A Letter to Two Wives

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Cross-posted on Chicago Sun-Times

In the 1949 film, “A Letter to Three Wives,” three women receive letters from an unseen character telling them that she, their friend, Addie Ross, had run off with one of their husbands. Since the Joseph Mankiewicz film dropped two of the “Five Wives” of the original story on which it was based, I feel free to drop one wife more for the purposes of this post. The letter I write below is to Michelle Obama, and to Cindy Hensley McCain, and I’m not the kind of guy to run off with either of your husbands. No Addie Ross me. But one of you will discover what it is to be deeply disappointed and sadly surprised this year, when your beloved spouse loses the big one and disappoints your hopes for him, and yourself. Both of you are strong defenders of your husbands, while being women of accomplishment. But only one of you has come under attack of the main stream press, and that says something about America today that’s worth exploring.

Dear Cindy and Michelle. If you don’t mind we’ll start with you Cindy, after all, you are accustomed to having pride of place at any gathering. Cindy, it is hard for me to find fault with a woman who devoted her early years to treatment of children with severe disabilities, one who founded the American Voluntary Medical team to provide MASH style care to disaster areas, and personally participated in fifty five of their missions, without a blonde hair, or a remark out of place. You are Mother Theresa in an Armani suit. You are undoubtedly kind and deeply charitable. And real lucky. For eight years you have been the chair of your late father’s beer business Hensley &Co, earning for yourself some four hundred thousand dollars a year. Your good works go on and on from Operation Smile to CARE to an organization that removes land mines in Cambodia. And you have learned to smile your way through some abusive language that your salt of the earth husband has aimed at you – sober. Ah, Cindy, if that was all.

Twenty years ago Cindy, you became addicted to pain killers, a slave to Vicodin and Percocet after spinal surgeries, and some say to ease the emotional pain of being caught up in your husband’s influence peddling corruption during the Keating Loan scandals, where you conveniently lost the records that might have more deeply incriminated your husband, and even yourself. Then you started stealing drugs from your own charitable medical facility. When that was discovered, an intervention took place and you escaped imprisonment when the Drug Enforcement Administration limited your punishment to a fine and forced you to take part in a “program.’ Again, rehab to the rescue of the super-rich. In other words, your punishment was brought down to the level of attending traffic school after running a stop sign, a school run by Mickey the clown. Imagine your fate if you were not a billionairess, if you were instead a poor black woman, an addicted hospital nurse caught stealing drugs. Ten years in the slammer, your kids taken from you and placed in foster care. Some might say it was your second major act of theft, because while your husband was still married you became his girlfriend, leading to his divorce from the woman who had waited out his years of POW incarceration. But nobody batted an eye in your world of Desperate but Affluent Housewives. That’s the way it is there. You were Cindy Hensley McCain, so instead of the big house you may be going to the White House. In recent years this domicile has been the home of others from the Bush crime family, so the way has been prepared for your arrival.

Listen up, Michelle, this is about you too. As the wife of Barack, the Democratic Candidate your were quoted as saying "And let me tell you something: For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country," you, Cindy, piped up with "I am proud of my country. I don’t know about you—if you heard those words earlier – I am very proud of my country." Then you, Cindy, went on to steal some recipes and claim them as your own on the Food Network, a small but significant symbol of recidivism, today it’s pot-roast, tomorrow pot. Putting your life of grand and petty larceny aside – forgetting all recipes and husband jumping – you should be proud of your country. Born into billions, with something that approaches beauty (if beauty be defined as a middle aged Barbie ) you have had the best that this country could offer in opportunities for the Town and Country life. And you were able to cap it off by playing Lady Bountiful to the unwashed, downtrodden millions, and still keep your appointment with your hairdresser. Cindy, you come from the world of charity balls and big check writing - one that gives the giver a sense of moral superiority but frowns on government programs which should rightfully provide dignity, work, educational opportunity, and health care to the many. You are the poster girl for a generosity which masks the essential selfishness of the Republican ethos. No, I don’t disrespect generosity – but I do question its value when it is only palliative, when it fails to address the real problems that the poor face on a daily basis in our country and through the world.

Now to you, Michelle. The fact that you made it to Princeton as an African American, by dint of her hard work and the smarts, and that you are a mouthy lawyer, a shoot from the lip kind of woman, does not endear you to the Cindy McCains of the world, and to a lot of Americans. That “let me tell you something” remark was true in all ways, but truth is often an affront to propriety. Why should any African American – no matter how fortunate in being educated by the best schools, take great pride in the history of a country that suffered slavery and Jim Crow for centuries? Until the rise of your husband no black man has been taken seriously as a leader of this country. And in saying what you did you meant to speak of progress and pride. But it came out all wrong and ready to be pounced upon by the O’Reiley-Limbaugh-Colter cabal, the guys and gals who take a truth and put it up before a carnival distorting mirror to mock it. But you have to be smart enough to know that every thought you have does not need to be expressed and that there are the Cindy McCain’s out there waiting to leap on your remarks as if they were a capsule of Vicodin, and cast doubt upon your love of country. Of course you can love your country and be critical of it. It’s the only way to love a country. We all love our kids and we are critical of them, and they matter most in our lives. But you have to put a zipper on the lip on the way to the White House, or you will find that too many gentlemen prefer blondes.

Now who did Addie Ross run off with? Go see the movie – it’s a fun film by a great filmmaker, a man who knew something about class in America. You see, class doesn’t necessarily come attached to a billion dollars; sometimes it’s linked to a sarcastic black woman who didn’t run off with another woman’s husband, didn’t steal drugs, studied to attain dignified work, and knows what’s real and what’s just the foam from Hensley’s beer.


Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist,
has won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.