150 Years of Love & Lust, Seattle-Style

20 tales of mad love, bad love, and glad love, plus 7 sex and love gurus.

By Eric Scigliano January 14, 2010 Published in the February 2010 issue of Seattle Met

I, Woman. You, Gumby.
A Clallam Legend 

Long ago there was only one woman in the world, and no man. So she formed a man out of gum from a tree and wished he would come alive and be her husband. She went to sleep, and when she awoke he was alive.

The first woman and man lived together and had children. But because he was made of gum, he could not withstand the heat of the sun, which was hotter then than it is today. One day he went fishing and asked his wife to watch and make sure he did not stay out when the sun got too hot. But she fell asleep and did not watch the sun. It got so hot it melted him, and he died. —Recorded by the missionary Myron Eells in the late nineteenth century


Seattles First Love
Louisa Boren & David Denny 

It was the perfect pioneer romance: Nineteen-year-old David Denny and 24-year-old Louisa Boren fell in love on the Oregon Trail in 1851, during the long trek from Illinois. They caught trout together at Soda Springs to feed the hungry party, then fended off a Shoshone brave’s attempt to trade horses for Louisa.

Denny, the party’s trailblazer, was the first to reach Puget Sound. Dispatched north to scout prospects, he sent back word: “Come at once.” On January 23, 1853, David Maynard, the territory’s first justice of the peace, joined David and Louisa in Seattle’s first wedding ceremony. It kept things all in the family, or families; David’s widowed father had already married Louisa’s widowed mother, and his older brother was married to her older sister. The mind reels.

David staked out 160 acres at the settlement’s wild north end, today’s Seattle Center (hence Denny Way). Louisa planted roses, earning the sobriquet “sweet briar bride,” and bore eight children. Optimistic and generous, David toiled tirelessly and invested eagerly in every new project—mining, farming, real estate, a sawmill, a streetcar line. He got rich, built a mansion, then lost it all in the Panic of 1893. He and Louisa retreated ever farther into the woods, first to today’s Fremont, then to a tiny cabin at Licton Springs, where he died 50 years after they wed.

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Henry and Sarah and Susan and Eliza
Henry & Sarah Yesler 

When writers troll for romance in pioneer Seattle, they rarely fix on Henry Yesler, the town’s first tycoon, and his dour-looking wife Sarah. But Henry and Sarah’s love life was passionate and free-spirited enough for a novel—or rather several novels, since it didn’t just involve each other.

Yesler, a carpenter with aspirations, left his family in Ohio for a biblical seven years, searching the West for a spot to build a sawmill and finally decided on the infant settlement that would become Seattle. In 1858, Sarah, fed up with waiting, came out and joined him, leaving their frail son George in relatives’ care.

White men outnumbered women 10 to one on Puget Sound, and many took what were called “Indian wives.” Reverend David Blaine, the town’s first minister, lamented that “many of the most intelligent and better class…live with savages and live as savages.” He might have meant the notoriously unchurched and unconventional Yesler, who had conceived a daughter, Julia, with Susan Curly, daughter of a Duwamish chief who worked in his mill.

By one account, Sarah embraced Henry’s daughter “as her own.” But they still packed Julia off to a (white) foster family. Then came bitter news: Back in Ohio, their son George had suddenly died. They assuaged their grief with civic works and spiritualism, the nineteenth century’s New Age faith, which prescribed seances with the dead and free love among the living. And they struck an affectionate and enduring, if unconventional, marital balance: Henry caroused with his buddies. Sarah cleaved to woman companions, especially a young widow and fellow spiritualist named Eliza Hurd. “Oh Sarah,” Eliza wrote, “I wish to say so much and I cannot say anything— I want to sleep with you again! hey! I would like to step into your bathing room tonight and take an ablution, and you might shower me too, and I think I wdnt squeal so bad.”

Henry didn’t mind Eliza visiting and sharing Sarah’s bed. But tongues wagged, especially after Sarah went to San Francisco for six weeks to join Eliza and take a “water cure.” Then Eliza deflected the gossip; with Sarah’s encouragement, she married a spiritualist doctor in Victoria.

Henry outlived Sarah by 15 years and, when almost 80, married his 24-year-old cousin Minnie Gagle. She was later charged with forgery in the tussle over what was Seattle’s first million-dollar estate.


