Love child. American culture seems to adore Hollywood babies. Follows their every step, starting with the speculative bump under glittering gowns flowing down the red carpet.
Millions of dollars are paid to allow us a glimpse at the first photos of the most famous love children.
We climb onto soft covers with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and peek at their lovely love children. We admire Halle Berry and what could be the most beautiful love child. We read about the love child of Matthew McConaughey and Camila Alves. We watched Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who married after their love child was born. And we peer at magazine covers of Jamie Lynn Spears. How cute, we think, as more love babies are born: Salma Hayek. Nicole Richie. Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, holding the new baby in a green Snugli.
American culture has this love affair with love children in Hollywood, whether the couples are honorable or hypocrites, but unleashes a chorus of damnation when it comes to a politician having — or even possibly having — a love child.
Jesse's and Strom's babies were not glorified but hidden as the character failures of their fathers. Hardly anybody mentions Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the baby of Strom Thurmond. Or Jesse Jackson's love child. Or Thomas Jefferson's. Once discovered, the political love child has with her the power to reshape her daddy's place in history.
Questions began swirling a few weeks ago, about whether former presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a love child. A blurry photo in the National Enquirer shows a man who could be Edwards or could be any other middle-aged man in America holding a blurry baby. While Edwards admits having an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker on his campaign, he and Hunter deny that her 5-month-old baby is Edwards' child.
Perhaps only the baby's parents know for sure. Still others hover like an impatient grandmother, sifting for clues. Wanting it to be so, so that we can continue to scrutinize this rivalry between the babies of Hollywood and those of politicians. Comparing the two, as if one offspring were uglier than the other.
"The acceptance among movie stars is an acceptance that reflects a change in the national mores, but is not held consistently across all dimensions," says Bruce Carter, associate professor of psychology and child and family studies at Syracuse University. "We have expectations that movie stars will misbehave."
But politicians, especially those who create images of themselves as "wholesome," are held to different standards. "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" went the Republican jeer against Grover Cleveland, accused of fathering an illegitimate child. "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!" was the Democrats' answer after he was elected.
"There is a sense that public figures are providing a model and they need to be above question," Carter says. "If they can't control their private lives, or private behavior, how can they be trusted with our governance?"
The dichotomy becomes entangled in the sins of shame and guilt, freedom and cultural constraints. A country that holds on to its Puritan past as it worships the sexual celebrity. We kneel at the feet of the beautiful, whom we allow to break social constraints, while tsk-tsking those who would lead us.
"We want Hollywood to entertain us, not be our moral tutors," says Eric Dezenhall, author of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong and CEO of a public relations firm that represents corporations and celebrities in crisis.
"When Brad and Angelina have a love child, that's just Hollywood being Hollywood. If a political figure has a love child, that's Hollywood legislating, and that's out of bounds."
Dezenhall has coined the Springsteen Paradox for this behavior. "I've heard Thunder Road 10,000 times and could hear it 10,000 more, but the minute he starts with the Che Guevara talk, I push the mute button," Dezenhall says. "When Bruce sings ballads, I think of my summers at the Jersey Shore. When Bruce talks politics, I'm thinking, 'Why is this plutocrat telling me to stick it to the man — he is the man?' "
The love child issue is about context, he says. "Who exactly is having this love child? If it's Jessica Alba, it's on the grid. If it's Edwards, it's off the grid. Despite the cliche that Americans are puritanical about sex, flipping around the remote control will disabuse you of this in a second. But there's a difference between the familiar and the exotic. A marriage having problems that may have included adultery is forgivable provided the details aren't shoved in our faces. The Edwards situation is exotic because it includes a gravely ill woman, misrepresentation about who Edwards fundamentally was, a New Age manipulation, multiple lies and the possibility of a love child. Off the grid."
Hollywood, too, was once prudish about the love child, but its attitude evolved. Now "there is absolutely no stigma in Hollywood around having a love child," says Dina Sansing, entertainment director for Us Weekly. "Years ago, they would have been sent to a place to have their children."
In 1949, Ingrid Bergman went to Italy to work on a film, fell in love with the director, Roberto Rossellini, and had his child while still married to someone else. She later married Rossellini and had two more children before he got a mistress pregnant and she divorced him.
Bergman's love affair erupted into moral outrage in the United States, and even brought public denunciation in Congress. One senator called Bergman a "horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence of evil." Hollywood eventually forgave her. She won a second Academy Award and then a third. "I've gone from saint to whore and back to saint again," Bergman once said, "all in one lifetime."
Diana Ross sang of the Love Child, and had her own love child with Berry Gordy. Rhonda Ross Kendrick discovered at 13 that Gordy was her biological father. "It really wasn't that painful or tragic or traumatic," Kendrick told the New York Daily News. "I knew Berry all my life. I loved him. I spent time with him. . . . Finding out answered my questions. It soothed me. It was like, 'Oh, Berry's 5-7, that explains why I'm 5-2. I get it now!' "
Love child, never meant to be. Or perhaps was. A child whispered about. Sometimes hidden. Disguised as a sister or brother or a cousin, rather than a daughter or son. Carried like a crown on the hips of Hollywood, while the political love baby is kept quiet.