These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society

D.G. Hewitt - December 22, 2018

While for millennia, men of power and great wealth have been taking female lovers many years their junior without a fuss, older women having younger men as partners has long been the source of scandal. Indeed, even the ancient Greeks and Romans were shocked by the idea of an older woman with sexual agency – so much so that it became the plot line of one of the most infamous plays of all time.

Such double standards have continued well into the 21st century. Indeed, even today, a woman stepping out with a man several years -if not several decades – her junior is likely to raise eyebrows, especially in comparison to how it would be if the roles were reversed. However, plenty of the most notable females in history have been happy to shun convention and seek love – or just sexual fulfillment – in the arms of younger men. Sometimes they were so powerful that they were immune from criticism. Though in some cases, they were happy to flaunt sexual convention and gender norms. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the idea of a sexually-liberated and confident ‘cougar’ definitely didn’t start with Samantha in Sex and the City or even with Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, for that matter.

So, from queens to actresses and from writers to empresses, here we have 17 of the greatest ‘cougars’ of all time:

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
The ancient and tragic story of Phaedra set the tone for the ‘older seductress’ trope. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Phaedra set the tone for how older, seductive women have been portrayed for millennia.

Quite when the play of Phaedra was first performed is not known. However, one of the two versions Euripides wrote back in the 5th century has survived to this day. It tells the tale of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, the mythical king and founder of Athens. She falls passionately in love with Hippolytus. Not only is he a young man a generation younger than Phaedra, but he’s the son of her husband, born to another woman. Despite her best efforts at seducing him, Hippolytus rejects the older women’s advances. Scorned, she plots her revenge.

According to one version, she wrote her husband a letter, falsely claiming Hippolytus had raped her. He then has his own son cursed and killed. Ashamed and wracked with guilt, Phaedra then commits suicide. This ancient tale of the ‘older woman’ has been re-told countless times over the centuries. Ancient writers such as Ovid and Seneca the Younger used it as a plot. It’s also been the inspiration for operas, pop songs, poetry and modern novels and re-imagined plays. None, however, has had the impact of the original.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Potiphar’s attempted seduction of young Joseph was another early criticism of older, sexual women. Wikimedia Commons.

16. The Wife of Potiphar and her attempted seduction of her younger slave has inspired artists and writers for centuries

The idea of an older, sensual woman seducing a younger, innocent man has been around for centuries. Indeed, one of the most colorful stories of the Old Testament concerns just this. What’s more, the tale of the wife of Potiphar has inspired countless artists and writers. Though she was never even given a name, for hundreds of years she has been held up as the ultimate example of the predatory ‘cougar’ and, according to some scholars, the biblical story even helped shape how sexually-confident older women were seen in the past – and, indeed, how they are still seen.

Potiphar was, according to the Book of Genesis, the captain of the Egyptian palace guard. When Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he was purchased by Potiphar. That’s how he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife. Though considerably older than her new slave boy, she attempts to seduce him. When Joseph turns down her advances, she accuses him of rape. Joseph is thrown into prison – though some Biblical scholars note that, since he wasn’t executed, Potiphar probably didn’t believe his wife. It’s while he’s a prisoner that the Pharaoh learns of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Catherine the Great had a healthy sexual appetite, and her younger lovers struggled to keep up. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Empress Catherine the Great of Russia had dozens of lovers during her colourful life, and her last great love was four decades her junior

Tales of Catherine the Great’s colorful sex life have been hugely exaggerated over the years. Above all, her political opponents would spread gossip and rumor, painting her as an immoral nymphomaniac, and many of these tales are still told to this day. That said, however, there’s no denying that Catherine was a strong, independent woman who knew what she wanted, including in the bedroom. According to most estimates, the Empress had 22 lovers over the course of her life, many of them much younger than herself. In fact, her last lover, Count Zubov, was a massive 40 years her junior.

By the standards of the day, it was certainly not uncommon for a monarch to have several lovers. However, Catherine scandalized large parts of Russian society since she took lovers like a male ruler would. Even though she aged herself, she liked her men to be in their 20s. But she didn’t just use them as young playthings. Catherine treated her many lovers well, rewarding them with palaces, high military ranks and cash. Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that by the 1780s, her male favorites were more court companions than bed buddies.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Victoria of Prussia found love with Alexander Zoubkoff, despite the age gap. Pinterest.