Burning Passion
Archy Fox

Everyone in 1867 Seattle esteemed Archy Fox, one of the town’s first African American citizens, for what the Weekly Intelligencer called his “irreproachable character,” and because he cut their hair and provided hot baths and shaves, precious commodities on the frontier. And so, the Intelligencer continued, “it is with great regret we publish to-day the trial and conviction of a man who allowed his passion to overcome his reason.”

Fox felt provoked: His girlfriend had moved in with an older white settler, John Buckley. He considered throwing acid at her, but a customer talked him out of it. So he threw the acid in Buckley’s face.

Buckley survived and, fortunately for his assailant, pioneer Seattle could sympathize with overwhelming passion. Fox paid a $200 fine, served three months in the jail at Steilacoom, and returned to expand his business and prosper in real estate.


The Takeaway Bride
Chen Chong

Chen Chong seemed like one lucky guy. A successful merchant with a cigar store on First Avenue, he was also the first Chinese man in the Northwest, perhaps on the West Coast, to land a wife, at a time when virtually the only Chinese women here were shipped over as sex slaves. The Reverend Daniel Bagley performed the service in 1866; leading citizens, Josiah Settle and Mrs. John Shoudy, lent the formal threads.

But good fortune tempts malicious fate. Soon after the wedding, gangster highbinders tried to kidnap Chen Chong’s wife—for ransom or for prostitution, the skimpy accounts don’t say. To guard against future attempts, he cut an escape window in their house. But about three years later the highbinders succeeded. Chen Chong spent the next three years searching for his wife, finally found her in Honolulu, and died there three years after that.

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Mercer’s Maids
Asa Mercer & the Brides 

It seemed like an emigration made in heaven. Washington Territory had a superabundance of lonely bachelors, new schools clamoring for teachers, and precious few young women to fill both needs. The mill towns of New England had the opposite problem: Their men had been decimated by the Civil War, and their mills were idle for lack of Southern cotton.

Asa Mercer, president of the new University of Washington, proposed a win-win: to recruit maidens from the latter to populate the former. He headed East in May 1864 but returned with just 11 factory girls from Lowell, Massachusetts; the $250 passage was a stiff barrier. For a second try in 1866, Mercer sought funds first, from the legislature, overeager investors, and equally overeager bachelors to whom he promised suitable wives. He spoke of returning with 700 belles, but finances were again dicey and he lured fewer than a tenth that many.

This time they took the long route, via Cape Horn rather than Panama. That left ample time for maids and sailors to flirt (though when one put his arm around her as she sewed, she jammed her needle in it). Mercer himself fell for one of his belles and, without preliminaries, proposed marriage. She fled his stateroom exclaiming, according to one witness, “The old fool wants to marry me, and I hate the very sight of him!” (The “old fool” was just 27 but balding, beak-nosed, and unappealing even to a captive audience.)

Thirteen young women jumped off in San Francisco, but 34 braved leers, jeers, and the press’s relentless fascination and proceeded to Seattle. Within a week and a half, 13 were married and six engaged; they and their fellow passengers went on to launch many of Seattle’s leading families. A century later they inspired the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the television show Here Come the Brides, which gave Seattle the closest thing it has to a romantic anthem: “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen….”

And one of them finally agreed to marry gawky Asa Mercer.

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The Lady in the Lake
James Mahoney & Kate Mooers 

Love will find a way, and so will justice, even if you sink it in the lake, as a newlywed ex-con named James E. Mahoney discovered in 1921. Mahoney, 38, had wed his landlady Kate ­Mooers, a wealthy 70-ish divorcee. But she doubted his motives and cut him out of her will. He poisoned her, stuffed her and some concrete chunks into a steamer trunk, sank it in Lake Union, said she was out of town, and forged her signature on checks and bonds. But her body bloated as the water warmed and, four months later, floated, trunk and all, to the surface. He was tried and hung the next year.


A Lesson in Tolerance
Helen Emery & Gunjiro Aoki 

It’s hard to believe today, but when love found itself strangled by San Francisco’s intolerance, it came to breathe the freer air of Seattle. Gunjiro Aoki was a scion of a noble samurai family; Helen Emery was the daughter of Archdeacon John Emery of Corte Madera, just north of San Francisco. Gunjiro had come to America to join his brother Peter, an Anglican priest training under Emery. Peter’s granddaughter, the San Francisco–based playwright Brenda Wong Aoki, says the Emerys invited her Uncle Gunjiro to live in their house to further his religious education. The newspapers in 1909 called him a “servant” in their house.

