Most Married, but Little Missed
The world’s most married man is now the world’s least mourned.
Glynn “Scotty” Wolfe did one thing in life and did it often. He married. In his 89 years, he married 29 times, setting the world record for monogamous unions. He married teenagers and grandmothers, farm girls and drug addicts, virgins and prostitutes, preachers and thieves, taking and shedding partners as casually as a square dancer.
He married some women for years, others for months, a few for days, and he loved, honored and cherished each one in his own odd way.
Marriage was his life’s work, his mission, his lasting monument. But when he died penniless last month at a Redlands nursing home, the body with the symbolic forearm tattoo of a tied knot went unclaimed. The man whose family tree sent branches and sub-branches in every direction, the man who married more often than Zsa Zsa Gabor, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry VIII combined, the man who made 29 different till-death-do-us-part promises, was singularly alone at the end.
One of his reported 19 children, a son, wanted to bury him. But 33-year-old John Wolfe couldn’t claim the body because he wasn’t next of kin. That complicated designation fell to Linda Essex Wolfe of Indiana, a total stranger to Scotty Wolfe until she was listed beside him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most married woman. At the time, it seemed a logical--if farcical--match. But when Wolfe died, his distant widow said she was indigent and couldn’t afford a funeral, then mysteriously delayed signing papers to release his corpse.
“I just wish they’d hurry up and bury the man,” she said two weeks after Wolfe’s death, speaking from a pay phone somewhere outside Indianapolis.
She got her wish Thursday morning when they finally buried Wolfe here in his hometown on the eastern edge of Riverside County. She skipped the service, however, as did all the other wives and all but one of the children. Delivering a brief, carefully worded eulogy, a local minister seemed acutely aware of his delicate task.
“We gather here today,” said Steven Clark Goad, of Blythe Church of Christ, “to remember the life of Scotty Wolfe. Father . . . husband.” He looked up quickly, offering the few people assembled an apologetic smile.
When the first dirt was thrown onto Wolfe’s donated casket, his wandering marital show closed, without much family or fanfare. But now comes the bleak encore, as wives, children, stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren seek to divorce themselves from their foggy genealogy while grappling with the peculiar legacy of a man who compulsively said “I do” without thinking about what he was doing.
Despite his clownish persona, despite his media status as a folk hero, Wolfe was more than a small-town eccentric. He was a mass “marrier,” a sort of “spouse-iopath,” with real victims left in his wake.
“It’s haunting,” said Constance Ahrons, director of the USC marriage and family therapy program, who views the Scotty Wolfe saga as a squalid little crime story, even if no laws were broken. “Clearly, this was a pathological man.”
Actually, says one anthropologist, this was Early Man redux, an evolutionary throwback unable to quell his primitive craving for endless variety in partners.
“We all have restlessness in long-term relationships,” said Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University professor who authored the critically acclaimed book “Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray.” "[But] from a Darwinian perspective, he overdid it.”
‘Being Married Was the Greatest Thing’
The marrying marathon started in June 1931, when Wolfe was 22. According to his most coherent autobiographical account, published in 1960 by the now defunct Confidential magazine, he met a girl named Helen at a high school mixer near his native Knox County, Indiana, and practically proposed on the spot:
“Everything was lovely. I realized right then and there that being married was the greatest thing in the world.”
Indeed, marriage worked on Wolfe like a potent drug. The bliss, the thrill, the heady vows. But as with any drug, his tolerance quickly increased. Months after marrying Helen, he divorced her and married Marjorie, whom he divorced months later. Next came Margie, followed by her girlfriend Mildred. When Scotty asked an Indiana court to allow him to switch Margie for Mildred, the judge scolded him for turning Middle America into a modern Gomorrah. “He told me if that was the way I wanted to act, I should go to Hollywood,” Wolfe said.
Fine idea, Wolfe thought, moving his bride to Los Angeles, where people appreciated a proclivity for new women. Before long, Mildred was out, replaced by a dancer named Adele, who one year later left him flat. His sixth wife was Mary, a former girlfriend. Guileless, lonely, easily deluded, she was just like all the rest, helpless against the nifty sales pitch Wolfe was perfecting. He needed all the backwoods charm he could muster to make women forget his sordid past--not to mention those pea-sized eyes and that pie-shaped face. His technique was crude, but effective. It worked with all manner of women, though he favored the strikingly beautiful ones. He made them laugh. He gave them money. He fixed their teeth.
