Retort from the Trenches of a Menage a Trois

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Liza Featherstone’s review of
Three in Love: Ménages àTrois from Ancient to Modern Times prompted a colorful retort from the book’s authors, which Nerve will post in three parts. n° 12/4/97

Two months ago, when Three in Love was reviewed in this magazine, its authors, ourselves a threesome, were disappointed, but not surprised by the reviewer’s resounding complaint that the book was not confessional enough. We’d anticipated, all too correctly, that newspapers, radio and TV interviews would be more interested in our personal lives — who sleeps in whose bed on a Saturday night, who does the cooking, etcetera — than in the book we’d written.

That said, we have each written a brief, personal memoir, or “confession” in which we attempt to describe, for all who want to know, the ups, downs, dramas and contentments of sharing our lives for about a dozen years. Because we wanted to give fair play to each individual’s role in the threesome, we made no attempt to harmonize. The essays address some of the intimate details of our relationship, sparing you the “I wish he would flush the toilet more often” sentiments. There is some philosophy here, a little sex, and on the whole, candor.

-Barbara Foster, Michael Foster and Letha Hadady

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A Wife with a Double Life by Barbara Foster

Part One of Three

For years, by choice, I’ve sawed myself in half emotionally in order to live a double life: daytimes a married academic, nightimes a Greenwich Village free spirit. A coterie of friends are hip to the masquerade; the less familiar know me as a librarian scholar engaged in research on women’s studies. One self displays a bookish facade; its shadow craves adventurous travel with a lot of fucking on the side. Since each face is fed a nutritional diet, neither feels deprived. The bourgeois and the anarchist have learned to live together.

Before marriage I suffered from mental and physical constipation. Once my soulmate appeared to whisk me away from a stark parental home, the flow started. Not that I was beaten or abused — just bored to death in Philadelphia. Marriage brought me an expensive love out of a Russian novel. For several years we had great sex that precluded outside involvements. Monogamy, the first stage in our romantic cycle, gave way to a “tolerant marriage.” Some years later this evolved into a ménage à trois that incorporates our significant other, Letha Hadady.

Together Mike and I met Letha in Paris. Her blonde good looks swept us both off our feet. Americans abroad, we three walked around the Left Bank for several nights in a row. We finished each other’s sentences, thought each other’s thoughts. This wonderful three-way telepathy continued after Mike and I returned to New York. Alas, Letha could not come home with us then; she was still married to her childhood sweetheart, an attachment not entirely played out. We three remained in touch, hoping for a reunion. With Letha’s decision to leave her husband, the curtain went up on the first act in our ménage drama.

Married young, I remained an inveterate bohemian apt to dye her hair rainbow colors. The ring on my left hand did not tame the rebellious streak left over from a repressive youth. Therefore, the unorthodox nature of a ménage has suited me. Let the world be coupled off! I side with the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who considered three the most mystical of numbers.

A ménage gives me a solid base from which to explore the Byzantine complexity of male-female relations. Often my “nice girl” side has clucked her tongue at the tramp whose skin she shares. Quels frissons! I dared sample pleasures traditionally denied the married woman. Clothes skin tight, I would saunter into a bar, pick up a well-hung candidate and fuck the night away. Next day, respectable in a business suit, I chuckled over these midnight excesses. I preferred dark men, for blondes were too wholesome, without the apparent wickedness that made cruising in New York exciting.

If wounded, I could creep back to my nest to be healed. Instead of a jealous husband, mine understands. He even got off on some of my most sublime fuck bouts. His perceptions are always fresh, his insights into my behavior astounding. Meanwhile, I have a trustworthy female friend whom I love to have advise me. Her tact never fails, even at moments of extreme stress. If the travel bug bites, my “baby sitter” moves into our home for a time. (In the city, our ménage does not live together for lack of space).

I get kicks imagining my most beloved partners fucking in my marital bed. Civilized Frenchwomen — George Sand, Colette and Simone de Beauvoir, for example, are my role models. These literary women indulged their sensual appetites in a refined style typical of Paris. In New York, I have settled for men with reasonable looks, sexual potency, an open-minded attitude and a modicum of brains.

