Juliette & Mike, New York, NY - married 1957

When I met Mike and Juliette Levinton in 1998 - a Jew from the Bronx and a Sicilian Catholic from Manhattan's lower east side - they had recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, making them the youngest of the long-married couples I had encountered so far.  Both retired, Mike worked as a television programming consultant and Juliette had a career as a corporate librarian.  They live in an apartment in the Chelsea area of Manhattan.  They have two children.

Mike & Juliette were not the first couple I photographed for this project, but they were the first couple I ever interviewed.  After seven years, I returned to record another conversation.  Both visits are reflected in the text that follows.


RF:
Why are you married?

Juliette:
Why?

Mike:
You better take that one.  (Juliette giggles.)

Juliette:
Well, we met in college, went out for a few years, fell in love; he proposed, I said yes… and so we’re married.  That’s why we’re married.

Mike:
And I guess we’re still married… for the sake of the cat.  (They laugh.)  Back at the time, the late 50s, that was the thing to do.

Juliette:
Living together, you didn’t do that.

Mike:
You didn’t hook up temporarily as the kids do now.  You lived together as man and wife.  If there was a great deal of the other kind, it was never publicized; so, as far we were concerned, it’s the only way to do it.  The only thing to do.

Juliette:
Right.

Mike:
Having come from families where marital longevity was the norm—(to Juliette.) I guess it was expected of you, in your house, and it was certainly expected of me, in mine.  It seems to have worked out pretty well.

RF:
Were you looking to be married at the time that you met?

Juliette:
No.

Mike:
No.  I don’t think it was in my mind at all.

Juliette:
Not then.  I was pretty young.  We met in college.

Mike:
And I was just recently, a couple of months, out of the Army.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, with career, with anything.

Juliette:
You know, and seeing other people, and what have you.

RF:
Had you had any serious relationships before meeting?

Juliette:
I did, yeah.

Mike:
I did too.

Juliette:
I had just come off one, a little bit before we met.

Mike:
I had not come off one at that point, because I was kind of out of circulation for a couple of years before then.

Juliette:
Yeah.  In the service.

Mike:
But before that, I did.

Juliette:
So, yeah.  Not right at the beginning.  It was not a matter of love at first sight, gonna get married.  No.

Mike:
I think it’s something that evolved gradually.  It may have evolved pretty quickly, but it was gradually.  We knew we were gonna be married, what, a year and a half before we were married?

Juliette:
Let’s see.  We met in…

Mike:
January.  February.

Juliette:
In college.  What year was that?  Fifty…

Mike:
Five.

Juliette:
‘55, and we got married in December of ’57.  Okay.  So…

Mike:
So I guess maybe halfway through that period.  But not from the beginning, and it wasn’t a last minute, spur of the moment thing either.  It just kinda happened.

Juliette:
Just kinda happened; we like the same things…

Mike:
Me.  (They laugh.)

Juliette:
Yes.  The sense of humor.  We both had a good sense of humor.  His was a little weirder than mine, but that was important.  Sense of humor.


RF:
I guess the thing that intrigues me is your mixed backgrounds.  Mike’s Jewish, and you’re Sicilian Catholic, is that right?

Juliette:
Right.  Funny you should say Sicilian.  Most people say Italian.

RF:
What kind of factor was it in the marriage?

Mike:
I don’t think it was any factor at all.  It was a non-factor.  I certainly never practiced my religion…

RF:
With your families?

Juliette:
Oh, now, you mean family… yeah, well, you know…

Mike:
Well, there was a little resistance on the part of my family, my mother and father, until they met Juliette the first time.  That disappeared.  I had an uncle in Buffalo who, you know, this was unheard of, totally unacceptable; and it was kind of a shame, because I liked that uncle, and he was my father’s only relative in the country.  (To Juliette.)  Your side of the family, I don’t think there was any—

Juliette:
Well, that’s because I was the third marriage, and—

Mike:
Yeah, you were the youngest, patterns had been set.

