilla Parker Bowles, Monica Lewinsky, Marilyn Monroe, LeAnn Rimes . . . they're all members of the mistress club. But why have some fared better than others? In her new book, Mistresses, Elizabeth Abbott digs into the history of women who get embroiled with married men — ranging from concubines in China to geishas in Japan, and dating all the way back to the first mistress in recorded history: Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman who slept with the married Abraham in the Bible. We asked the author what she learned about mistresses in the four years she spent researching the book — and what's up with the men who cheat. (We're looking at you, Schwarzenegger.)

Your family happens to have its own unusual history with mistresses ...

Yes, my great-grandfather, a wealthy alderman in Detroit, always had mistresses, or "fancy women," as they were called. His wife couldn't really do anything about it because times were different then. But she demanded that any time he gave a diamond to a mistress, he give one to her, too. I guess it was her way of saying, "Well, at least I'm not taking it lying down." She accumulated a lot of diamonds.

Who is the most scandalous mistress ever?

Lola Montez, who inspired the slogan, "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets." She was a mid-19th-century Englishwoman who pretended to be Spanish, a voluptuous dancer. She oozed sex appeal, and all sorts of famous men fell in love with her, including Franz Liszt, the composer. In 1846, she traveled to Bavaria and met King Ludwig, who was married to his devoted wife, Therese. All it took was just a brief meeting and Lola had him. He was smitten. He gave her tons of money. The people despised her. They tried to attack her, to attack her home. Ultimately, the king abdicated the throne, and she fled.

Marilyn Monroe reportedly had an affair with President Kennedy, but somehow her reputation survived!

She was such a tragic, complex woman. Unlike Lola Montez, who was in it for money and glory, Marilyn was in it for love. I think other people understood what she didn't — that she was being used, that it wasn't a big love affair she was having. She saw it as some huge, wonderful thing — such fantasy stuff, it was sad. Also, her background was unmitigatedly sad: She was abused by her mother's lodger, and she was stuck in an orphanage; in her first marriage, she was like a child wife.

You say in the book that often, the most a mistress can hope for is that the relationship not end in disaster. Somehow, Camilla Parker Bowles avoided that fate. Is she the most successful mistress of all?

I would say so. She married the prince; she had a lot of dignity. But also, Prince Charles hired a public-relations firm to systematically rehabilitate her reputation. They would go around and see what people were saying, then analyze it and suggest things she should do to cultivate good press. Somehow she pulled it off. Who else could have withstood that kind of competition from the wife — a young, popular, beautiful princess? It was a triumph of character over looks. I don't mean that Diana, who was fabulous-looking, had bad character, or that Camilla is unattractive. But let's just say that Charles certainly doesn't care unduly about looks.

LeAnn Rimes was another mistress who managed to marry the guy.

She seems to have survived, too. When you see the steamy clips from the movie where she met Eddie Cibrian, the affair doesn't seem so surprising. But LeAnn's challenge was that Eddie had kids with his wife.

Would you consider Anthony Weiner's Twitter partners as his mistresses?

No, I don't think so. I think he's got some sort of condition, like exhibitionism. But mistresses, I don't think so.

Why do politicos — John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford — think they can get away with cheating?

They have people who clean up after them. They have an entourage whose political existence depends on the image of the good leader, as in John Edwards' case.

What's the most surprising thing you learned in your research?

I'd always thought of mistresses as kind of titillating. But it's almost never the glamorous thing that we think it is. Now, are there women who are very happy being someone's mistress? Sure. There are women who are quite happy to have a fun, sexual, part-time relationship. But they're definitely the minority.

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.