“A number of noted military commanders from history… famously kept mistresses.”
“TO WIVES AND Sweethearts! May they never meet.”
So goes a traditional Royal Navy toast that’s been called out in jest over wardroom dinners as far back as the age of sail. Long since out of fashion in a modern, integrated service, the Admiralty finally retired the sardonic salute in 2013.
Yet, such sentiments have certainly been on the minds (if not the lips) of a number of noted military commanders from history, all of who famously kept mistresses.
Consider these womanizing warriors:
Anyone who made it through Shakespeare in high school English class will recall that Julius Caesar was married to the loyal (but dowdy) Calpurnia. But the legendary Roman consul also came, saw and conquered Servilia Caepionis (although not necessarily in that order). At the age of 40, the twice-widowed mother of four became the rising general’s secret lover. The relationship did suffer when Servilia’s son Brutus sided with rival Pompey Magnus in the great civil war that rocked the Roman Republic in 49 BCE. Eventually, Caesar defeated his enemies and seized power for himself, but was murdered on the March 15, 44 BCE, aka “The Ides of March,” by a clique of senators that included none other than Brutus. In fact, the young man even delivered the fatal stab to his mom’s beau.
England’s fightingest king, Edward III, is best remembered for crushing the French at Crécy in 1346. But he himself was disarmed when it came to the feminine charms of Alice Perrers, the teenaged lady-in-waiting to Edward’s own wife, Philippa of Hainault. More than 36 years Alice’s senior, the love-struck 51-year-old monarch carried on a two-decade affair with the buxom damsel that produced no fewer than three offspring. A shrewd political animal, Perrers eventually became one of the wealthiest women in England.
GW + SF
George Washington could not tell a lie: He was madly in love with Sally Fairfax, the charming 20-something wife of the future president’s own mentor George William Fairfax. Washington, then a junior officer in the Virginia militia was smitten by the beauty and poise of the highborn Sally. Despite being married to one of the most powerful and influential men in the colonies, Mrs. Fairfax is believed to have reciprocated the affection. And although young George wrote her a number of rather suggestive letters while on campaign in the French Indian War, there is little evidence that the two actually consummated their love physically. At 26, Washington gave up Fairfax and married a wealthy widow named Martha Dandridge Custis.
British general William Howe, 48, indulged in two vices while wintering in Philadelphia in 1777: gambling and Elizabeth Lloyd Loring. In fact, the married veteran of Bunker Hill and commander-in-chief of the King’s forces in North America carried on a steamy affair with the 33-year-old beauty, who herself was betrothed to a loyalist officer serving under Howe. Amazingly, the cuckold hubby reportedly turned a blind eye to the illicit union in exchange for a promotion from the philandering general. According to a satirical poem from the era, a Rebel attack on the city’s riverfront by rafts laden with gunpowder was supposedly carried out when Howe was… um… in close combat with his mistress. In the Patriot ditty The Battle of the Kegs, Francis Hopkinson wrote:
Sir William he,
snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a-snoring,
Nor dreamed of harm
as he lay warm,
In bed with Missus Loring.
Red Hot in Navy Blue
Lady Emma Hamilton, the foxy 28-year-old wife of the aging British envoy to Naples Sir William Hamilton, was certainly taken with Captain Horatio Lord Nelson – and he with her. The dashing Royal Navy officer put into the port city in 1793 while fighting the French in the Mediterranean and visited the Hamiltons during the stopover. Nelson evidently made an impression on young Emma — following his triumph at the Nile six years later, the famous mariner returned to the city whereby she threw herself upon him (quite literally). The two began a sizzling affair under the very nose of Sir William. In fact, the diplomat, now well into his 60s and unable to satisfy his knockout wife, might have even given the tryst his blessing. News of the affair soon became the talk of London society. In fact, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, supposedly fainted when the salacious details were revealed to him. The relationship continued for years. Meanwhile, Nelson had all but shunned his wife, Fanny, despite her frequent letters begging for reconciliation.
