Once upon a time, when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were still in the honeymoon phase of the marriage they commenced with a million-dollar wedding featuring four bands and a 40-member gospel choir, he filled her dressing room on the set of "Friends" with mountains of roses and spelled out "I Love My Wife" in petals on the wall. As a Valentine's Day token of affection, it sure beats a Hallmark card, doesn't it?
This Valentine's Day, to the dismay of die-hard romantics everywhere, Aniston and Pitt have separated, and the tabloids are filled with snarky stories about whether he cheated with this one or she's canoodling with that one. Does anyone care?
Desperately, it seems; magazines featuring America's sexiest man and favorite Friend still fly off the newsstands, and even the chattering classes would rather dish about Brad and Jen than the fate of Social Security.
"I went to a private dinner party this week where the savvy, the know-it-alls and the IQs at the table were way up on the Richter scale," reported veteran gossip Liz Smith in a recent column. "There, I found the scintillating general conversation to be dominated by ... Brad and Jen! ... Every time a 'serious' conversation started ... someone would steer us back to Brad and Jen.... But what is it that made and makes these two such a hot topic? ... The world couldn't wait to celebrate their super married bliss, their super house, their super careers, their super baby! Now, instead, we get the super divorce."
With all the momentous issues confronting our troubled world, it seems remarkable that everyone from the movers and shakers who rule New York and Los Angeles to Mr. and Mrs. Average Joe in the heartland wants to know whether Brad had the hots for Angelina Jolie or Jen dumped her hubby because she wasn't ready to bear his children.
No doubt sheer schadenfreude fuels some of the debate, and the relentless engines of the celebrity culture help stoke the public curiosity. But although press agents and paparazzi and Hollywood marketing machines specialize in feeding the hunger for details, they didn't create it.
Throughout human history, people have been preoccupied with stories that reflect their deepest longings -- and their deepest fears.
In ancient times, many cultures created vivid casts of immortal characters to star in their most enduring myths. The gods were beautiful and powerful, but they were also capricious, unreasonable, often malignant and constantly squabbling, riven by jealousy and anger, lust and competitiveness and a host of other all-too-human failings. Their conflicts served as a larger-than-life mirror of our own mortal dramas; the scale may have been different, and their supernatural powers certainly helped advance the plot lines, but ultimately the stories were about the same concerns people have always shared.
The myths were committed to stone and papyrus long before the invention of paper, and the great romantic sagas of kings and warriors and princesses survive today as potent artifacts of past civilizations.
The basic themes of classic fairy tales that originated hundreds of years ago are strikingly similar to those of contemporary soap operas. Love and loss, jealousy and betrayal. The one who loves more -- and the one who loves less. The yearning for a baby. The witch who tries to steal away your true love.
In our favorite fairy tales, the beautiful maiden pines for her prince; he rescues her; outside forces rip the lovers apart. Such stories play out in the lives of everyone, from movie stars to waitresses. Even as I type this, a younger, single friend calls to bemoan the sorry state of her love life. "Why can't I find the perfect man?" she wails.
The answer lies in the question, of course, but she's not ready to hear it. We'd all rather watch better-looking, richer, more glamorous versions of ourselves act out these archetypal stories on the public stage.
When I interviewed Aniston soon after her marriage and again when I interviewed Pitt a year ago, they made it very clear that they didn't want to be mythologized as America's sweethearts -- and that they didn't know how to sustain a long-term marriage any better than the rest of us do.
But ordinary mortals insist on creating heroes and heroines, so when Brad and Jen warned us that they were struggling with the same problems, frailties and doubts that bedevil us all, we pretended not to hear. No matter what the evidence of our own lives, we demand happily-ever-after endings in our fairy tales.
So now we know that even America's sweethearts didn't have any magic answers. Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher could have told us that, as could Ben and J.Lo.
When our gods and goddesses crash and burn, we are riveted by the drama, simultaneously desolated by the loss of our cherished illusions and consoled by the reminder that even icons can lose their Valentines.
Just like the rest of us.