Love Stories Throughout History

by by Eve Blazo, Belle Cushing & Mimi Dwyer

illustration by by Kah Yangi

The legend of Lilith, Adam’s wife before Eve, found its first mention in Sumerian times. Lilith appears as an ancient Middle Eastern goddess, vampire, and harlot. Other variations portray her as a winged cherub with horns. The most well-known Lilith appears in a Talmudic scripture written by Ben Sira, a Jewish mystic or Kabbalist, whose writings were rejected by the Hebrew Bible. According to Sira, Lilith was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam. When Adam wished to sleep with her, he demanded that she lie below him, but Lilith, dismayed at Adam’s need to occupy the dominant position during sex, responded, “Why should I lie beneath you when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust?” But Adam was determined to overpower her, so Lilith defiantly flew away to the Red Sea full of lecherous demons. There, Lilith partook in rampant promiscuity and bore over one hundred demon babies per day, some of whom she ate. God sent Lilith three angels who begged her to return to Eden, but she refused, even when the angels threatened to drown her in the sea. Lilith negotiated with the angels and agreed to the death of one hundred of her babies each day.
In need of a new wife, Adam used his thirteenth rib to create Eve, his second and more subservient wife. Upon learning of Adam and Eve’s marriage, Lilith returned to Eden and slept with Adam against his will. Lilith has been immortalized as the incarnation of lust—the child-killing, nocturnal demonness who haunted the beds of men who slept alone, and who caused women barrenness and miscarriages.
So why couldn’t Lilith be envisioned as a quasi-perverse symbol of female empowerment? Or as a great creator and destroyer of life valorized for her dissidence, challenging the belief that the drive to nurture is as instinctual as the drive to destruct? Although some artists and academics have rewritten the history of Lilith as an empowering archetype for women, standard commentary depicts her as a seductress and devouring demon mother—the embodiment of our collective morbid imagination. –EB

The summer of 1816 was a steamy one in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Lord Byron invited Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s doctor John Polidori to holiday at the Villa Diodati. Already celebrities, the group presented a business opportunity to a local hotel owner who rented out a telescope to tourists to watch the Villa from a perch across the lake.
At the villa, tourists/peeping toms reported seeing petticoats strewn across the balconies. Then the stories got wilder: naked women running across the yard, and nearly every possible permutation of group coupling caught in the act. The “league of incest” of 1816 gained notoriety back in England, and Byron took most of the heat for it.
Still, some fruitful pillowtalk was had at Diodati. At Lord Byron’s suggestion, the group began a ghost story competition. Mary Shelley took the prize: she composed most of Frankenstein that summer. –MD

It’s been said that Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich had an affair in post-war Berlin prior to their Hollywood fame. Famous for being Euro-imports of exceptional beauty and talent, the two 1930s icons also had a penchant for cross-dressing and ambisexual activities. The women were known onscreen as femme fatales, but off-screen sported butch-drag, vamped both sexes, and engaged in “sewing circles”—the discrete gatherings of early Hollywood’s lesbian set. Not only did they look similar—with their pale skin, chin-length coiffure, and pencil-thin eyebrows—but they both romanced the same woman: Mercedes de Acosta.
Unlike Dietrich, who wore her sexuality flamboyantly even while married, Garbo led a reclusive life and never married. According to the New York Times she referred to her affairs with women as “exciting secrets.” Dietrich ostensibly seduced Garbo on the set of the 1925 silent film The Joyless Street, and introduced her to the infamous drag balls and cabarets of Berlin’s emerging gay mecca. Nevertheless, the two women would pretend for six decades that they had never met. Although the duo sustained a rivalry throughout their lifetimes, Garbo and Dietrich survive as gay icons with huge followings in the queer community then and now. Through their androgynous fashions and illicit romance, the actresses played a role in making lesbian subculture of the era visible and valid. –EB

