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My second wife and revising history

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Meeting my second wife and divorce from my first wife
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I moved to Mexico in 1949, which was an extremely important move for me, as research chemist for Syntex, a very small pharmaceutical company, and I’ll probably get back to that later, because that’s where, even though I was only there for two years initially, two of the most important things that I’d done essentially within a year and a half, occurred- the first synthesis of cortisone from a plant raw material, and the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive. But the last year before we moved, for the first time that I had an extra marital affair, and again I’m confessing nothing here that any person can read between the lines in my autobiography, or in fact it doesn’t take much imagination if you just read- well, not if you read "Who's Who", because there it doesn’t give the correct data, but if you calculate the birth of my daughter and my marriage- my divorce date and my marriage date, you will find there is something that doesn’t match- the marriage date to my second wife. It was an affair- this was not a trivial- it was not a one night stand, it was not a trivial extra marital affair and I dare say that I probably thought at that time that I had truly fallen in love with a second woman, without really having fallen out of love with the first one who was an extremely kind of very nice woman, I mean, really just a princess of a person. But, you know, these things do happen and it wasn’t that I was philandering and looking for someone. I had met my second wife, Norma, at a party where- at a social gathering, where my first wife was not present. I’ve forgotten why now. We just happened to be dinner partners and hit if off as it were. Well, the ironic thing is that she got pregnant, ironic that it should happen with me. It isn’t that we didn’t practice birth control. We actually used the condom, but I suspect that what happened at that time the condom sort of slipped or something. Anyway, she got pregnant and you remember what it was like at the time for a woman to become pregnant, out of wedlock, a woman who was very much a professional woman. She was six years older than I, so she was in her early thirties, and did not expect of course to be pregnant. She was working and literally- abortion was illegal and I don’t even know whether she considered an abortion, but it was totally illegal. She lived on the East Coast- at that time, she was in New York and I was in New Jersey. Her home was in Boston. It was not a Catholic family, but it was a very traditional WASP, New England WASPish family, and she literally felt she had to leave her home and go to another place to be quite anonymous- not that I mean starving, I don’t mean that, but in a place where no-one would know her and she would give birth to the bastard child. She didn’t call it that of course, but that is what illegitimacy was, this is within my lifetime if you think about this. I mean, it was really the question of shame, of everything else. But it is ironic, which I learned only later, that that had happened to her mother earlier at some stage. She- I felt very bad about this, needless to say. But I was already in Mexico and I did come back to the United States, every once in a while professinally and we saw each other. But I then really felt- and I have to probably say it was that- it was noblesse oblige rather than anything else, that I’d have to marry her. Now, that was not horrible, it was not a shotgun marriage, because I thought I was also in love with her, so there was a difference, but I felt awful about what it would do to my first wife whom I had to confront with this in Mexico and say, you know, I want to get a divorce because I want to marry another woman who is going to bear a child of mine. And my first wife that could have been an absolute bitch and she could have been outraged and so on- and I could have understood this, was really understanding. And she said, okay, so much so that we got the same divorce lawyer. Now in Mexico at that time you could get divorced in one day in the state of Morelos, so we decided to do just this one day Mexican divorce which sometimes rich people from the United States had in Mexico. We were living in Mexico, so that was perfectly legal. There was nothing monkey business about it, and secondly it was a mutually consenting divorce. It was not something that would be questioned afterwards. And we literally got divorced in one day and I remember driving with a lawyer from Mexico City to Cuernavaca and having lunch first, and as we sat at lunch, he looked at us and said, you know, it’s none of my business, but are you sure you want to get divorced? You see to be so simpatico. This was of course in Spanish. And we said, yeah, unfortunately, so we got divorced. And a week later I flew to the United States and got married just in time. My wife had a child three weeks later. But it was legitimate on the birth certificate. I was listed as father, although why is my daughter born in Hartford, Connecticut, when my wife was really otherwise in New York, and I in Mexico City? And it was Hartford, Connecticut, because that is the place where she knew someone had gone there to have a child as a single mother, which of course she didn’t. And then came to Mexico City when my daughter was maybe a month, or two months old. So then we were married there.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Mexico, Mexico City, Hartford, Connecticut, United States, Syntex, New York, New Jersey, Who's Who

Duration: 6 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008