The recent brouhaha about the sexual antics on various TV programmes reminded me of a time, not that long ago, when a suggestion that wives sucked their husbands’ toes was ridiculed as if we had faced the end of civilization.
In 1987 Quartet published a book whose reception provoked a response that was never intended (though that ancient adage about no publicity is ever that bad does apply in the publishing trade). The hilarity arose partly because of its subject and partly because of the identity of its author, who happened to be married to David Stevens, then the press baron of Express Newspapers who had been created a life peer as Lord Stevens of Ludgate. Melissa Sadoff, as she called herself, possessed an inherited family title from central Europe and was, formally speaking, Melissa, Countess Andrassy. The book she had written was Woman as Chameleon: or How To Be the Ideal Woman. It was the very antithesis of feminist doctrine, aiming to teach women ways to keep their marriage exciting by pampering their man and acceding to his every wish and whim. Melissa was flamboyant in her views and Lord Stevens gave the impression of taking his wife’s attentions in his stride. She described the treatment she gave him in rather embarrassing detail, which opened up an opportunity for the critics to have a field-day in leg-pulling. ‘Grovel’ of Private Eye immediately dubbed Melissa ‘Countess Undressy’ and claimed to have suggested the book after hearing her speak about her husband’s ‘Ugandan preferences’. He was able to quote her verbatim for his own purposes.
‘There is nothing,’ she says, ‘that can be called perverse between husband and wife so long as it relates to the husband’s need and the wife’s willingness to do it.’ I have advised her to put it all on paper with a view to publication in book form. I tell her that my friend the seedy Lebanese parfumier Mr AttullahDisgusting could well be interested, as he is currently obsessed by all aspects of the Ugandan situation.
Two weeks later ‘Grovel’ followed through with the latest development:
As I suggested, the Countess Undressy . . . is to write a book of Ugandan hints, which will shortly be published by the swarthy Lebanese sex-fiend Naim Attullah-Disgusting. The ‘Countess’ will not mince words when she describes how she sees the duties of a wife. ‘Always kiss your husband’s body, starting from his toes,’ she writes. ‘After kissing his toes and sucking them, proceed to kiss every inch of his legs . . . ‘She should then perform the oral act. Many women feel an aversion towards this form of sex . . . Women who feel this way need to be asked what they would prefer – to have their husband go to a prostitute for such a service?’ (What’s the oral act? © Norman Fowler ’87) (That’s enough filth. Ed.)
The launch for Woman as Chameleon was held on 10 February, with ‘Londoner’s Diary’ of the Evening Standard citing the toe-kissing routine before asking ‘a pale, nervous and uncomfortable’ David Stevens, ‘Well, does she always?’ He had to confess that he hadn’t yet read the book, and didn’t intend to do so till he’d sifted through the reviews. ‘Otherwise I might be embarrassed.’
The nearest the party came to being risqué was when Jubby Ingrams’s (the daughter of Richard Ingrams, and who worked at Quartet) shoe was removed from her foot by an admirer with a view to kissing her from the toes upwards. Ms Sadoff rushed over to intervene. ‘No,’ she cried with a Transylvanian lilt. ‘It must be the other way round.’
Henry Porter in the Sunday Times ‘Notebook’ judged David Stevens to be ‘rather more reticent about his home life’ than was his wife.
I would estimate that this book . . . is going to cause considerable embarrassment to Mr Stevens . . . None the less, he has taken steps to purchase the serial rights if only to keep it out of the hands of the Daily Mail group, which naturally was keen to enhance his discomfort by publishing extracts like this: ‘Become your husband’s own prostitute . . . if your husband is in his study, workroom or garage in the wintertime put on a sexy slip, wrap yourself in a coat, slip on suspenders, black stockings and surprise him wherever he may be.’
Unfortunately the fun and games of the press diverted attention from the rest of the book, which threw many a light on relationships, friendships, motherhood and divorce, with sound philosophical reflections. Melissa was of Hungarian origin, a talented concert pianist and an accomplished hostess. She was perhaps a shade over the top in her enthusiasm, but being an eternal optimist her heart was in the right place. In retrospect, I believe she deserved more praise for the book than she ever received. Throughout the merciless lampooning from Private Eye and the barrage of snide sarcasm aimed by the rest of the press against the book, which inevitably earned the displeasure of the feminist lobby, she remained in control and outwardly unaffected by it all.
Her husband, despite the newspapers’ determination to embarrass him, was extremely supportive. He did not seem to be in any way phased by the teasing of friends over the rumpus caused by some of the book’s intimate passages. Sadly, only two years later, Melissa died when she got up in the middle of the night to eat a peach and choked on the stone. I was in Los Angeles at the time and was woken to hear the dreadful news. It left me feeling very emotional. I had grown to like Melissa immensely. Her colourful personality and boundless zest for life were her enduring strengths and ensured she could not be easily forgotten.