Welly Gives Wife the Boot
Like Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington’s home life was also troubled. Although his dumpy wife Catherine Pakenham, was both attentive and unswervingly loyal, the 46-year-old hero of Waterloo cared little for her, claiming only to have married the woman out of a sense of pity. Instead, Wellington lavished his attentions on much younger, attractive ladies. In fact, he spent his time leading up to the famous 1815 battle stealing tender moments with Frances Wedderburn-Webster, the striking young wife of a Brussels-based British aristocrat. The Duke also carried on a famous long-time relationship with Harriet Arbuthnot, a married socialite 24 years his junior. Although he wrote Arbuthnot endlessly and claimed that she commanded his “deepest affection,” there is little evidence they were anything other than very close friends. The same cannot be said about the glamorous Italian opera star Giuseppina Grassini. While visiting Paris in 1822, Wellington fell for the 49-year-old contralto and the two were frequently seen out in public arm-in-arm. Amazingly, Grassini was also briefly Napoleon’s lover 20 years earlier.
Boney’s Busy Boudoir
Speaking of Bonaparte, his storied 14-year marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais was a stormy one. Trouble began within months of the 1796 nuptials. While the ambitious 26-year-old Corsican general was away battling Austrians in Italy, the newlywed Joséphine, 33, took a handsome young cavalry officer named Hippolyte Charles as a lover. When details of the affair leaked out, Napoleon hit the roof. Eventually, the pair were reconciled. Two years later, while campaigning in Egypt, the future Emperor began pitching his own woo with Pauline Fourés, the wife of one of his officers. In fact, she became known as “Napoleon’s Cleopatra.” In 1806, Bonaparte, now 39, also bedded a 20-year-old Polish countess named Maria Walewska. The supposedly clandestine affair became one of the worst kept secrets in Warsaw. Within four years, Bonaparte had tired of Walewska and divorced Joséphine only to marry the teenaged Austrian princess, Maria Louise. Both she and the son she bore him cut all ties with the Emperor following his 1814 abdication. He spent the rest of his days a bachelor.
Big Mac’s Little Secret
In the years before World War Two, a middle-aged (although recently divorced) Douglas MacArthur became romantically obsessed with a 16-year-old film star from the Philippines named Isabel Rosario Cooper. In 1930, he even set the young actress up in a D.C. love nest. When the general’s political enemies found out about the affair, they leveraged the sordid details and nearly ended the career of the future hero of the Pacific War. Big Mac ended up suing the Washington Post reporter who broke the story for libel, although he quietly dropped the suit when the journalist’s lawyers planned to call Cooper to the stand to testify. MacArthur, 50, soon broke it off with the teen starlet and allegedly paid her $15,000 to leave town. A staff officer by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower supposedly delivered the loot. 
She Liked Ike
While Eisenhower’s personal life was decidedly less exciting than MacArthur’s, the straight-shooting future president was also dogged by whispers of infidelity. Throughout the darkest days of the Second World War, Ike spent untold hours toiling with his female driver and later personal secretary, Kay Summersby. Rumours swirled through headquarters that the two were romantically involved despite an 18-year age gap. Although the gossip persisted, the 30-something Irish-born assistant was tight lipped about any romance with the Supreme Allied Commander, even in her 1948 book Eisenhower Was My Boss. Yet her tell-all Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was published six years after Ike’s death, was (as the title suggests) somewhat more revealing. Yet even then, Summersby reported that the two only kissed on occasion and nothing more. She said she kept the lukewarm details of their stolen interludes secret until the passing of her former boss in 1969.
A Family Affair
The notoriously outspoken George S. Patton was (not surprisingly) far less discreet about his many dalliances. Although married in 1910 to the comely and fabulously wealthy Beatrice Ayer, ‘Old Blood and Guts’ often boasted about his sexual exploits with other women. In 1944, he even claimed to have seduced his own niece — 28-year-old Jean Gordon, an American Red Cross donut girl stationed in London during the Second World War. In fact, Patton bragged that he’d been seeing Gordon, the daughter of his wife’s half sister, on the side for years. Historians have since questioned the claim, but neither Patton nor Gordon were able to provide any more details: the former died in a jeep accident in 1945 while the latter committed suicide the following year.
Most recently, David Petraeus’ brilliant career came screeching to a halt in 2012 when it was alleged that the married four-star general-turned-CIA director was carrying on a secret affair with his biographer Paula Dean Broadwell. Details of the relationship emerged after emails between the pair surfaced. The scandal set off a tabloid-style frenzy in the American press and Petraeus, who led U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was forced to step down. In April of 2015, the 62-year-old former general was fined $100,000 and sentenced to two years probation for sharing classified materials with Broadwell.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on June 24, 2015)