“I teach girls how to dress, how to fix their hair, how to cook,” he told Confidential. “If it doesn’t work out--well, that’s the way the pickle squirts.”
When he tired of a wife, or vice versa, the parting was often amicable, the payoff nominal. Most marriages ended in Mexico; many were simply annulled.
“My guess is, he used women and perhaps even abused them,” Ahrons said, sifting through a sheaf of clippings about Wolfe. “They thought he was going to save them in some way, whether get them out of their families and homes or--in earlier years, when he had money--give them the future they didn’t have otherwise. They latched onto him. He was Big Daddy.”
But when Big Daddy yawned and checked his watch, it was time to grab your purse and go. And Wolfe hated long goodbyes.
“When he divorced them,” his son John said, “that was it--they were gone.”
Evia Vie, a 72-year-old nurse from Altadena who gladly, giddily became Wolfe’s 28th bride in 1994, puts it this way: “A lot of the girls, he forgot their names.” Her voice betrays a certain pride, because she ranked with those he always remembered.
Survivors Wrestle With Consequences
Just before World War II, Wolfe earned his pilot’s license and ran guns to Africa. A brave young flier in a smart uniform, he was able to woo and win his second Mary in a row, who became Wife No. 7. They had two children, but the marriage hit a snag when Scotty bought an all-women’s hotel in Hollywood. Suddenly, the obsessive womanizer was playing host to hundreds of potential brides, all peach-cheeked and fresh off the bus. Mary II’s days were numbered.
Peggy Lou was next, a solid four-year marriage, followed by Beverly, whom he met on New Year’s Eve, 1952, and married seven days later. Then came Shirley, an aspiring model who shocked him after the ceremony by announcing: “Now half of everything you own is mine.”
Sherri, a hotel guest from North Dakota, showed early staying power, but she yielded to Kathy, who had a son with Wolfe before returning him to Sherri, whom he married a second time. Sherri’s replacement, Wolfe’s 14th wife, was a woman probably named Paulette, though records are unclear. She also gave Wolfe a son, John. But one week after giving birth, she fled, leaving Wolfe to raise the boy alone.
“I never knew my real mother,” John said, boxing up his father’s papers and meager belongings one day at the Brookside Healthcare Center, where Wolfe spent the last months of his life. “I was raised by No. 11 and No. 13.”
He glances at Vikki, his second wife, who seems half-saddened, half-sickened by the whole bad business. Since Wolfe’s death, John and Vikki have had long discussions about the influence of parents, an influence that can’t be overstated.
“When I met John,” Vikki said, “he wouldn’t let anybody inside. For the longest time, he was just so angry.”
He’s still angry.
“I only found out this week that I have a 60-year-old sister,” he growled, his face reddening beneath its light coating of freckles.
Exactly how many siblings John has, nobody knows. Wolfe talked as though he begat more times than an Old Testament elder, claiming 19 children, 40 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. The true number of descendants may never be known because all except John remained with their mothers, who tended to vanish. Many children presumably don’t know, or don’t want to acknowledge, their connection to so notorious a patriarch.
They were spared, therefore, the humiliation that John endured every day, growing up in Blythe, population 10,835, where folks knew him as the boy with the stepmother assembly line.
“Kids get pretty mean,” he said. “I did not have a good school life. I was kind of left off to the side. Last one picked for games. And still, after everyone was picked, they were arguing that they didn’t want me.”
The playground ridicule and the lurid family life translate into adult hardships. John works the overnight shift at the local Burger King, earning $5.10 an hour, with no health benefits. He never finished college, never learned to write a letter, doesn’t own a car. His wife, a housekeeper at the local Motel 6, draws stares and whispers when she visits the beauty parlor because of her infamous father-in-law.
