When Boomer Men We Love Behave Badly

Should we be sad, mad, surprised, threatened—or none of the above—when our favorite gravitas-bedecked guys let us down? (And yet, do we applaud revered women who do a tiny bit of the same thing?)

Graham Nash recently announced he had split from his wife of 38 years. (Photo by Jay Janner-Pool/Getty Images)

Rock and roll nice guy Graham Nash recently announced he had split from his wife of 38 years. (Photo by Jay Janner-Pool/Getty Images)

In confronting the personal lives of reasonably serious male bold-faced names (as it is sometimes impossible not to do), there’s gossip that we, schadenfreude-ishly, like to hear—Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, et al. And then there’s gossip that we’re sad or shocked to hear: news that makes us—savvy cynics, after all—embarrassed over our naïveté and puzzled while watching our casually solid assumptions crumble. Last week was such a week for boomers, especially women.

Just after New Year’s, it was announced that Graham Nash, 73, known for decades as the nicest and most normal man in rock—a thoughtful, un-arrogant gentleman who rated higher on the sensibleness meter than just about any other once-frisky dude who inhabited Laurel Canyon in its heyday—had filed for divorce from his wife of 38 years, Susan Sennett Nash, 63, with whom he has three grown children. One website disapprovingly quipped that he’d announced it “in as nonchalant a way as possible.” And it was reliably speculated that a photographer half his age was the reason. The next day, Donald Fagen, now 68, the higher-profiled half of Steely Dan—that most literate, ironic and New-Yorkers-like-us of the ’70s rock duos—was arrested after he allegedly pushed his wife of 22 years, Libby Titus, 69, against a marble window frame, powerfully enough for her to have incurred injuries. (Ms. Titus called 911 and was treated for minor injuries. Fagen was arraigned in criminal court on one charge each of assault and harassment and released without bail.)

Donald Fagen was booked on charges of assault against wife Libby Titus. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)

Donald Fagen of Steely Dan was booked on charges of assault against wife Libby Titus in early January. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)

I’ve met Graham Nash. When, 10 years ago, I entered his Encino home to interview him for my book Girls Like Us (during which interview he spoke with reverence and humility about loving and being rejected by Joni Mitchell decades earlier), the first thing he said, triumphantly, was the wonderfully non-sequiturial, “My son just borrowed my jacket! That’s a sign your kids like you!” How could you not love a man like that? When I posted on Facebook last week how sad I was about the divorce—not quite being able to say I was disappointed in his character—I was echoed by dozens voicing the same opinion. As for Fagen, people pinged me with things like, “He seemed cranky but not violent,” and “He picks up his grandkid at my kid’s school” and “He used to date that smart essayist; I forget her name…” fortifying the sense that he swam in a New York writers’ pool.

In both cases, people of a certain age who’d spent decades secretly flattering themselves—by feeling that a handful of musical stars were kind of Just Like Us—faced an unnamed realization: These incidents revealed that the high standard to which we’d unconsciously held certain classy celebrities had always been a kind of domestic-bliss (or at least domestic-peace) insurance policy. The spiking boomer divorce rate (Americans over age 50 are twice as likely to get divorced as they were 20 years ago); the eye-roll-inducing cliché of older men tackily leaving very long marriages for much younger women; and the scary (usually, thank God, avoided) nightmare out-of-control marital fight from hell—all were safely impossible for banal us because they’d proved avoidable even by soignée them.

Last week’s events both had recent déjà vus. The predecessor for the Fagen arrest occurred in April 2014, when that most dignified, respectable and soft-spoken of august boomer music men—Paul Simon, then 72— was arrested (by helicopter, no less) along with his wife of 22 years, Edie Brickell, then 48, for disorderly conduct, after a verbal fight that led to a physical push that led to a 911 call that was quickly hung up on. New Canaan, Conn., police found probable cause to arrest both Simon and Brickell, who have three children, and the image of the diminutive, glum, white-haired Simon under that big crime headline rocked the tabloid front pages with wowza what’s-wrong-with-this-picture? panache. The couple were released without bail, and, at their next court hearing and a final one a few months later, both insisted it was an “atypical” “argument” and all was well—and all charges were dropped.

Edie Brickell leaves a Connecticut court shortly after being arrested, along with husband Paul Simon, after an alleged domestic dispute. (Photo by David Surowiecki/Getty Images)

Edie Brickell leaves a Connecticut court in the aftermath of her arrest, along with husband Paul Simon, after an alleged domestic dispute. (Photo by David Surowiecki/Getty Images)

As for the predecessor to Mr. Nash’s surprise divorce, one need look no farther than his former bandmate Neil Young. Sure, Mr. Young was always more idiosyncratic and ornery than Mr. Nash, but he was not only long-married; he and his wife Pegi were a couple tightly and admirably bonded against heartbreak and adversity, philanthropist-activists for the education of severely disabled children like their own now-adult son (they founded The Bridge School, which they continue to fund, in 1986). Yet in July 2014, Mr. Young, then 68, filed for divorce from Pegi, then 61, after 36 years of marriage, and immediately started—smilingly, publicly—dating actress Daryl Hannah. (Also disorienting, for slightly younger urbanites, was, several years earlier, the surprising breakup of the cooler-than-cool longtime Sonic Youth couple, when Thurston Moore left stunning, sophisticated Kim Gordon, 58, to whom he’d been married for 27 years, for a younger woman. Ms. Gordon, of course, wrote the lauded and bestselling book Girl With a Band about it—and her whole life—last year.)

