For most people in the first half of the past century, marriage was an unbreakable contract; divorce and infidelity offered escape clauses but scandalizing ones. In the rarefied air of celebrity, though, the rules were different. The public gave Hollywood stars (and other famous or notorious folks) permission to fool around, with the proviso that we could watch. Blue noses might tut-tut, but these couplings did carry their own moral. You could say, "At least I'm not like them." Or, "Why can't I be like them?"
For stars, temptation was everywhere. They were beautiful people mixing with others of equal allure. Their job was to sell romance. In what other job did going to work mean kissing? And there was no one to toss a bucket of cold water on their latest mad pash. A few Hollywood couples stayed hitched--Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, 50 years and counting--but such exemplary marriages had less entertainment value than the connubial career of, say, Elizabeth Taylor, eight times wed and divorced, including two volatile turns with Richard Burton. The melodrama of the actress's life equaled anything she endured onscreen.
Today, marriage is an option, not a life sentence. Contemporary weddings may contain the phrase "I now pronounce thee man and man." We suspect that some celebrities get married only so they can make tabloid headlines with adulterous trysts. The frailty of marriage thus gives a few long-term unions--Dana and Christopher Reeve's, Nancy and Ronald Reagan's--the aura of heroism. They offer one final moral: even the famous can tend to an ailing partner with grace and devotion till death do they part.