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5 Great Love Stories That Weren't All That Great

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Valentine’s Day annoys a lot of people. So here’s a reminder that some relationships that are considered the greatest love stories of all time were pretty messed up.

1. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Why we love it: Edward was king of England, and he gave it all up for a woman. He even made a famous speech where he poured his normally guarded English heart out to the whole nation, saying he couldn't be the best king he could be without "the help and support of the woman I love." Since Wallis Simpson was divorced (twice) and an American to boot, there was no way she could marry him and be queen; the royal family and the public wouldn't have accepted it. Instead, Edward became the first British monarch to abdicate.

What we forget: Wallis Simpson didn't really want to marry Edward. Sure, she might have given in if there were a crown involved, but she did not want her boyfriend to abdicate. By then she was sick of him, but knew she was pretty much trapped. Plus, it wasn't that much of a sacrifice on Edward's part, since he knew being king would be a drag, what with all the openings of Parliament and ship christenings getting in the way of his jetting around the world to party. The newly dubbed Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed together until Edward's death. They indulged in their hobbies of throwing house parties where they screamed at each other in front of guests, having affairs, and talking about how great Hitler was, an opinion the Duke aired in public until at least the late 1960s.

2. Abelard & Heloise

Why we love it: Star-crossed lovers of the Romeo and Juliet variety, Abelard and Heloise is the classic story of two people deeply in love whose circumstances made it impossible for them to be together. They were forced apart by her family but wrote love letters to each other for years.

The book of their letters is still popular and studied in some schools. Their story has been the inspiration for many novels, plays, movies, and even a ballet, and their relationship has been referenced in everything from Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to The Sopranos.

What we forget: The important medieval thinker Peter Abelard was rich, pretty famous, and much older than the teenage Héloise when he was hired to be her teacher sometime in the 1100s. Since even medieval celebrities need groupies, he seduced her. But when he inevitably got her pregnant, he sent her away to the French countryside. At some point, they secretly got married, and he sent her off to a convent until things blew over. When the girl's uncle found out about the wedding (and misunderstanding the convent gesture), he sent some thugs to beat up and castrate Abelard. Abelard, by this time probably pretty angry at his wife's family, became a monk. Not content to be the only one in the relationship who was suffering, he forced Héloise to become a nun, something she told him she absolutely did not want to do. Oh, and that romantic correspondence they engaged in? Yeah, some of it includes Abelard detailing the times he raped her and telling the mother of his child that he never really loved her. Romance!

3. Napoleon and Josephine

Why we love it: Just as we fixate on royal couples today, Napoleon and Josephine allow us to escape to an opulent world full of power and passion. Napoleon’s letters to Josephine are so brimming with love and affection that you can imagine they were absolutely devoted to one another. In one he says, “Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Josephine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you?”

What we forget: Josephine was a widow set on finding an important man. She had already seduced many of the most influential French politicians when the rising star Napoleon caught her eye. He seems to have fallen head over heels immediately (except with her name—while everyone else called her Rose, Napoleon decided on Josephine), and they were married. Unfortunately, only a few days later, he had to go off on a military campaign. He wrote his passionate letters from abroad, which Josephine may have read with one of the many men she took as lovers while he was away. When Napoleon found out, he was furious, and embarked on affairs of his own.

One story has it that their marriage almost ended shortly before their joint coronation, when Josephine walked in on Napoleon with another woman. But it was after he impregnated one of his mistresses that he finally divorced her, now knowing that he could in fact produce children and was not reliant on her previous offspring for the succession. Napoleon, who could be very romantic on paper, was far less so when he stated that he wanted to marry a womb.

4. Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour

Why we love it: Considered the greatest love story between a king and his "official mistress" ever, Madame de Pompadour only lost her exalted position when she died at 42, after 19 years with the king. He was so distraught at her death that he didn't take another official mistress for four years. More than half a dozen movies have centered on their relationship, and it is compared to that of Eva and Juan Peron in the musical Evita.

What we forget: Not only was Louis her boyfriend, he was also her landlord, employer, and—oh yeah—her absolute monarch. There was no way this was ever going to be a two-way relationship. She spent virtually every day of those 19 years by Louis's side because if the royal eye wandered, she would find herself out on the street, and possibly broke. This meant partying until all hours with a smile on her face when she was really sick, joining the king on long hunting expeditions that routinely made her ill, and acting like everything was fine when both her only child and father died within days of each other. Also, since she rarely slept with the king due to a painful gynecological condition, she encouraged him to make use of his private brothel, which housed disturbingly young girls.

5. Bonnie and Clyde

Why we love it: Perhaps no criminals are as romanticized as Bonnie and Clyde. We forgive their crimes because they played up their relationship to the camera, and through those historic photos they become real people—real kids in love. Even their violent death rings of Romeo and Juliet: two people whose only choice was live apart or die together. Their relationship has been romanticized in song and movies, most famously in the classic 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

What we forget: Beyond the whole robbing banks and killing people stuff that everyone already knows about, new research shows that Bonnie may have had a mental disorder that made her attracted to seriously violent men. There is a sexual fetish called hybristophilia, or “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome,” and we still see it today in the dozens of admirers that convicted murderers attract. Some even marry them, like Carole Ann Boone did with serial killer Ted Bundy. So the entire romance between the intelligent and vivacious Bonnie and the career-criminal Clyde was down to her disturbing paraphilia.

Not only that, but despite being just 23 when she died, Bonnie had been married for seven years … and not to Clyde. Her husband was in prison and she was still wearing her wedding ring when she died.

This story originally appeared in 2012.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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