Alan Simpson: Ms. Anna Sales. This is Alan K. Simpson, in the wilds of Wyoming. Former US Senator.
This is a message I got on my cell phone.
Al: I need to talk to you about an urgent matter. Nothing life threatening at all, I can assure you. But give me a call...
Al Simpson is famous for being the Simpson in Simpson-Bowles, that group that made recommendations about American debt a few years back. I'm a reporter and I was covering politics, but there was no reason for Al Simpson to be calling me on my personal cell phone.
Al: Anyway, give me a buzz at your convenience.
I called him back.
Al: You have my cell.
And then, I was walking up 6th Avenue in Manhattan, talking to former senator Al Simpson about my ex-boyfriend, Arthur. In other words, Senator Al Simpson had called to talk about my love life.
This is Death, Sex and Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
And need to talk about more...
I'm Anna Sale.
Al Simpson was a republican senator from Wyoming for eighteen years. We'd never met. He didn't know me, but he knew about me from a letter.
Arthur: Dear Senator Simpson, we met once, briefly, a few years ago...
AS: This is Arthur.
Arthur: Here goes. The love of my life, Ms. Anna Sale, lives in New York City. We’ve known each other for two years and three months. For most of that time, I was finishing my college PhD at the University of Wyoming.
Our break-up was one of those classic - “I love you... but this isn’t going to work” breakups. Our version was -- We’re in our 30s. I’m a reporter in the city, you study wildlife in Wyoming. This doesn’t have a future. We'd agreed. But then, Arthur changed his mind. I didn't.
Arthur: Things had just gotten too hard and they had gotten too...
That's when Arthur decided to enlist the help of an 82 year-old retired politician. He thought it would make me laugh.
Arthur: I knew Al Simpson as a public figure and like -- you know, the person I imagined was a person who at least there was a decent chance would think that this was funny enough or crazy enough that he would actually do it.
Arthur told Al Simpson all about why we'd split up.
Arthur: This means that Anna and I have mostly dated long distance. I love Wyoming have indulged its pull a little too much. I haven't been able to resist its mountains and people. And so a month ago Anna stopped believing I would ever close the distance to be with her, and she cut me loose. I don’t blame her! I was being a fool and I took her for granted. But now I see, eyes wide open, my mistake.
Al: Sen. Simpson, I’ve poured, this is the one, I’ve poured my heart and soul into Wyoming for six years. I hope you will consider this as a favor for a man who’s risked it all for that place.
Ann Simpson: Senator, would you give Anna a call on my behalf?
That's Ann Simpson, Al's wife of sixty years.
AS: Okay, what did you... when you first read that, what did you think?
Al: No, I thought it was the oddity of the ages, and I looked at it, put it away, and then Ann and I were in Denver and I said I’ve gotta do something with this thing. I think I’ll just toss it. And Ann looked at it and said, worth a try.
Ann: this is just the sweetest letter. And I thought that would be a shame not to call.
Al: With esteem and humility, he ends.
Ann: He seemed very desperate.
They were calling to get me to come to Wyoming for a weekend. Arthur was getting a prize for wildlife research. There was a ball. He was a guest of honor and Arthur knew Al Simpson would be there. I was supposed to be Arthur's plus one, until I told him I wasn't going anymore.
When we talked on the phone that day, Al told me he didn't know much about us, but he did know that all couples have hard times. He and his wife, Ann, certainly have. Ann was there, and I heard her say in the background, “What have you got to lose?” She got on the phone and added, "Don't let your pride get in the way."
So of course, I decided to go. Arthur and I met the Simpsons and talked to them about love and commitment, and then, because it was a ball, we all danced together in our gowns and tuxes to a wedding band playing, "Get Lucky," by Daft Punk.
Then the ball ended and I had a plane to catch the next morning. And I didn't know what to tell Arthur about what would happen next, because it wasn't just the distance that had made it hard for us. I was also really scared of committing to a relationship that wasn't gonna work. I'm divorced. I'm in my 30s, and I want to be a mother. And I was so afraid of making the wrong choice again and losing time. Ann says that that night at the ball, she could tell.
Ann: I saw that there were wounds there.
AS: What'd you see?
Ann: Well, it was a little touchy. You were a little, you know, a little stand-offish. And, uh, thought, well, either it will work or it won't. But at least you were willing to give it a try.