Juliette:
My oldest sister was the first to get married, and she married a Jewish man; and my older sister—I’m the youngest—she married an Albanian, they’re Muslim.  So, (she laughs) by the time it came to me, they were—

Mike:
They kidded me once, and said that her brother at one point was seeing an Italian girl, and the family didn’t know how to cope.

RF:
As far as between yourselves, though, it made no difference.

Juliette:
No, none whatsoever.


Juliette:
Mike was always supportive of anything that I ever wanted to do, he influenced me to do what I wanted to do, and be all you can be, and so on.  Even early on, when we had children, and I said, geez, one of these days, I’m really gonna go back to work.”  He says, “any time you want.”  Then when I went back to school, and such—

Mike:
Going back to school was another thing.

Juliette:
Yeah.  But you were there to support me on whatever I chose to do.

Mike:
Mm-hmm.  My perception of this is a little bit different, in that, at least after the first few years of our marriage, I had occasion to do a fair amount of travelling.  And by then, we had kids.  I never felt the least bit apprehensive or concerned about anything when I went on the road.  Granted, it was usually never more than for a day or two at a time, but the house was in good hands… back there.  I think, in that regard, you’ve been a settling influence on me.  Even to the point of when we bought this apartment.  I was travelling a lot at that time, and Juliette was going around looking at places.  The east side, the west side… I was away.  You called me and said, “I saw this place…”

Juliette:
Which was this one… after seeing hundreds.

Mike:
Yeah.  And my reaction was…

Juliette:
“Go right ahead.”

Mike:
“If you think it’s the one, go ahead.  Make the commitment for it.”  Which means there must be some—

Juliette:
He trusted me.

Mike:
Yeah.  I was calm about that.  I wasn’t, “oh, geez, I’d better get home and see what this is like,” and “don’t make a move till I get there.”  No, there was none of that.

RF:
It sounds like there were two what might be typically competing role structures.  One in the sense that you’re on the road and she’s keeping the house—in what might be considered a traditional kind of arrangement—and then, on the other hand, there’s the shared sense of equal responsibility and decision-making.

Mike:
Yeah, I think we tended more to complement each other in that regard.

Juliette:
Mm-hmm.  Of course, by that time we were both working.


Juliette:
I’m proud of the fact that, well, in my generation, we raised our kids, you know… you stayed home.  But then when they were getting older and the time had come, I went back to school and got a master’s, and that started a whole new career at age 40.  It was possibly the worst occupation I could have chosen.  I graduated in ’74, when there was a marked downturn in governmental funds for libraries.  They closed them up; I thought I’d go into public libraries.  I had no idea there was such a thing as special libraries.  So that was where I was aiming to get a job.  That was probably very good, because special librarians make a heck of a lot more than public librarians.  And academic librarians.  But through that whole career till I took their buyout, I closed two libraries.  (She pauses, laughs.)  Isn’t that a great achievement?

Mike:
You want to parallel that with being captain of the Titanic.


RF:
Let me ask you a little more about the dynamic of the marriage.

Mike:
It’s not very dynamic. (They laugh.)

Juliette:
We don’t fight.  We don’t fight.

RF:
Did you ever?

Juliette:
Nah.  Not really.

Mike:
We’ve had disagreements, who hasn’t.  We’ve had arguments…

Juliette:
Yeah.

Mike:
…once in a while voices get raised, but nothing physical.

RF:
So when you have disagreements, how do they get worked out?

Mike:
I don’t think there’s any one formula.

Juliette:
(considering) Nnnnnnnnnnnnno.

Mike:
Usually after a while, somebody will -- I won’t say give in, but -- somebody will just stop their end of the thing and go the other way.

Juliette:
And the beginnings are never anything serious.  Never.

Mike:
I would say probably 95% of them don’t have anything to do with… our relationship, but something with one of the kids, or something with the car, the vacation, another relative, something like that.

Juliette:
Yeah.  Right.  But they’re just never… never serious.

Mike:
But I don’t think these things are uncommon.

Juliette:
Also, as you get older, I really think, that you get a little testier.

Mike:
(immediately, mock testy)  I don’t know about that!  (They laugh.)


