Remember The First Wives Club with Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler about three divorcees who seek revenge on husbands who’ve left them for younger women? While the film was hysterical, for sure, women of a certain age loved it because the story offered more than a grain of truth. I have another cautionary tale, “The Second Wives Club,” (not the TV show that featured younger women), but a Shakespearean horror story few people are willing to talk about except for me and my friend.
Let’s call her Saint Cecilia.
I first met Saint Cecilia in the late ’80’s, when she was living with her now deceased, second husband—let’s call him Bill—in a swanky Victorian house in Pacific Heights: the chic, unaffordable, elite neighborhood in San Francisco. Bill and my first husband had been pals since they took girls to the drive-in to “polish their moves” in the backseat of a yellow, ’32, chopped and channeled Ford.
Bill was brilliant, a bit of a romantic and an adventurer in his younger days, but in the end, he turned out to be a wuss. I’m trying hard not to substitute the word “rat.” Instead of acknowledging Saint Cecelia—this splendid woman he eventually married—and their 35 years together by including her in his Will, or even telling her… upfront… he would never put her in his Will… He did neither. As time went on and his health—physically and then mentally—began to fail, Bill would put on his charming Pollyanna mask, choosing to believe (a) the end would never be in sight or (b) his children would do right by Saint Cecelia. And his children?
Let’s just say I’ve met his children and your children and the people down the street’s children… And I’m sad to say this but when it comes to money, we can’t always count on his children—or ours—to do the right thing.
Whether it’s millions or a dollar fifty, too many adult children, who may be multimillionaires in their own right, feel they should inherit everything that was their father’s.
Before Bill died many friends urged him to rewrite his Will to include his wife. He went so far as to practice, with a cue card, what he would tell his children about rewriting his Will, but in the end… He didn’t have the backbone to do right by her. And Bill’s daughter? She never came to visit her father. Instead she asked Saint Cecelia to let her know when he died, and she took what crumbs were left with nary a kind word to the woman—truly a saint of a woman—who stayed by his side; put up with his intermittent alcohol-induced hysteria, bad investments, a lifestyle that had scaled down to a one bedroom apartment… not on the swanky side of town… changed his diapers and nursed him day and night at home.
I know another member of The Second Wives Club, my mother, whose married, adult stepchildren were wealthy beyond belief.
Before my mother married her second husband—a darling man and dear friends with Fred Astaire and Greer Garson—his two grown sons got him to sign over everything he owned to them. Between the “boys,” as my stepfather called them, they owned not ONE, but TWO Gutenberg Bibles, an uber famous “luxury goods” company and an old, historical plantation that, at its peak, covered over 20,000 acres and enslaved 700 people at a time who farmed it and kept it running. Mother didn’t discover her husband couldn’t access his own money, without the boys’ permission, until years down the road… AFTER she lost her own health, lovingly caring for their father. When she discovered there wasn’t any money for her to hire someone to help her bathe and lift him in and out of bed—he should have been in a nursing home—she asked his sons if they would help. They said, “no.”
I sometimes think families look at second wives like we’re basically prostitutes or the hired help. When their father or brother dies, and some of us have no money or the family abandons us, the message they send is that we—the members of The Second Wives Club—can just sit on the curb by ourselves. Yes… I know what that feels like.