Betsy Prioleau’s Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them is a thoroughly reassuring book. Prioleau’s entertaining ride through history–with suave, alluring, charming men as her tour guides–is packed with unexpected details, the most welcome being that good looks aren’t always necessary if becoming a ladies’ man is on your list of things to do. Take Benjamin Franklin, who stares at us so soberly from the $100 bill and urged us to go to bed early. Franklin, Prioleau writes, was “lusty and charming” and fathered an illegitimate son. Prioleau tackles the more expected subjects, like Casanova, Byron, Warren Beatty, Lizst, and Bill Clinton, revealing aspects of their personalities that make them so bewitching. Prioleau has developed a unique niche in publishing: she writes about attraction and charm, and does so in a smart, infectious way. In addition to Swoon, she’s also the author of Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love. I recently met up in New York with this expert on all things romantic to ask her about the elements of a man’s personality that make him irresistible to women.
In both of your books, you say that seductive women and Casanovas aren’t always the most beautiful people…
They explode every stereotype. I think that the whole concept of love and romance has been commercialized. We have the concept that beauty equals sex appeal–that’s entrenched in our contemporary culture, unfortunately–and it has really very little to do with sex appeal. I was shocked. Everything about love I’ve read right now in post-feminist literature is about ‘the liberation of the female gaze’ and the men they prefer are supposed to be whipped and they’re supposed to have great six-pack abs and be beefcakes, right? But I didn’t find that to be true. The men I interviewed–and also throughout history–there were some gorgeous men, but that wasn’t the source of their sex appeal. It was something else. Maybe the majority, even, are rather homely. Some are drop-dead ladykillers but … Gabriele D’Annunzio is a perfect example–here’s a man who was short, bald, had bad teeth and wide hips–can you imagine? But he had this inner shazam and love skills that were off the charts.
I got the sense from the contemporary men you write about in the book that they feel a little lonely, like society doesn’t quite get them.
There’s a professor at Yale named Joseph Roach–he wrote a book called It and he writes about the fact that, strangely enough, men with sexual charisma are defined by a strain of diffidence, not huge self-esteem–and as Roach points out, a mix of contradictory personality traits, which is alluring; it has an enigmatic quality. Then the other quality they have, which you wouldn’t expect, and is the most surprising thing, I think, is androgyny. Charismatic ladies’ men tend to have a strong feminine streak. One of the men I interviewed said, ‘I’m really a gay man in a straight man’s body.’
He was metrosexual…
That term is overused. He wasn’t metrosexual – he didn’t polish his nails or have green cowboy boots or anything like that. He dressed in ordinary grey T-shirts, but he was hunky! He was a gym rat and very masculine in lots of ways, but it was this intriguing mixture of masculinity interwoven with this feminine sweetness and artistic sensitivity that’s just a drug for women. This man had three generations of his lovers show up at his photographic show. He is just an absolutely adorable person who could pick any woman he wanted.
You have this nice mix of historical and contemporary men you cover but I was wondering if there were so many Casanovas throughout history that it was hard for you to decide which men to leave in the book and which to take out.
Yes. There are about 65-70 Casanovas in this book and I had to scrunch them in. I did have to make a cut because I didn’t want men who had a strong sadistic streak, who appealed to women who were damaged in some way. In other words, I think what makes a lady’s man is a moral mixture. I don’t think women like bad guys. I really don’t. They say they do but if you really pry below the surface, it’s this fascinating mixture of good and bad and that interplay between those qualities all the time. That’s what’s intriguing to a woman, but not pure evil. Errol Flynn, for example, and Picasso dragged women around by the hair. De Sade and people like that I had to eliminate–I have a lot of biographies of men at home I had to eliminate.
Maybe your next book is Bad, Bad Men.
I mentioned that to my agent and she said, ‘We can’t do that! That’s too negative, people don’t want to hear that stuff.’ But I thought, ‘I have this entire box of notes.’ Rasputin is another example. I wrote him into the book and my editor said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t have Rasputin.’ And yet, look at Rasputin, this nasty, smelly guy who was a complete con man but what he did with women is unbelievable. These banquets he had with 25 women and they’re all just panting to go to bed with him? All he had to do was point his finger and they would follow him, dazed. But yes, I did exclude men who I thought had a profound negativity. The great lovers didn’t mistreat women.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.