A few years ago, my Aunt Esther, the family historian, finally told me about a rumor that had fluttered around the edges of my family when I was a small child. It had been whispered at the time that my grandfather, a tall, exuberant, turn-of-the-century Russian immigrant who'd succeeded as a traveling salesman "had women" on his business trips. Nearly 60 years after the fact, a small thrill of scandalized shock went through me as I belatedly heard this news.
Of course, growing up in that now-lost world of the 1950s Bronx, it had been absolutely inconceivable that anybody in my family or anybody I knew or ever would know would ever be unfaithful. After all, even the idea that any of the adults I knew had sex with their spouses was unthinkable!
In those days, everybody assumed that normal, God-fearing, clean-living Americans didn't do adultery, no matter what that pervert Alfred Kinsey said (his groundbreaking studies, undertaken in the '40s and '50s, indicated that 36 percent of husbands and 25 percent of wives reported being unfaithful at some point in their marriages). If famous or eminent people had affairs, by and large nobody knew about it. Nobody knew that FDR had had a "mistress," as did Ike, and JFK's many now-notorious liaisons were carried on completely below the radar screen.
When did it all change? When did infidelity start to become as American as apple pie? Was it during the '60s and '70s, when, as an adjunct to the "sexual…