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Ladykillers, Seducers and Manwhores: Re-envisioning the Promiscuous Male via Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau

17 Aug

Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau (W. W. Norton & Co, February 4, 2013)

I’ve been remiss in not doing any nonfiction reviews for a while, and that’s a shame since I think there are a lot of materials out there which can inform romance readers and writers. One of the best books in this category that I’ve read in a while is Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau.

Prioleau, who has a Ph.D. from Duke University in American Literature and is a tenured professor at Manhattan College, wrote Swoon while a Scholar-in-Residence at NYU and her total immersion into this project is apparent. Using modern psychological research, biographies and interviews of actual renowned seducers, and examples from modern romance novels to illustrate what women actually want, Prioleau elucidates the features that the majority of these men possess which keep women enthralled. The romance reader will find many common themes in terms of the personality traits of their favorite heroes, but the romance writer can mine numerous ideas from the data and the examples she offers.

The Elements of Seduction, or Anatomy of a Seducer

Not exactly what you think you’d run to, ladies, am I right? Yet rock star Rod Stewart never had a problem getting women even prior to his immense success, despite his physical appearance resembling a legally blind electrician (which would explain the hair and the poor clothing choices).

Perhaps the most interesting point when analyzing men considered prime seducers throughout history is that appearance has absolutely nothing to do with it. Prioleau’s book is filled with snaggle-toothed, short, bald, paunchy examples of men who had women literally stowing themselves into closets and brandishing pistols at rival lovers. The men in question obviously had qualities that made them irresistible and, before you scoff, think about a modern man who – based on appearance – wouldn’t normally get the time of day. Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart anyone? Neither of them are tops in the looks department but there are other qualities (besides being uber-rich rock stars) that give them that panty-tossing quality.

While ladykillers don’t necessarily have all these qualities, they usually possess the majority of them and romance readers and writers will readily identify these common personality themes.

Cary Grant’s romantic character of cat burglar John Robie in the film To Catch a Thief demonstrates the “honor among thieves” morality necessary for the seducer.

Morality – Even a bad boy has some kind of code that he lives by, even if it’s an “honor among thieves” system he uses to model his behavior. When examining the behavior of Prioleau’s seducers, I didn’t pick out any one of them who wasn’t upfront about his love of and need for women, with several of them actually going the route of serial monogamy rather than the bedhopping associated with a true playboy or manwhore.

Another side of the morality coin is the display of kindness or benevolence. The proverb “No love without goodness” seems to readily apply here. Followers of this blog know of my love for the Regency series by Stephanie Laurens, the Cynster series, and my fellow fans will remember the book that was the prequel to the series, The Promise in a Kiss, which chronicled the love story of Sebastian Cynster, the Duke of St. Ives and thirty-something rakehell, who nevertheless possesses a network of secret female admirers, not because he bedded them, but because he helped them with either personal or charitable concerns with complete anonymity and discretion.

Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice might be stuffy and stuck-up initially, but Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t really doubt his decency. The turning point in her heart comes not from seeing the grounds of Pemberley, but hearing his housekeeper sincerely extol his virtues as a person and as a master. From a psychological standpoint, our desire for this expression of morality isn’t shocking; picking a potential mate should involve someone we think we can trust. Determining the nature of our partner’s character is clearly an extension of the desire to choose a man we can rely upon.

Casanova so won the loyalty of the women with whom he had affairs that he had medical care and comforts lavished him on his deathbed by past lovers who heard of his plight.

Courage – Prioleau cites the recent study indicating that women actually value bravery more than kindness in men. This could take a traditional expression in the fictional romance heroes who have jobs requiring this quality (like firefighters or military heroes) but it can also simply refer to a man’s ability to put himself out there and take risks while being uncertain of the reward.

In Swoon, readers are treated to several examples of men who were fearless in their pursuit of a certain women, to the point of what might be alarming to a modern woman. Renowned lover Giacomo Casanova (who actually was a serial monogamist who loved women rather the manwhore his name has become synonymous with) escaped jail, uncovered a woman disguised as a man, and seduced women from right under their husband’s noses. Women reciprocated by falling head over heels with such a bold man. Like Casanova, a man who would run across traffic to meet a woman who caught his eye, risking not only life and limb but possible rejection, is a potential mate who will brave enough to get anything a woman or her offspring might require.