The spiking boomer divorce rate; the eye-roll-inducing cliché of older men tackily leaving very long marriages for much younger women; and the scary (usually, thank God, avoided) nightmare out-of-control marital fight from hell—all were safely impossible for banal us because they’d proved avoidable even by soignée them.

Mick Jagger with his longtime paramour, the late L'Wren Scott. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Mick Jagger with his longtime paramour, the late L’Wren Scott. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

But nothing topped the suicide by hanging of Mick Jagger’s longtime girlfriend, designer L’Wren Scott, in March 2014, just before she turned 50. Imaginings of the pain and desperation that must have led this punctilious perfectionist to that act—the night after she’d hosted a small party—shivered through Manhattan women of a certain age like a fast-moving virus. All over social media, these women blamed Mr. Jagger, then 70, who had recently broken up with/cheated on/declined to marry Scott (or all three, depending on whom you talked to), who was also financially indebted to him. But it seemed—to outlier me—profoundly unrealistic to expect this man, of all men, to be as faithful as some earnest suburban accountant. Mr. Jagger seemed genuinely stricken by her suicide, vulnerable and fragile. This was surprisingly unnerving and poignant to me. I wanted the other Mick Jagger back, to hold up the flag. What flag? The flag of invincible, blasé, ageless savoir faire even in the face of the worst guilt-inducing pain, I guess. Real life was hard enough. Feminist though I was, I yearned for a person I never realized I’d psychologically relied on: Mick Jagger, Fairy Tale. Those pictures we posted of Muammar Gaddafi—bald, without his dashing black-haired wig—after we killed him? The dignity-by-proxy smashing jolt that those images must have given Libyans was similar to what I felt watching the crushed, wizened Mr. Jagger. (Scott’s death was surmised to have been a case of hidden serious depression.)

I spoke to Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and writer of books on marriage and sexuality (Peer Marriage, Love Between Equals, et al), and now marriage reality-show judge, about the spike in over-50 (and over-over-50) divorces, which Mr. Nash and Mr. Young exemplified. She said, “It’s not just that we’re living longer and living healthier longer, but we believe we can be ‘ourselves’ longer. And ‘ourselves’ to a baby boomer is a fairly entitled self that has enjoyed a really good period of American history and also a self that’s been through the gender revolution, the sexual revolution, the gay revolution, so why not re-order old age?” Especially if you have fame and money.

Jagger's ex, Jerry Hall, announced her engagement this week to media baron Rupert Murdoch. (Photo by Max Mumby/Pool/Indigo/Getty Images)

Mr. Jagger’s ex, Jerry Hall, announced her engagement this week to octogenarian media baron Rupert Murdoch. (Photo by Max Mumby/Pool/Indigo/Getty Images)

Another perspective was given by top Manhattan divorce lawyer Bernard Clair, who currently represents Jason Hoppy (in his divorce from Bethenny Frankel) and Melissa Soros, and has represented director Stephen Soderbergh. He said that men’s reliance on Viagra—now a part of mainstream American life—has dovetailed with a liberalized and savvy matrimonial law environment to produce a risk-free safety net for those who want to roam free in their sunset years. “It’s the weirdest confluence of circumstances over the last half decade or decade. Because of Viagra,” he noted, plus the increasing prevalence, respectability and fine-tuning of pre-nuptial agreements, and the new universality of no-fault divorce (New York was the last state to get it, in 2010). “Guys can now further a dream of being with a much younger woman [without worrying about a counter-suit by the wife] and without giving a damn that the woman is with them not because of their looks or physique but because of their money or power or position. They say to themselves, ‘So why the hell not?’ And if she thinks he’s stupid, she gets her awakening by way of a real pre-nup.” (Hmm, wonder if this was Rupert Murdoch’s thinking when—as has just been reported—he, at 84, asked Jerry Hall to marry him. But then again, she, being Mick Jagger’s soon-to-be-60-year-old ex, might have had some score-settling of her own in mind when she posed smilingly with her fiancé, the far-wealthier-than-Mick media baron. Or else—who knows?—it could have been true love.)

But what of the surprising domestic violence arrests of Fagen, Simon and Brickell? Long Island-based Dean Parker, a clinical psychologist and relationship specialist who has counseled about 500 couples (including entertainers and politicos) who’ve had domestic violence issues over his three decades of private practice, says that the incidence of it among older couples is rare—only about 20 percent of all domestic violence 911 calls come from women over 50—“because of emotional maturity of both sexes, better impulse control, as well as lower testosterone levels for men.” But when people do call, “they’re really scared. And the ‘push’ scenario that occurred with both Fagen and Simon is common. In the heat of the moment, someone is yelling or pointing or blocking the way or refusing to leave the room. Then the push happens, often with no intention of violence, but more out of frustration. It’s usually the male; the female falls awkwardly [as was the case with Libby Titus, from media reports] and now real damage has been done. ‘I’m going to call 911!’ ‘I’m going to call the police!’—it’s a common refrain and it seems to escalate matters. But I do want to emphasize that both parties become fearful when things escalate and are on the verge of violence.”

