Quite possibly, the most ticklish relationship in human history is that between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Naomi and Ruth, from the Bible, are the ideal, not the norm. But the relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law can be ticklish, too. Moses enjoyed a warm, mutually supportive relationship with his father-in-law, Jethro (also called Reuel, confusingly). Other people have a less easy time.
There’s a story about Churchill—there’s always a story about Churchill. He didn’t like his son-in-law Vic Oliver, an entertainer, who was married to the Churchills’ daughter Sarah. One day, Oliver tried to make conversation with his father-in-law. “Which figure in the war do you admire most?” he asked. Churchill said, “Mussolini.” Astonished, Oliver asked, “Why?” Churchill said, “Because he had the courage to have his son-in-law shot.”
That’s a good story. But one thing I don’t like about it is that Count Ciano, for all his faults, was a better man than Mussolini. I’ll return to this family in due course.
President Trump has a remarkable relationship with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, husband to the president’s daughter Ivanka. Trump treats Kushner like a prince, one of his own, another son-lieutenant. He has heaped great governmental responsibility onto the slim shoulders of his son-in-law. Whether this ought to be so is the subject of another essay.
Travel back, now, to the presidential campaign of 1912. William G. McAdoo was campaign manager to Woodrow Wilson. In that same year, McAdoo’s wife died, leaving him with many children. Wilson won, and he then named McAdoo his Treasury secretary. At some point, McAdoo sparked a romance with the president’s youngest daughter, Eleanor. They were married in May 1914, in the Blue Room of the White House.
McAdoo offered to resign his cabinet position, being mindful of propriety, honor, and all. But the president refused: “You were appointed Secretary of the Treasury solely on your merit. No one imagined at the time that the present situation would arise.” Furthermore, “you are now organizing the Federal Reserve Banks and engaged in other matters of vital public interest. Your resignation would be a serious blow.” McAdoo stayed in the job until 1918.
He wanted his father-in-law’s job. And in 1920, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. He was a leading contender in 1924, too. But he fell short each time. In the 1930s, he served a term as senator from California.
We could go on with stories about presidential sons-in-law. A daughter of John Adams married the man who was serving as her father’s secretary in London. During his presidency, Adams made his son-in-law the surveyor of the Port of New York.
Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice—the notorious Alice—married Congressman Nicholas Longworth, who would become speaker of the House. The Trumans’ daughter, Margaret, married a New York Times correspondent, Clifton Daniel. (He would become the paper’s managing editor.)
In December 1968, weeks before his swearing-in as president, Nixon served as father-of-the-bride. His daughter Julie married David Eisenhower, grandson of the former president. The couple had met at the 1956 Republican convention, when the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket was renominated. David and Julie were both eight at the time.
The Eisenhower-Nixon, or Nixon-Eisenhower, wedding was a thoroughly Republican affair. A bipartisan wedding took place in 1992, at Camp David. “Doro” Bush married Robert P. Koch. She was the daughter of the Republican president, George H. W. Bush. Mr. Koch had just resigned his position . . . as a top aide to the Democratic House majority leader, Richard Gephardt. So, it is possible to reach across the aisle and walk down the aisle at the same time.
Enough of boring democratic politics, with their opportunities for lighthearted remarks, and on to dictatorships—which are exciting, bloody, and ghastly.
Edda Mussolini was the dictator’s eldest child, and the apple of his eye. She was the princess of Fascist Italy, and, at age 19, she found her prince: Galeazzo Ciano, the son of Count Costanzo Ciano, a close ally of Mussolini. The younger Ciano was a diplomat and playboy. The wedding between Edda and Galeazzo on April 24, 1930, was the hot social ticket of the entire Fascist era.
In 1936, Mussolini made his son-in-law foreign minister. Ciano was 33 years old. (Robert Kennedy was 35 when his brother made him attorney general.) For a long time, things went smoothly between dictator and foreign minister, father-in-law and son-in-law. They liked each other a lot.
In February 1943, however, Mussolini fired his entire cabinet, including the foreign minister. Ciano had been advocating a separate peace with the Allies; he knew the war was lost. Nonetheless, he retained his position on the Fascist Grand Council. And in July, he voted with the majority that restored powers to the king, effectively dismissing Mussolini. That was trouble.
A few months later, Hitler placed Mussolini at Salò, on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy. There, he was the duce of a rump, puppet government (the “Italian Social Republic”). Count Ciano—young Count Ciano, Edda’s husband—was arrested and sentenced to death, along with other Fascists deemed traitors.
Think of Edda’s position. Her father and her husband were the two people she loved most in the world. She begged her father to spare her husband. How much leeway did Mussolini have, given that Hitler was pulling his strings? That is a subject that is debated even unto this day.
On January 11, 1944, Ciano and the other condemned men were made to sit down on chairs, and then they were tied to those chairs. They were to be shot in the back. This was thought to be a humiliating way to die, fit for traitors. Just before the bullets flew, Ciano swiveled in his chair, to face the shooters. We can say a lot about Galeazzo Ciano, but this was a brave death.
Leave wartime Italy now for the balmy 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 an interesting 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 to Iraq, ruled by the charming Saddam Hussein. He 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 the case in a democratic society. Trump has shown that he can give his aides the chop. It may even happen to Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband. But if Trump and 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.