Al: If it cratered, I wouldn't lose a bit of sleep. Not a bit. Not really, I mean that. Because you've done what you can do.
Arthur and I didn't crater. A few weeks after the ball, we got back together. And Al and Ann Simpson are still in our lives. It turns out that even though it was Arthur's desperate plea that got them involved, they ended up helping me. So I asked to come to Cody, Wyoming to talk to the Simpsons some more.
Ann: Come in, come in. We're all ready to have lunch.
The three of us sat at their kitchen table, in the same house that they'd raised their three kids. Al is six and a half feet tall and rail-thin. He peppers his sentences with cuss words while wearing a red monogrammed sweater.
Ann: Now, here's some bread. I just made this this morning.
Ann Simpson is totally glamorous. Her white hair is swept up in an up-do and she re-applies lipstick before she'll let you take her picture. She wears these silver bangle bracelets that jangle as she talks. She's also tough. Al found that out early on, when they were dating.
Al: I got arrested one night, got in a fist fight, got in a fight with a cop, slugged the cop. Ended up in jail, called her. I said I need $300 bail. She said, are you kidding? I’m working my way through school, I don't have $300 bucks bail. Maybe you oughta just stay there -- and I thought Jesus, you know, it would be good if I linked up with her. She could be a helpful ally in this continuing battle for maturity.
That battle? It's gone on and on.
Al:The secret is, you both try to control each other, and you both fail. And it's critical that you both fail. As you try to -- and you do it in the most skilled and manipulative ways.
He learned that lesson on a dance floor, years ago. Al and Ann were at an event...
Al: And she was dancing with a guy I knew was a horny old toad, you know. And I thought … and she loves to dance. So she’s whirling around the floor and giggling and laughing. And so anyway, I got home I said, you know, I want to tell you something, I saw you snuggling up to that horny bastard there, and she said, look, I am not into this to play games. But I’m not going to be under a glass lid just because of your jealousy and I love to dance and I will do that, and I'm not going to jump in the sack with somebody so I think you’d better get over it, which really pissed me off. So I gave her a lecture it was a beautiful thing about life and fealty and love and loyalty and all the rest. I thought, she won't sleep a wink. Ten minutes later I look in, ZZZ-AHHH-ZAAA-AHHH, and absolutely dead butt asleep.
Ann: Guilt free!
Al: Guilt free. and me, I’ve got boulders in my gut down here. I didn't sleep, but I did one important thing. I’d always loved Shakespeare, and I went in and read Othello, how he killed the most beautiful person in his life, Desdemona, choked her. I thought, Jesus, this is one sick son of a bitch. This is not me, this is totally destructive. And has nothing to do with her.
Al Simpson has said, "Shakespeare leads you to the feeling world." And in the Simpson's world, those feelings sometimes unfold in public. Like during the Clarence Thomas hearings in Washington.
Coming up, Ann Simpson says her husband was a bully to Anita Hill.
Ann: I didn't like that. I hated to have the people see a side of him that I didn't feel was who he was.
This is Death, Sex and Money. I'm Anna Sale.
Al and Ann Simpson say they learned to confront things as a couple, like Al's jealousy, by learning how to talk about them. But they didn't do it alone.
Ann: You know, we had the good fortune of getting some outside help when we needed it. Through our church. Uh, we had been married probably 10 years at that time, and it was not a good time for us. Three children, busy life and just a feeling that I needed help. Our minister --
Al: The guy that married us.
Ann: He came to see us, to call on us. And I said -- what a great life I had, as I burst into tears. And he told us...
Al knew the minister was organizing counseling for couples at church, and he wanted no part of it.
Al: And I saw the car roll up, I said, that dip shit is here? I'm not gonna come out, to hell with, I'm not gonna do it. Ann said, well I've done a lot of junk for you, pal, so you can do one for me. And that was really a true statement, I mean, gone to rallies and pie rallies and fish fries and you know, all the stuff that goes with this game. And so, I went.
Ann: And I had things in my past that bothered me and I was able to talk about that. I’d had an experience of being molested. And it was just something that I was always aware of when I had sex. And once I was able to talk about it, it diminished.
Al: She said, I've never told you anything... I guess we'd been married twenty years. Oh, I said, well.
Ann: Not that long. Ten maybe.
Al: Fifteen. Whatever.
