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The Role of Admiration in Affairs With the Rich and Famous

Mimi Alford's Admiration for President Kennedy

“He [President Kennedy] was just magnetic” and “unbelievably handsome.” Mimi Alford

“I never expected to fall in love with the President. I was surprised that I did.” Monica Lewinsky

“When I met my husband I adored him, as he had the sense of humor of Woody Allen (though, unfortunately, he looked like him as well).” A married woman

“I who have nothing, I, I who have no one, adore you, and want you so.” Tom Jones

“If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.” Katharine Hepburn

”Power is the great aphrodisiac.” Henry Kissinger

Many lovers express their admiration for their beloved. When we admire someone, it becomes easier to be sexually attracted to and to fall in love with them, and this is particularly true when the object of our admiration is someone who is powerful, famous, or rich. The risk in this case is that we may feel inferior to them and they might feel superior to us; such a relationship will lack the reciprocity that is so crucial to love. Admiration is thus a two-edge sword. I will begin my analysis of admiration in romantic love by examining Mimi Alford's admiration for President Kennedy, which resulted in a romantic affair.

Mimi Alford and President Kennedy

Powerful politicians attract the admiration of many women. Indeed many political leaders have had very rich sexual life outside of their marriages. Some well-known examples are those of Napoleon, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, François Mitterrand, Bill Clinton, and Silvio Berlusconi. Indeed, a survey of hundreds of Italian women indicates that two-thirds found greater sexual satisfaction from "powerful men in socially respected positions"; bosses are perceived to be better in bed.

Admiration in general, and romantic admiration in particular, is generally regarded as positive, since unlike envy it involves a positive attitude toward the good fortune of others. However, admiration, like love itself, can be harmful (see here). In the political realm, for example, admiration can enable dictators to behave as they wish without being subject to moral norms or public criticism.

Admiration can also be harmful in the romantic realm, when it can lead (mainly young) people to act in ways that they would not normally do. This is what happened in the case of Mimi Alford who greatly admired her boss, President John F. Kennedy, and had an affair with him when she was just 19 and he was 45. Alford found him "just magnetic” and “unbelievably handsome.”

President Kennedy took her virginity in his wife’s bed just four days after she began to work at the White House. Alford’s account of her first sexual experience with the president has raised questions about whether she was raped. Alford denies that accusation, claiming: “I have never felt that it was rape” since “I was willing.” This willingness was a direct result of the powerful sense of admiration she felt toward the president; otherwise, she is unlikely to have been so "willing". Alford claims that she felt powerless as John F Kennedy took advantage of her. She says that she was overpowered, not “physically as in the sense that somebody grabbed me and made me do something that I wasn't really willing to do”; rather, she was “overpowered in the sense that he was the president.” She has said that “I don’t like to use the word abuse, but the experience had a traumatic effect on me.”

Under the influence of her admiration for Kennedy, Alford later agreed to his request to perform oral sex on his close aide Dave Powers, while Kennedy watched them. She says now that “I’m ashamed to say that I did [comply with his request].” However, some time later, when the president asked her “to take care” of his young brother Teddy in the same manner, she refused—which indicates her distaste for what she had agreed to do with Powers.

The inferior-superior relationship that arises from the imbalance endemic in such admiration is also evident in the fact that they never kissed the lips, and she always called him ‘Mr. President,' even when they were in bed together.

During her affair with the president, she continued a loving relationship with her college sweetheart, Tony Fahnestock, and they became engaged. After Kennedy's assassination they got married but divorced after 26 years as both of them “were never able to evolve” while she kept silent about her relationship with Kennedy. Although Alford says that she does not regret the affair, it did cause unhappy ramifications that have haunted her for much of her adult life.

Marilyn Monroe's affair with President Kennedy exhibited similar signs of his behavior as the superior in a relationship founded upon admiration. She once complained to a friend that Kennedy’s love-making was always very brief and hurried. (The friend replied that since he had to run the country, he probably had no time for foreplay.)

Admiration and idealization

Admiration is an emotion consisting of enchanted approval, liking, and wonder. In loving relationships, idealization is an activity, consisting mainly of focusing on the positive aspects of the person and intensifying these while ignoring (or at least giving little weight to) the negative aspects. The activity of idealization is typically part of the emotion of admiration, but not necessarily vice versa.

