The public consequences of bad romantic decisions are usually in direct relation to the public nature of the people involved. For a really juicy scandal, it's essential that the players have an authoritative or figurehead role in our culture, whether historically or in the current day. Actors on children's shows, politicians at the top of the food chain, monarchs and the heads of dynasties (whether they be Egyptian or Hollywood royalty) are held to a higher standard than the everyman, whose mistakes are simply tawdry.
What's interesting about the career-ending public affair is the way we seize upon it. The people society elevates are held to a higher standard, and have much further to fall. In many cases, and increasingly, the popular imagination doesn't even bother to hide the schadenfreude -- pleasure in another's misfortune -- we take from these events, because there is a hidden disappointment we feel when these things are revealed: "If these people are just human, what we were doing worshipping them?" And in the case of politicians, an even more paranoid disappointment: "Who's driving this bus, anyway?"
In this article, we'll explore 10 blockbuster scandals -- from history, politics, entertainment and the literary world -- and see what made each of them so sensational and destructive.
Born in Alexandria around 69 BCE to the Greek-descended dynasty of Ptolemy, Cleopatra took over Egypt once her father was gone [source: History]. To shore up allegiances, she became the mistress of Julius Caesar, and bore him a son. Meanwhile, Caesar's friend Mark Antony was having his own drama: He was high-born, but frittered away his youth. When a friend died, he took the man's wife, Fulvia, as his own. Later, he ran to Greece to avoid the debts he'd racked up in Rome, but eventually joined the military, where his connections to Caesar -- and Octavian, a later Roman ruler -- were very helpful in his career.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated, Antony joined a triumvirate of leaders over Rome. Reaching out to Cleopatra, he was denied an audience with her twice before they met -- and fell in love. He married her in Egypt, forming a new political allegiance and freaking out Fulvia, who staged an attack on Octavian to smear Antony's name. Mark Antony ran home to Fulvia, but it was too late to salvage things -- Fulvia died soon after. To try and smooth the debacle over, Antony married Octavian's sister to unite their families.
So now it was Cleopatra's turn to hear about his deeds -- and she was just weeks from delivering twins! But she was a princess and a savvy politician, so she kept supporting his army. And then, once Octavian proved dubious as an ally, Antony divorced the (pregnant!) sister, and returned to Egypt. Enraged, Octavian used this as a chance to attack Egypt and consolidate power, which is when things get unbelievable.
Scared for her life, Cleopatra started rumors that she was dead, and hid out in her burial crypt. Unfortunately, one of the people who believed this gossip was Antony, so -- keep in mind that Shakespeare wrote the definitive fictional account of this, so this part might be familiar -- he killed himself. Distraught, and certain Octavian would eventually take her prisoner in his conquest of Egypt, Cleopatra followed suit [source: McManus].
No wonder it's the most famous affair of all time. It's got everything! Including the fact we sometimes forget, which is that when you're looking at historical rulers -- from Alexander the Great up through the Tudors -- you're also looking at empires that covered the entire known world. The love affairs of Cleopatra are tabloid fodder to our eyes, but we can't forget that every war, for these guys, was a world war.
This one's a little less well-known -- it takes place at the dawn of the United States, during George Washington's presidency. The fact you might have not even heard of it demonstrates how our own view of leaders, present and past, has changed over the course of history.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was 34 when he met Maria Reynolds, a married girl of 23 who claimed her husband James had abandoned her and her daughter [source: Weigant]. Hamilton gave Reynolds travel money, but picked up on some signals that she might be interested in more, and they began an affair that lasted three years.
But husband James was well aware of the situation. And in fact, he let the affair go on, extorting money from Hamilton for the duration of the relationship. Social protocol at the time was for the cuckolded man to challenge a duel, so the fact that James opted for blackmail is not only telling, but also -- as you'll see at the end of this story -- incredibly ironic.
Reynolds' con-man twists didn't end there: In a separate scheme, he was misusing benefits intended for Revolutionary War vets in some speculation that went south. Eventually, it blew up on both men, and Hamilton had a choice: Either admit to his creepy sexual arrangement, or implicate himself in the vet fraud.
