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Investigation: How Midge Maisel and Philip Roth’s wedding ended before the altar

What would the courtship of the prickly novelist and the comedian yield?

Philip Roth’s relationships with women were, in a word, complicated (if you need specifics, read his ex’s memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House or another ex’s roman a clef, Asymmetry). But you don’t hear too much about his romance with Midge Maisel, one, because she’s fictional, and, two, because he just wasn’t funny enough to satisfy her.

In season 5, episode 6,  of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which dropped Thursday, the titular comedian is seen calling off her wedding to the celebrated novelist in a flash-forward to 1973. 

It’s not a love connection, Midge explains to her manager, Susie, adding, rather anachronistically, that there are “so many bad vibes” in her luxe nuptials. The guest list is too much, but, so too is the fact that Philip “has no sense of humor.” (Really, her main objection is that he isn’t her ex, Joel.)

“She needs someone to laugh with, Philip, and you just don’t make her laugh,” Susie says, 10 minutes before the wedding, when she calls to break the news to Roth. “Yes, I’ve read Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s very funny, you just don’t make her laugh at the breakfast table, that’s the bottom line.”

Well, it’s not the bottom line for us, who are left wondering exactly how these two came together — and what they could possibly have in common. Here are some guesses.

The first meeting

It’s possible that these two met at a sort of Hollywood or New York society party; maybe it was a radical chic shindig at the Bernsteins. More than likely, another celebrity made the shidduch — maybe Ann Landers or James Baldwin. We appreciate creator Daniel Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino’s restraint at not doing more name-dropping by way of explanation.

The first date

I’m feeling lunch for these two, given that Midge works at night. Roth was known to visit Barney Greengrass as well as an unnamed Italian restaurant in the West 40s, an Indian place on Broadway and Nice-Matin on the Upper West Side. But it’s also possible he took her out around Connecticut, where he kept a farmhouse since the early 1970s. 

Then again, one has the feeling that Midge would take the lead here, picking a restaurant where she knows the chef or slumming it spectacularly at Gray’s Papaya. In this reality, perhaps Roth would later write of a funny woman who “wore Dior and massacred mustard packets.” (It’s no “eat green salad and drink human blood,” but that’s probably for the best.)

The sex

Midge says he was a great lover — there are conflicting accounts.

The engagement

It’s hard to imagine Midge had time enough to give her full attention to Roth, but, having just come off his extremely unhappy first marriage (he claimed his first wife stole someone’s urine to convince him she was pregnant), it’s possible he saw in Midge something a bit less precarious. Is she his type? Roth had a complex relationship with strong Jewish women, but maybe at this point in his life that’s what he felt he needed. And so, he proposed one day, rather shabbily, at Katz’s. (Midge said no until they could find a more upscale venue for him to pop the question.)

That guest list

Mentioned on the 700-person guest list are Norman Mailer (a lovely man, says Abe) and maybe, among Midge’s four exes, Joel Grey. One imagines that Saul Bellow was there and probably the surviving Marx Brothers. When the wedding is called off, and Roth is jilted, I think it might inspire a scene from a 1983 novel, let’s call it Castration, where Nathan Zuckerman sneaks off to a sideroom and does something unspeakable to a Jordan almond.  

Would Midge be a fan of Roth? Would Roth like Midge?

The Sherman-Palladinos are so charmed with Midge that they seem convinced that everyone would be. And yet, it’s hard to imagine Roth being a huge fan. He certainly had dalliances with performers — but they were Mia Farrow, Ava Gardner and his second wife Claire Bloom, not, at least to my knowledge, Joan Rivers. Would Roth be eager to wait in the wings and hear Midge’s shtick? I find it doubtful. 

Meanwhile, for all her subversive qualities, it is, indeed, hard to imagine Midge, as a Jewish mom, finding Portnoy’s Complaint funny without certain reservations about its unflattering portrayal of the main character’s mother. Reservations she wouldn’t hesitate to deploy against her lover.

Midge was right to call the wedding off, both for reasons of love and compatibility. The two would stay on good terms, each leveraging the experience through their art. 

When Roth died in 2018, Maisel was quoted in a tribute, saying “Philip was a generation-defining talent. He was so gifted he could be forgiven his hairline.”

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