Admiration typically involves perceiving someone to be above me in a certain sense, while idealization is typically seeing a person above his “objective” state. I can idealize a person and consider him to be above what he really is, but still not consider him to be above me. If on a wisdom scale from 1 to 10, the status of someone is generally considered to be 3, and I idealize him as 5, I would not admire him.

Admiration is related to romantic love, as both involve idealization. Idealization is typically understood as “improving” the facts in a way so that they appear rosier. Accordingly, idealization is associated with positive illusions (see here). Admiration is different in that it is generally more trustworthy or "objective". It is typically not associated with a cognitive distortion of the facts but with rendering a greater evaluative weight to the person in question. One can admire without having positive illusions, but in idealizations positive illusions are central.

Admiration and idealization do not merely comprise a cognitive belief in the great value of the other, but also our approval of this situation. In this sense, both are different from envy, which also involves a belief in the superiority of the other, but is associated with a negative attitude toward it. It is interesting to note that whereas the scholarly literature on envy is vast, there are very limited studies on admiration. This probably expresses the greater prevalence and impact of envy.

Overall and specific admiration

Romantic admiration is perceived to be central in love, as it facilitates pleasurable togetherness. However, when we admire someone, it can place us in an inferior position and this might be painful and harmful. If indeed love involves a close and equal relationship, how can admiration, which involves a distance caused by the inferior-superior relationship, be so central in romantic love? The distinction between overall and specific admiration is crucial for dealing with this apparent paradox.

My admiration for someone may be overall in the sense that I view this person as generally superior to me. Specific admiration can refer to merely a few aspects in which my beloved is above me. In this case, the overall value might be equal. A lover can admire her partner’s wisdom or sense of humor, but still assume that his overall value is equal or even inferior to hers. Accordingly, we may speak about “downward admiration”—we admire a particular aspect of a person (e.g., his physical strength), but we still consider him to be inferior overall (when taking into account the more significant aspect of, for example, his integrity).

Sometimes admiration can be ambiguous in the sense of not being detailed. Thus, we can generally admire a person for being wonderful, without needing to isolate which of her specific characteristics make us consider her to be wonderful. Here, the evaluation is based upon a general impression with no significant comparative concern about whether she is superior, equal, or inferior to us.

Admiration and contempt

The opposite of admiration is contempt. Whereas in admiration the other person is evaluated as superior to us, in contempt, which is often associated with disgust, he is evaluated as inferior to us. In both emotions, the focus is on the object and its comparative value.

As in the case of admiration, we can also distinguish between overall and specific contempt. Contempt can refer to a specific aspect, such as the person’s meanness about money or need to be the center of attention, even though the person as a whole is not considered to be inferior overall. In addition, Ian Miller speaks about “upward contempt,” which refers to the contempt that people who occupy a conventionally lower social role harbor toward someone in a higher social role. Examples include the contempt that teenagers have for adults, servants for masters, workers for bosses, and the uneducated for the educated.

The importance of admiration for long-term romantic relationships is shown in the fact that contempt is, according to John Gottman, one of the most significant signs predicting divorce. Contempt forces the partner to become defensive, as it implies that the partner is to blame for being the cause of the problem.

Basking in reflected glory

Admiration is mainly pleasant since we consider the other’s good qualities to enhance our self-esteem. In this attitude, which has been characterized as basking in reflected glory, we feel that we share in the glory of a successful person with whom we are associated. This is true even if we have done nothing to bring about the other's success—our only association might be that we were somehow close to the admired person. When admiration is part of romantic love, the distance in status can be compensated for by psychological closeness.

Being in love with someone we admire gives us the good feeling that in being close to such a person, we share her virtues. We love to admire, be admired, and be in the company of those we admire.

When does the beloved’s superiority bother us? It does so when the superiority of the other is relevant to our self-esteem and can be revised. In these circumstances, envy is more likely to emerge.

Take, for example, the real case of Samantha, a lawyer who married another lawyer who was at a similar age, experience and professional status. Their comparative professional achievements were central in their relationship and every deed of either generated the competitive concern. They did not bask in the reflected glory of the other’s success, but rather saw that success as pouring salt on open wounds. After a few years and two children, Samantha left her husband because the constant competition between them had prevented her from admiring and desiring him. She told him that she was leaving him in order not to cheat on him. A few years later she married a musician who was 9 years younger than she and who passionately loved. She adores the young musician not in the sense that she considers him to be superior to her overall, but in the sense that he has certain traits that excite her.

