Tom Green: Polygamy and Its Discontents

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Jimmy Durante told this joke:

"Last night, I sang for duh Sultan of Pasha. He offered me his harem of 500 wives. But I toined him down. Know why? 'Cuz when I get up in duh mornin', who wants to find a thousand stockings hangin' in duh bathroom!?"

I knew a man — short, bald, of undetectable charm — who was a virtual bigamist. He had a wife and family in the suburbs and something of the same arrangement, though without benefit of clergy, in town. He lived a complex double life — a secret agent in his own existence, half of him a stranger to the other half. Which was perhaps his way of keeping himself amused. He often had to eat two dinners: once, in early evening after work, with his in-town woman, and a few hours later — after "working late at the office" — with his wife. No wonder he was fat. Lie-management is intricate work, as every philanderer knows. But my friend domesticated the danger, so to speak. He possessed an eerie serenity, and the twinkle of a man with a secret. He saw the same movies twice. He had to remember which movies he had seen with which woman. I wonder if he wrote it down — double-entry book-keeping. I would have been a nervous wreck.

I have followed the case of Tom Green with some wonder. Green, a self-proclaimed Mormon living in the Utah desert, has five wives and 30 children (the Mormon Church excommunicated Green in 1980 for his belief in polygamy). He has just been convicted of bigamy in Provo, and could get 25 years — five years for each wife — for doing what all self-respecting male waterbuck, eland, and gnu do as a matter of course.

Of course the domestic redundancies of my bigamous friend and of polygamous Green are different in spirit, or at least in arrangement. Green — a stern, bearded, and Biblical sort of character — has lived, without duplicity, the life of a robust gnu. This begetting is hard work. The Sultan of Pasha without the silks, he collected all his wives there in the desert, and they share a common life. My friend, by contrast, conducted a symmetrical, binary life covertly — keeping the right hand ignorant of the left hand's adventures. I think, paradoxically, that in his deepest heart, my friend did it because he needed confirmation of his intuition of the essential loneliness of the world. Or else, less gloomily, he operated on the principle that since the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, maybe he ought to own territory on both sides.

It also needs to be said, while we are being metaphysical, that two-timing is an effort to thwart the fatal fact that you only go around once. It doesn't work, but it keeps you busy.

Simplify, said Thoreau, who married no one. Monogamy is complexity enough. One of my favorite cases involves a former president of France, who had a wife but also many mistresses. He possessed, evidently, an orderly mind. Five days of the week, as I heard the story, he took a different mistress out to dinner, always dining on the same night with the same woman at the same restaurant. Thursday meant Babette and Le Cochon D'Or, or somesuch. Tuesday meant Francoise and Le Bistro de L'Ennuie. This was cosmopolitan but drearily bureaucratic polygamy, and I cannot help wondering if the women did not get terribly bored, not just with the Great Man, but with the schedule. Might they not have called one another up and tried to swap nights and restaurants, just to get a change of menu?

Tom Green could not possibly have found five good restaurants out there in the Utah desert. On the other hand, I imagine he eats very well at home.