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A Tale of Two Mistresses

Joyce Maynard's and Monica Lewinsky's affairs to remember were different--and yet remarkably the same. Some things never change.

September 27, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the summer the girls narked. With documents alarming in length, detail and lack of insight, Monica Lewinsky and Joyce Maynard treated Americans to guided tours through the dank and dim back closets and subbasements of two American institutions--the presidency and J.D. Salinger.

Certainly in form, and to some extent content, the stories are dissimilar. Maynard presumably has never met Ken Starr; she had no legal obligation to produce her memoir, which mercifully lacks the specificity of Lewinsky's account, due perhaps to the discretion of the writer or, more probably, the vagaries of memory.

And though both have the same plot line--young girl engages in inappropriate sexual relationship with older powerful man until said man tires of it and dumps her--there are a few key differences. Salinger, unlike Clinton, was not married at the time of the affair, nor was he in any way Maynard's employer. Whether he could be construed to be the leader of the free world depends on one's own personal relationship with Holden Caulfield.

That said, the similarities between the two accounts are eerie in number and detail. Some--the odd, seemingly unsuitable gifts exchanged; the desire of the young women for more time with the men, more attentiveness--can be chalked up to the human condition. Others not so easily. A few:

1. The dress. Pivotal for both young women. Maynard's was a girlish frock in which she met Salinger for the first time. Lewinsky's, the infamous soiled blue Gap. Maynard remembers the cut and fabric in exquisite detail. Lewinsky saved hers for posterity.

2. The mother. Both of the Mama Rose variety. Mom Maynard hand-stitched the above-mentioned dress just before cheerfully sending her 18-year-old off to a weekend assignation with a 53-year-old recluse. Knew and approved of subsequent affair. Mom Lewinsky also knew and approved of her daughter's adulterous dealings and offered daughter advice on how to avoid testifying. Recipient and guardian of soiled dress.

3. Kiddo. Moniker favored by both men early in each relationship.

4. Body image. Not good for either woman, on opposite extremes. Maynard, plagued by anorexia and bulimia, weighed but 88 pounds the year she met Salinger. Lewinsky is not forthcoming about her weight but is described as insecure about her figure.

5. Pizza. Oddly, figures in two illuminating episodes. Salinger makes Maynard vomit it up, rather than keep such "poison" in her body. Clinton asks Lewinsky to bring him a couple of slices.

6. Way too much correspondence. Both women show a canny propensity for self-anthology, preserving not only the letters they received, but also the letters they sent. Of course, it saves the archivists so much trouble.

7. The Deed. Neither relationship was ever consummated. Maynard couldn't and Clinton wouldn't.

8. The end. Abrupt and familiar, with tears and pleadings and recrimination. Despite having been dumped, both women swear they will never make the relationships public, both eventually do. Lewinsky's oath breaking could be considered accidental, but one must question the choice of her confidante--certainly Linda Tripp's past as a Republican snitch and her anti-Clinton attitudes were well-known. Maynard, on the other hand, suddenly decided that she owes Salinger nothing and herself a chance to tell her story honestly. Which she proceeded to do not to her close friends, or therapist, or sister, but to the whole wide world. One assumes she feels much better now.

Coincidence? Consider the players. Salinger was, and is, patron saint of adolescence, prolonged and otherwise, his writing a rare elixir of worldliness and sentiment. It is not surprising that he would seduce an 18-year-old. Clearly he doesn't like grown-ups very much--his young protagonists struggle against the hypocrisy and secular tendencies of their elders.

Nor is it surprising that a member of the generation that hailed Salinger as prophet might follow suit. Clinton knows from adolescence and can mistily obsess about fuzzy issues like the winter whereabouts of the Central Park ducks along with the best of them.

In fact, none of what has been revealed by these two women is surprising. Humans are complex animals, especially when sex is involved. And sex is always involved. Very involved. In the end, "For Esme With Love and Squalor" is still one of the best short stories ever written, and we have a thriving peacetime economy. But maybe the next time a just-barely woman, even a worldly one, catches the eye of a 50-something man, he'll think twice and keep his mitts off. That would not be a bad thing.

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