In 1997 our three-way synergy produced the epic Three in Love: Ménages àTrois from Ancient to Modern Times, in which we identify the “inevitable fourth” drawn to the electricity threes generate. This extra person can torpedo a ménage if he (she) pushes from the periphery to center stage. Both my monogamous partners are content not to stray outside our triad. Since I live with my husband in a smallish apartment, dating others requires finesse plus consummate consideration. Two problems nag: where to entertain a beau, if one comes my way? Second, how can I fit in a new attachment with my full time job, triadic activities and writing career? Perpetually worn to a frazzle, I juggle my day and night personas.

Altar-expectant men are off limits. Instead, I have always sought out the bachelor who was prepared to wine and dine me. I cook at home for Mike (often Letha too), so going out provides a holiday from domesticity. As writers we have schedules to coordinate, deadlines to meet. Therefore a lot of our leisure hours are spent at home watching TV or reading to each other. Since Mike has two left feet, sometimes Letha and I go dancing together. Other nights Mike comes along to applaud our sleek tango or mean mambo from the sidelines.

On a few occasions, my libido goaded me to take foolish risks. I remember years ago winding up on an unfamiliar street in an outer borough after a one night stand soured. My barstool Don Juan proved to be a Caspar Milquetoast in the boudoir. Both of us were embarrassed yet he pretended things were swell. I exited at breakneck speed as he geared up for a second round. Somehow, my nervous system recovered from a couple of other scary interludes that left me in the wee hours desperately searching for a cab back to Manhattan. These early experiments convinced me to limit my erotic hemisphere to New York, New York.

Not that opportunities for romance abound these days. In these parts a woman over forty (my favorite age) is as likely to be hit by a car as find a good lover. The few men I really connect with have a sense of humor plus stratospheric charm. With lovers I have gone to certain bistros, bars, theaters and restaurants. My ménage haunts are purposely elsewhere. We three love going out together, mostly in Greenwich Village where we live. My two lives crisscross but seldom meet.

Most consider the Village a quaint neighborhood notable for its artistic history. To me its streets exude magic. They are an intimate map of my titillating, sometimes transcendent experiences. I walk a lot, an excuse to conjure up memories. How can I forget that blissful night spent in a lover’s walk up on Sixth Avenue looking down on the Halloween parade while he sipped champagne from my slipper. The commotion outside did not distract our attention from the orgasmic madness that caused us to miss the best floats.

Our ménage welcomes every season — winter included — from our favorite bench in Saint Luke’s garden. Last spring, as the lilacs bloomed around us, we almost had a major “bust up.” I can’t even recall why, but I shouted at Mike, he yelled at me and Letha fumed in silence. As things were about to get physical, we looked at each other and burst out laughing. Our anger evaporated into hugs and kisses. Unlike most women, I’ve lived out my fantasies.

The Man in the Middle by Michael Foster

Part Two of Three

It started in Brooklyn when I was four. I had two little girlfriends and the three of us played doctor, nurse and patient. I preferred being the patient. We all learned what we could about each other’s wee anatomy. The prepubescent affair was terminated when my family moved to Long Island, butI never let go of the self-importance fostered by two females fussing over me. When, still a kid, I started to read grownup novels, I took it personally if the hero had to choose between his two loves. Why couldn’t he keep them both? I hoped I could.

I hadn’t yet heard of Freud or the Oedipal triangle. Out in the street we played pretty rough, but I never confused sex with murder and tragedy. I believe we collectively pay the price forbuying the old Viennese cigar-chomper’s notion that desire leads ineluctably to death — as though we were a race of praying mantises. I can recall busting in on Mom and Dad making love one Sunday morning. I didn’t think he was killing her, but felt annoyed that these grownups were embarrassedand just wanted to get in bed with them and hear the papers read to me.

When I was barely past my teens, I walked away from Harvard Law School. The girls I had been dating became brusque on the phone. There would be no more necking in the back seat withco-eds. I had left behind not only the career my parents expected, but the possibility of their sortof split-level marriage. That summer, working as a waiter in Provincetown, I met Barbara on the beach. I was attracted by her explosion of red hair. She was with a girlfriend, both of them dying to be bohemian, and I could have had both. But I was still mama’s “nice Jewish boy,” half under the spell of monogamy, so I courted Barbara.

Winning a well-bred young woman takes romance. The soft sands and moon-filled coves of Provincetown’s beaches provided the backdrop, and its hectic, gay-tinged nightlife the charge. I read poetry to Barbara, and we both recall e.e. cummings’ line, “Not even the rain has such small hands,” which is an accurate description of her childlike hands. Our lovemaking was innocent and frequent. This was the first deep love affair for us both. From the start we were staunch allies against convention yet, because it was convenient, we drifted into marriage.

