Margo Howard reflects on her dealings with two celebrated womanizers
In the New York Times recently there was a review of Alexandra Styron’s memoir about life as a Styron. That would be with Father Bill, Mother Rose, and three other sibs. The reviewer said the book was terrific, and mentioned in passing that Ms. Styron dealt openly with the many affairs of her father, the famous author. Well, that threw me for a loop, and I will tell you why – but I need to offer some background first.
In … oh, hell, 1960, when I was 20, I was an intern for Hubert Humphrey in his Washington Senate office. He was then running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, as was JFK. Not far from his office was the Senators’ elevator, exclusively for the use of, well, Senators. Of course that’s the elevator I would pop into every now and again. Twice when I was in that elevator, so was JFK. And you know what? He never looked at me … twice, as the saying goes. I did not have hurt feelings about this until it became public knowledge that he was a real ladies’ man. So then I got to thinking: What’s wrong with me? I wasn’t bad looking, and got quite a bit of male attention.
Kind friends who knew I had hurt feelings about this episode – or rather, absence of episode — tried to buck me up by saying, “Well, he didn’t ‘do young.’” That calmed me down until I read about Mimi … the 19-year-old White House intern he had shipped to Europe so he could have the pleasure of her company there while on Presidential business. That did it. I’d had a lot of compliments during those young years, but I had to face facts: if I didn’t catch the eye of a famous womanizer, there was no escaping the feeling of being a total flop.
But back to Bill Styron. We met in Chicago during the famous Conspiracy Seven trial, which conveniently took place when my starter husband and I were finis. I had a brand new press pass, a famous journalist beau who was covering the trial for the New York Times (the late J. Anthony Lukas), and a friendship with one of the noisier defendants, Abbie Hoffman. (We’d both gone to Brandeis). Styron was there, as a journalist, as was Jason Epstein, the famous book editor. This is not to anyone’s credit, but that trial became everyone’s social life. The news people hung out together, along with Bill Kunsler, the lead lawyer, Tom Hayden, Abbie, Lenny Weinglass.
In that setting, Styron and I were good pals. We were to cement the friendship later on when Esquire ran the first chapter of “Sophie’s Choice.” For whatever reason, it wasn’t well-received — but I thought it was wonderful, and wrote him a note saying I loved it. That apparently meant something to him, most likely because the negative feedback surprised him. And a few years after that he paid me a lovely compliment. I was visiting a girlfriend at Martha’s Vineyard who was in a famous tennis game: it was my hostess, Kay Graham, Rose Styron, and a woman whose name I forget. At their game, my chum invited Rose and Bill to the little dinner she was having for me. Rose said she’d love to, but Bill was under his black cloud and wasn’t going anywhere. Later in the day, Rose called my hostess to say that she’d told Bill of the dinner and my being in town, and he said, “We’re going.” It was a wonderful dinner party and his depression lifted, at least for the evening.
So … although I had heard here and there that Bill stepped out, I had no idea his extra-curricular activities were what the book reviewer implied, and once again I had to think: What was wrong with me?! And that, dear reader, is the story of how my confidence has been – once again – shot to hell.