Positive admiration requires some differences, such as differences in age, background, personality or occupation. In such circumstances, it is easier to adore the other as comparisons are less palpable and consequently one’s self-image is less vulnerable.

Admiration and love

Admiration obviously exists in infatuation, where everything is perceived to be outstanding. But is it part of romantic love after the infatuation stage has passed?

I have claimed that the complex experience of romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness— that is, an attraction to external appearance, and (b) praiseworthiness—that is, positively appraising personal characteristics. Falling and staying in love requires the presence of both patterns.

In infatuation, where the element of attraction is of greater weight, the overall admiration spills over from the attraction toward other characteristics. When the two people get to know each other, such a spillover is less typical as greater information makes idealization harder. After the stage of infatuation, when more specific information is available, admiration for personal characteristics is more robust. This time there will be a spillover from the pattern of praiseworthiness (which is more detailed now) to the pattern of attraction (which usually decreases with greater familiarity).

It is obvious that we can admire people without romantically loving them. However, I believe that love always involves some kind of admiration but not necessarily the type in which overall admiration causes the lover to feel inferior. In romantic love, admiration is usually directed at specific aspects while the overall comparison is that of equality. The lover may give greater weight to those aspects in which the beloved is superior, but the overall comparison usually does not make her inferior.

Admiration is less exclusive than romantic love, as it is a more distant and less involved emotion. Thus, Ashley, a married woman, says that she greatly admires her children, her husband, and her two lovers.

Admiration and sex

The lack of any type of admiration whatsoever is an obstacle to enjoying sex. But one can enjoy sex without feeling overall admiration for one's partner.

In the short term, inequities in romantic relationships might give rise to great admiration and hence may increase love and sexual desire. Thus, people who can provide us with social status, such as the rich, the famous, and the powerful, will generate more intense sexual satisfaction. In the long term, however, significant inequities become problematic. For example, the "higher status" person might begin to show a lack of reciprocity, which will eventually damage the "lower status" person’s love and sexual desire.

People may enjoy sex with a person they regard as an overall inferior; they may admire specific traits concerning, for instance, his attraction or age, but feel superior when considering his overall personality and status. A stupid person may be sexually attractive because of his age or external appearance. However, in general sexual satisfaction is greater when it is part of a loving experience involving admiration.

Admiration and age

There is evidence for age differences in emotional intensity: younger people are more emotionally intense. Being more mature typically means being able to take more perspectives, and especially intellectual ones, which decrease emotional intensity. Moreover, as people grow older there are fewer events they consider as a novel and significant change, which is crucial for generating intense emotions. It seems, however, that in old age people may again become very emotional, since they are more vulnerable and they increasingly interpret events as being relevant to their own death.

Romantic love and admiration are similar in this regard. Admiration at a young age, and perhaps more so with young women, may turn into infatuation and the wish to be close to the admired person. The other direction is true as well: love generates admiration and idealization. With greater familiarity, that admiration may pass. As Vivian said: “I know already at the infatuation stage that admiration will disappear and that I am living in a dream.” It may be the case that if admiration precedes love, it has a greater chance of surviving longer.

After infatuation, mature love is less passionate and admiration is less intense. One reason may be disappointing past experiences. Consider the real case of Flora. When she was married and had a married lover, she described her attitude toward the lover as follows: “I adore, love and desire this man to the extreme. The universe has never seen a greater love.” After she divorced her husband and separated from her lover, she had a different attitude: “I am not sure anymore about the whole concept of romantic love and admiration. I doubt whether they exist in their ideal form. I don't think I could admire any man anymore; I could like him as a friend or for some qualities, but admiration is such a big word.” Indeed, once infatuation disappears, admiration may disappear as well or at least turn from an overall admiration to a specific one. However, infatuation can occur in old age, too, as admiration is not connected to age but to the presence of intense love.


Admiration that generates love for a powerful person is quite common, but it can be harmful as is illustrated in Mimi Alford's relationship with President Kennedy. This does not stop powerful older politicians and young attractive women from pursuing such love affairs. Romantic love is closely associated with admiration, but this admiration does not have to be one of overall admiration, which makes one of the lovers feel inferior to the other. Admiration can exist in relationships between people of all ages, but it is stronger when love is more intense.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I adore, respect and love you, but please do not consider me to be inferior.”