George Burns reported that his married sister showed up back at home one day with her suitcase. She told their mother that she was moving in for a while to teach her husband a lesson. "If you really want to teach him a lesson," Mom answered, "have me move into your house for a while." Mom's wisdom was right on target. The lesson taught by the sweetheart moving out has a distinct advantage over the lesson taught by the viper moving in: it can be absorbed in quiet surroundings. As the Talmud says: "Curling up with a snake is not a comfortable way to live."
In the case that is currently engaging Italian society, we see a third scenario in play. This is where the viper has moved out but is still offering free lessons. More of an adder, actually, as she sues for millions in palimony.
The woman is Narissa Bradford, 41, an American model who came to Milan some years ago as a poor girl from Starkville, Mississippi, with $500 and a shopping bag full of her belongings. Between modeling gigs she snagged the attention of Franco Colosio, 54, who had inherited a half-billion dollar supermarket chain and built it up to three times that value.
She was only a friend, says Colosio, but Bradford says she can "prove" otherwise from a decade's worth of receipts. She says that she paid all his bills for him and managed his accounts, as indicated by his giving her carte blanche with his credit cards and a $65,000 a month allowance. Hey, she may have smoothed her lines with Botox, but we can still read between them: she is asking for spending money now to compensate for her onerous task of spending his money for ten years. Unless, of course, she was applying the secret Starksville Accounting Method that his experience in expanding a billion-dollar company could not duplicate.
Once they drifted apart he agreed to pay her $70,000 a month "to avoid legal action." After a year, he stopped, thus forcing her hand. Astonishingly, she offers this as an argument on her behalf: a year of successful extortion entitles her to continue. Apparently she found her knight in shining armor -- in a suit of black mail.
Here we have Fatal Attraction asking for the Easter Bunny to be put into her pot. Colosio tried to be like Neil Diamond and "find us a dream that don't ask no questions" and instead found himself a nightmare that has all the answers.
The suit is working its way through the Italian courts in an echo of the Lee Marvin palimony case that spurred a series of copycat actions in our own legal system back in the 1980s. The first reaction of many conservative types is to revel in the morality play of the mistress who turns into Miss Stress. They may also think that making dalliance as expensive as alliance will eliminate a key disincentive for marriage, thus strengthening that societal institution.
I believe that these are misleading approaches, at least from the perspective of public policy. If we are prepared to write constitutions affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman, then the premises of the contract must be sacrosanct. If any two people who keep company are de facto married, then gay marriage and other eccentric configurations are more difficult to counter.
If Mr. Colosio wanted to commit to Ms. Bradford, presumably she would have been receptive. The very fact that he propositioned her rather than proposing to her proclaims loudly his decision to define their relationship as temporary. In accepting his largesse in lieu of a wedding ring, she was implicitly forfeiting any claim on his future. She could not get him to sign on the dotted line, dashing her hopes; this was a coded, but simple, message that she stubbornly refused to read.
The courts should not allow this to metastasize. Her case is as frivolous as was their friendship. The precedent created could wind up digging a tunnel under the bedrock of wedlock. The type of conservatism called for here is a formal and legalistic conservatism that does not allow playing house to become a legal substitute for keeping house. The financial contracts should remain firmly tied to the social contract. If you do it right, you get the benefits and the obligations. If you won't, then you don't.
She came to Milan with her dream of modeling and she succeeded after a fashion. Her shopping bag was kept full for a very long time. But 'til death do us part from our money? I don't think so. It's time for her to learn to lessen.
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