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Elizabeth Abbott on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair

Elizabeth Abbott on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair

May 20, 2011

Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Marriage, has a new blog on which she answers questions on contemporary marital issues. In this entry, she comments on the shock and awe surrounding Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair with Patty Baena:

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a traditional man! His cheating on Maria followed the age-old tradition of the sexual Double Standard that accommodates extramarital sex for husbands by allowing them to have mistresses or concubines. Nobody understood this better than Bill Clinton, who offered this definitive explanation of why he dallied with Monica Lewinski: “Because I could.” And so could and did Schwarzenegger, with Patty Baena as well as, the rumor mill alleges, legions of other women. Like other high-powered, dynamic and powerful men, his sense of entitlement and invulnerability prompted him to do what he wanted, when and with whom he wanted it. Or as Woody Allen, shrugging off vitriolic criticism for having committed adultery with his step-daughter, put it: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

All three of these men looked close to home for sexual adventure though the lovelorn Allen’s subsequent marriage to his step-daughter/mistress puts his into rather a different category. But Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and Schwarzenegger’s with his family’s housekeeper are the stuff of tradition. Male employers throughout history have regarded their staff as sexually available, and Patty Baena was no exception. The details of their relationship – who pursued whom? What possessed them to have unprotected sex? What was their immediate game plan with regards to Maria and the Schwarzenegger children? Did Rogelio de Jesus Baena know or guess whose child Patty was carrying? – may be fascinating fodder for speculation, but they do not change the power dynamics of their employer-employee relationship. The fact that they conceived a child was a complicating but not unusual factor.

Even Schwarzenegger’s response to his love child is traditional. Though he supported his son financially, he carefully concealed his identity from all but those trusted friends and professionals – lawyers, accountants, bankers – who helped him maintain the fiction that his only children were Maria’s.

Until very recently, the children of mistresses were bastardized and pregnancy was a dreaded occupational hazard. The maid cast out into the world after being impregnated by her employer was a literary theme and in literature as in life, she was blamed, scorned and despised, and her child suffered with her. In the last decade laws have struck down the concept of bastardization, and in the eyes of the law, a child is a child whether born within or out of wedlock. Schwarzenegger respected that enough to ensure that his son with Patty, born a mere five days after Christopher, his son with Maria, lived in comfort if not the luxury he provided for his legitimate children.

Before egalitarianism, some North American men provided for their illegitimate children though if they attempted to make testamentary beneficiaries, relatives almost always contested their wills. Segregationist politician Strom Thurmond was one such clandestine father. His daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, was born to his mother’s African-American domestic, sixteen-year old Carrie Butler, when Strom was twenty-two year-old. Thurmond died in public office at the age of one hundred, still notorious for his relentless advocacy of racial segregation. (He sounded “like the ghost of Adolph Hitler,” Essie Mae recalled.)

But in private, Thurmond offered financial support and was keenly interested in and proud of his biracial daughter though they first met only when Essie Mae was a teenager. Only after Thurmond died in 2003 did Essie Mae disclose what Thurmond’s colleagues and friends had long suspected. The Thurmond family, graciously and unusually, confirmed her paternity and spoke of her right to know her heritage. (It helped that she had no interest in suing for a share of her father’s estate – her moral and legal right.) Her half-brother, Strom Thurmond Jr., added that he was eager to get to know her.

Unlike Thurmond, who was unmarried at the time of his relationship with Essie Mae’s mother, Schwarzenegger’s situation was messier though the times were kinder. There is much speculation about why he waited for fourteen years to ‘fess up to Maria and attempt to make peace with their children. Several possible reasons suggest themselves: a) Someone was going to blow the whistle on him and he pre-empted them by telling Maria himself. b) He could not have supported the child without leaving a paper trail, so he and Patty were not the only ones in on the secret. c) His governorship was over and he could finally breathe more freely, and had an impulse to get it off his chest though until then he had categorically and publicly denied all accusations of marital infidelity. d) He either miscalculated how terribly revelations would devastate Maria, or else he decided to put all his cards on the table and see what happened.

And what about Patty? She may also have believed she had urgent reasons to keep the affair quiet. She had a generous salary as the Schwarzenegger’s housekeeper, she got support payments for her son and she knew Schwarzenegger wasn’t going to leave Maria for her. The Schwarzenegger-Baena saga is ongoing. So far, however, it has not strayed far from the traditional story of powerful men, risk takers by vocation, defying the social morality that would condemn them for betraying their marriage vows, in Schwartzenegger’s case, spectacularly so.

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