Juliette:
Mike was always supportive, in more ways than one.  When the kids were little, we were living in Queens.  And neighbors with children, same age as we, we joined a bowling club.  We’d go one afternoon a week, and we’d take the kids with us.  They had a nursery there, and you’d put the kids in the nursery, you’d bowl your couple of games—

Mike:
This was the ladies.

Juliette:
This is just ladies.  Yeah.  With the children.

Mike:
The husbands were off working.

Juliette:
The husbands were off working, during the day.  So we would do that, and really, you looked forward to that when you had two little kids.  At one point, they were both sick.  Both of them.  And I said, “well, I guess I’m not going bowling today.”  And he showed up.  He took a half a day off from work, came home, and he said, “go right ahead.”  And I went bowling.

Mike:
You know something, I don’t even remember that?

Juliette:
Well, that I’ll never forget; and another very nice thing on the same order, is that once I started working—and he travelled a lot.  He really did travel a lot.  I started working and it was a professional position, and then I was allowed to go to my first conference.  So I’d be away for a week.  And it coincided with a trip of Mike’s.  Well, I was not going to leave a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old alone.  He cancelled his trip.  He changed it so that I—do you remember doing that?

Mike:
That I remember.

Juliette:
So I could go on my trip.  So, you know, good symbiosis?  A good symbiotic relationship.

Mike:
I hope that’s the word you were looking for, not parasitic.

Juliette:
No, not parasitic!  (They laugh.)

RF:
Do you feel like your behavior has changed in any way within the marriage?  Do you feel like you were a certain kind of person when you started, and you’ve grown to become a different kind of person?

Mike:
I think most of the changes that have occurred in me, or externally about me, are the natural process and progression of aging and maturing; and many of those things would have happened were I not married, or—

RF:
I’m talking about behavioral things that you’ve consciously made the effort to adjust for the sake of the other person.  Has there been any of that?

Mike:
Well, yes.  (They laugh.)  I can think of a couple that I’ve done.  Number one, I’ve learned to leave the toilet seat down.  I learned that a long time ago.

Juliette:
He never left one up.

Mike:
And I don’t—or at least I haven’t in a long time—left clothes and stuff that I take off lying around on the floor.  The pile of dirty socks in the corner and that sort of thing.

Juliette:
Did you do that before?

Mike:
I must have!  Most everybody does, except for Felix Ungar, you know, people like that, like in The Odd Couple.

Juliette:
I never knew.  I had the feeling you were always pretty neat.

Mike:
Most guys, up to some point, tend to be slobs.  But I think if I got over my slovenliness, it was not so much because you were there… but hey.  At age 20, I may leave stuff lying around, at age 25, I’m not quite so likely to be leaving stuff lying around.  I’m basically the same person, I think, I was then.

Juliette:
Yeah, pretty much…

Mike:
I don’t mean mentally, ‘cause there’s a lot that has slipped there, but…

Juliette:
(Laughing.)  Tell me about it…

Mike:
I would, but you’d—

Juliette:
If you remembered, you would tell me!

Mike:
And then you’d forget right away anyway!  (They laugh.)  Okay, ba-dum-bump.


RF:
How did you define a marriage when you went into it, and has that changed?

Juliette:
When I went into it, had no notion.  Not at twenty-whatever.

RF:
Well, what was your understanding of marriage based on?

Juliette:
Here’s this nice guy you like, you know, you’re getting married, you’re gonna set up your own apartment, you’re leaving home.  That kind of thing.  Then you learn, pretty much, I think, what it is—

Mike:
As you go along.

Juliette:
As you go along.

Mike:
I don’t think I had any preconceptions of what marriage was.

RF:
But you had an image of the institution.

Mike:
Yeah.  It was two people, and they seemed to like each other, at least outwardly—this is my perception of other marriages—some more, some less, than others.  And kids would come along; after all, I knew the mechanics of that, I was a biology major (Juliette laughs).  But I don’t think I thought of long-term either in the sense of “what’s marriage gonna be like?” any more than I thought of, “where do I wanna be five years from now, at work?”  I never did that.

