Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tony and Maria — all of these fictional lovers sacrifice their lives (sometimes literally) for a romantic passion that overwhelms them. The trope is popular, but it is not always realistic. These real life lovers made great personal sacrifices for love. Sacrifices they later profoundly regretted.
10. Frank Sinatra
Famed crooner Frank Sinatra married Nancy Barbato in 1939. The couple remained married until 1951, when Sinatra left his wife for a brunette beauty, the actress Ava Gardner. Sinatra married Gardner in the same year. The couple’s relationship was tempestuous. Throughout their marriage, they endured financial instability, mutual marital infidelity, Gardner’s two abortions, and Sinatra’s three suicide attempts. Though their marriage preserved their careers by legitimizing their relationship, the hardships they shared did not strengthen their passionate connection. They divorced in 1957.
Frank Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy Sinatra, says her father regretted destabilizing his family’s life in order to marry Gardner. Sinatra and Gardner are one of Hollywood’s most sultry couples. Thirty-nine years after their divorce, People Magazine still romanticized their partnership. However, Nancy Sinatra says Frank romanticized his former life with her mother while he was with Gardner. In 2015, Sinatra’s daughter told Express, “I asked him once, if he had it to do all over again, would he leave [my] mum for Ava, and he said, ‘No.’”
9. George Gordon, Lord Byron
The English poet Lord Byron had many lovers — of both sexes — but Lady Caroline Lamb was one of the few whose intelligence and wit could match his own. Byron’s public, scandalous affair with the married Lady Lamb lasted intermittently from 1812 to 1813. Bored and pursuing other lovers by 1813, Byron actively avoided Lamb at public gatherings, though she continued attempting to correspond with him until 1816. When she pointed a dinner knife at him during a ball, he told her to pierce her own heart with it.
Byron grew increasingly disinterested the more openly Lamb indulged her infatuation with him. For her, he was, as she wrote of him in her diary, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Byron courted scandal to pursue her, but he expected her to acquiesce gracefully when he was no longer captivated by their affair. When the tall, thin Caroline grew increasingly gaunt, sickened by his indifference to her, he caustically told his friend, Lady Melbourne, that he was, “haunted by a skeleton.”
8. Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel, a French sculptress, molded the hands and feet for the figures in French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, a work Rodin began in 1880. Claudel was a skilled sculptress who was both Rodin’s muse and his collaborator. However, she is most famous for being his lover. The affair itself was intense and harrowing for Claudel. In 1886, Rodin signed a contract promising her she would be his only student, but he broke that promise. Their romance ended in 1892, after Claudel aborted Rodin’s child.
Unfortunately for Claudel, her reputation as an artist was inseparable from her reputation as Rodin’s lover. Rodin continued to promote her work even after their affair ended. Given their previous relationship, his continued involvement in her professional life only ensured that his artistic reputation eclipsed her own. She grew increasingly bitter and distraught about her lack of recognition for her work. When she was 48, her family committed her to an institution.
7. Vivien Leigh
When the British stage and film actress Vivien Leigh saw the British stage and film actor Laurence Olivier onstage for the first time, Leigh said she would marry him. There was only one problem. Both actors were already married to other people. Nonetheless, the two began a clandestine affair after they starred together in the 1937 film Fire Over England. They married in 1940, and they remained married for 20 years.
Despite its longevity, the marriage was not a stable one. Though they shared a strong attraction, both partners were unfaithful. They fought frequently and ferociously. Leigh suffered two miscarriages, as well as a bout of tuberculosis from which she never fully recovered, adding additional strain to the marriage. Leigh and Olivier had sacrificed personal stability in order to marry. As much as they loved each other, they could not provide one another with emotional stability or security. Tarquin, Laurence Olivier’s son with his first wife, Jill Esmond, says Leigh loved Olivier for the rest of her life. She never recovered from receiving the telegram wherein Olivier asked for a divorce. She never publicly said she regretted divorcing him, but she kept a photo of Olivier by her bed even when she lived with her final partner, Jack Merivale.
And of course, because there are two sides to every romance…
6. Laurence Olivier
Though Olivier and Leigh could not salvage their 20 year marriage, they were both equally distraught about its end. Their partnership was challenged by infidelity. However, Olivier claimed that he left the relationship when Leigh and he could no longer mitigate the effects of her untreated bipolar disorder. In his biography, he said Leigh’s mental illness was like a third, disruptive partner in their marriage. After Leigh refused to go onstage during the couple’s theater tour of Australia because she could not find her shoes, Olivier and she violently slapped each other in public.
When Olivier asked Leigh for a divorce in 1960, he had already begun an affair with the British actress, Joan Plowright. However, even his first wife, the British actress Jill Esmond, whom Olivier abandoned to marry Leigh, believed he would never be as devoted to any woman as he was to his Viv. Tarquin, Esmond’s son with Olivier, says his mother told him, “Never has there been a man who was more loyal as a husband than [Larry] was to Vivien.” Olivier himself regretted the suffering he caused Leigh by asking for a divorce, writing, “I am very, oh so sorry, very sorry, that it must have been much hell for you.”
