The curious world of the first husbands' club

Joan Collins married for the fifth time on Sunday. But who remembers number one? Matthew Sweet investigates
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The first wife is an agent of righteous retribution. When you think of those painted nails crushing a pair of unmistakably testicular golf balls on the cover of Olivia Goldsmith's departure-lounge classic, The First Wives' Club, or Cheryl Barrymore using a pair of scissors and her husband's tie collection to play out a not-too-sublimated castration fantasy, or Ivana Trump announcing, in a blur of mascara, "Ladies, you have to be strong and independent, and remember, don't get mad, get everything", you hear Valkyries in flight; Furies exacting revenge upon male infidelity and male moral flakiness.

But first husbands? Do you even know their names? Ever heard of Jim Dougherty? Of course not. But he has a flower-bedecked website of his own, from which he sells copies of his illustrated autobiography – and for a $60 supplement, he'll even inscribe it for you. His claim to fame is made through a strangely self-cancelling brag: "I am Marilyn Monroe's first husband," he announces. "Well, actually, she was Norma Jeane Dougherty at that time. (I was never Marilyn Monroe's husband.)" In the words of Mrs Burhan Belge, better known as Zsa Zsa Gabor: "A man in love is incomplete until he is married. Then he is finished."

This week, Joan Collins declaimed her fifth set of wedding vows, this time to Percy Gibson, a Scottish-Peruvian theatre boss three decades her junior. The first man to hear these promises was Maxwell Reed, a matinée idol and minor movie star born in 1919, whose Shaftesbury Avenue name recalls a lost world of Bakelite, police boxes and the Gold Standard. A good time then, as Claridges reverberates with the sound of C-list celebrities popping nuptial champagne, to recollect other men whose spouses have bumped them into obscurity, or who weren't lucky enough to be present to witness their triumphs.

There's no new archetype to be discovered here, however: these men have nothing in common but there primacy. James Sanger, for instance, a department-store owner who was the first Mr Joan Rivers. In some parallel universe, his shelf-space, is home to his wife's line of grotesque branded jewellery. Or Shawn Brown, Erin Brockovich's first husband, who – when the Steven Soderbergh biopic made his former partner a worldwide celebrity – became embroiled in a plot to blackmail her for $300,000. (The attorney who brokered the deal took the rap, when his attempts at extortion were captured on videotape by the FBI.) Or Paul de Feu, the Cosmo centrefold to whom Germaine Greer was hitched for a brief three weeks. "I'm a guy who likes birds," he told Time magazine in 1972. "Normally I'd spend a lot of time, chat and money taking a girl out in the hopes of getting somewhere with her. This way – being a pin-up – I've got to the clothes-off stage with thousands of birds straightaway." (One of the flock was American novelist and playwright, Maya Angelou, whose worldly goods he agreed to share the following year.)

Burhan Belge is the uncanonised patron saint of first husbands. He was once one of Turkey's most celebrated authors and diplomats. Now he is best known as the first line on Zsa Zsa Gabor's compendious marital cv. And that honoured position is marred by one fact: the teenage Zsa Zsa had her first sexual experiences during her marriage to Belge – but they were with the founder of the modern Turkish state and its first president, Kemal Ataturk. So Belge is now simply a bit player in 10 pages of Zsa Zsa Gabor's autobiography, One Lifetime is Not Enough, just before the chapters in which the heroine and her doggies escape the Nazis, and are subsequently imprisoned in the fur-lined sex dungeon of husband number two, Conrad Hilton. (Conrad, you'll probably not recall, was the father of Liz Taylor's first spouse, Nicky Hilton – but Zsa Zsa asserts that she put her fingermarks on him first.)

Is there any moral to be drawn from the lives of these men? Probably not – other than that their status as figures of fun is more eloquent about attitudes to women who make multiple marriages than the men who trot up to the altar by their side. Did Joany gulp down her husbands like oysters? As any follower of her private life and all of her former husbands will know, she is highly allergic to shellfish.