French actor, the award-winning Gerard Depardieu, whose raw sexuality and charisma has women of all nationalities flocking to him. And yes, this was one of the best pictures I could find of him, so this charisma thing is damn serious.

Charisma – This point was one that had a whole section of the book devoted to it, and it’s really the essence of the whole cachet of the seducer, isn’t it? I’ve seen absolutely beautiful men who really don’t earn a second look because they are missing several of the qualities in this list, yet a man who is a beanpole with coke-bottle glasses and unbrushed hair can get every woman (and some of the men) in a room to sit up and take notice.

It’s charisma, that “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others” which seems to ooze out of the pores and scent the air of certain men. Case in point, French actor Gerard Depardieu who on looks alone could easily play a live version of Shrek with his almost ogre-like physique and facial features. Yet Depardieu has been in public relationships with six renowned beauties, fathering children with four of them. He has made no bones about having dozens more in his bed, crediting two prostitutes from his rough neighborhood who became his sexual tutors and taught him how to bring pleasure to women. Sitting in on an acting class with a friend in Paris literally turned his life around, as he brought all that raw energy to play in his career and in his love life.

Seducer actor Richard Burton and the woman he loved so much he married her twice, the stunning Elizabeth Taylor.

Knowledge/Intelligence – Real sparks can’t fly when someone doesn’t have a lot of “there” there, so intelligence, even if it is confined to one or two hobbies or passions, seems to be a must. If a guy has never cracked a book but knows engines inside and out, there’s a partner out there who is going to be enraptured because his interests match hers. An offshoot of this quality is that a true seducer plies his arts through conversation, which is clinically shown in studies to be a way to prime a woman’s pleasure receptors. Talking can literally be foreplay to women!

With that in mind, the timbre of a man’s voice also offers it’s own erogenous capability. Elizabeth Taylor, in speaking glowingly about Richard Burton, a man she was so in love with she married him twice despite their tempestuous, alcohol-ridden relationship, said that one of the sexiest things Burton would do to her would be to whisper – in that low, Welsh voice – erotic lines of love poetry as he worshipped her body. *fans self* Check, please!

Twice-married David Niven was a chronic womanizer who genuinely loved women, so much so that they found it easy to forgive his indiscretions when confronted with the full force of his personality.

Social IQ aka “erotic intelligence” – While actual intelligence is vital for true seduction, emotional intelligence cannot be overstated. This social dexterity gifts its Mensa followers with the ability to read people and adjust tactics accordingly to get what they want. As Prioleau states, “…we owe civilized behavior today to women’s preference throughout history for interpersonal finesse – empathy, rapport, and good manners – over brute physical prowess.” (p. 79) Whether it’s the “fine divination” expressed by early 20th century sexologist (and Margaret Sanger’s lover) Havelock Ellis, or the “eighth sense” possessed by actor Warren Beatty according to his lovers, real seducers have the ability to say exactly what is needed at a given moment in order to demonstrate they are in sync with the person in front of them.

Actor David Niven was purportedly a maestro at this. His ability to read people and respond accordingly not only opened numerous career doors for him, but had dozens of women enthusiastically pulling back the bedsheets. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid-thirties, his conquests included Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Grace Kelly and he remained good friends with them throughout their lives, even through their various marriages. He didn’t lack a tortured past, having been born out of his mother’s affair with a prominent politician (who she later married and who refused to acknowledge David as his real son in order to avoid scandal). His mother and “step”father sent the young David off to boarding school where he suffered brutal sexual abuse from an older boy, leading Niven to wrestle with depression throughout his life, a strong counterpoint to the bonhomie which attracted so many women. He always named his first wife, Primmie, as the love of his life and never fully recovered from her sudden death at the age of 28 from a fall in Tyrone Power’s house while playing a parlor game. Yet the combination of past tragedy and scintillating conversation led practically everyone who fell into David Niven’s orbit to be pulled toward him, including the many women, one of whom called him “as delicious as a French pastry.”

Renowned satirical writer Kingsley Amis charmed women on both sides of the pond into bed with his humor and lack of inhibitions.