Then, the final indignity. Due to an argument just before his death, Wolfe cut John out of his will, leaving his few remaining dollars to the owner of a local print shop where he liked to photocopy his marriage certificates and divorce decrees. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, John was the only one who stood by his father. But the law recognizes one stranger as Wolfe’s heir, another as his next of kin.
“I wanted the Partridge Family, I wanted the Brady Bunch,” John said. “I was always worried I’d be a number.”
A Costly Round of Divorces
Marriage can be exhausting. Also expensive. By his 16th divorce, Wolfe was worn out and broke. Alimony had depleted the half-million dollars he had earned at various jobs. (Besides flying and keeping a hotel, he had been a barber, a manicurist, a radio preacher, an insurance agent and an ordained Baptist minister.) In 1966, a newspaper reported that Wolfe couldn’t pay $170 for his 17th divorce. Then, in 1967, his 18th wife testified in court that he couldn’t consummate their marriage.
“I just can’t understand what the point was,” the judge grumbled.
“I can’t either,” she replied.
If Wolfe was slowing down, the women he met were wising up. His patter was proving consistently less successful in the feminist era. So he tried something new. Wife No. 27 was a Filipino teenager named Daisy, whom he imported and married shortly before his 80th birthday. They were together six years before he turned her out on the streets.
“He just gave me $100,” said Daisy, 26, now remarried and living in nearby Ehrenberg. “I sacrificed myself. I served him like a wife. I did whatever he wanted me to do.”
Citizenship was her sole incentive. She wanted to stay in the U.S., and believed that marriage to Wolfe was the only way. Asked how she felt when she heard her ex-husband was dead, she hesitated briefly. “I don’t want to be mean,” she said. “But I feel nothing. Nothing.”
Often, John recalled, people begged Wolfe to stop. Think of the damage you’re causing, they said. But Wolfe raged against such remarks, defending his inalienable right to marry as other men defend their right to bear arms. Newspapers, magazines and TV talk shows didn’t help matters. They encouraged his sense of marital entitlement, greeting each wedding with winks of approval. Long after his libido became irrelevant, the thrill of publicity sustained Wolfe.
In fact, some think fame was always the point. Mike Presley, the funeral director at Blythe’s Frye Chapel, says Wolfe wanted nothing so much as notoriety.
“I don’t think it was sex and lust, like everyone thinks,” Presley said. “I think he was going for some type of mark. He wanted to be somebody in this lifetime.”
“It was the starlight,” said Paul Brisco, Wolfe’s beneficiary, who served as official photographer at one of Wolfe’s last weddings. “He wanted to cause a ruckus. Whether people thought good or bad of him, as long as it was some sort of publicity, he loved it.”
More than just famous, he wanted to be genetically immortal, says Fisher, the anthropologist:
“If you were to dig up this man and interview him and say, ‘Why did you marry all these women,’ he’d never tell you, ‘I wanted variety in my genetic lineage.’ He’d never say that. He’d say, ‘I loved women, and they bored me after so many months, and I felt a tremendous drive to find another.’ ”
He often said just that.
“I married to find out the real ways of life, the whys and the hows,” he wrote in a rambling 1984 poem, which he inexplicably had notarized. “I found out. I married them all to find out all and I found out.”
The bruising disappointment of divorce never daunted him. Marriage was his career, divorce an occupational hazard. He was like a man driving an old, beat-up car, and divorces were like dents and scrapes in the paint. After a dozen or so, what difference did another make?
“One has heartaches, heartbreaks, broken homes and your dreams come tumbling down,” he wrote. But then: “Another woman comes and bobs up from across the land, sea and foam. She wants to come and try. She has nerve, trust, faith, and wants to take a dare.”
If fame and marriage were heaven, bachelorhood was hell. Nothing tormented him like being alone. In later years, when he was alone virtually all the time, he suffered panic attacks in the middle of the night, strangling on his solitude. It was a cruelly ironic fate for a man who had discarded so many faithful companions.
At the end, his mind began to spin out of control. He hatched wild plans, telling the nursing home workers he would wed Princess Diana. He would fly to Washington and chat about women with President Clinton. He would--finally--meet Miss Right.
To the last, he kept a wedding dress hanging in his closet. Just in case.