14. Princess Viktoria of Prussia had been a widow for ten years when she met a handsome young Russian refugee who stole her heart – and more besides

As a young lady growing up in the Prussian Court in the 1870s, Princess Viktoria had hoped to wed the handsome and dashing Prince Alexander of Battenberg. Not only were her parents, the Emperor Frederick III and the Princess Royal, keen on the union, Viktoria was besotted with her suitor. However, the marriage plans were soon called off for political reasons. Instead, she married Prince Adolf in 1890. They were together for 26 years, until Adolf’s death. Viktoria remained single for a full decade, until she met Alexander Zuobkoff, a Russian refugee 35 years her junior.

Zubokoff described himself as a dancer, however accurate this might have been. What was certain, however, is that he was a chancer and wasted no opportunity to squander his older wife’s wealth. Within a couple of years, Viktoria was on the verge of bankruptcy. She was forced to move out of her palace and into a small flat in Bonn. Many of her possessions were also put up for auction. Unsurprisingly, she wanted a divorce, even revealing that “conjugal relations did not exist” in her unhappy marriage. Before she could get her divorce, she died suddenly at the age of 63, still married to a man young enough to be her son.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Anne Hathaway was older, wiser and richer than the Bard when the two wed. YouTube.

13. Anne Hathaway took William Shakespeare for her husband, even though he was younger than her and a struggling writer

She may have been married to the man many consider to be the greatest writer in the history of the English language, but very little is actually known of Anne Hathaway. But that hasn’t stopped scholars trying to get a fuller picture of Mrs Shakespeare. What is certainly known is that she was older than the Bard. Indeed, when the married in 1582, he was still a youth of 18, while she was a 26-year-old woman. Since Hathaway was pregnant when they married, it’s often argued that Shakespeare was pressured into taking her as a wife by her family.

Other historians of the Bard, however, argue that, far from being forced into a ‘shotgun’ wedding, it’s more likely that Shakespeare would have been the one pursuing the older woman. After all, at that time, the Shakespeare family were struggling financially, while the Hathaways were doing well for themselves. Whatever the reason for their getting married, they stayed wed until Shakespeare’s death in 1616. They had three children together, though for much of their marriage, the playwright lived in London while his older wife stayed in Stratford. Despite the age difference, Hathaway outlived her husband by seven years.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Lily Langtree retained her lust for life – and young men – even as she aged. National Portrait Gallery.

12. Lillie Langtry shocked London society as a young lady, and then took a much-younger man to be her partner in later life

As a young woman, Lillie Langtry was the toast of London. She was the ultimate socialite, famed for her great beauty and lively personality. It was said that Langtry’s affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg led to her social downfall. Up until then, she had been feted by high society, including aristocracy and royalty. However, when she not only slept with the Prince of Wales’ cousin but also had his baby, the English elite turned their back on her. Undeterred, Langtry took Oscar Wilde’s advice and tried her luck on the stage. She was an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic.

After she divorced her husband in 1897, Langtry had a number of millionaire lovers. Then she met the 28-year-old Hugo Gerald de Bathe. Even though she was 47-years-old, the pair married in a low-key ceremony. They moved to Monte Carlo where they lived happy, but separate lives, only occasionally seeing one other. Langtry died in 1929 at the age of 75. In death, as in life, she remained the subject of much media interest and speculation, not least relating to her colorful and controversial love life.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Mary I of England was already in her 30s when she found a husband. Wikipedia.

11. Mary I of England needed a husband to cement her grip on power, and found one in the younger Prince Philip of Spain

The daughter of Henry VIII, Mary was 37-year-old when she finally ascended to the throne. What’s more, she was unmarried and childless. So, one of Mary’s first acts as England’s first queen regnant was to seek out a husband – and she found the ideal candidate in a dashing young Spanish prince around a full decade her junior. Arrangements were made between the courts of England and Spain and in 1553, Mary and Philip were wed. The marriage was met by protests across England. Far from being concerned about the age gap, many were concerned that England would become a secondary power, controlled by the Habsburgs.

