Did Fred Thompson Marry a Trophy Wife?

News at Home

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of "Television, Democracy, and Presidential Politics," chapter 12 in The Columbia History of Post-World War II America , ed. by Mark Carnes (Columbia University Press, 2007).

The picture in the paper the other day of Fred Thompson and his wife was eye-catching and it wasn’t because he towered over her like some giant out of an old circus. (At six foot six he would be the tallest president in United States history.) It’s because he looked old enough to be her father. He’s sixty-four, she’s forty: a twenty-four year difference.

The gap in their ages may or may not become an issue in the election should the former senator choose to run for president. But it shouldn’t be considered unprecedented in a presidential couple as some political scientists have suggested. Quickly, before another myth is born, we had better set the record straight. Older men marrying younger women is an American tradition going back to the nineteenth century, presidents not excepted (though it should be stated at the outset that the primary matrimonial interest of most presidents has always been women who were wealthy or of high status).

It is easy to forget that presidents ever married young because the faces of presidential couples staring out from the picture books usually feature them in staid settings formal enough to pass for a Currier and Ives print. Some look as if their bodies had been prepared by the undertaker for a public viewing. But every once in awhile there’s a reminder. One such occasion came in the summer of 1947, sixty years ago. On July 1 that year papers across the country carried a brief announcement by the Associated Press of the death of Pearl Tyler Ellis. Who was she exactly? She was the daughter of the tenth president of the United States, John Tyler.

You may be thinking, if you remember your presidential tables, that Pearl must have been very old. After all her father, who was born in 1790 when George Washington was president, served in the White House in the 1840s. Remember the old slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler, too? He was that Tyler, the first man to succeed to the presidency upon the death of the incumbent (William Henry Harrison).

Pearl was old, but not extremely old. She was eighty-seven. I’ll do the math for you. She was born in 1860. Tyler at the time was seventy years old.

The AP story oddly did not explain how a president born in the eighteenth century happened to have a daughter who died in the middle of the twentieth century (one year after the beginning of the baby boom, I might add). Here’s the back story. When Tyler was president his first wife died four years after suffering a paralytic stroke. Tyler, still young enough at age fifty two to envision fathering a new family, quickly remarried, becoming the first of three presidents to marry while in office. (The other two were Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson.)

His betrothed was the beautiful (and wealthy) Julia Gardiner, the daughter of a New York state senator. Fittingly she is memorialized in a picture showing her decked out in jewels, including a tiara-like chain of stunning, shiny gems on her head. The couple married in 1844 in a secret wedding held in New York City. The public was notified after they returned to the White House.

The announcement stunned the country. Not only was Tyler remarrying less than two years after his first wife died, his new wife was considerably younger than he was. Age twenty-two, she was thirty years his junior. “Treaty of Immediate Annexation,” bannered the headline in the New York Herald.

Tyler had been courting her for some time when in February 1844 there was a tragic gun accident aboard a warship. Tyler escaped unharmed but two members of the cabinet died along with Julia’s father. Tyler tended to her so gently that she decided within months to marry him. As she had once idolized her father, she now idolized him, leading some biographers to believe she was after a father figure. “Papa was the only handsome man (except the President), I have ever seen,” she once confided.

Tyler was the most fecund of American presidents. He had had seven children with his first wife. Now he and Julia had another seven. Pearl was the last, born just two years before Tyler died.

The next president to marry while serving in office was Grover Cleveland. His marriage at age forty-nine to the twenty-one year old Frances Folsom also shocked the country because no one had realized he was shopping for a wife. But by then Americans had grown used to hearing of successful men marrying younger women. Just a few years earlier the wealthy James Roosevelt, age fifty-two, had married Sara Delano, age twenty-six. Their only child: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Women today who marry older men are stigmatized as “trophy wives,” implying that their only virtue is their age. Some have accused Fred Thompson’s wife of falling into the category despite her record as an accomplished political aide before their marriage. I have some advice for Fred Thompson. The next time somebody disparages his marrying a younger woman he can rise to his full six foot six height and say in his baritone country twang that well, yes, he did marry a younger woman—just like John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, and FDR’s father.