One thing’s certain: Gunjiro Aoki and Helen Emery fell in love and determined to marry, throwing her family and the whole state into convulsions. California’s legislature hastily added Japanese-Caucasian unions to its law banning miscegenation. An angry mob stormed the Emerys’ house, throwing flowers, rice, bricks, and rocks. “I can feel only contempt for the ignorance that displays itself in such ways,” Helen told The New York Times.

The young lovers fled, first to Portland, where mobs drove them out, then to Tacoma, where the mayor did. Seattle welcomed them, but Gunjiro and Helen (with her now-resigned parents) still snuck into town separately, to dodge the paparazzi. They wed in a private ceremony at Trinity Episcopal Church. The Seattle Star scored an ambush photo outside the church and blazoned it under a banner headline: “White Girl Is Wed to Jap in Seattle.”

As a result, Helen lost her U.S. citizenship and her father resigned his position and left California. Not surprisingly, the newlyweds decided to stay up here: “At least, the Americans I have met in Seattle have proven friendly,” Gunjiro told the Star. They settled in the Dunlap neighborhood and he tried to make a go growing produce, which he would probably have sold at the Pike Place Market. Nine months later, however the Times reported that Helen, who’d since borne a child, was leaving Gunjiro: He had “become shiftless and lazy” and just wanted to hang out with his “Japanese associates.”

And there the story would have ended, according to the standard script: Fallen woman begs society to take her back. But it wasn’t the end. Helen and Gunjiro reconciled and had four more children in a marriage that, the San Francisco Chronicle later wrote, “proved idyllic, contrary to all expectations.” In 1933, after Gunjiro’s death, Helen regained her citizenship—and changed her name to Oakie.

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No Boys in Paradies
Mary McCarthy & Forrest Crosby
(& Kenneth Callahan) 

It may be the most exactingly described deflowering in literature. Mary McCarthy—grande dame of American letters, author of The Group, Stones of Florence, and dozens of other novels and collections—devoted 22 pages to it in How I Grew, her memoir of her teen years in 1920s Seattle.

At 14, McCarthy was a student at Tacoma’s Annie Wright Seminary and a rebel looking for a cause. She vacationed with her hyperprotective grandparents at Lake Crescent. “In this paradise,” she wrote, “there were no boys for me though, only the horrible Blethens,” who owned The Seattle Times. Along came the rakish Forrest Crosby, who smoked a pipe, drove a Marmon roadster, and claimed to be just 23. He danced with her to a new song: “Sweet child. You’re driving me wild. That’s putting it mild.” The next day he led her along “a forest of maidenhair ferns and virgin spruce.” He was about to kiss her when her irate grandfather appeared.

Back at Annie Wright, McCarthy mooned over “Forrie,” wrote long passionate letters, and received shorter ones that closed, exotically she thought then, “ Hasta la vista .” On Thanksgiving break, he met her near her home in Madrona. They drove around, parked, and finally had “no recourse but sex.”

“Of the actual penetration, I remember nothing,” she wrote, though she described the mechanics in queasy detail. Forrie afterward grew distant, and “my love slowly withdrew from him, like a puddle drying up.”

Two years later ­McCarthy posed for the artist Kenneth Callahan, later an eminence of the Northwest School of painting. “He did not invite me to pose nude, but naturally we ‘went the limit’ when he set down his brushes.” Still she couldn’t shake her prim upbringing: “Some of the things he did in bed made me cringe with shame.”

Many more men followed, but still she considered her tumble with Forrie “formative”: “It dampened my curiosity about sex, and so left my mind free to think about other things.” A decade later he pursued her again, and she had the pleasure of spurning him.


Burn, Baby, Burn
Rolf & Ruth Neslund

It was a story beyond the most lurid film noir, set on sunny Lopez Island. By August 1980, when Ruth Neslund claimed her husband Rolf had left to return to his native Norway, whatever love there might once have been had long gone from their marriage. At 79 (or 83—he’d lied about his age to go to sea) Rolf was still dashing, and still close to an old Norwegian flame by whom he had two adult sons. Ruth was just 60, but fat, frumpy, and alcoholic. So long as Rolf was an elite Puget Sound pilot, off guiding big ships to berth, the money poured in and they stayed out of each other’s hair.