In the end, however, Mary and Phillip just didn’t get on. Phillip spoke no English, so they were forced to converse in basic Spanish and a mix of Latin and French. Before long, they weren’t even speaking to one another. Phillip hardly visited his older wife, preferring to stay in his native land. More importantly, the union remained childless. So, when Mary died in 1558 at the age of just 42, the throne did indeed pass on to Elizabeth I. Just as Mary had feared, the new Queen devoted much of her energy to ridding England and Ireland of Catholicism.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Anais Nin was never one to follow convention, either in her writing or in her love life. Salon.

10. Anais Nin was decades ahead of her time in her attitude towards intimate relations, and ended up committing bigamy with a much-younger man

Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell, better known by her penname Anaïs Nin, was the original bohemian. She was open about her bisexuality and took a string of lovers. During the 1930s, she lived with fellow writer Henry Miller in Paris. Her journals from the time are erotically-charged and confessional and still shocking today. For Nin, age was just a number, and she had numerous younger lovers, both younger and older. What’s more, she even got married to a man 16 years her junior – despite the fact she was already married!

Nin met Rupert Pole when she was on her way to a party in downtown New York City in 1947. She was 44 at the time, and he was a 28-year-old former actor. They hit it off straight away, despite the age difference. Together, they went to California and, in 1955, the two got married. This was despite the fact that, by that point, Nin had been married to Hugh Parker Guiler for more than 20 years. For the next few years, she juggled two husbands, keeping one in New York and her younger partner in California.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Mrs Disraeli was richer and older – the perfect match for a future leader. Telegraph.

9. Mary Anne Disraeli was older than future British Prime Minister Benjamin – but she was richer too, which made her even more attractive to him

When British politician Benjamin Disraeli met Mary Anne Lewis in the late-1830s, it was hardly love at first sight. He was an up-and-coming star of the Conservative Party, tipped to be Prime Minister one day. She was a widow, 12 years his senior. What’s more, she was outspoken and, by the standards of the time, often uncouth. However, she was also rich, with a substantial annual income. Disraeli sensed an opportunity and he proposed marriage, a union that would be beneficial to both parties. They wed in 1839 and only then did they start falling in love.

In later life, Mary Anne would state: “Dizzy married me for my money. But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” Indeed, as the years passed, Disraeli became increasingly dependent on his older wife. She would help him with his various writing projects, including speeches to Parliament and the history books he liked to write. She was also extremely loyal, as was he to her, including when he finally became Prime Minister. The pair remained devoted to one another right to the end. By 1872, Mary Anne was still accompanying Disraeli on political tours, despite the fact that she was dying of cancer.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Diane de Poitiers was originally the tutor of young Prince Henry before becoming his lover. YouTube.

8. Diane de Poitiers was a woman of 38 when she first slept with the 18-year-old Prince Henry of England

Back in the 16th century, Diane de Poitiers was widely regarded as being among the most beautiful women in all of Europe. Not only was she exceptionally good looking, she also possessed a sharp mind. Small wonder, then, that 12-year-old Prince Henry, the son and heir of the King of France, fell hard for her. She had been employed as the prince’s personal tutor, tasked with teaching him ancient and modern languages as well as social manners. But six years later, their relationship became sexual. The prince was 18 when they first slept together; Diane was 38.

When she was just 15, Diane de Poitiers was married to a man 39 years her senior. When he died, she was free to spend even more time with her young lover – who, by that point had become King of France. They didn’t even try and keep their relationship secret, even though King Henry II was married to Catherine de Medici. Everyone in the royal court knew the monarch wasn’t interested in his wife. Indeed, it was said that Diane had to tell him he needed to sleep with her, if only to produce a legitimate heir.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Isadora Duncan shocked both Communist and capitalist society by marrying a young Russian. Wikimedia Commons.

