Nicholas Foulkes: The limited shelf life of the trophy wife

Not since Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell has the tragic plight of a woman required a heart of stone to suppress a fit of the giggles. But, in 21st- rather than 19th-century London, the woman in question is not the granddaughter of a curiosity shop proprietor, but Lisa Tchenguiz, who is said to be in line for the world's biggest divorce payout. She is seeking a £100m settlement from food and drink tycoon Vivian Imerman.

The bleak picture that Ms Tchenguiz paints of the superannuated trophy wife is about as grim as anything that Munch ever laid down on canvas. She tells of divorced women left so short of cash by their former husbands that, when lunching with girlfriends, they are reduced to paying the whole bill at lunch on their credit cards and taking the cash off their lunch companions to tide themselves over. How do they manage? What happens if two such divorced women have lunch with each other?

It is a very London definition of poverty. Like Venice at the beginning of the 15th century, London is a fabled Land of Cockaigne, a city of limitless wealth. A city where the streets are clogged with Bentleys and Ferraris; a city where your house on Eaton Square is not really considered fit for human habitation unless you have tunnelled underneath it to install a swimming pool and cinema.

It is the centre of the world: the place where the rich come to have fun, to spend fortunes that have been made in other parts of the planet and where, increasingly, they get divorced. For the past few years, London has been the proud bearer of the title divorce capital of the world. And reports of yet another high-profile marriage hitting the rocks have become a part of the city's news diet.

Of course, the break-up of a marriage is a sad thing. Unless one is extremely cynical it is hard to imagine embarking on the matrimonial state in the expectation of failure. But equally, the attractive power of money cannot be ignored. There is a brilliant and probably apocryphal riposte offered by a trophy wife: when told that her husband was a little on the short side, she answered: "Not when he is standing on his wallet." It is easy to poke envious fun at the rich, but riches are relative, and if you are reading this you probably lead a life of comfort beyond the dreams of the inhabitants of Sirte or Misrata Yet, if we are honest, which of us would not like £100m?

It is hard not to think that some rich men view a wife much as the rest of us might see a car: a product with a lifespan, after which it becomes more trouble than it's worth, in need of updating. What was once a source of pride is a source of embarrassment. I dare say it is hard to resist peer pressure when all your friends are chopping in their wives for a new model, to show off to friends and to provide a new set of offspring.

Ms Tchenguiz describes getting divorced as a full-time job and so is staying married, if you happen to be a trophy wife. Tycoons may dangle a tempting "package" in front of a prospective employee-spouse. But the job has a shelf life. In return for unlimited Hermès handbags, there is the pressure to look great and happy, while all the time fearing losing the the lot. It's not unlike many people's experience of their workplace, except that most severance packages are not quite as generous as the one Ms Tchenguiz is seeking.

Nicholas Foulkes is the author of 'Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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