I went back to the university to take an advanced degree and teach. I allowed a few of my prettier students to seduce me. It’s natural for a young woman to want to sleep with her slightly older, idolized professor — he’s daddy, mentor and lover in one. Once Barbara found out, there was some agonizing until we agreed on a “tolerant” marriage — neither wide open nor closed shut.Sexually it was good — changing faces and bods was exciting. But revolving bed partners ate up time and emotion. Being honest with Barbara, telling her almost all, felt indiscreet, somehow, as if I were cheating on my lovers.

Barbara and I met Letha in Paris when we were writing our biography of Alexandra David-Neel,the intrepid explorer of Tibet (and practitioner of the real tantric sex, always a threesome). We all clicked fast, and I take karma to be the reason. Letha is a blonde Hungarian whose family was ennobled in the sixteenth century under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My forebears were among the downtrodden of that empire. As D. H. Lawrence grasped in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the aristocrat and her retainer make a sexy duo. But our historic entanglement runs deeper: on my mother’s side I’m a Turk, and the Turks conquered most of Hungary. So sometimes the countess rides her Turk, and at others the Turk his mare.

Barbara and Letha took to each other immediately. They are very different and perhaps enjoyed complementing and bringing the best in each other. At that time Letha was married, and the four of us did the Left Bank caf?s together, her husband flirting with my wife. But foursomes — for anything longer than a weekend swing — don’t work. Either the fourth gets sloughed off, or the group relapses into the same two couples — remember Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice? It’s a rule of human nature, or maybe math, that three is the turn-on.

Back in the USA I heard that Letha had filed for a divorce. I flew to her hometown ofAlbuquerque. We had a torrid affair but our future remained literally up in the air until Lethaarrived in New York unannounced on a Greyhound bus with a few bucks in her pocket on New Year’s Day,1983. I put her up in a friend’s closet — it was a large closet that we hardly left for a couple ofweeks.

A ménage is erotic all around, which doesn’t rule out jealousy. When Letha first telephoned Barbara, she hung up. But the ménage gradually evolved. In 1986 when Barbara and I were completing the David-Neel biography, Letha went to Tibet to gather facts. She illustrated the book and has gone on to illustrate her own. As a practitioner of Asian medicine — dubbed “the best known blonde in Chinatown” — she has taken care of our health. Good times and bad, she has been there for and with us.

Rivalry is something else. Competitiveness is the curse of American domestic life. Having a third can take the edge off what Bishop Fulton J. Sheen termed, the “impenetrability and separateness” of coupledom. “Love,” wrote this man of the cloth, “implies lover, beloved, and love itself.” Letha acts as our Holy Spirit, bridging the gap, assuaging the wounds. She is the current of our three-way telepathy.

As for the burning question of where I sleep. Barbara owns a co-op apartment on a quaint street in Greenwich Village and Letha has a dirt cheap apartment a comfortable walk away in Chelsea.I bounce back and forth on a semi-regular schedule. We eat out together, go to movies and plays, occasionally see friends who don’t feel threatened by us. Summers we rent a big ski house in Vermont and live together under the same roof. We don’t all sleep together. If you’re a guy who wants to screw both your women at once, find a pair of bisexuals.

Here are a few tips for those who desperately seek a ménage. Be an artist of somesort, or if you can’t manage that, a billionaire. Avoid becoming President. Nobody questioned Picasso’s right to two or three women simultaneously, or Garbo’s longtime tryst with a couple. No Congressional committee is going to investigate financier Warren Buffet’s arrangement with his wife and substitute wife, or why the women get on so well. The rich, powerful and bohemian have alwayshad ménages, and engaging in one will make you feel like all of the above. Give freely and take with both hands. Don’t apologize.

The Other Woman by Letha Hadady

Part Three of Three

During the six years it took Michael Foster, Barbara Foster and I to write Three in Love, I kept a complete diary chronicling my struggle with conflicting emotions: joy, jealousy and anger, but most of all a powerful and life-saving love. The following contains excerpts from my journal — some of my youthful impressions of Michael and Barbara living in New York in the 1970s — combined with an overview of our relationship.