Given all this, we should raise a toast to the long-married quality celebrity couples who’ve behaved the way we want them to, like Keith Richards and Patti Hansen. Bono and Ali Hewson. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. News about divorces from them would be annoyingly upsetting, so: Suck it up and carry the tattered flag, guys.

Even though they may well later decline to press charges, withdraw their orders of protection, reconcile promptly and publicly—and regret their click of the three digits that led to the embarrassing headlines (Diane Lane was said to have felt this way when she called 911 on now-ex-husband Josh Brolin some years ago, the news went viral, and then they waited an excruciating length of time before walking the red carpet together)—“I really doubt celebrities are thinking about [the PR damage it might do] at the time they make the call,” Mr. Parker said. “Instead, they feel they need outside intervention to put an end to a dangerous situation.”

Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore split in 2011 after 27 years of marriage. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore split in 2011 after 27 years of marriage. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Given all this, we should raise a toast to the long-married quality celebrity couples who’ve behaved the way we want them to, like Keith Richards and Patti Hansen. (Who would have expected it from that rascal? Thirty-two years of marriage, including his steadfastness during her two bouts of cancer.) Bono and Ali Hewson. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa (minus one small, swiftly papered-over infidelity scandal a few years ago, which had a latter-day Updike-story primness to it). Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. Pierce Brosnan and Keeley Shaye Smith, she of a body type that is not movie-star-sculpted. News about divorces from them would be annoyingly upsetting, so: Suck it up and carry the tattered flag, guys.

And while we’re talking about both respect for long-marrieds and shock and sorrow, it’s worth noting that David Bowie’s virtually-just-announced death, which came as a surprise to most people who did not know he’d been battling cancer, was met, on social media, not just by praise for his talent, but by praise, by women, for his 23-year-long marriage to model Iman. As Berkeley-based journalist Kate Coleman put it, “his home life appeared to be a model of committed love and sanity.”

While we—well, women, anyway—look negatively on classy male celebrities who ditch their wives for younger women, we do a ‘You go, girl!’ when a respected female star leaves her marriage to a man, especially for politically correct or non-traditional companionship.

But here’s something interesting: either (depending on how you take it) a double standard or a feminist flourish to the bad news. While we—well, women, anyway—look negatively on classy male celebrities who ditch their wives for younger women, we do a “You go, girl!” when a respected female star leaves her marriage to a man, especially for politically correct or non-traditional companionship. No one criticized Susan Sarandon—whose politics are as impeccable, in many quarters, as her acting—for leaving Tim Robbins for a significantly younger man. Nor Cynthia Nixon (as permanently likable as her Sex and the City character) for ditching her husband for an average-looking female public education advocate (Ms. Nixon got points for her choice of a worthy non-celeb), to whom she is now married and with whom she has a child. When Tilda Swinton casually admitted that, though married, she is, with her husband’s consent, polyamorous, upscale movie buffs aha!’d about the delicious personal high sophistication that seemed to explain the secret source of her exquisite acting. When Heidi Klum (O.K., not an elites’ fave, but admired for her TV entrepreneurship and self-branding) left Seal—thus, sadly, upending celebrityland’s most casually successful cross-racial marriage—and took up with a member of the household help, even the tabloids shrugged, and now that she is romancing much-younger Vito Schnabel, no one is complaining.

Then there was the revelation, two months ago, via The New Yorker, that Transparent creator and showrunner Jill Soloway—the most academically pure feminist to ever exist in Hollywood—was amicably walking out on her supportive husband (except for the Jewish holidays, which they will always celebrate with their children, she made clear) for swaggering, cult-adored lesbian poet Eileen Myles. Ms. Soloway’s heavy lifting on transgender issues, bisexuality, gender fluidity, gay marriage, Jewish neurosis, Nate ’n’ Al’s bagels—in other words: bicoastal progressives’ most righteous totems—framed that act of hers not as flippant selfishness but as an essential part of her journey.

Said historian Stephanie Coontz, perhaps America’s most respected scholar of marriage and families (Marriage: A History and The Way We Never Were), “Our more forgiving reaction to women’s behavior [in these cases] is sort of over-compensation for the fact that men got a free pass for such behavior over the years. In general, I don’t think we ought to be passing judgment or taking sides in other people’s breakups, but to the extent that we do hold people to high standards of honesty or fidelity, I don’t think we need to cut today’s women special slack.” But here’s perhaps the most interesting news, from Ms. Coontz: “Women tend to initiate the majority of divorces, at all ages, and the fact that this [boomer cohort] is the first generation of women in their 50s and older who have work experience and earning power certainly comes into play here.”

So perhaps the next classy star to leave a really long marriage will be a female. But let’s just hope there will be no more domestic violence arrests, even though the charges are rescinded.

When Boomer Men We Love Behave Badly