A sense of fun – So many of Niven’s lovers named his “playfulness” as the key piece of his personality which drew them, and that sense of fun is routinely listed as a major attractant for women. While romance novels are certainly populated with the stoic, strong silent type of hero who needs to learn to communicate and have fun (and the heroine is just the person to help him), a growing percentage of leading men fall into a category of cajoling, occasional betas, who can be plenty strong when needed, but in the meantime can help a too-serious heroine, perhaps recovering from past personal difficulties, loosen up and enjoy life.

This approach has its roots in our early hominid past, as prehistoric men were prone to violence toward stepchildren (and modern statistics support this as a continued issue). “Playfulness, as psychologists Geoffrey MIller and Kay Redfield Jamison observe, is an excellent fitness indicator, denoting youth, creativity, flexibility, intelligence, optimism, and nonaggression.” (Prioleau, p 196) A man who makes you laugh makes you feel safe, listened to, and appreciated all at the same time and this quality is often shown as being a key piece in long-term relationships.

British novelist and poet Kingsley Amis was no great shakes in the looks department, but in 1950s England and America his lack of sexual inhibition and humor had women lining up to get him in bed. Even after he was married, his personality could and did charm women into going into the garden during a party for a quickie, but his personality was such that no one seemed to hold a grudge. Case in point, after his second wife died, his first wife and her husband were happy to take him into their house to live his final days. From the man who said, “Only a world without love strikes me as instantly and decisively more terrible than one without music,” it seemed that there were plenty of women who were willing to agree with him, presumably with a smile on their face.

According to his lovers, Rubioso Porfirio’s height was the only thing small about him (ahem) but it was his legendary lovemaking skills and utter focus on the sexual gratification of his partner that made him the poster boy for the 1950s playboy.

Sexpertise – If there is anything that a romance reader can tell you, it’s that the sex scenes in romance follow a specific formula, namely that the hero adheres to the motto “She comes first.” Our heroines never have to worry about whether or not an orgasm is on the horizon, whether it be in a bed, shower, or in the front seat of Porsche with the door open for leverage. Chances are she’s even going to have number two or three and the oh-so-elusive simultaneous orgasm as the man ejaculates, perhaps with him commanding her to come at just the right moment. Yowza.

Yet these “sexperts” exist in real life (I promise), namely in the form of men who love being with women. These seducers understand women are more than their clitoris (although that’s important, too), creating sensual environments of sexy conversation, couples’ baths, and kisses that last forever and turn the woman’s whole body into an erogenous zone (which the man then plays like an instrument).

Dominican diplomat and playboy Porfiro Rubirosa in his 1950s heyday could control himself indefinitely having mastered the art of semen retention (like his contemporary counterpart, Aly Khan) and his rather sizable package could supposedly “go for hours” guaranteeing his partner’s gratification. Despite his mere 5′ 8″ height, he seduced some of the most beautiful women in the world, including Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Zsa Zsa Garbor, and married the two wealthiest non-royal women at the time, Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton. Seemingly the playboy model Harlequin designed its Presents line around, he was also a ranked polo player and a Formula One race car driver. His skill behind the wheel didn’t stop him from dying at age 56 from crashing his Ferrari, and women around the world went into mourning at the passing of such a legendary lover. Yet despite his bedding what could reasonably be totaled hundreds of women, he always refused to boast or speak intimately of his conquests, citing that it would be “ungentlemanly” to do so. (Cohen, 2002)

Former model Carla Bruni with her husband French President Nicolas Sarkozy. No he isn’t a step lower than her, he’s actually that much shorter.

Self-actualization – The ancient Greeks had it right when they espoused the philosophy “Know Thyself” and seducers can say the same. The most powerful ladykiller is one who truly knows himself, possessing depths to his character and confidence that naturally accompanies this understanding. Because so many of these men are also financially successful, the billionaire doctor playboy of Harlequin fame doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Yet women are far more likely to ignore material resources (particularly modern women who can support themselves) in favor of multi-dimensional men who can continually surprise and intrigue them. Benjamin Franklin was a lady’s man from his teenage days as a printer’s assistant in Boston to his septuagenarian years in Paris, charming French women out of their powdered wigs with his witty salon repartee, much to the horror of the Puritan-descended John and Abigail Adams.

