marriage: an investigation

I Was Married Four Times — Once to a Famous Artist

Rose with her second husband. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Rose

They say you can never understand someone else’s marriage. But this week, New York Magazine and the Cut decided to try. We interrogated dozens of couples (and a throuple) to see what makes their marriages work — or not.

Barbara Rose, Married 1 Year; 8 Years; 10 Years; 10 Years and Counting

I was married four times to three husbands — 50 years later, I remarried my first husband. It’s bizarre, isn’t it? I like being married, but I’m a terrible wife. I can’t cook. I can’t drive. And as soon as I had my kids, my No. 1 priority was my children. No. 2 was my work. Who wants to put up with that?

My first husband, Richard, was at Dartmouth and I was at Smith, and we had the same background. Probably we were in love — you know, when you’re young, you’re in love. But it was really about going to Europe. We knew our parents would give us money as gifts. So we had a traditional upper-middle-class wedding with a band playing Mendelssohn or something and all the relatives and the cakes. This was in 1959. Then we went to Europe.

I started a doctorate in art history at Columbia, but he wanted to get his Ph.D. in economic history at the University of Pennsylvania, so we went to Philadelphia. Penn’s art-history program was second-rate, though, and I wasn’t going to a second-rate school. Then I tried to get a job, but the only one I could get was as a secretary. I said, “This is nonsense. I’m going back to New York and finishing my doctorate.” I was 22 when I got married and 23 when I got divorced.

My parents had a fit. The whole purpose of sending me to these fancy schools was to marry the right person. My father said, “Now that you’ve ruined your life, what are you going to do?” I remarried quickly, at 24, to an artist who was just starting out. I never think ahead in life; it’s one of my unfortunate features. I just plunge into things.

The artist and I were friends, but he was going out with my roommate. One night, I was in this artist bar and he walks in. The man I was with had left his raincoat at a party at the artist’s apartment, so he said, “I want my raincoat back.”

“I’ll trade you Barbara for the raincoat,” the artist said. Then he goes home, brings the guy’s raincoat to the bar, takes my hand, and says, “Let’s go, I just traded you for a raincoat.” It was kind of sweet. We went to my crappy apartment, and he never left. Later, I asked, “If you were interested in me, why did you go out with my roommate?” He said, “I was afraid of you because you were my dream walking: a blonde Smithy in a polo coat.” We were young and in love. It was all the stuff it’s supposed to be, but it was too intense to last.

We got married right away at the registrar’s in London. I only had one dress, so I wore that — we were desperately poor. We lived in various hovels and had a double sleeping bag on the floor of his loft. We also had children right away, and the joke around Soho was, “Oh, two babies had a baby.” But finally, after six years, his paintings began to sell and his ego began to swell. He wanted me to be a little gray mouse in the corner, but I was getting to be fairly well known in my own right. Then he got to be super-famous. It just got too complicated. Plus it was the ’60s, and as somebody said, “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.”

Neither of us really wanted to get divorced. It just turned out that way. But it was mainly my fault. Why? I said, “You can have the house and the art collection; I’ll take the children. Good-bye.” Planning ahead, as I said, was not my forte. But I’m on perfectly good conditions with everybody except the third husband, the king of rock and roll, who died. He was a wife abuser.

I’d already known my third husband — he was writing songs and making music and the funniest guy in the world. But he was also a big liar: He said he was done with his wife, and that wasn’t true. Ultimately, he left her and we got married.

We were living in Italy by then in this old farmhouse, and we had our wedding in Rome. I wore a red dress. Then we moved into this tiny house on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village that had belonged to E.E. Cummings.
I thought, Isn’t that nice; my children will have a father, I’ll have an office. Instead, he sued his ex for custody of his two children and won. So we had four children from 9 to 19. Chaos.

I’d known he drank but didn’t realize he was a drunk. And I certainly didn’t expect to get beat up. He used to send me little cards: “Dear Bo, here’s this present from Tiffany’s. I’m sorry I hit you.”

About ten years in, I thought, What do I have to put up with this for? When we divorced, he made sure I got nothing. It didn’t occur to me that he could be so evil. He was a terrible mistake.

For a while, I lived in different cities — Rome, Paris, New York, Houston. There was always a boyfriend and they were always younger, but I didn’t marry any of them. Frankly, they weren’t good enough. I really only like geniuses, and there are not that many. Also, after my third husband, marriage didn’t look so good.

What happened was the same person who fixed Richard and me up the first time called and said, “Richard’s wife died. You should send him a sympathy note.” I immediately wrote him because he was definitely recyclable. He was alone and he didn’t want to be, and we knew everything about each other so we got married. We had a very nice wedding on the banks of the Hudson. This time, I wore a gold dress. In our divorce, he’d kept everything, and when we married again, I got back all the things I had in the first place: the Georg Jensen silver and whatever.

I was always going to be No. 1 in my life, and that makes it difficult to be married. But now it’s different. I’d become successful in my life; he was successful in his. And he’d become more willing to be with an equal — although he still interrupts me. It drives me nuts.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

I Was Married Four Times — Once to a Famous Artist