Stalin, it will shock you to know, was not a good father-in-law. His daughter, Svetlana, had three or four husbands — it depends on how you count. Before she married any of them, she was in love with a boy named Sergo: a prince of the Kremlin, the son of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s monstrous enforcer. Sergo was no boy, actually: He was a married man. Svetlana tried to upend that marriage. But she did not succeed.
A university classmate of hers, Grigory Morozov, proposed to her. He was Jewish. Stalin was opposed to the marriage. But he acceded, on one condition: Morozov was never to set foot in Stalin’s house. He didn’t. Indeed, Stalin never met his son-in-law.
After three years of marriage, Svetlana and Grigory divorced. Then Svetlana married someone more suitable, from a Stalin point of view — a prince of the Kremlin, in fact: Yuri Zhdanov, the son of the late Andrei Zhdanov, who had been Stalin’s designated successor, apparently. Anyway, this marriage lasted for two years.
Svetlana would have one or two more marriages. (One of them was never formalized, as Premier Kosygin forbade it.) These are highly, highly interesting. (You can read about them in my Children of Monsters.) But Stalin wasn’t around for either of those.
‐Travel, now, to the steamy Caribbean, where François “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled Haiti. As Mussolini loved his eldest child, Edda, Duvalier loved his, Marie-Denise. Other men loved her too, after a fashion. She was a sexy number in Port-au-Prince, and she had her share of men. One day, she laid eyes on a captain in her father’s palace guard — all 6 foot 7 of him. His name was Max Dominique, and he had a wife and children. He ditched them for Marie-Denise. As a kind of wedding present, Duvalier promoted his new son-in-law to colonel.
But later something strange happened: Duvalier suspected Dominique of plotting against him, along with a group of junior officers, Dominique’s friends. This was nonsense — these guys were all fanatical Duvalierists — but the dictator could not be talked out of his paranoia. He would have the junior officers executed, and in a certain way. In a scene of heart-pounding drama, he ordered Dominique and other senior men to shoot their juniors — 19 of them. They obeyed.
One of the dead was Major Harry Tassy, who had made the mistake of turning down Duvalier’s youngest daughter, Simone. She was in love with him; he refused to marry her. She aborted the child they had conceived.
On this day, Max Dominique was executioner, not executed. But Duvalier immediately regretted not killing him. He decided, in fact, that he would. Marie-Denise swung into action, pleading with her father to spare him. He relented. He decided to send Max into exile, along with Marie-Denise, and Simone for good measure. The plane took off for Spain.
As it was rising, Duvalier gave a signal, whereupon his men killed Dominique’s chauffeur and two bodyguards. Then he had Dominique’s father arrested. The poor man eventually died from abuse.
There is more to this charming story, but we are moving over to …
‐… Syria, ruled by the charming Hafez Assad. Mussolini loved Edda. Papa Doc loved Marie-Denise. And Assad loved his eldest child, his daughter Bushra. She was the princess of her country: the most eligible young woman in Syria. And she chose someone rather surprising: an army officer named Assef Shawkat.
Why do I say “surprising”? Well, he was a middling officer, not a bigshot. He was from an ordinary family. He was ten years older than Bushra. He had a wife and five children. And he was a womanizer.
And Bushra wanted him.
Her father did not, and neither did her eldest brother, Bassel, who was being groomed to succeed their father. Bassel had Shawkat jailed several times to keep him from seeing Bushra. And yet Shawkat persisted, and so did Bushra.
In 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. (The dictator’s next son, Bashar, was called from London where he was practicing eye surgery, to be groomed for the dictatorship.) In 1995, Bushra and Shawkat eloped.
Hafez Assad accepted this son-in-law, however reluctantly — Assad loved Bushra so much, she could get away with anything — and he gave Shawkat jobs to go with his new standing. Along with his brothers-in-law, Shawkat would be at the top of the Syrian military and intelligence chain.
But Shawkat had problems, a big one being his youngest brother-in-law, Maher, a hothead. Indeed, a possible psychopath. During a family argument, Maher whipped out a gun and shot Shawkat. Shawkat survived, and eventually reached a modus vivendi with Maher.
Jump forward to the Syrian war. Forces opposing the dictatorship attacked the National Security Bureau in Damascus, killing Shawkat and maiming Maher.
An amazing family, the Assads.
‐But not as amazing as the family of Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq. Saddam had three daughters, two of whom married brothers. These men were Saddam’s cousins as well. Saddam loved them, to the extent he was capable of love. He especially loved one of them, whom he put in charge of Iraq’s WMD program.
Saddam Hussein had two sons of his own, as you may remember: Uday and Qusay, “those scamps,” as Senator McCain once called them. They were jealous of their brothers-in-law. They constantly schemed against them, and vice versa. Saddam liked it. He fostered palace intrigue. He wanted different factions to compete for his favor. It helped keep him on top, and others off balance.
In the summer of 1995, Uday and Qusay had the upper hand. In fact, the sons-in-law thought that Uday could kill them with impunity. (Uday was by far the more violent of Saddam’s two violent sons.) So, they made a run for it. With their wives and children, they ran to Jordan, where they were given the protection of King Hussein.
Quickly, Saddam dispatched agents to kill them. The plan was thwarted. In Washington, President Clinton vowed to protect Jordan from any retaliation by Saddam.
Six months later, Saddam dangled a pardon in front of the boys. They could return home, with no penalty. It seems that Saddam’s wife — the boys’ mother-in-law — traveled to Jordan to issue a personal guarantee. So, the families headed back to Iraq.
On arrival in Baghdad, the boys were ushered into Saddam’s office. He forced them to sign papers divorcing their wives. Then he ripped the epaulets from their uniforms — and told them to go to their father’s villa.
There was a hell of a shootout. It went on for hours. The sons-in-law’s camp, in the villa, shot it out with Saddam’s camp, i.e., government forces. In the end, of course, everyone in the villa was dead.
So, Saddam’s two daughters were in Edda Mussolini’s position. They loved their father — revered their father — and they had loved their husbands. Spare a thought for their children, too. What could be more destructive to a child? In the 1990s, the Cianos’ son Fabrizio — the third Count Ciano — wrote a book. It had the hard-to-beat title of “When Grandpa Had Dad Shot.”
‐The Trump White House is known as colorful, and so it is. But it is downright bland compared with many a dictatorship, as should be in the case in a democratic society. As I said before, we can argue about whether Jared Kushner should hold the position — or is it positions? — that he does. Jacob T. Levy, a professor of political theory, wrote an article titled “A Government of Laws, Not Son-in-Laws.” (He says, “Yes, I know it’s ‘sons-in-law’” — but sometimes you make sacrifices when titling.)
President Trump has shown that he can give his aides the chop. It may even happen to Jared, however much the president loves Ivanka. But if President Trump and Jared Kushner live out their White House years together, it will go down as one of the most unusual relationships between father-in-law and son-in-law in history. Touching, even.
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