And I have some advice to his critics. Don't vote against Thompson because he happens to have a young wife. If we are to restore seriousness to our politics--and nothing is more important in my opinion--then we have to begin to decide who we want in office on the basis of their experience, political judgment and agenda, not who they happen to be sleeping with.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Emily McAlister - 8/4/2007

That was a very interesting article. However, as history was written before, there were past Presidents, who married younger women over 200 years ago. And it was the norm for that time. With that in mind, I have no problem with Fred Thompson and his wife, who is 24 years younger than he is. I have no idea to why, everyone is having a problem with that. Oh yes, I do. I have a problem with the public who are saying, "Well, if Thompson was a Democrat, I would have no problem with his wife, being 24 years younger". THAT is what I have a problem with. People who look at Thompson, who is a Replublican and say, he has a "trophy wife" and he should not be President. In other words, what is good for the Democrats and what they do, is good for the Republicans and what they do in their lives. Stop being a hypocrites. The Democrats have a saying. "Do as I say, not as I do". They do what any of us do if life. And they have the gall to complain. Get over it folks.

HNN - 7/29/2007

To paraphrase Arthur Sulzberger: When People Magazine does this topic it's People Magazinish. When HNN does it it's sociology.

To observe a social phenomenon is not the same thing as endorsing it.

As I indicated in the article: Thompson's choice of a spouse should not matter. But this is different from saying it doesn't matter.

Rob Willis - 7/28/2007

Why was this absurd article even published? I thought, in the scheme of presidential politics, personal lives didn't matter? And for crying out loud, what in the world does this have to do with HISTORY?

I am done with Schenkman and whomever gave him the green light on posting this. GMU, pull the plug on this rag or pay better attention.


Rob Willis

John Charles Crocker - 7/28/2007

It seems to me that whether or not one is a trophy spouse depends much more upon the feelings of the one acquiring the "trophy" than the one who is the "trophy."
Mrs. Thompson may genuinely love Fred and still be a trophy wife if his motive for marrying her was to have her as an attractive "accessory."
This is ultimately unknowable as we cannot know his motives for marrying her. I have seen no evidence for this outside of the difference in ages and appearance.

HNN - 7/26/2007

Is his wife a trophy wife? It's an obviously subjective judgment. That reasonmable people could reach different conclusions suggests the ambiguousness of the term. Besides, I agree with Oscar, that it's an ugly dehumanizing term; I used it with reluctance.

Given Mrs. Thompson's background in politics I'd say she doesn't fall into the category as she's accomplished in her own right. Their gap in ages and his wealth are prerequistes but not the only factors in deciding whether a person is or is not a trophy wife.

Serge Lelouche - 7/26/2007

to say the least. I know of women who fell in love with individual, poorer, men who were twenty five years older. Some women like older men. Some women have father complexes. Whatever it is, it's none of our business.

HNN - 7/26/2007

Money's key to a marriage between an older man and a younger woman. Why else would the woman in our culture hook up with someone who's 24 years her senior?

Ed Schmitt - 7/25/2007

Good point! And Kucinich has already declared for the presidency twice. Interesting discussion.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/25/2007

That would include almost any class-based marriage. It would also include any marriage in which wealth facilitated the couple's first meeting.

It's a factor, to be sure, but it does not get to the question of motive, and more than anything else, the term "trophy wife" denotes the motive of the husband in choosing the woman.

Desi Derato - 7/25/2007

I don't know why everyone seems to
miss one of the prime requirements for
a trophy wife - that they guy trades
in the old stable mare for the new
young filly. The trophy wife slips in
where the old wife left off - air
brushed out and in like Trotsky in the
Soviet archives. One of the reasons
this is a requirement is that if a guy
is single, well, he acts single and
the girl has to actually tame him,
deal with his puerile behavior and
win him. If he's already fitted out
a domestic lifestyle, she just has to
come in and get down to the important
stuff like planning shopping sprees
and trips to the Bahamas.

I don't particularly like Fred
Thompson and think he's uglier than
sin, or at least uglier than me.
But it was some 10 years or so
between divorcing his old wife and
picking up with a new steady. That
isn't a trophy wife, that's just
finding someone new. Of course to
paraphrase a Jewish saying, if you're
going to fall in love, you might as
well fall in love with young and

Rick Shenkman - 7/24/2007

I assume many so-called trophy wives love their husbands and vice versa.

The critical question: Is money what makes the marriage plausible?

If they wouldn't marry but for the money then you can be sure people will wonder if the wife is a trophy. On more than one occasion I would suspect they would be correct.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/24/2007

Good column, Rick.

It leads me to wonder, what is a trophy wife?

Are there minimal physical standards, for example, various body-part ratios, a particular approach to bilateral symmetry, or a particular hair color whether original or applied?

Is there a maximum age for a trophy wife, or simply a minimum distance between her birthdate and his?

Is there a limit on the affection between them? After all, it would be silly to call someone a trophy wife if her husband actually loved her. Or does his love only disqualify her if it is so great that he ceases to wander?

