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Thursday, May 20, 1999The leech women
The New York Times
A colleague once brought me a present from Sunset Strip: a vintage poster of a B movie called The Leech Woman, a 1959 horror classic. The poster showed a voluptuous woman ensnaring a young man, with the legend: "LEECH WOMAN! She drains men of their love and lives!"
This breed of she-monster is making an alarming comeback. The leeching ladies are everywhere.
There is the Leech Woman of the boomer generation, the indefatigably exhibitionistic Joyce Maynard, who has asked Sotheby's to auction 14 romantic letters that J. D. Salinger wrote to her in 1972 and '73. The publicity-phobic writer has been the object of Ms. Maynard's leech for quite awhile.
Then there is the Gen-X Leech Woman, the indefatigably exhibitionistic Monica Lewinsky, who insists, all her alleged humiliation notwithstanding, on not going away. The object of her leech, which will likely also last quite awhile, is the privacy-phobic president.
These two highly skilled predators keep trying to extract celebrity from old love affairs that were not only brief and puerile but sexually tortured. They want to gain immortality -- and big bucks -- by feeding off the detritus of their trysts with older, famous men.
If they were microscopic organisms, we would call them parasites. They are worse than social climbers. They are sexual climbers.
Throughout the long, dark ages of undisputed patriarchy, women connived to trade beauty and sex for affluence and status. But aren't we supposed to have evolved beyond these sorts of crass trade-offs? Aren't we supposed to make our own way, without reverting to pillaging the identities of men, and peddling their love messages, to inflate our own identities?
Monica got huffy on a recent publicity tour designed to drum up flagging sales of her book when interviewers had the temerity to ask about the book. As she hawked her affair, she took offence at the suggestion that it was all that is interesting about her. It is an essential characteristic of the Leech Woman to believe that she is independent, that she has a self beyond the self that preys. She is a cross between a vamp and a vampire who wants to be treated like a movie star.
As Tom Shales, the TV critic of The Washington Post, pointed out after Ms. Lewinsky's smirky "Slutterday Night Live" appearance, as he called it: "This is one of the most discomforting things about Lewinsky's protracted romp in the limelight; she doesn't seem to know what she's famous for."
It is truly frightening to think that Monica might try to feed off her affair with Bill for as long as Joyce has fed off hers with Jerry.
After writing a memoir about the nine-month romance she began as a Yale student, the 45-year-old Ms. Maynard has now found yet another way to recycle her ancient escapade. Sotheby's has estimated the letters of the author who hated price tags will sell for $60,000 to $80,000. The world's most confessional woman says she has to betray the world's most unconfessional man because she needs money to pay for college for her children. Malarkey.
I went to Sotheby's to have a gander at the notorious letters. The exercise was fascinating and a little creepy. The 53-year-old author kept warning his 18-year-old friend about the ways that celebrity and conspicuousness can warp talent. Now those warnings against exploitation are being exploited. His counsel for privacy and subtlety are being publicly and unsubtly sold to the highest bidder.
The typed and handwritten letters have a swift arc, the usual one. He goes from wanting to meet her to meeting her, from asking her to "stop -Salingering me" to "Jerry S.," to "XXX, J.," to "It's late, Kiddo, and I'm tired."
Like the president, the author of The Catcher in the Rye was both mentor and seducer. In one letter, Salinger advises his Joyce to write a play in which she can star. Poor man. That is exactly what she did. She has made the story of their romance as long-running as Cats.
There are those who say these women were victims of older men, and so have a right to revenge. But experiencing the ordinary brutality of love does not make one a victim. It makes one an adult. Or it should.
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