Hamilton went to James Monroe (that's right, the fifth U.S. president) for advice, turning over Maria's love letters, which proved his innocence in the latter blackmail scheme. Monroe and his buddies in Congress decided to cover the whole thing up. But when Monroe sent the letters to Thomas Jefferson (you can't make this stuff up!), Jefferson went tattling all over town.
In the end, a muckraker named James Thomson Callender got ahold of the letters, and took Hamilton down. Hamilton admitted his love affair and apologized, which helped but didn't completely restore his reputation. But this is where it gets weird: Deserting the sinking ship of her corrupt husband, Maria Reynolds eventually got Aaron Burr to represent her in the divorce. And yes, that would be the same Aaron Burr that eventually killed ... Alexander Hamilton. In a duel.
Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas was the third son of a Marquess, John Douglas of Queensberry. Bosie left Oxford without a degree, but with a huge beef against his father that ended up being the destruction of his great love, Oscar Wilde, whom he met and fell for in 1891 [source: Douglas]. He was always known as a spoiled dandy, dissolute and clever, and over the course of their tumultuous relationship, he leaned pretty heavily on Oscar for money and forgiveness, and always got it.
Their biggest fight came out of a disagreement over Bosie's mistranslation of Wilde's play "Salomé," which he wrote in French. The drama eventually blew up to involve the play's publisher, and even the famous art nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose cantankerous descriptions of the whole problem are still pretty funny: "For one week," he wrote, "The numbers of telegraph and messenger boys who came to the door was simply scandalous."
Eventually, the Marquess had had enough of all this, and wrote Bosie a famous letter excoriating him for failing out of Oxford, avoiding a career, and threatening to cut him off if he didn't shape up. "What a funny little man you are," Bosie responded by telegram, which is pretty awesome, but led to the eventual destruction of both Bosie and his on-again, off-again lover. Dad threatened his son with a thrashing, and even more importantly, with a huge public scandal if he didn't break things off with the famous playwright.
They traded barbs ("I detest you," wrote the son; "You miserable creature," wrote the father) until eventually Bosie's brother -- also involved in a homosexual affair -- died in a suspicious hunting accident [source: Douglas]. Queensberry decided to save Bosie, and thus the family, by going after Wilde directly. He made up weird plans, like throwing fruit during one of Wilde's plays, and left the author creepy notes all over town, including a calling card which insinuated that Wilde was a sodomite.
Against advice from everybody, including George Bernard Shaw himself, Wilde brought libel charges against Queensberry and had him arrested. The accusations of homosexuality were enough to inspire this offensive, in those days: It was a capital crime. But once the defense started tossing out romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquess's son, it stopped being about libel and started being a referendum on Wilde's own character -- and eventually, his body of work.
Wilde dropped the suit, but a day later came under arrest for the series of indecency trials and appeals that would end his freedom and his career. While this kind of familial dysfunction -- and the dramatic personalities involved -- may well have brought him down by other means, it's interesting to think that less than 200 years ago, simply leaving around postcards accusing a man of being gay was enough to destroy him. And destroy him, in many ways, it did.
Bessie "Bessiewallis" Wallis Warfield was born in 1896 in the seaside resort town of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. Her first marriage was in 1916, to an alcoholic Navy aviator named Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr. Over the course of several separations and affairs, the couple spent time all over the globe, hobnobbing and climbing social ladders. She charmed people left and right. According to one diplomat's wife, the only Mandarin Wallis learned during her Asiatic travels was "Boy, pass me the champagne." They were finally divorced in 1927 [source: Sebba].
By July of the next year, her next husband -- shipping magnate Ernest Simpson -- had left his wife and daughter, and he and Wallis were married in London. And thank goodness, since her family's money was lost in the Wall Street Crash. Right about then, Wallis's unlikely-named friend Consuelo Thaw introduced her to her sister, the similarly unlikely-named Lady Thelma Furness, who was the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. From 1931 to 1933, husband Ernest steadily losing money, Wallis and Edward became quite close [source: Sebba]. Lady Furness went to New York in January 1934, and you can guess what happened next.
By the end of 1934, Edward was devoted to Mrs. Simpson, apparently finding her iconoclastic personality just the thing for his repressed royal existence. Given that she was twice-divorced, Buckingham Palace was none too impressed -- divorced people were generally not even admitted to court in those days -- but Edward pampered her, taking her on holiday all over Europe and neglecting his official duties.
