Excerpts

Preface to THREE IN LOVE

The air hinted of autumn while we hurried to the movies. We wanted to see ourselves. The three of us, one man and two women, had been a New York-based menage a trois through the eighties, a decade officially oblivious to our lifestyle. Now, 1990, wondering if other threesomes were converging on the theater, we headed to the downtown opening of Philip and Rose Kaufman’s Henry and June. Ironically, the title neglected the other woman, Anaïs Nin, on whose diary the film was based. Nin was really the first person of this unholy trinity.

On the ticket line we spoke in undertones about Henry Miller’s novels of Bohemian Paris. Ezra Pound, center of a lifelong triad, had called them, “dirty books worth reading.  Miller, the gangster author, would have loved the publicity storm raised by the porn rating of X initially assigned the movie. We speculated on his shadowy wife June, a Brooklyn moll who doted on Dostoevsky. Could Nin have guessed she would become scribe to the most talked about threesome since Jules and Jim and Catherine gamboled on the Left Bank?

We were seated for the intensely impersonal ritual, popcorn and all, that is movie going. Amid a crowd of strangers, we linked moist palms in the darkness. We were all voyeurs bent toward the poet Hart Crane’s “flickering panoramic sleights.” Did we feel Henry, June and Anaïs anoint their successors? When the lights went up, we looked round for additional acolytes. The audience paired out. No doubt some found the movie tame compared to videos watched at home.

Ahead, a menage walked the wind-nipped street: a young woman and two guys. She placed her head on one’s shoulder and they kissed before she gave the other equal time. At the Cafe of the Artists the mustachioed proprietor regarded us without favor. Courting couples occupied the tables for two, he refused to give us one for four and there were no tables for three. There seldom are. Finally, wedged into an odd corner, feeling as conspiratorial as gays before Stonewall, we faced each other.

Barbara, a librarian, is co-biographer of adventurous women. Weaned at Dick Clark’s American bandstand, she knows it takes two to tango but three to do the dance of love–the one that’s been happening since the Serpent peddled fruit to Adam and Eve. Michael, novelist and historian, comes from Brooklyn, but unlike Henry Miller he doesn’t claim citizenship therein. He and Barbara found Letha studying opera in Paris, where the famous semiologist Roland Barthes dedicated a book to her, “The Singing Voice.” The movie had brought up those good and bad times.

During the late seventies Letha and her husband were students living hand to mouth in the Marais, chic now, poor then. Barbara and Michael were on hand for a week to research the life of Alexandra David-Neel, the explorer, which continued a quest she’d begun in India. One day Michael wandered out of the Musee Guimet to notice an attractive blonde sitting at an outdoor cafe reading David-Neel’s My Journey to Lhasa. He stared so intently she rushed to pack up the book and pay the check, and when he spoke to her in broken French she burst out laughing.

They spent some hours together before she left him, she thought forever, with a kiss and a refrain from a French love song. Meanwhile Letha’s husband sat admiring Barbara’s mini-skirted legs in the museum library. When he asked for her telephone number, she told him to contact her in New York. Finally, when the two couples dined in a Manhattan restaurant, the coincidence of the earlier meetings wasn’t taken to be chance. In due course a recombination occurred, resulting in a divorce, a menage a trois and a much-praised biography.

Since 1981 we three had, in a sense, been married to each other. Now we were about to embrace a story grander than our own, one that demanded a new name: Triography, the study of threes in love. You won’t find it in the Library of Congress catalog of subject headings. Reference works ignore it, including an Encyclopedia of Sex that claims to cover “all aspects of sexuality.” Although Alexandre Dumas père, that musketeer of the boudoir, quipped long ago, “The chains of marriage are so heavy it takes two to bear them, sometimes three,” the menage remains a smutty secret, the last taboo.

It’s as though Moses had issued an Eleventh Commandment: THOU SHALT LOVE ONLY ONE. Except that the Bible is rife with threes, from the seduction of Lot by his two daughters to the aged King David who, to prolong his years, slept naked between two virgins. When Arno Karlen, a psychoanalyst who lives around a Greenwich Village corner from us, decided to write Threesomes, a study of contemporary menages, he realized that sexologists had no idea what to make of the phenomenon. Talk show audiences were quicker to decide: They reviled the longstanding triads Karlen brought along as guests.

We’ve had similar things happen. Even casual acquaintances may pose intimate and embarrassing questions such as who sleeps with who and who pays the bills. Typically, at a party a woman obviously pursuing Michael insinuated to Letha that she should look elsewhere for love and that her role as third was immoral and unnatural. Meanwhile a guy hung around Barbara, figuring that she must be fair game. Everyone expects jealousy and violence among a threesome and they are shocked to discover our menage has lasted this long.

In fact, European thought from Kant on has recognized a third lurking in the shadow of the altar. Simone de Beauvoir casually remarked, “Marriage finds its natural fulfillment in adultery.” Her lifetime partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, understood the compelling attraction of three and modeled his fictional trilogy The Age of Reason on their real life liaisons. Perhaps the menage a trois is misunderstood because it builds an emotional structure that is inclusive. Jealousy, which we suppose natural, is the main stumbling block. Yet a jealous rage is foreign enough to human nature that we treat it as compulsion and speak of being in the clutches of “the green-eyed monster.” A menage, on the contrary, demands choice and mutual consent.

At the cafe we talked about the Kaufmans’ film, disappointed when it fell back on the cliches of the classic triangle. Still, Anaïs Nin’s tempestuous affair with Henry and June, soaring toward the stars only to descend with the swiftness of a roller-coaster, illustrated the dialectic of three: Whether jealousy or compassion prevails is the crux of adventure in the erotic realm. Because the menage has a witness, the third or even a fourth persona, it acts as a magnifying glass for the issue of trust that bedevils any relationship. From infatuation to quarrel, the menage plays out in exaggerated form the repertoire of romance.

That evening we realized there was a genre of love story that remained dim to many. The menage a trois is much more than a couple gone wrong. Glancing around the place, smoky as Miller’s La Coupole or Beauvoir’s Deux Magots, we spotted the young threesome come in out of the chill. They were cozy, but if we hadn’t seen them before, would we have tagged them for a menage? When the eye grazes trois at a table, the mind makes an excuse: It must be a boy, girl and her brother. Of course, discreet signals can be sent. But could we, who’d grown up on the barricades of the Sexual Revolution, come out?

We’d survived being single, married and three. We’d made the scene, passed through Existentialism to the non-existence of the Void. We’d traveled to the East, written and lectured, and more books were on the way. Yet our lovestyle made us alien. Before we could convey our intimacies, our deepest feelings, we needed to trace the lineage of three in love. We sought a tradition.

By the time we left the Cafe of the Artists, after a wink to the neophyte menage on our way out, our quest was on.

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