Juliette:
It’s probably different now because they get married a lot later.  You know?  But when you’re getting married and you’re 21, and 23… back then… I don’t know.  It was just a matter of, here was somebody you loved.  And your mother’s married; his mother’s married; my sisters got married…

Mike:
My brother was married…

Juliette:
That’s the thing you do.  You get married.  So that’s what it is, I would say, back then.  In the ‘50s.  You didn’t think it through.  Then it just evolves, it develops.  Then you have children, and then the extended family comes in.  His family, his siblings.  And you’re all getting together, and it’s not just you, and me, it’s my whole family, his whole family, and the perpetuation of that kind of a group.  Marriage includes having everybody, the extended family.  That’s what marriage is.  So you worry about his family… it becomes yours.  That’s what I think it develops into; that it’s an extended small community.

Mike:
If the marriage is basically a good one, there comes a point pretty early on in the marriage where, of course, you’ve stopped thinking of property as his and hers; but you even stop thinking of the relatives…

Juliette:
As his and hers.

Mike:
(Simultaneously.)  …as his and hers.

RF:
Do you have a different definition now of marriage?

Mike:
Yeah… I think so.  I think my definition of marriage is, and has been for quite a while, that it’s an equal partnership.  And everybody involved in that partnership gets involved in all aspects of it.  Just the other day, I was listening to some music from Fiddler on the Roof.  And Tevye’s singing “Tradition.”  In which each member of the family has a specifically-defined role.  The papa does this, the mama does this, the sons do this, the daughters do this, and nobody should step outside of those boundaries.  Of course, during the story, the daughters all do.  But that has never been what I thought marriage to be.

Juliette:
Nor did I ever think that.

Mike:
Even though, in my family, my father was the head of the household.  And I guess your father…

Juliette:
Was head of the household.

Mike:
But that, again, was Tevye’s generation.

Juliette:
Your mother was a professional woman, she went out and she worked.

Mike:
Yeah, but I’m talking about differences of opinion as far as child-raising, as far as where we’re gonna live, as far as anything like that.  My definition of marriage—when I first developed a definition of marriage, which was sometime after I got married, because going in I had no real idea what it was—but it was never the Tevye

RF:
As master of the house, to have the final word at home?

Juliette:
Right.

Mike:
Right.  I’ve tried!  God knows, I’ve tried!  (They laugh.)

RF:
What’s been your observation of the changes in what marriage is and how it’s viewed since the time that you got married?  What’s your opinion of that?

Juliette:
If I go strictly with the marriages of our own children—

RF:
You don’t have to, but you can start there.

Juliette:
Well, all right, I’ll start there… those are equal.  From Day One.  In both cases.  Although I think we started out feeling that way as well.  But I think, as Mike was saying, that the father does this, and the mother stays home and cooks… that is gone, from 50-60 years ago.  It’s just the two working parents; their children, they’re out, they’re both contributing.  So there’s not too much of the woman staying at home and taking care of children and the father… I think that’s changed.

Mike:
That’s probably for the good.

Juliette:
I think it’s for the good.

Mike:
But there’s another aspect of marriage as it exists now, contrasted with what it was when we got married.  There seems to be—and statistics point it out—there is a lot less permanence to marriage.  I question whether a lot of people… I think they all go into marriage with the same optimism that young people always go into marriage with.  But I think that optimism gets tempered very quickly by realism, and so develops into a “well, this will be an arrangement, we’ll try it for a while, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll go our separate ways.”

And that’s disturbing to me, because that’s a lot less importance to the institution of marriage.  And, I think, creates a lot of the problems we have today in families where that situation exists; I think the children tend to suffer, as well as—the adult parents suffer, but certainly the children do.  Happily, or fortunately, this has not been the case with us…

Juliette:
With our parents…

Mike:
With our parents.  And, at this point, with our children.  Give you an example:  my son got married about six years ago.  He was living out in Arizona, and he met his wife-to-be, who, after the children were born, she was back in school to get her degree.  So he tailored his work schedule, and ultimately stopped working completely , so she could finish her school, and then she got a teaching position in another city, so they moved to another city.  He subordinated his career and his work to become a Mr. Mom.

