When does a ‘girlfriend’ equate to a ‘wife’?
Opinion: Status of L’Wren Scott’s relationship with Mick Jagger central to reports of fashion designer’s death
‘L’Wren Scott had broken into the tough celebrity-styling world long before she met Mick Jagger and embarked on a 13-year partnership with him that only ended with her death. In fact, their relationship lasted six years longer than his marriage to Bianca Jagger.’ Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Following the funeral of a sweet and reckless 20-year-old, his aunt confided that the ordeal had been exacerbated by the disproportionate focus on his on/off girlfriend of six months. The family barely knew her. Yet there she was, a tragic Ophelia in six-inch heels, tottering above the chief mourners.
It raised a deeper question: at what point do we deem a “girlfriend” to have made the journey to “significant other”, “companion”, “life-partner”? And does any of these, even in the most liberal, sophisticated milieus, ever equate to the status of “wife”?
In a society that affects a right-on indifference to these matters, this is not a mere nicety.
It was evident this week in the stomach-churning coverage of L’Wren Scott, a 49-year-old American fashion designer and stylist who took her own life on Monday. She had broken into the tough celebrity-styling world long before she met Mick Jagger and embarked on a 13-year partnership with him that only ended with her death. In fact, their relationship lasted six years longer than his marriage to Bianca Jagger.
But how was Scott’s status pitched? In a BBC news report , which failed to put a name on her for 30 seconds, she was “Mick Jagger’s girlfriend”. Or – for discerning Sun readers – “hanged Mick lover”.
Jagger was acutely conscious of the status of the women in his life. He and Jerry Hall had been together for 21 years and had four children, when she petitioned for divorce. His response was that their (Balinese Hindu) marriage was never valid. His only legal marriage therefore appears to have been to Bianca Jagger. Twitter tributes to Scott were said repeatedly to be “led by Jagger’s ex-wife Bianca”. It was striking to see the comparative respect accorded a brief relationship that ended more than 40 years ago.
Can it be because Bianca had acquired the magic status of “wife”?
Perhaps the most scorching example of this was Valérie Trierweiler, aka “France’s repudiated ex-first girlfriend” ( Daily Telegraph ’s headline). The speed of her ejection from the Elysée Palace and François Hollande’s life amid his farcical motorbike adventures was brutal.
She was regarded as a strong, independent, working woman, righteously outraged when her employer, Paris Match , made her the magazine’s cover star in 2012 (the year Hollande’s affair began) with the headline, “Valerie. Hollande’s charming asset.” “Bravo Paris Match , for its sexism,” she tweeted. “My thoughts go out to all angry women.” But the true depth of her powerlessness was exposed once Hollande’s damage-limitation crew swung into action. Like a medieval king’s spurned mistress, she languished in a refuge while awaiting “clarification of her status”.
The “as ye sow so shall ye reap” brigade will point to her own behaviour in hooking up with Hollande while still married. Does it matter that his affair with her began before his separation from Ségolène Royale, his non-married partner of about 25 years and mother of his four children?
It matters insofar as the process of divorce is respected. She went public about Hollande only once her divorce had been declared, creating what might be considered a decent interval. Contrast that with Hollande’s clinical announcement: “I am making it known that I have put an end to my shared life with Valerie Trierweiler.”
Supposing she had been a “wife”?
It was not as if marriage between them had never been discussed in super-liberal France with its cinq-à -sept affairs, famous privacy laws and purportedly indifferent media. According to French media reports around his election, he and Trierweiler had apparently ruled out marriage “purely for diplomatic reasons”, whatever that meant. Later, he was content to characterise the relationship as “modern, because it is not traditional marriage”. But nor was it a formalised French civil union.
How will the public react if Hollande moves his new love into the Elysée Palace? Just how many “non-traditional marriages” can a president weather in office – where Trierweiler enjoyed a generously funded public office – before les citoyens become agité s ? Even in France?
And if it matters, the question is why? Is it because the status of “wife” still carries a clout that is rarely acknowledged out loud?
Long ago, a still legally married Bertie Ahern set a precedent among European heads of state when his partner’s name featured on official invitations. Intimations of a break-up came only when Celia Larkin failed to co-host a dinner. As far as we know, he remains married.
Superstar Beyoncé was in town last week, touring – bafflingly – under her married name, Mrs Carter, a surname even her superstar husband doesn’t use. The colossal screens flashed a fine, feminist message: “Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?” Then the curvy goddess pointedly slapped a magnificent buttock and sang: “If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it . . .”
John Waters is on leave