5. Mina Loy
Modernist poet and painter Mina Loy was not well-known, even among artists of her own generation. However, she was well-respected by contemporaries whose fame would eclipse her own, including the poets T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore. She was also a valued member of the coterie of artists who frequented Paris’ Left Bank in the 1920s. Most notably, she was an associate of the writer Djuna Barnes.
Loy was an artist, but she was most renowned for her beauty and her vivacity. She married three men and had several children, but her most significant relationship was with Arthur Craven. The pair met and married in 1918. When Loy discovered she was pregnant with Craven’s child, the couple decided to settle in Paris. Loy initially sailed to Buenos Aires, Argentina, but Craven never joined her. Loy adored her daughter, Fabi, who was born in 1919, but she never ceased to regret the loss of the love for which she had abandoned her family and her art. Responding to a 1929 Little Review questionnaire, Loy said that her happiest moments were “every moment [she] spent with Arthur Craven,” and her saddest moments were, “the rest of the time.”
4. F. Scott Fitzgerald
When American author F. Scott Fitzgerald met Southern belle Zelda Sayre at a country dance in Montgomery, Alabama in 1918, he declared he he had, “fallen in love with a whirlwind.” Beautiful, witty, and coquettish, Sayre broke off her engagement with Fitzgerald once, fearing his adoration would be too cloying for her. She officially became Zelda Fitzgerald in 1920, shortly after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel was published. Their notorious romance epitomized the joyful abandon of the Jazz Age, but their mutual lack of self-restraint strained their twenty year marriage. Financial instability, artistic rivalry, mental instability (hers), and alcoholism (his) eventually weakened their relationship.
In 1940, with Zelda confined to a sanatorium and Scott dating journalist Sheila Graham, the Fitzgeralds divorced. Once, when he was in a cynical mood, F. Scott Fitzgerald said that his two goals were to write a great novel and to stay in love with Zelda. Their later love letters are attempts to analyze the reasons for the failure of a relationship that had arguably caused the health of both partners to deteriorate. At the end of their marriage, Zelda wrote to Scott that, “nothing could have survived [their] life.”
3. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
At 20, an impressionable, attractive young woman married a man who was 15 years her senior. When Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette (known simply as Collette) married Henri Gauthier-Villars (Willy), she encountered new social norms in a new city, Paris. Perhaps the most startling new custom was the habitual infidelity of her husband, who made many social connections working as a publisher and a promoter. Willy constantly needed material to publish, but he was not a gifted writer. The artistic talent in their partnership was his wife, but the name the public associated with that talent was his. Colette wrote four novels featuring a sensuous, precocious protagonist called Claudine. The novels’ events are based on Colette’s life, but Willy promoted the novels as his own.
Plagued by penury despite the literary success of the Claudine series, Colette and Willy separated in 1907 (although their divorce was not finalized until 1910). In 1906, without Colette’s knowledge, Willy sold the rights to her novels. Though she published in her own name after her divorce, she never forgave what she perceived as a betrayal of her, both as a professional writer and as a loyal wife who had labored on her husband’s behalf. In 1948, the court granted Colette the legal right to publish the Claudine novels under her own name. After Colette’s death, however, Willy’s son had the court ruling reversed.
2. Oscar Wilde
Poet, playwright, and short story writer Oscar Wilde was named the most quotable author in the English language in 2013. His life is arguably even more famous (or infamous) than his art. In 1895, Wilde was imprisoned and sentenced to two years of hard labor for “gross indecency.” At the time, that was the legal term used to describe a same sex relationship between men. Before his conviction, the married Wilde flaunted his relationship with the attractive young poet and socialite, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
Physically deteriorating and socially disgraced, Wilde eventually blamed Bosie for his imprisonment. In his 1897 letter to Bosie, which he titled, De Profundis, Wilde chastised his lover for not counseling him to be more temperate in his expression of his passion. Wilde characterized Bosie as a beautiful, selfish young man who expected to be adored regardless of the price others paid for their adulation. Wilde gave the letter to his friend and former lover, Robbie Ross. Ross made two copies of the letter. He dutifully delivered one to Douglas, who angrily destroyed it. The other he sealed, only publishing excerpts in 1905. Wilde and Douglas briefly reconciled after Wilde’s release from prison.
1. Peter Abelard
A French religious scholar, Peter Abelard (also called Pierre) fell in love with a precocious student, Héloïse, who was 20 years his junior. The two consummated their relationship, and Héloïse became pregnant. Because they were not yet married, Abelard ordered Héloïse to go to a convent. She obeyed. Perhaps Héloïse’s father was angry that his daughter’s tutor had destroyed her reputation, or perhaps he feared Abelard sent his daughter away with no intention of marrying her. The reason for her father’s action is unclear, but his action was decisive. He castrated Abelard while the scholar slept. Though they continued to correspond, Abelard never visited Héloïse, even after she implored him. Instead, he asked her to pray for God to forgive him his previous sin.
Héloïse eventually became an abbess. However, she openly admitted to Abelard that she chose her path based on her available options, not her piety. Unlike her former lover, she never regretted her love affair. Nor did she fear facing divine judgement for obeying her own heart. “If Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever,” she wrote to Abelard, “it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore.”