Then, one foggy 1978 night, Rolf steered a freighter into the drawbridge that connected West Seattle to the mainland, disabling it so neatly that the rumor rose that West Seattleites, who’d long agitated for a high bridge, had paid him to do it. (Some suggested naming the high bridge that replaced it the Rolf Neslund Memorial Bridge.) He retired and, stuck at home, they drank and fought—hard. He discovered she’d siphoned his savings and retirement funds to her private accounts and cut her from his will. Then he disappeared.

It took nearly a year for San Juan County to launch a murder investigation, another two to charge Ruth, two and a half more to convict her. The big hurdle: Rolf’s body never appeared. The reason, relatives testified: Ruth’s brother held Rolf down while she shot him, then chopped up the body and burned it.

At one point, though, an even grislier outcome got bruited. Deputies seized a large meat grinder (the Neslunds raised their own beef). Islanders recalled that she’d donated 50 pounds of hamburger to their community center and joked that after all those “Rolfburgers,” there was “a little Rolf in all of us.”

Ruth stayed free on appeal until July 1987, and opened a bed-and-breakfast in the house she’d shared with Rolf. She died in prison in 1993.

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Sex on the Brain
Why Seattle has a glut of love and lust gurus. 

The year was 1972, the place a sleepy West Coast city the hotshot young sociologist from Yale had to look up on a map. “The University of Washington offered me a professorship right over the phone, no interview,” marvels Pepper Schwartz. No surprise. At 22 she had already coauthored How to Have Sex on Campus without Getting Screwed and appeared on The Today Show.

She’s been here ever since. Of course you already know that, if you’re into sex and relationship books (she’s written 15) or Oprah (she’s been on six times) or perfectmatch.com (she wrote its Personality Profiler test). Schwartz is a Very Famous Love and Sex Expert. And she is in improbably good company: Very Famous Love and Sex Experts grow on trees around here.

A vigorous academy provided the right soil. After Schwartz arrived she joined an informal support group of UW sexuality researchers. One, a young cultural anthropologist named Jennifer James, had just completed a doctoral dissertation on prostitutes (and made a stir when the Seattle Police tried to subpoena her sources). James launched a Seattle Times column on personal growth that proved so popular, she wrote it for 18 years.

A few years later, John Gottman set up his famous “Love Lab,” an apartment where he measured married couples’ physiological responses to their ordinary interactions. This vaulted him to academic and popular renown as the “Divorce Predictor” who could foretell with 91 percent accuracy a couple’s chance of divorcing. (The big giveaway: contempt.) He and his wife, clinical therapist Julie Schwartz Gottman, continue the research, in between training therapists, conducting workshops, and churning out books—40 and counting.

UW isn’t the only launchpad. At Evergreen State College, history and family studies professor Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap rocketed her to fame in the ’90s. At evangelical Seattle Pacific University, Les and Leslie Parrott’s copious books and worldwide speaking engagements have made them perhaps the country’s most respected dispensers of scripture-based marital advice.

Schwartz speculates that advances in these emerging fields shone brighter from Seattle than they would in a crowded galaxy like New York. Marriage counseling is certainly taken more seriously here, Gottman says, while Freud’s disdain for treating both halves of a couple still casts a withering pall over couples therapy among the East Coast psychoanalytic establishment.

Whatever the cause, Seattle gained critical mass. This drew other experts, like Linda Young, a Bellevue clinical psychologist and the media’s (CNN, NPR) new darling on everything from dating to sexting. Young’s therapy practice is booming, too—in part, she believes, because Seattle’s such a confounding place to be in love. Credit that blend of outward amiability and interior impenetrability known as the Seattle Freeze. “It manifests in a lot of confusion that would be unnecessary if people were more direct with each other,” she says.

Is that why we consume—and produce—so much sex advice? Stranger editorial director Dan Savage created his no-detail-too-graphic advice column in the early ’90s, when AIDS was rendering sexual ignorance lethal. “Savage Love” is now a national phenomenon, making Savage one of the nation’s leading gay pundits.

Then there’s Delilah, whose radio show Love Songs invites listeners to call in and share their stories of love, loss, and—have you heard it?—lunacy. Love Songs debuted locally in 1982 and now airs on over 200 stations across North America. “I think we are all a bit more sappy here in the Northwest,” Delilah muses, honey dripping off her million-dollar voice. “On the East Coast, folks can be in a big rush. ‘Hurry hurry hurry!’ doesn’t really work well with, ‘Slow down…love someone.’ ”

Perhaps it really is a Left Coast thing. “What was it someone called us in the ’30s, the Soviet of Washington?” Coontz reflects. “There is a liberal tradition here, a radical tradition, that rubs off on researchers.” Gottman agrees. “Seattle’s more open-minded, not as rigid,” he says, noting that in the ’60s this was the first city anywhere to allow fathers into birthing rooms.