Modern day lothario and former French president Nicholas Sarkozy conquered supermodel, singer and songwriter Carla Bruni with his intelligence and ambition, as evidenced by her comment to a reporter, “He has five or six brains which are remarkably well-irrigated.” Bruni is his third wife and he met and romanced her almost immediately after his divorce from his second wife. Unlike America where that would cause a scandal, in France this actually rose Sarkozy in the people’s estimation. Heck, they claim to have invented romantic love, so who am I to argue?

Modern Lady Killers

With this long list of attributes (and I only skimmed the surface of Prioleau’s list, which had several more additions with outstanding examples – past, present and fictional), who currently walks among us ready to take on the mantle of some of these renowned seducers?

All the women of his acquaintance were thrilled that actor Jack Nicholson worked past his premature ejaculation problem to become a renowned modern lover.

A name that shocked the heck of of me was none other than Jack Nicholson, a man who I don’t automatically think of when the word “seducer” is mentioned. Yet this moniker has undoubtedly been earned by this Hollywood actor, who started off life with a premature ejaculation problem. Going through years of psychotherapy, Nicholson confronted his demons and embraced a spiritual approach to lovemaking focusing utterly on the woman who he was with. Preferring women he harbors emotion for, Nicholson has learned how to massage women “into the mood” with lovers mentioning such romantic gestures as carrying them into bed and asking them for verbal feedback on what brought them closer to orgasm. His string of women do nothing but gush about his prowess.

Don’t let the hair fool you, actor, director and Twitter powerhouse Ashton Kutcher has hidden depths which the adoring women he seduces are happy to plumb.

Ashton Kutcher is a more likely modern ladykiller in terms of his appearance, but that same brand of boyish good looks leads people to underestimate this industry powerhouse. He embodies a personality component of successful seducers (versus the more shallow manwhore) in that he genuinely likes and respects women, a factor he attributes to his upbringing due to his close relationship with his mother and sister. He sees women as friends, equals and ultimately lovers and lives his mother’s directive to “treat women right, to take care of them, to respect them.”

Seduction Today

Yet men like Nicholson and Kutcher are the exception rather than the norm. Prioleau makes quite clear that modern men are at a loss when it comes to learning seduction techniques. No longer do we have a set etiquette of courtship as in past decades and the majority of men feel the lack of this structure. Spotty sex education, pornography, and callous pick up experts producing best-selling books are where the majority of young men are getting their “information” and it’s hardly edifying. Incorrect, unrealistic, and downright manipulative, this data results in the majority of men being adrift at how to express an interest in women or what techniques actually work to properly seduce women and keep them coming back.

“At a glance, it doesn’t seem like a season for romance; in fact, writes Maryanne Fisher in Psychology Today, there is none on the dating scene. Gone are the old rituals and rules, and in their place reign confusion, anomie, superficiality, and cynicism…Rather than grand amours, we have ‘cold heat,’ desire without passion, and plural, light attachments. Although an advance for sexual liberation, casual coupling, hookups, and turnstile partners have shriveled eros.” (p. 223)

Prioleau’s work has the potential for tremendous impact on helping writers and readers think about the would-be heroes in their lives (real or fictional) while also advancing the conversation about what truly constitutes love and seduction. Having enjoyed this book so much, I am eager to read its predecessor, Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and the Lost Art of Love (Penguin Books, 2004), but I have a feeling there will be similar themes of passion and charisma in the ladies featured in that volume.

In a world currently populated with pick-up workshops like those by Neil Strauss, author of the Rules of the Game, or the more straightforward and offensive, Bang: More Lays in 60 Days (which women should read simply to be on the defensive), it’s not exactly a miracle when men who truly love women and their pleasure stand out. Yet there is a flip side to the manwhore and it’s an obvious one. Unlike the romance hero who finds the heroine and changes his ways, the biographical details Prioleau shares of both famous people and her non-famous interviewees rarely have a happy ending. These are men whose hedonistic love of pleasure and intimacy has them going from one woman to another. It’s understandable given their outlook on life, but it’s nevertheless sad to read if you are someone who truly roots for a happy ending.

Like any book which sheds insight on the human condition known as love, Prioleau’s book opens a broad door, letting us see behind the facade of these ladykillers to understand what exactly makes them so irresistible to women. From history to psychology, from fiction to real-life examples, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them will leave your head spinning with understanding as to what truly seduces our senses.

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