Ann: It was my secret.
Al: No, well, anyway, I said, at least turn on the light and she did and she told me this and I said, you think I care about that? That doesn't mean crap to me. She said, you mean that? I said, yeah! What the hell does that have to do with us? Oh, she said, I just never wanted to tell you. I said, well, you can sure scratch it off cause it has nothing to do with my feelings toward you or anything.
Ann: It was a gift.
AS: It must've made you feel so safe.
Ann: It did. I felt safe. That’s exactly right... The hardest thing for all couples to talk about is sex. And it's hard to believe but it is. And the big issues in all marriages that hang it up is your sexual relationship. Whoever is the most aggressive, the other one is in control. You know, we're older so it isn't the issue now that it was when we were young, but it was a big issue. And it is in all marriages.
Al: Well, then when you talk about it, you think, well there's a couple of horny people. No, that’s not the point. it's called intimacy. Scratch my back, give me a hug, just a hug, I’d say, ok, you know. But just a touch, a whack on the fanny in the kitchen, or whatever, whatever. I don't know, when I'm telling those things, make me look like a fine wonderful. And I can be a real horse's ass. I'm stubborn. I'm a bully. I'm a bully. I can get into a relationship -- Ann won't let me pull it off, but, you know, I can --
Ann: It has made me stronger. Being married to a bully.
AS: Were there ever moments, in your husband's public life, where you saw that bullying side come out and felt that you wanted to talk to him about it?
Al: Tell them about that one.
Ann: Yes, that's when he was in the Clarence Thomas thing.
Al: Pissed me off.
Ann: And I said to all the men on that one, I said, you all came across like a bunch of bullies.
Let me give you some background. This was back in 1991. If you remember Clarence Thomas was a nominee for the Supreme Court and an attorney named Anita Hill had told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss. Al Simpson was a Republican on that committee, and he had some questions about Anita Hill’s story, and her motives.
Al, via C-SPAN: “If what you said occurred this man said to you, occurred, why in God’s name, would you ever speak to a man like that, the rest of of your life?
Anita Hill, via C-SPAN: "That’s a very good question…”
While the hearings were happening in DC, Ann was back in Wyoming … caring for her mother, who was very ill.
Ann: And I was not following it moment by moment. And when I finally did. I just couldn’t believe the way Al was operating. And I did tell him, you all sound terrible. You sound like a bunch of male chauvinist pigs.
Al: She’d say I don’t know what you’re doing today, but for god’s sake, you look really nasty.
Ann: You look like a beast.
Al: But don't forget, I’d had a wife, I never said who, a wife and a mother one of whom'd been abused ...
Ann: There are lots of ways to justify it.
Al: one of who'd had much more harassment than Anita Hill. And that's when I lost my marbles. I thought, what is this? I mean, for god's sake, what did he do? Well, nothing. Did he touch you? No. What is it? Well, we watched porn movies together. And he wanted to talk about Long Dong Silver and pubic hair and coke cans. Is that it? Yes, it is. I wanted you to be aware of his behavior. And so I was a monster. I was just pissed to the core.
Al Simpson got called out, and not just by his wife. Editorials across the country blasted him for attacking Anita Hill with rumor and innuendo, for saying things like this during the hearing:
Al, via CSPAN: "I've got letters hanging out my pocket, I've got faxes, I've got statements from her former law professors, statements from people that know her, statements from Tulsa Oklahoma saying, "Watch out for this woman." But nobody's got the guts to say that because it gets all tangled up in this sexual harassment crap."
Ann: You know, he just kept getting more and more worked up. They had lost their balance. And then, one time he was at home and I said, you know, you have a wonderful reputation. The way you’ve always operated. And it seems to me, that you are caught in something and you just need to shut up.
Al: Shut up.
Ann: You said, you've never said that to me before, but I said, well, I am now. There's a time to recognize when you're out of control, and sometimes you have to identify that in the other person.
This is still a tender spot for Al Simpson when it comes up. Some things he’s contrite about. Other things, he won't let go. And Ann’s still disappointed.
It’s not resolved...it’s just past. Stitched into their long relationship together.
But I know that doesn't always happen in a marriage. When I was married and tried to push through feelings of distance and pull us back together, it didn't work.
AS: Was there a moment for either of you where you thought, maybe this -- maybe there's not a way back towards each other?