Is she allowed to love him and maintain trophy status? After all, one sinister connotation of "trophy" status is that she might move to a higher bidder. If she loves him, does that spoil it?

Is a trophy wife a gold digger in disguise?

Thinking about it, a gold digger nabs the guy, and her conquest is a symbol of her prowess, while the trophy wife is bought, and so a symbol of his success.

Thinking about it, the term "trophy wife" is really, really ugly.

Brian Martin - 7/23/2007

Where is the article about his trophy wife? He's 31 years older than she is...

Brian Martin - 7/23/2007

>An undistinguished appointed, then elected, Senator.<

Fred Thompson was not appointed, he won in '94 to finish the term of Gore, Jr. and then won a second term in '96.

Harlan Matthews was appointed after Gore's resignation in '92.

Paul Noonan - 7/23/2007

Of course evangelical women will (at least privately) be less than thrilled by a man marrying a much younger woman, but they come from a much more male dominated segment of society than liberal Protestants or secular people.

One thing I find amusing about evangelicals is that they take the position- either implicitly or sometiems explicitly- that (heterosexual) marriage is essentially for everyone. I love to quote 1 Cor 7:36-38 to them:

"If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better."

And that is from the evangelical friendly NIV translation. It's a safe bet that the above text does not serve as the basis for many sermons in evangelical churches.

HNN - 7/23/2007

I have a friend whose mother is an evangelical Christian. I should ask him to ask her about this.

My hunch is that evangelical women wouldn't quite take so literally the procreation argument as an apology for an older man marrying a younger woman. In my view the procreation argument is used mainly as a club to beat back the gay demand for marriage. I never hear evangelicals denouncing childless marriages. It wouldn't occur to them that that's a social problem.

Paul Noonan - 7/23/2007

Actually, evangelicals and fundamentalists don't seem to have any problem with older men marrying much younger women per se, as long as the marriage produces children, as Thompson's has. Thompson may lose some evangelical support because he is divorced from his first wife (I don't know the details of the divorce, obviously if they reflect bad behavior on his part it will hurt more) but not simply because he is married to a younger woman. Since the marriage has produced children it ratifies the social conservatives position that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation.

It is the more theologically liberal or secular part of the population, particularly women, that might have a problem with Thompson's marriage. They will perceive that when men like Thompson marry women young enough to be their daughters, women who could easily find husbands in their own age group, they are taking away chances for marriage for women past childbearing years. Since marriage to an older woman would be childless, the fact that these women find it difficult or impossible to find husbands is not particulary important to religious conservatives. Hence they have no problem with still fertile older men marrying younger women.

Joseph Mutik - 7/23/2007

My guess: increase.

George Robert Gaston - 7/23/2007

Jack Kennedy was nearly 13 years older than Jacqueline. Was she a Trophy Wife?

Michael Glen Wade - 7/23/2007

The essay on trophy wives is quite interesting and informative, and I have no wish to disparage it. However, there are many other reasons to doubt Fred Thompson, whose apparent popularity is symptomatic of the country's political ills. An undistinguished appointed, then elected, Senator. Certainly no Lamar Alexander or Al Gore, Tennessee's other recent presidential hopefuls. No real experience beyond occupying a seat in the Capitol for several years--he wowed no one who was paying attention. Not even the appearance of substance either in his education or his career,inflated accounts of his acting career notwithstanding. Not even a semblance of awareness, much less vision, about the country's real challenges. In fairness, this makes him little different from most of the challengers in both parties. So why is he being touted hither and yon by vacuous talking heads? Well, he is 6'6", has an attractive wife, has a country boy/regular guy demeanor and most Americans are loath to confront the very real problems facing this country---illegal immigration, health care, a RR system, alternative energy sources and conservation. And more, of course. Since those would require some semblance of national and political maturity, we will instead focus on the personalities of candidates, with the help of the media and its mostly undereducated spokespeople. In that climate, Fred Thompson has a real shot at being the next George Bush.

HNN - 7/23/2007

Evangelicals may not be enthusiastic about Thompson, but next to G and M he's considerably more appealing to those who use their religion as a lodestone in politics. And thus far those are the real choices they face.

Craig Michael Loftin - 7/23/2007

The article makes many good points, but ignores the issue of how the age difference will play out among family values evangelical Christians, who Thompson has to woo before reaching out to the broader public. Despite the tradition Schenkman lays out, I wonder if these evangelicals in 2007 might be a bit put off by how the marriage looks, because protecting the "sanctity of marriage" is such an issue for them.