Hanky-panky is American slang for doing what comes naturally. In this Valentine’s Day week, I offer you Swoon, a book about great seducers and why women love them — one I knocked off in an afternoon. Written by Betsy Prioleau, it is her second to deal with hanky-panky. (Her first, Seductress, examined history’s most powerful sirens.) Betsy Prioleau is the wife of probably the nicest doctor I’ve ever had, a New York gentleman whose only bad habit is having his practice in the city. What the author tells us is that rather than being cold ladykillers, Romeos love women. In fact, they’re fools for love. I completely agree. The first requirement for a seducer is to be mad about the woman. In order to seduce in general, one needs charm above anything else. And one needs to adore women. Charm and persistence equal victory, but if those two fail, then try laughter. Make a woman laugh and you’re halfway home. These are Taki’s tips, which are available to young men who subscribe to The Spectator or follow Takimag.
Great seducers are no longer le goût du jour. They’ve been replaced by the very rich, the masters of the universe who more often than not look like Michael Bloomberg
or worse. Feminism, needless to say, hasn’t helped. In the past, a disproportionate number of ladykillers traded on the charisma of creativity. Byron, Alfred de Musset, Franz Liszt, Gabriele D’Annunzio, among others, were all busy creating while seducing the fairer sex. Casanova, whose name became an adjective, is a case in point. He was an actor, an inventor, a violinist, an author of more than 20 books, a playwright, a spy and many other things, but first and foremost he was a seducer. No crude Hollywood producer he. When he seduces a young French girl in his youth, he discovers that she is the first ‘jeune fille spirituelle’, and feels a kind of ecstasy as a result. In a Geneva inn, she writes with her diamond on the window of their room, ‘You will forget me too.’ He returns to the same inn many years later, old, poor and with a depressing venereal disease. He notices the writing on the window and breaks down. He recognises he was not worthy enough to possess her. Who said seducers were hard-hearted? Casanova chronicled in his memoirs the passing glory of the personal life, the gaiety, the generosity and spontaneity of youth, the ups and downs of middle-age, and the horrors of old age. One gets to know 18th-century society in Europe from top to bottom.
One great seducer who had slipped my mind — I knew him only as a statesman, which is like knowing Ted Heath as a conductor rather than a deadly bore — was Prince Clement von Metternich, the man who kept Napoleon’s son in wintry Austria rather than give him the kingdom of Greece, which would have kept the sickly King of Rome alive. Metternich was extremely good-looking and a smoothie in the drawing-room. Apparently he was a prince between the sheets to boot. He seduced everyone, the wife of a Russian general, the nieces of his emperor, even the sister of his arch-enemy Napoleon. He had two duchesses as mistresses, and one cost him Bavaria when he overslept with her during the Congress of Vienna. (So what is a little Bavaria in front of a naked angel of a duchess?)
One hundred years later, in faraway Santo Domingo, another diplomat-seducer was born, Porfirio Rubirosa, my old mentor. Rubi’s charm was irresistible and he sang and danced with the best of them. In an age when men openly proposition women — and land them — his technique must seem awfully dated. But he liked seducing ladies, not slags, and when he sang while strumming a guitar in an outdoor nightclub in the south of France, it was neither dated nor corny. Aly Khan, the father of the present Aga Khan, was no slouch in the seduction stakes either. A very good amateur rider and diplomat, he spent his time chasing the opposite sex, which was considered a worthy pursuit back then. He was killed in a car accident in Paris in 1960.
A friend of mine, Aris, once told me that listening to a woman is the quickest way to her bed. In other words, there’s almost no female desire like the desire to be heard. I told him it was beyond me. When lightning strikes I have to speak non-stop until…I reminded him that a disagreeable, 5’4, bandy-legged morose type with a hump on his back by the name of Chateaubriand had mistresses flocking to him because he caressed them with his talk. His fame helped get the ladies, but mainly it was his conversation. He even cheated on his greatest love, Juliette Récamier, ‘hymned as the loveliest woman in the world’. Good for you, François-René.
At worst, with its ritual techniques of persuasion, seduction has something dishonest about it. Seduction, unlike a marriage proposal, can never occur between equals. One person usually wants it more than the other. Its inherent imbalance explains why in a way it is exploitative. Who cares? Flatter, talk, praise, pursue, bribe, but get the job done, that’s what a great seducer is all about. Win at all costs. In Swoon, a psychologist tells the author that seduction is not something one learns, ‘only unlearns’. Again, I agree. There are men who know how to handle it and others who will never learn. It can’t be taught, it can only be perfected. Good luck.