7. Isadora Duncan scandalized the arts world on both sides of the Atlantic, and then she shocked Russia too when she married a Communist poet 18 years her junior

At the very start of the 20th century, the American dancer Isadora Duncan took the arts world by storm. Her unique style was a huge shock to audiences in New York and London, and, while she had many admirers, many ballet fans believed she was bringing the art-form into disrepute. And it wasn’t just her dancing that scandalized polite society on both sides of the Atlantic. Duncan was not only a vocal atheist, she was also openly bisexual and took a string of both male and female lovers, many of them much younger than herself.

In her diary, Duncan wrote how she spotted a young Italian man on the street and, without knowing his name, propositioned him. Still grieving from the accidental death of her two young children, she begged him to sleep with her and help her have a third child. While she did indeed get pregnant from the encounter, the infant died soon after the birth. After that, she embraced Communism and moved to Moscow. Here, she married Sergei Yesenin in 1922. An acclaimed poet, he was 18 years her junior. They split and Yessenin killed himself soon afterwards.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Author George Eliot died married to a man 20 years her junior. Irish Times.

6. George Eliot died married to a man 20 years younger than her and theirs was the ultimate rebound relationship

For more than 20 years, Mary Anne Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot, was in a happy and loving relationship with the philosopher George Henry Lewes. Theirs was a relationship of equals, and Lewes supported Eliot as she became one of England’s finest writers. The only problem was, Lewes was already married, albeit in an open marriage. From 1854, they lived together, and Eliot even called herself Mrs Lewes. But they couldn’t get properly wed. That’s why, when Lewes died in 1878, Eliot needed expert legal help to inherit his money. She turned to John Cross, 20 years her junior.

Before long, Eliot had agreed to marry Cross. Despite the sizable age difference, her family approved of the union, especially her brothers who had been vehemently opposed to her ‘immoral’ relationship with Lewes. However, it was far from a happy marriage. Famously, on their honeymoon in Venice, Cross threw himself out of their hotel room window and into the Grand Canal. He survived, though never revealed what led him to attempt suicide just days after getting wed. In all, Eliot’s marriage to Cross lasted just seven months, up until her death in December of 1880.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Elizabeth Woodville was regarded as the most beautiful woman in all of Britain, even in her 40s. Wikipedia.

5. Elizabeth Woodville was considered England’s great beauty back in the 15th century, so little wonder the young King Edward IV fell for her

That King Edward IV of England wanted a wife was only half-surprising. The monarch, who came to the throne in March 1461, was a notorious womanizer. He had a string of lovers, most notably Jane Shore. But he needed a queen and an heir. However, his choice of wife was nevertheless shocking to many in the royal court. He married Elizabeth Woodville in May of 1464. She was five years his senior and had already been married. However, that union to Sir John Grey of Groby ended with his death in battle, so she was free to marry again.

Despite her ‘advanced years’, Elizabeth was still widely considered “the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain”. What’s more, she was a wily political operator. She used the marriage to ensure the progression of her two sons from her first marriage. The rest of her family also benefited financially from the union. Unsurprisingly, she made many powerful enemies. And so, when King Edward VI died suddenly in April 1483 and her son Edward V imprisoned after the briefest of reigns, Elizabeth was forced to seek sanctuary in an abbey for the rest of her life.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
The Prince of Wales would end up dumping his older lover by letter and then disowning her. Pinterest.

4. Maria Fitzherbert married the younger Prince of Wales in secret, but he dumped her in order to ascend to the throne of England

Maria Anne Fitzherbert was already a widow when she caught the attention of George, the Prince of Wales and heir to the English throne, in the spring of 1784. She was six years his senior, and a lot more worldly-wise. After all, she had already been wed to a man 16 years older than her, while he had led a sheltered and pampered life. Nevertheless, the Prince of Wales was smitten. He pursued the older woman relentlessly and before long had proposed marriage. But the age difference was just one obstacle standing in the way of a happy ending.

As heir, George needed the approval of his father, King George III, and of the Privy Council, before he could marry. He had neither. What’s more, Maria Fitzherbert was a Catholic, which meant if they were to be wed, the young man would be barred from taking the crown. Regardless, the couple married in secret in December 1785. Just nine years later, however, the union was over. George ended it by letter, choosing to marry his cousin for practical rather than romantic reasons. He disowned his older first wife, who was left to live in exile by the sea for the rest of her life.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Cleopatra famously used men as playthings and political tools, however old they were. Pinterest.