When Schwartz arrived at UW, a colleague warned she’d never get tenure if she kept studying sex. In 2007 Schwartz, now tenured, published her late-life sexual memoir Prime. “I sent the head of my department a heads-up, just to say this is a different kind of book—personal and provocative—and I hoped it wouldn’t embarrass him,” she says. He wrote back: “ ‘ You ? Provocative?’ And he asked me to sign his copy.” —Kathryn Robinson

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Art Lovers
Jacob & Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence 

Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight provide an enduring example of how love and art can cohabitate. Arriving in 1970, they spent the last half of their 60 years together (and of their equally long careers) in Seattle. Here Jacob’s painting flowered again, reprising and surpassing the meteoric success he achieved in his early 20s. He was to art what Jackie Robinson was to baseball, and more. He broke the color barrier, injecting African American history and culture into the heart of American art. And he expanded our notions of what color—pure primary colors, boldly patterned and juxtaposed—could do.

Gwen was Jacob’s unfailing support, anchor, and protector. Striking and strong-willed (“fierce” is a friend’s favorite term), a gifted painter herself, she saw him through youthful breakdown and late debility, handling business and keeping pests at bay so he could be gentle and generous and still amazingly productive.

“That’s the public story,” says painter and museum director Barbara Earl Thomas, the Lawrences’ friend and Gwen’s biographer. “And it’s all true.” But it wasn’t the end of the story. After Jacob died in 2000, Gwen’s long-­submerged regrets and resentments welled up, over both her own work—a small, teasingly brilliant corpus—and the narrow horizons of her time: “There wasn’t enough of a reality for her to think she could” have a career like his. But, Gwen told Thomas, “I did what I did,” and she never repented making it possible for Jacob to do what he did.


Brock’s Problem
Brock Adams & Mickey Finn

U.S. attorney, congressman, transportation secretary, and now senator, Brock Adams had it all. He fought for consumer protection and rail transport. His jolly, garrulous style earned him the sobriquet “the Yappy Warrior.”

Trouble was, Adams also seemed to want to have them all—young women in his employ and political orbit. And he didn’t care how. In 1987, Kari Tupper, an ex-aide and family friend, charged that he’d drugged her with a sweet pink drink and molested her. DC police referred the case to federal prosecutors, but they declined to file charges. Adams denied Tupper’s account and his supporters labored to discredit her. Then, in 1992, the Seattle Times reported that eight unnamed women had signed statements declaring Adams had tried to molest and, in three cases, drug them. One attested he’d slipped her a similar sweet pink Mickey and raped her. An ex-employee said others also complained about his advances: “We referred to it as ‘Brock’s problem.’ ”

Adams didn’t seek reelection, and Patty Murray won his seat. Mike Lowry, who’d considered seeking it, ran for governor instead, won, and then retired after an aide accused him of harassing her. In 2000, Maria Cantwell won Washington’s other senate seat. Since then the state has had a woman governor, two women senators, and a dearth of political sex scandals.


Asked, She Told
Margarethe Cammerymeyer & Diane Divelbess 

Theirs was the “I do” and the “I am” heard round the world. In 1988, Norwegian-born Grethe Cammermeyer—Vietnam veteran, divorced mother of four, a colonel and the head nurse in the Washington National Guard—fell in love with Diane Divelbess, a Methodist-born artist and academic. The next year, when asked during a routine security clearance, she answered simply: “I am a lesbian.”

The resulting investigation ground slowly, even as the debate over gays in the military heated up. Cammermeyer, discharged in 1992, sued—and won. In a bombshell decision, a federal judge in Seattle declared her discharge and the ban on gays unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the ban, but Cammermeyer served out her military career. In 1997 she retired to the home she and Divelbess built on Whidbey Island and found a new career in activism and politics. In 2004, Cammermeyer and Divelbess tied the legal knot in Oregon, only to have it untied when Oregon’s gay-marriage law was overturned. In 2007 civil union under a hard-fought new Washington law offered some consolation. Domestic bliss rolls on regardless; Cammermeyer’s website (cammermeyer.com) includes, along with much discussion of military policy, survivor rights, a little dish on her partner’s tchotchke-­collecting habits.