Ann: Well, I think it isn't that. You just think, maybe somebody else could replace you.
Ann: I guess there were times that I -- you know, you think that divorce maybe is the answer. To start some place else. But you don't get rid of it. And ah, everyone I've ever seen that divorced, that went into another marriage, had learned that it was the same thing and they had better make it work.
AS: So, this is -- this might be too personal, but, has talking about and kind of reaffirming fidelity and monogamy been part of your marriage and you've sort of worked through different phases?
Ann: Well, I don't know that we dealt with that so much because we both went into it believing in monogamy. You know, we're from the era. And our parents.
Ann: You know, divorce had never been a part of any of our lives. It's a different world now. But, you know, I think about it -- I -- I have a big problem with washing my hair. My hair will be just right, you can relate to this, and I think, maybe I should wash my hair. Well, maybe I wait another day, you know, so, I'm in there washing my hair still trying to decide whether to wash my hair. And that's how I was in the beginning about marriage. I'm married and I'm trying to decide if I want to be married. Well I am married! And that's what most people are doing. They're in it, and they haven't committed. And it's easy to do.
AS: Oh, yeah. That's really easy to do. I, um, I don't think you all know this, but before Arthur and I got together I was married and divorced.
Ann: No, I didn't know that. How long were you married?
AS: I was married three and a half years. With my boyfriend throughout my twenties. And we divorced -- we divorced and I met Arthur just a few months after. So Arthur was gonna be my -- my cowboy fling.
Ann: And here you are.
AS: And here I am.
Ann: I think the real key is, you decide to make it work. There are lots of different ways. We had ways, other people have different ways.
Al: It's called sort and prep. But you have to take risks. That's what he did. He took a big risk.
Arthur did take a risk. Confessing his heart ache to a retired U.S. Senator -- it's what got us back together. Not because I got a phone call from a famous person -- that was fun -- but because it showed me what kind of man Arthur is. I didn't want to lose him.
Now, Arthur's mostly in New York and travels for field work when he needs to. We're back in the flow of an everyday relationship, where it's not always about grand gestures, but often the opposite. Knowing when not to say things. That's the last thing Al Simpson wanted me to know. How good he'd gotten at that. When I was at their house in Cody, it smelled like smoke because Ann had left a pot on the stove before they'd gone out the night before. And Al said, when he opened the door and saw all the smoke, he didn't say a thing.
Al: I just started opening the windows --
Ann: Cause I already said, oh for God's sake, I forgot to turn that down. There are times that there's no need to say anything.
Al: No, no need to say a word. I did cough a little, but then I'm ahead. Now she might -- she might say something the next time, where as I didn't this time, she might say, well, for God's sake, Al. I told -- I'll say, ah! Wait a minute! The night that pot of crap nearly blew up out house, I didn't say anything! Remember? I'm back! I won.
Ann: See, see, there's no progress, really. No progress at all.
Al: I hope it comes up soon!
Ann: It's just that we both don't care.
Al: We don't give a shit.
Al and Ann Simpson. They celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next month.
Death Sex and Money is a production of WNYC. Our team includes Emily Botein, James Ramsay, Chris Bannon and Jim Briggs.
Jonathan Menjivar of WBEZ's This American Life produced this episode with us. Thanks to the whole This American Life staff for their support and staff.
Our theme music is by Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis. Other music from Bill Frisell.
Thanks also to Troy Hunt and to Ann Pendley, Al Simpson's secretary, who put Arthur's letter in the red folder when it arrived at the office.
And extra special thanks to Arthur.
Death, Sex and Money is brand new. You can find more episodes at our website, deathsexmoney.org. You can also find us on Facebook.
I’m on twitter @annasale, and if you like this, subscribe to us on iTunes.
In the next episode, husband and wife musicians Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires talk about the challenges of staying connected when they're working on the road.
Amanda Shires: I'm -- sometimes, just ask him or say, have you been talking to any women? Cause you're on your goddamn phone a lot today.
Jason Isbell: We don't ignore it, you know, the fact that there are other people vying for our attention because it's regular. It's a regular thing. I mean, it's almost every day that we say that. Have you been talking to anybody? Got any new boyfriends? You know.
AS: Yeah. Got any new boyfriends? Is anybody interesting you?
I'm Anna Sale. This is Death, Sex and Money from WNYC.