I’m not saying this to give kudos to him; I think if the situation had been reversed, it probably would have happened the other way as well.  So I’m happy that, if there is a weakness in the institution of marriage today, it does not seem to have affected either us, or the marriages of our children.

RF:
Let’s go a little deeper into the pros and cons of the changes as you see them in the institution.

Mike:
Well, the big pro is that there’s more equality now between the partners.  Because women are getting out more and working at the things they want to do.  That’s a plus.  The biggest single minus is the lack of permanence—

Juliette:
The fact that there’s so much divorce.

Mike:
Or the decrease in permanence of marriages.

Juliette:
You know, I haven’t thought about this, but maybe it’s because it’s so much easier to divorce now.  Women don’t feel—because if they can work and support themselves—they don’t feel that you’ve got to stay in a marriage that you don’t love.

Mike:
Also the laws have changed.  It used to be very restricted.

Juliette:
Oh, there were very few reasons.

Mike:
Now there’s no-fault divorce.

Juliette:
That’s right.  It used to be, it had to be adultery, or abuse.

Mike:
Doesn’t have to be adultery, and you don’t have to go to Maryland or Nevada and establish residence there.

Juliette:
So it is easier, I guess that’s part of it.  But also since women can take care of themselves at this point, and can work and make money; whereas back then—

Mike:
Maybe this is just the way things had to happen, and it doesn’t have anything to do with a loosening of moral values, or a degradation of anything like that; just that this is the way society evolves.

RF:
What do you think is being lost, or left behind as a result?

Mike:
I think what’s being lost is the upbringing and the education—

Juliette:
Of the children.

Mike:
—and the mental well-being, as well as the physical well-being, of the children.

Juliette:
Yeah, they have had studies with children—

Mike:
Who have only one parent.  And that parent works.  And that child ends up being a latchkey child.  Or even if that child has a parent who stays home, but is the only parent.  If it’s a father, that kid has lost the female side of his upbringing, and vice-versa if the man has left.  Which is in the majority of cases.  That child, especially if it’s a boy—well, I guess it applies to girls too—need a father figure; and the way the institution of marriage is today, so many of them don’t have that.  That’s a definite bad thing, but maybe that’s the way things are going.

RF:
What about the way that family structure has been redefined?  There are now so many ways that a family is defined in modern society; there are same-sex couples who have kids; either they adopt, or one carries the child through a donor; you have communities that raise their kids, help each other out, even if it’s a community of two families, or whatever it may be.  But the whole notion of what defines a family has gone through a lot of redefinition.  Sometimes to address, maybe, some of the things that you were just bringing up.

Mike:
I’ve got a looser definition of family than, “the Mama, the Papa"… the Tevye definition of family.  The traditional.  My definition of family is much looser than that.  It’s some combination of adult influence on some combination of children.  As long as it can be there for a permanent enough period of time that the child does not feel apprehensive or neglected.  And I have no problem with two ladies raising a child, or two men raising a child, or a donor… if that’s the way it’s working, if that’s the path that—

Juliette:
Whatever works.

Mike:
Yeah.  I think anybody who says, “the only kind of marriage, the only kind of family group that should be permitted to raise children is the mama and the papa.  Even if their roles are different, there’s gotta be one from column A, one from column B.”  I don’t think that’s necessarily so.

RF:
Because it’s in the news right now, I may as well ask—there’s talk of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.  Do you have an opinion on that? 
(Juliette rolls her eyes.)

Mike:
The only opinion I have is I don’t think that’s in the cards.  I don’t think that’s gonna happen.  Personally, I hope it never happens, whether you believe in God or not, I don’t think that’s the business that government should be in.

Juliette:
Hmm.  No, I agree with that.

RF:
It leads back to a question that I’ve taken to asking all of the couples, which is whether marriage is still necessary as a cultural institution?

Juliette:
Well, necessary or not, there’s nothing wrong with it.  So why would you expunge it from the possible… possibilities in life?

Mike:
Well, I don’t think you were talking about outlawing marriage as such.

RF:
No, no, not at all.