Dedicated Teacher
Mary Kay Letourneau & Vili Fualaau 

Forget Britney and K-Fed, Levi and Bristol and Sarah, and all the other pathetic pseudo sagas that keep tabloid TV in business. This generation’s great American trashedy is the homegrown tale of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.

The world stood appalled and enthralled in 1997 when Letourneau, a 34-year-old Burien schoolteacher and mother of four, got caught having an affair with her sixth-grade pupil Fualaau, starting when he was 12. She was carrying on a family tradition. Her father, John G. Schmitz, an arch-conservative California congressman, college teacher, and father of six, fathered two children by one of his students. Papa Schmitz spurned his mistress and refused to support their children, who wound up in an orphanage. But nothing could make Mary Kay renounce Vili. She insisted on bearing his child and violated the terms of her suspended sentence and sex-offender therapy by seeing him. They plotted to run away together. Imprisoned for seven years, she bore his second child. Fualaau meanwhile unsuccessfully sued local schools and police for failing to protect him from her.

Letourneau, now 42, was released in 2004 and immediately (and legally) rejoined Fualaau, now 21. The next year they married. Last year Vili and Mary Kay Fualaau managed to appall and enthrall once again—and showed the world they were still together. Still pert and petite, she hosted “Hot for Teacher” nights at Fuel Sports Bar in Pioneer Square. He DJ’d.

Their story’s wasted on gossip magazines and TV movies. In another age, this would be an opera.

Updated April 8, 2010. This version corrects errors originally printed in the February 2010 issue.
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The Ballad of Kurt and Courtney
Kurt Cobain & Courtney Love 

Even before Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, the flanneled masses cast Courtney Love as his Yoko: Blinded by heroin and misguided love for a lipstick-smeared outsider, he was oblivious to the weight of her combat boots on his coattails and indifferent to the wedge she drove between him and his Nirvana bandmates. But that cliched comparison missed a more apt analogy: Kurt was Seattle, and Courtney was every record executive, wannabe rocker, groupie, and hanger-on who wanted a piece of the city.

He was a gentle, gifted introvert from Aberdeen who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) come in out of the rain. She was the thrashing, whip-smart self-promoter who only landed in Seattle after failing to find success elsewhere. He walked with his chin tucked to his chest; she thrust hers out to announce her entrance to a room. For him, the world was too much to bear. For her, it was never enough. But when they met in Portland in 1990 and then again a year later (legend has it she greeted him with a punch), he found in her a peroxide blonde proxy, his mouthpiece and protector. Never mind that the barrier she built around him didn’t distinguish between friend or enemy and did as much to keep him in as keep others out.

In February 1992 they married in, of all places, Hawaii. Six months later they had a baby, settled in Cedar Park, and gave new meaning to “nuclear family.” The screaming (adult, not baby) was epic, and their jagged trajectory predicted an ugly end. But just as the city’s willingness to welcome a few industry interlopers forced the rest of the world to offer Seattle musicians a seat at the table, little Frances Bean proved that even a coupling so caustic could produce something that was—at least for a moment—pure. —Matthew Halverson

A Healthy Relationship
Bill & Melinda Gates

Not since Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile united Spain, expelled the Moors and Jews, launched Columbus and the Inquisition, and divided the world with Portugal has a marital union had such wide consequences. And Bill and Melinda French Gates’s impact has surely been more benign.

Their tale, in broad outline, is a classic one: Big-hearted girl from the sunny heartland and her hypercompetitive, frequently rude boss fall for each other. She unleashes his inner mensch. He softens and sets out to do good, not just make good.

The story’s more complicated, of course. As a successful Microsoft program manager pre-Bill, Melinda was no buttercup. And the Gates Foundation approaches its main missions, boosting global health and combating global poverty, with a Microsoft-like drive. Bill had long said he meant to give his money away, though he said giving was harder than making it. And his parents drilled in the idea that great wealth brings great responsibility.

But Melinda both kick-started and defined the mission. Before, Bill wanted to combat overpopulation. Melinda, a Catholic, converted him to the view that lifting the threats of disease and starvation will solve that problem, and save millions of lives. As parents, they again seem to be doing better than Ferdinand and Isabella, whose only surviving daughter went insane. Bill and Melinda raise their three kids in determinedly normal circumstances—or as normal as a $100 million mansion allows.

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