On Jan. 20, 1936, King George V died, and King Edward VIII ascended the throne. The British government, and his family, were none too impressed by his continued courting with Wallis, but he was besotted. It wasn't until 2002 that the Church of England allowed divorced people to remarry -- the reason Henry VIII had all those troubles regarding his wives, remember -- and the King is the head of the Church, so there's that whole issue.
But after Wallis filed for her second divorce, Edward was still looking for answers. Several prime ministers throughout the Commonwealth rejected a compromise that would have had Edward as King but not Wallis as Queen, known as a morganatic marriage, and the British government threatened to resign if he kept going through with it. The scandal drove Wallis to Cannes, where she was hounded by members of the court, and eventually she gave a statement renouncing Edward, but the King wouldn't give up. In December of 1936, the King finally abdicated, opening the throne to his brother: King George VI [source: Norton-Taylor and Evans].
A year-and-a-half later, the couple was finally reunited, free and clear, in Monts, France. And for a wedding gift, King George made them Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Which really came in handy in the years leading up to World War II, when her abject racism and Nazi sympathies lost her any slim social standing she'd managed to retain [source: Evans and Hencke]. Edward and Wallis were never allowed to return to England.
Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman set the American press on fire with her skills, unconventional beauty and delivery; stories of how gracious and charming she was with everyone from producers to crew on set abounded.
By 1942, after making several films on both sides of the pond, she'd made "Casablanca," her most famous film (although not her personal favorite, it turns out). She made "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at Hemingway's personal request, and in 1944 George Cukor's "Gaslight" before moving into a trio of Hitchcock pictures, one of which -- "Spellbound" -- earned her an Oscar nomination.
But her next best actress nomination for 1948's "Joan of Arc" came with scandal attached: It was around this time that news of her affair with married Italian director Roberto Rossellini first broke. Married since she was 21 (to a dentist who eventually moved to San Francisco when her career really exploded), Bergman had become quite a fan of Rossellini's over the years. She wrote to him first in 1949 -- a famous letter of admiration offering to make a film together -- and she appeared in his 1950 picture "Stromboli," which is when they fell in love [source: Bergman].
When Bergman became pregnant with Rossellini's child while the two were still married to their respective spouses, everyone from Ed Sullivan to the U.S. Senate managed to denounce her -- although Steve Allen, notably, publicly made sure to disavow any such judgments -- and eventually she split the country altogether, moving to Italy for a very loud divorce and custody battle over the child she and her dentist husband had together. Bergman and Rossellini were married in May 1950, and by 1952 their most famous child, Isabella Rossellini, was born, along with a twin sister, Isotta [source: Bergman].
Was this a career-ender? Certainly in Hollywood, and given the furious trajectory of her very busy schedule up to that point, she'd have kept making as many films as possible. It's interesting to wonder, though, whether the Senate would have seen fit to offer an opinion on the situation if she'd been a man -- or if the rest of America, for that matter, would have flipped out quite so intensely.
Walter Jenkins was born in 1918, growing up in Texas. He began working for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1939, and spent 25 years with him as his top administrative aide [source: Langeveld]. He was close to the family -- "If Lyndon Johnson owed everything to one human being other than Lady Bird, he owed it to Walter Jenkins," it was written; the Johnsons even celebrated Lady Bird's 51st birthday at Walter's house -- and he was known throughout the capital for his kindness, decency and integrity [source: Feeney].
So why's he on this list? Well, there was a raid on a YMCA bathroom about a month before the 1964 presidential election; Jenkins was discovered having sexual relations there with another man, and was subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct. While some papers refused at first to pay attention to the story, it eventually surfaced that this wasn't his first arrest in connection with gay hookup sites.
By Oct. 14, editors were calling the White House directly, and some of the administration's lawyers, in trying to help, managed to confirm the story had legs. Unofficial White House counsel Clark Clifford brought the details to Johnson, and shortly after, White House press secretary George Reedy confirmed it, weeping openly. Johnson ordered an FBI investigation, in case there was any blackmail going on with his most trusted assistant, and tried to sell theories that he was framed, but eventually he let it go, after ordering one last public opinion poll, which at least confirmed the voting public didn't really care that much [source: Langeveld].