Juliette:
You meant the legal would be…

RF:
Yeah, is the legal institution still—

Mike:
I think that that has some value.  I think for very many people who enter into marriage, whether it’s a majority or not—I think many people need that structure.  To fit into, “what is my place in this?”  If marriage suddenly kind of disappears, then what is the nature of this relationship that I’m now getting into?  Is it a slam-dunk, something that’s guaranteed to work?  Is it “I’ll see you tomorrow, and by the way, what’s your name?”  Is it a permanent thing?  I think most people, especially children—but I think adults are nothing more than large children—they need some sort of format.  To say, “hey, here’s where I fit into this.”

Juliette:
And then legally… just the problems that gay couples are having legally.  Inheriting, giving consent for operations, that kind of stuff.

Mike:
That’s a little different thing.

Juliette:
No.  They don’t have the ability to do that, because they’re not legally… so they’re… while the laws are there, there’s one advantage to marriage right off the bat.  You have no difficulty with that sort of thing.

Mike:
Well, following that reasoning, I would add to it that the definition of marriage, in my view, should be enlarged and expanded.  That marriage, and all the benefits and perks and… responsibilities—

Juliette:
Yeah.

Mike:
—that come with it should not be limited just to a union of Man 1 and Woman 1.

Juliette:
Yeah, so, right.  Just what we were saying.  Exactly.  There’s nothing wrong with marriage.

Mike:
But I would broaden the definition of it.  I do think, though, that some of the activists who insist on the word “marriage” as part of the definition of the relationship that they would like—whether it’s a male/male or female/female relationship—that the absolute inclusion of what they are as “married,” I think that’s pushing it a little too far.  As long as whatever you call it gets you the same benefits and opportunities as the traditional kind of marriage.

RF:
Clearly it’s the word that sets off a lot of people.

Juliette:
Yeah, you think that’s it?  It’s the word marriage.

Mike:
It’s the word.

Juliette:
If they used some other expression…

Mike:
Same-sex union, or partnership, or—

RF:
Right.  Whereas, you also—and it’s a legitimate argument—you hear activists saying, “why can’t we use that word?  That’s what it is.”

Mike:
Okay.  This is an argument that would never be resolved, because your faith-based organizations, especially your fundamentalists on both sides of the issue—your extreme Orthodox Jews, and your extreme evangelicals—all have the same thing:  “this is all that you can call marriage.”

Juliette:
Man and woman.

Mike:
Man and woman.  Because that’s what the Bible says.  I think that’s limiting.

Juliette:
It’s not gonna be solved in our lifetime.

Mike:
I don’t think it’s gonna be solved, period.  I think it’s gonna be an ongoing thing.  Unless somebody comes up with some sort of definitive proof that’s accepted by everybody.  That either there is a God, and he created it all; or absolute scientific proof that there is no such God, and everything is just random and evolutionary.  Unless either of those two things happen—and I don’t see either happening—you’re always gonna have people on this side of the argument, and people on that side of the argument.  So I don’t think it’s gonna disappear.  It’s not gonna be in our lifetime.

Juliette:
No, I don’t think so.

Mike:
And I intend to be around for a long time.

RF:
I wonder what your feelings are about growing older, and whether age has informed the marriage in any way?

Mike:
I think there’s more of a sense of urgency to make sure that all the things that we wanted to do for our children is done.

Juliette:
Yeah, we place a lot of emphasis on what we can do, on our grandchildren at this point.  So we have accounts for them for college…

Mike:
There’s more of an urgency on getting things squared away; not for our own demise—make sure that our apartment is neat, and we’re wearing clean underwear when we finally go—but that all the things that we wanted to do for the children and the grandchildren, we’re doing.  And not saying, “well, I can wait a few years and get around to it.”  Especially living in lower Manhattan, after 9/11.  We could see the smoke for all that time.  It’s a little paradoxical… although I spend more time worrying about the children, I spend less time worrying about myself.  It’s like what Charlie Brown used to say.  I wish I could find that comic strip, from Schulz, and put that up.  Charlie is talking to Linus.  And he’s saying, “you know, I used to live life one day at a time.”  He says, “no more.  Now I live life half a day at a time.”

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