My nickname is Sweetpea. I grew up kissed by the sun of the Southwest. Crystal-clear desert air, high blue-colored mountains, the smell of red clay after warm rain, rain that falls during sunshine — all these made me tall and strong as a mountain weed.

I first visited the Fosters’ tiny Greenwich Village apartment with my then-husband; Barbara and Michael had invited us to a dinner of spiced rice and salad. During those early days in New York — when my senses were shocked by the drunken and ragged people on the streets, and even more by the people who turned cold in the face of such suffering — Barbara and Michael’s rarefied temple high among the backyard trees seemed like a bird’s nest that shook with intensity.

The Fosters’ place was basically one room filled with a typewriter, bookshelves and a big double bed covered with a spread of small red and yellow flowers. He was writing Freedom’s Thunder, a novel set in pre-Revolutionary America. The room was electric with his work. You could hear the muffled beat of drums and whoops of Indians behind the wallpaper. She put on her skirt and high heels every day and took the train to her job at the Hunter College library. There, hidden in the stacks, she secretly researched books and wrote erotic poetry. She escaped for an occasional dance class. She traveled alone to India and Israel. Then in my early twenties, I had been unaware that in Greenwich Village you found high culture crammed into small spaces.

I had no idea why the two of them coyly called each other “Beast.” I had no knowledge then of their passions — of lovemaking alternating with scraps that sent books and shoes sailing across the room.

I eventually left my marriage and spent a few months with my mother in Albuquerque, where Michael came to visit me. We had a blissful time together, driving through the desert and exploring Taos. He made it clear that he and Barbara led separate romantic lives. After he left, I cried for a couple of weeks and then took the old Gray dog — two days and one night — to New York. He had prepared Barbara with news of my arrival. But when I called her, Madame Beast greeted me by hanging up the phone.

It took her years to realize I would never break them apart. They were like Siamese twins joined at the shoulder. They, and now we, share a purpose. After a dozen years together, we three are co-conspirators; we have become not three artists but an art form.

There have been wonderful times during the last ten years and there have been moments when I’ve considered a flight to aloneness to be free from desire. In a ménage à trois, the single woman or man, the other, the extra one, is always seen by society as “bad.” The Other Woman always feels replaceable. And she can get a raw deal if called upon to play referee. She gets tired of being the patient one, the behind-the-scenes mediator of disputes. She has to see his wife’s side in their arguments, but always agree with him; he would never forgive her if she didn’t take his side. It makes her crazy. But if learning to be diplomatic doesn’t ruin her nerves, it will make her strong and high-minded.

While I’ve struggled with my insecurities and frustrations, the ménage has demanded survival skills; to keep up with Barbara and Michael, I cultivated a big-city persona. I took voice and dance lessons, did hundreds of paintings (it runs in my family) and traveled to China, India, Thailand, Tibet, Europe and Latin America. I became more sophisticated and independent. If I’d simply remarried, I would have lapsed again into dependence on my husband. A threesome forced me to define myself. Now my values are stripped bare of society’s polite veneer. I love two talented people who have helped me find my voice. Now I “talk” to friends, to the world, as I write.

Of course, surviving the jealousy in any ménage is trial by fire. Envy is quicksand. But if you can love the other woman to the point of protecting her marriage, you will have learned a valuable lesson and gained a true friend. Barbara and I come from different backgrounds and keep separate households (both of which Michael inhabits). She enjoys life as she finds it while I search for enlightenment. Barbara keeps her windows shut and blinds drawn; her place is crammed with books and travel mementos. She socializes a lot. My place has windows flung open to let in light and air; I’ve always had birds or cats and bottled herbs in book shelves; and I have Asian art all around.

I think the best ménagers were the cooled-out Brits of Bloomsbury. They shared ideas and spacious country homes. They changed sexual orientation as required. Our three is more like the hot-tempered, results-oriented French ménages of Rousseau and Victor Hugo. Like Comrade Lenin and his wife and lover, we get along best when there is some plot to be hatched.

When my book on herbal medicine became a bestseller, this one-sided success threatened to drive a wedge between the three writers. But then Michael became ill and Barbara and I banded together to help him recover. Our love has been a precious, hard-won gift. Our threesome forced us to develop as individuals. When you become part of something greater than yourself, you learn freedom.

©1997 Barbara Foster, Michael Foster, Letha Hadady and Nerve.com