Lady Bird issued a statement of support, and the campaign sailed on. The arrest itself was mostly overshadowed that week anyway by huge global shifts: changes in the British electorate, China's first nuke, and the deposition of Nikita Khrushchev. While the incident opened up a conversation in the American press about other suspected or outed gay politicos, it was Jenkins that made the greatest impact, putting Johnson's progressive values to the test. He mourned, refused to replace Jenkins, and it was later said by West Wing staffers that the President never fully recovered from the loss of his right-hand man.
Gary Hart's strong showing against the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale in 1984, made him a shoo-in for the 1988 race. But in March of 1987, a month before announcing his candidacy, Hart met Donna Rice, a pageant queen, fashion model, and honors grad in biology from the University of South Carolina [source: Dionne]. Rumors began swirling almost immediately, and Hart invited the press to use whatever means they had to check up on him, promising they'd be "very bored." That same day, Rice was photographed leaving his house, which was less boring for the press than Hart might have hoped.
Hart's polling numbers dropped immediately, putting him 10 points behind Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts and his chief rival. Two days after the original sighting, the National Enquirer produced the now-famous photograph of Rice on Hart's lap. The image is pure '80s, all blow-dried hair and fashion sweatshirts, but the intimacy is unmistakable. Less than a week later, Hart was out of the campaign -- going back for an extremely short-lived attempt that December -- and Rice was looking for a new job herself.
What sticks with this particular scandal is the quick turnaround. From March to June, an entire hopeful Democratic presidency went up and came back down again, like a lead balloon. This may not be the most sensational or the most memorable of the corrupt 1980s political and financial stories, but in some ways, it seems like a historical watermark: What was beneath the press in Kennedy's time, and even Johnson's, was by the '80s a Danielle Steele miniseries, playing out live across the pages of tabloids and real papers alike.
Our old friend the National Enquirer first asserted Woods' affair with nightclub manager Rachel Uchitel on Nov. 25, 2009. Two days later, at 2:30 in the morning, Woods crashed his car in a spectacular way, and by Nov. 30, he'd released a vague statement regarding "private matters" and, citing his injuries, he dropped out of his own charity golf tournament [source: Seal].
Two days after that, US Weekly released an alleged voicemail he'd left for a mistress, and he gave a statement admitting to "transgressions," refusing to further dignify the details. A third statement, less vague this time, followed on Dec. 11, as more and more women came forward to say they, too, had been intimate with the golf star.
Sponsors -- Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, General Motors -- dropped the famed golfer completely; others waited out their contracts with Woods in whatever way they could, and he lost his column in Golf Digest magazine. Within the month -- note, again, how fast the turnaround is getting -- a study was released estimating that shareholders in Woods-associated companies had lost between $5 billion and $12 billion thanks to his affairs [source: Goldiner]. As to personal loss, the scandal also cost Woods his marriage and a substantial settlement payout -- $100 million [source: BBC].
It's interesting: The more male- and sport-demographic endorsements, like Nike and Gillette, knew he would retain his professional cred, and kept him on, while the businesses that traded on his reputation and personality, like TAG Heuer and American Express, cut Woods loose. Fewer people wanted to be like him, in the wake of the scandal, which by now has faded his star so much it's hard to remember just how beloved a figure he was, and for how long.
Combining elements from a lot of the previous stories -- the quirky personality matchup, the stresses of personal and public life -- we get the Edwards/Hunter affair, which blossomed not unlike the more recent Petraeus scandal (which we'll cover later) but with more unsavory details.
Married North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) met Rielle Hunter in a bar in New York City in late 2006, and shortly after began a sexual relationship.
On Oct. 10, 2007, everything went down at once: The (you guessed it) National Enquirer was calling Edwards out for an affair with a campaign worker, while a Huffington Post blogger who'd been following the story produced more details about Hunter, and New York magazine connected her back to the Enquirer story. It's worth noting that throughout all of these events, Edwards's wife Elizabeth was battling breast cancer.
