A History of Mistresses


511 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-00-638589-5
DDC 306.7'092'2




Reviewed by Naomi Brun

Naomi Brun is a freelance writer and a book reviewer for The Hamilton


The moment is legendary. Marilyn Monroe, swathed in silk and diamonds,
batted her eyelashes as she crooned her own sultry version of “Happy
Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Gardens. The
15,000 Democrats in attendance, all men, responded with fervent
applause. “Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey remembered that ‘you could
just smell lust. I mean, Kennedy went limp or something. We were all
just stunned, to see this woman.’” All stunned, that is, but
Jacqueline Kennedy, who “refused to subject herself to the spectacle
of Marilyn serenading her husband.” Who could have blamed her? After
all, JFK’s birthday party was one of the few 20th-century public
triumphs of the Other Woman.

With intellect, humanity, and a good dose of dry wit, award-winning
writer Elizabeth Abbott brings 70-odd stories of mistressdom to life in
this book. She looks at many different kinds of Other Women: trophy
mistresses like Marilyn, concubines in the ancient world, geishas in
Japan, slaves on cotton plantations, gangsters’ molls, and others. The
reasons for becoming a mistress seem to be as varied as the lives of the
women themselves: love, money, survival, and political strategy, to name
a few.

That said, most liaisons develop out of a deficient marriage or a
desire for power. Only two mistresses in her book truly end up
happy—and neither of them wanted to be married anyway. Mistressdom is
a tenuous state, and the women who are happiest in it come to terms with
its vulnerability early on. Most mistresses in the book eventually fall
into despair when they realize that they will never be made wives.

Abbott surmises that mistressdom may one day be a thing of the past, as
gender equality increases and the range of marital models widens.

A History of Mistresses is a scintillating yet scholarly take on men,
women, and relationships. Both biography and social commentary, this
work poses interesting questions about power dynamics and gender
throughout the ages.


Abbott, Elizabeth., “A History of Mistresses,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/18145.