3. Cleopatra didn’t regard age an obstacle when it came to love or sex, she only did what she needed to do to win power

The ‘Queen of the Nile’ was no cliched cougar. Rather, she was an astute political operator, ready to take lovers and husbands in order to tighten her grip on power. So, while she wed Julius Caesar, despite the fact that he was, according to most accounts, 32 years her senior, she also married her younger brother for reasons of power. Age was just a number to Cleopatra and love, romantic feelings or any sense of physical attraction very much secondary considerations for her – as indeed they were to most ancient royals.

Cleopatra’s willingness to use sex and marriage to further her own interests is best displayed in her relationship with Ptolemy XIII. He was her younger brother and nowhere near as experienced or cunning as she. Nevertheless, she not only married him and took him as a co-ruler for a while (in title at least, if not in practice) but she then had him murdered by poison as soon as she gave birth to her son with Julius Caesar. In the end, however, it was her marriage to Mark Anthony, every bit her equal, that was to be Cleopatra’s last, and most tragic love.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Mae West found lasting lover with a dancer 30 years younger than her. BBC.

2. Mae West was famous for her frank sexual talk, but she was tamed by a handsome dancer 30 years younger than her

She may not have been the original Hollywood siren, but Mae West was certainly the most outspoken and outrageous. Born in New York in 1893, she only made the first of her 12 films at the age of 40. However, she became a legend, partly due to her vibrant personality and tell-all approach to love and sex. Over the course of her life, she took a string of lovers, both famous – including Cary Grant, whose early career she nurtured – and not-so-famous and had a particular fondness for younger men.

In the end, however, West fell for a beefy wrestler called Paul Novak. The pair met when he was working in the chorus line, touring American in one of West’s Las Vegas-inspired acts. Despite being almost 30 years her junior, they became inseparable. Indeed, they were still together when West died in 1980 at the ripe old age of 87. It was Novak who insisted that the Hollywood icon be given an open casket funeral – according to her younger lover, even in death she looked a good 20 years younger than her real age.

These ‘Cougars’ from History Shocked Society
Churchill’s mother was a real cougar, and took numerous lovers in London. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Lady Randolph Churchill was not only mother to Winston, she was also a socialite and promiscuous lover in her own right

Now best-remembered for being the mother of British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in her time, Lady Randolph Churchill was one of the brightest stars on the London social scene. The death of Sir Randolph after 20 years of marriage freed her to live life to the fullest, including in the bedroom. It was said that the Prince of Wales took a shine to her and he became one of her 200 lovers. Most notably, soon after her husband’s death, she embarked on a passionate affair with George Cornwalis-West, an army officer who was just 26 days older than her own son, Winston.

The two married, but the union was doomed from the start, and they were divorced in 1914. In 1918, Lady Randolph married again. This time her husband, a diplomat called Montagu Phippen Porch was three years younger than Winston. Unsurprisingly, the union caused quite a scandal in London society. As she recalled in later life: “My second marriage was romantic but not successful; my third marriage was successful but not romantic.” She remained wed to Phippen Porch until she died at the age of 67.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Winston Churchill’s American mother.” Daily Telegraph, January 2008.

“On this day in 1927: Isabella Duncan was killed in a car accident.”

“Anne Hathaway: Wife of Shakespeare.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“Anaïs Nin: Many words, many lovers and a host of lies.” Chicago Tribune, October 1993.

“George Eliot’s brief marriage got off to a really, really bad start.” The Washington Post, May 2016.

“Mae West: Remembering Hollywood’s wittiest sex goddess.” The Telegraph, April 2016.

“The Scandalous – But Fascinating – History of Cougars.” Huffington Post, September 2016.

“The Victorian Era Was the Age of Cougars.” Jezebel, December 2012.

“Diamond locket given to George VI’s true love Maria Fitzherbert expected to fetch £120,000 at auction.” The Telegraph, May 2017