All wrongdoing was denied, of course, but the Enquirer, standing by its story, produced a follow-up in an article that included a photo of a very pregnant Hunter. Just to make everything weirder, a former Edwards staffer named Andrew Young got involved, relocating Hunter to Chapel Hill near him and claiming paternity of the child [source: Singh and Gomstyn].
Eventually, of course, everything came out. After a long string of denials, Edwards finally confessed to the affair and his paternity of the child [source: Fausset]. In June 2011, Edwards was indicted on six felony charges involving misuse of campaign funds to support his mistress and hide his affair, but after a mistrial, the U.S. Justice Department dropped the case in June 2012 [source: Biesecker].
The Petraeus Scandal could be considered by far the most confusing and elusive of all, thanks to so many of its players being either spies whose identities we're not allowed to know, or bizarre hangers-on whose lives themselves seem like cover stories for possible spies.
Paula Broadwell, a West Point grad with two kids and a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserve, first met Gen. David Petraeus at Harvard in 2006, and eventually co-wrote his official biography, "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus," which was published in January 2012. By the time Petraeus was named CIA director in July 2011, they were lovers. They communicated using a free webmail account: One would save a draft message, and the other would read and delete it [source: CNN].
In May, a Tampa party planner named Jill Kelley filed an FBI complaint regarding threatening, jealous e-mails from a user calling herself "KelleyPatrol," whom the FBI pinpointed as being Broadwell. That's how they discovered the affair and webmail situation -- and also thousands of messages, some deemed "inappropriate," between Kelley and the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen [source: Miller and Horowitz]. Kelley's cancer charity also came under scrutiny and her military connections were shot, making her career a second casualty of this mess.
So what was "KelleyPatrol" so upset about? Petraeus and Allen (talk about friends in high places) got themselves involved in Kelley's twin sister's custody battle, which she eventually lost. Somewhere along the line, Broadwell got the idea that Petraeus had taken Kelley as a second mistress, and she couldn't handle it. When the FBI called her in for questioning, Broadwell copped to the affair -- but not to the classified documents they'd later find on her computer.
Kelley's friend in the FBI, Frederick Humphries II – who, in another bizarre twist in the tale had sent Kelley shirtless photos of himself -- repeatedly intervened to make sure the bureau stayed on top of the "KelleyPatrol" harassment, although it wasn't his case. In late October, he called two Republican U.S. representatives, Dave Reichert and Eric Cantor, to allege that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was covering up the case. In turn, he came under investigation, but he wasn't entirely off-base: The director of the FBI and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided to wait until after the 2012 elections to do anything with their information, and so -- after a long summer -- on the evening of Election Day (6 Nov 2012), they sent the FBI deputy director to inform the director of National Intelligence what was going on.
Next day, everybody knew. The DOJ informed White House counsel about everything, and Petraeus tendered his resignation to President Obama. After 24 hours of review, the resignation was official: David Petraeus, a four-star general, was no longer the head of the CIA, thanks to a jealous girlfriend's cyberstalking and a seriously skeevy amount of fraternizing at the highest levels of military, intelligence and government power.
What's intriguing about this story is the way the infidelity and sex that usually sell these stories seemed to take a backseat to our curiosity and concerns about power, privacy and the military.
The press focused attention on what the players' actions uncover about the entrenched structures we trust with our well-being every day. It's likely the story will continue to unfold in the years to come, as more of the circumstances are finally revealed.
Learn more about these famous fathers, like George W. Bush, Will Smith and Neil Armstrong and their offspring with our HowStuffWorks quiz.
Author's Note: 10 Career-Ending Affairs
I've followed David Petraeus's career since before he succeeded Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in Afghanistan, back in 2010, and so -- having read the Broadwell biography upon its release -- I was pretty disturbed by the recent news of their affair and the surreal, complex scandal that resulted. (I received multiple condolence calls, to be honest, on that day -- my admiration for General Petraeus has been a matter of record for years.) At a time when the very concepts of "marriage" and "privacy" have been set aside in our culture for review (and, I think, improvement), it pays to look back at the ways our cultural assumptions and those of history often forced people into situations they maybe would rather have avoided. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. But when you're the standard bearer for a people, or an idea -- as so many of those on this list were -- it makes the justifications, and the fallout, a lot more interesting... And hopefully instructive for the rest of us.
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