You remember the story: Pygmalion, devoted sculptor/recluse, falls head-over-heels in love with his masterpiece ivory sculpture. He’d seen some prostitutes in town and found himself so disgusted by the baseness of real (read: fleshy) women that the only thing that could get him rock hard was, well, stone. His stone, to be specific. His precious. He took to his chisel and began to sculpt the form of Venus, but instead created his ideal bride, whom he named Galatea. He begged Venus to transform his inanimate maiden into a real woman. She complied, and the couple lived happily ever after.
We tend to view this story romantically—Pygmalion believed so deeply in art as an expression of love and vice versa that he literalized that love, etcetera, etcetera. But over the last two centuries, like-minded “Pygmalion syndrome” fetishists have tried to exercise their stony love to little social avail. In Psychopathia Sexualis, Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing reports on a gardener who, in 1877, became so enamored of the statue of the Venus de Milo he’d been tending that his neighbors found him pants-down in the act of copulating with it. Psychopathia also reports a man expressing a compulsive desire to engage in intercourse with an unspecified statue… but only after placing a hunk of meat on its crucial area.
The fetish thrives today, as evidenced by discussion on, a Pygmalion syndrome fansite: some “are into the classic plaster, marble or alabaster look, denoting the look of a statue from myth, sculpted by some artist extraordinary, or petrified by a Gorgon... I myself would completely dig a completely reflective gold Milla Jovovich from the neck down.” –MD

William Randolph Hearst had it all: the publishing tycoon sat through the Roaring Twenties atop his financial empire, which included the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a money bag full of movie investments starring his mistress, Marion Davies. The inspiration for Orson Welles’s movie Citizen Kane, Hearst was ruthless in his ambition. He was also possessive of Davies and prone to jealousy, despite the fact that he remained married throughout their entire affair.
On November 24, 1924, Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, took off from San Pedro, CA. Davies, Hearst, his production manager Thomas Ince, Charlie Chaplin, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons were among the Hollywood types aboard for what was hoped to be a relaxing cruise in honor of Ince’s birthday.
But before the party could land in San Diego, Ince was rushed to shore on a water taxi and taken to two hospitals before returning to his Benedict Canyon estate where he died 48 hours later. The official cause: heart attack. The real story: murder.
Rumor is, Hearst caught Davies and Chaplin, who were rumored to have a secret relationship, as they stole a forbidden kiss. Enraged with jealousy, he grabbed his gun and shot at the couple. In his blind rage, however, the bullet flew wild and struck Ince in the head. A doctor on board accompanied the producer to shore, but it was too late.
The Examiner reported that Ince had been rushed off the boat with a severe case of indigestion,and died of health complications. Chaplin denied ever being on the yacht, Parsons was bought with promises of an even juicier story, and the scandal was swept under Heart’s expensive Oriental rug. --BC

Paris’s reputation as the city of irrationally passionate acts in the name of love dates back to the twelfth century. Then as now, the personal lives of the elite caused scandal and outrage. Abelard was a renowned scholar who immersed himself in his work with little outside contact. Until he met Héloise. Twenty years his junior, Héloise was known for her beauty and quick-witted intelligence that put her ahead of her time. Abelard, whether out of predatory intentions or true love at first sight, arranged to become Héloise’s tutor, and moved into the home where she lived with her uncle, Fulbert, the canon of Notre Dame. Whatever the dubious nature of the affair’s beginning, the two soon fell passionately in love and carried on their relationship behind closed doors.
When Héloise discovered that she was pregnant, the couple married in secret and Héloise had a son, whom she named Astrolabe. Following their clandestine wedding, Héloise took shelter in a convent at Argenteuil so as to not draw attention to their relationship. Her uncle, in a classic case of star-crossed misunderstanding, didn’t know about the marriage and believed that Abelard had forsaken his niece and driven her to the convent out of despair. He hired servants to sneak into Abelard’s house in the middle of the night to punish him, where they brutally attacked and finally castrated him. Abelard, stripped of his manhood, buried himself in his work and shame. Héloise, upon learning of her husband’s demasculinization, gave up her son, whose fate remains unknown, and retreated to the convent. Their love story became an epistolary tale, and their surviving correspondence will forever retell their medieval melodrama. The two are buried together in Père Lachaise cemetery, in the city of love. –BC