More than two centuries after his death, people are still trying to figure out how a paunchy, balding, bifocaled septuagenarian managed to get French ladies in a flutter. From his days as an ambitious young printer in Philadelphia to his years as a diplomatic superstar in France, Ben Franklin surrounded himself with adoring women, often much younger, usually attractive and preferably intelligent. For the most part, his loyal wife Deborah tolerated these dalliances. As she probably knew, most were never consummated. In fact, Franklin was a master of what the French call amitie amoureuse, whose English translation, amorous friendship, gives only a hint of its true meaning: a delicious form of intimacy, expressed in exchanges of teasing kisses, tender embraces, intimate conversations and rhapsodic love letters, but not necessarily sexual congress. A peek inside Franklin's not-so-little black book:
DEBORAH FRANKLIN: THE AFFECTIONATE WIFE Deborah and Ben had a close marriage, except for the fact that for 18 of the 44 years of their union they lived apart. But even if their bond lacked grand passion, it had mutual respect. Plain and plump, Deborah, a carpenter's daughter, is first taken with the young printer when he begins lodging with her family shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia in 1723. They, as Benjamin put it, "interchang'd some promises"--an 18th century locution for engagement--a year later as he set off for England to buy printing equipment. But when his backer reneges and Franklin finds himself stranded in London, he tells Deborah to forget him. She marries a potter instead who may already have been married, a ne'er-do-well who squanders her dowry and runs off to the West Indies. When Franklin returns home after two years away, he professes guilt for having stranded Deborah, but that doesn't stop him from cavorting about town and, as he puts it, frequenting "low Women."
By 1730, Franklin decides he is ready for marriage. Though not his first choice, the stolidly middle-class Deborah seems a good "helpmate." When they hear rumors of her wayward husband's death, Deborah moves in with Ben, accepts his recently born illegitimate offspring William as her stepson and takes on the mantle of Mrs. Franklin. It is a common-law union never recorded in church for fear of bigamy charges, but it prospers. While her husband nurtures his publications, she runs their store, selling everything from writing materials to tea and coffee to a well-known homemade ointment for "the itch." They had two children, a boy who died of smallpox at age 5 and a girl Sarah, known as Sally, who outlived both her parents.
But there are strains. Despite Franklin's repeated entreaties, she refuses to join him overseas, perhaps as wary of hobnobbing with his highly placed friends as of ocean voyages. During his absences, she acts as postmistress, oversees the building of a larger house and turns a deaf ear to attacks by Franklin's political rivals. When Stamp Act rioters threaten her house, Deborah and her brother face them off.
But as the Franklins' separation lengthens, their estrangement grows. His letters become briefer and more infrequent. Learning she has suffered a stroke, he offers advice but remains in London, leaving her to die alone on Dec. 19, 1774, in her late 60s. To the last, she has signed her letters to him, "your A Feck SHONET Wife."