A Famed Cartoonist and His Wife Weather the Storms 'twixt May and December

updated 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 01:00AM

"It is better to be an old man's darling than become a young man's slave," counsels an ancient adage on the merits of older husbands. Such notions of marital bondage have faded, but the march toward May-December marriages seems as vigorous as ever. A 32-year gulf separates Pia Zadora, 26, from her husband, financier Meshulam Riklis. Former jockey Robyn Smith and hubby Fred Astaire, 83, are 44 years apart. Sometimes, however, as in the marriage of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin and writer Christine Lund, the generation gap can become a gulch. Mauldin, famed for his World War II drawings of dogfaces Willie and Joe, currently produces cartoons for more than 125 newspapers. He was a 50-year-old twice-wed father of six sons when he married Chris in 1972. She was a child of the '60s and just 24 years old. The couple, now 61 and 34, share a ranch-style home in New Mexico with daughter Kaja, 4½. They told PEOPLE'S Linda Witt bow they deal with the jokes and joys of their age difference.

Bill: She was a copy kid at the Chicago Sun-Times, where I worked. It was during the '60s, and I was drawing longhaired hippies, and I'd ask her, "Does this look right?"

Chris: At first I didn't even know who he was. I think that's the first thing he liked about me; I didn't know him from Adam.

Bill: She was very respectful. Chris had a wonderful relationship with her father, and that sort of goes with the territory when a younger woman is attracted to an older man. We started out strictly as friends. I was commuting between Chicago and Santa Fe. I have arthritis in my hands, and Santa Fe was a matter of survival as far as my work was concerned. I'd gotten to know Chris, but I was a married man, and as she has learned since, I'm basically a monogamous guy. My wife, Natalie, was driving to Albuquerque to pick me up, but when the plane came in, she wasn't there. She'd crashed into an abutment on the way. I had this great horror that it might have been suicide; she had a history of depression and had been hospitalized five times during our marriage. But it turned out she was dead when the car left the road—a massive stroke. That was August, 1971.

Chris: Bill stayed in Santa Fe a long while after that. When he did come back, we started dating.

Bill: I guess I took her out to dinner. Up until then I'd just taken her to lunch. Before it was almost a paternal thing. But then, I was the one who thought it was really insane, falling in love with a woman so much younger. I kept saying to myself, "You must be nuts. What are you getting yourself into?"

Chris: I came through Santa Fe the next January on vacation. I ended up quitting my job in Chicago and moving out here to live with Bill. His kids are my age, but they are people I'd want as friends even if I didn't know Bill. And my parents always respected him. They went to dinner with us one night, and afterward a friend asked Bill how it went. Bill said, "Fine, but her father looks like my son." Dad was three years younger than Bill.

Bill: We ended up at a jazz club that night, and her mother lamented, "To think I was so worried about you going to live in a commune in California! At least there you would have been with people your own age."

Chris: We met my parents in New York one night after we were living together, and my mother got on him again: "Well, are you going to marry her, Bill? What if she wants kids? What are you going to do about it?"

Bill: I felt like such a dumb kid again. It was worse sometimes when we got into situations with Chris' contemporaries after we married. Once I was at a suburban pool party with all these friends of her younger brothers. The adults, their parents, were very nice, but there I was consorting with a bunch of snotnoses. I felt absolutely ridiculous, like an old lech. It was a scene out of a nightmare.

Chris: Yes, but at other times with my friends, it was okay. That was 1975. Dad was dying of cancer. Bill and I were fighting over whether or not to have a child. I was 27, and many people then thought that 30 was the cutoff.

Bill: I just couldn't understand why she'd want to get pregnant. It didn't compute. Younger women tie up with older men for lots of reasons, one being there's a certain stability to it. Why monkey with it by having a kid? I just couldn't believe she was serious. Although she was mildly inclined yes, I was very strongly inclined no.

Chris: But I was serious, and he wouldn't take me seriously. As in all things between us, I was merely a little less forceful.

Bill: I didn't think she had any idea what it entailed. I took care of some of my boys pretty much by myself when their mother was hospitalized. When my youngest turned 3, the diaper man and I had a drink and ceremonially burned a diaper. And I swore I'd never have a diaper pail in the house again. That day was almost as big a deal to me as giving up smoking. I just couldn't believe that this pretty, blond 27-year-old wouldn't get tired of this 27-year age difference. What I didn't want to happen was to have a kid and become terribly fond of it and then lose it—as I had with my two oldest when my first wife and I divorced. I was covering myself against loss. But the worst thing about my attitude was that I didn't take Chris seriously. That's where the age gap came in. I found it hard to think of her as an adult.

Chris: You mean as a partner, not as a subsidized person in the household.

Bill: That makes me sound like a male chauvinist, and I'm not. It was hard to take her seriously until she sat down and wrote her novel. She spent four hours a day for six months and she did it. I respect accomplishment; even if she never gets it published. That's when I started to respect her. But I still didn't want to have a baby.

Chris: I still did. We didn't actually file for divorce, but the papers were all signed, and I stayed on with my mother in New Jersey after my dad died, and Bill went back to New Mexico. Everybody knew we were headed for divorce court. But I spent all my time worrying about him.

Bill: Eventually I got in my Beechcraft Baron and flew to New Jersey. I'd flown there solo, and after a couple of weeks I conned her into flying back because I needed a navigator. I knew then I had surrendered.

Chris: We made an agreement to wait six months to see if the reconciliation took. At the end of that time, I realized he still didn't want to go through with having a child. Later we went to a marriage counselor, but I was apprehensive. Everyone I'd known who'd gone to a marriage counselor had ended up divorced. Then one morning Bill said, "You'll give up this notion eventually and get into other things, but then I don't think I'll like you as much. We might as well go ahead." He realized that not having a child would take a certain warmth out of me that he loved.

Bill: That's well put. I probably said, "Throw away your diaphragm."

Chris: It was a wonderful time. Bill even did the whole Lamaze thing.

Bill: Once I crossed the Rubicon, I was a good loser. I'd have been a little more comfortable about those Lamaze classes if there'd been a few other old croaks around. The only thing that surprised me was the kid's sex. With six sons, I assumed it was one of those X-Y things, and I was just loaded with boys. But I wanted a girl. Then this little slippery thing popped out, and I yelled, "It's a girl!"

Chris: Now the question is whether or not Kaja will have a brother or a sister. I would like another child. Twenty years from now we'll still be around. There's lots of longevity in his family.

Bill: My inclination is no. I'm trying to get a book done that's now three years overdue. When I get into parenthood, I get very involved, and I'd like to be involved in a book right now.

Chris: I don't think this will make or break us. It took me a long time to learn to stand up to him, to be feisty. I was intimidated. One reason I wrote the novel is that I feel more and more a need to articulate myself, to become more than just Bill Mauldin's wife. I now think, if anything, our relationship is easier because he is older. He's got some things left he still wants to accomplish. I've got some things I want to accomplish. We're not the same age, but we're in sort of the same place.

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