The wedding listings tucked into The New York Times’ Sunday edition usually evoke a smile, with sweet tales of couples enjoying their happily-ever-after moment. Chances are some readers spat out their coffee last Sunday, when they discovered a “Vows” story that explained how two people broke up their respective marriages so they could waltz down the aisle with each other.
Former TV reporter Carol Anne Riddell, 40, and ad exec John Partilla, 42, told their story of how they were part of a buddy-buddy foursome of two married couples with five children between them, but the attraction between them became so strong that they broke up their two families and then got hitched.
The backlash from the off-kilter love story was quick and immediate: The New York Times comment page was filled with generally negative comments; bloggers and commentators went into overdrive dissecting the story, and many asked, “What in the world was the Times thinking?” in seemingly celebrating the dissolution of two marriages for the sake of a new union.
“They got what they wanted — tough luck, kids and mates,” one person posted on the Times website. “It’s all about ‘me’ these days. I wish the unlucky children of these two show-offs a good place to hide and hopefully at least one sane parent and at least one set of loving grandparents who might be able to undo some of the damage.”
A poster on the mediabistro.com website called the story a “disgusting display of selfishness and stupidity on both the couples’ and the New York Times part.”
While Riddell and Partilla have become the most talked-about couple since Prince William and Kate Middleton, Riddell called the backlash “surprising.”
“I think people are focusing on the negative, but there was a lot of positive; we’ve had a lot of people say to us how brave we are to do this,” Riddell told Forbes.com.
“We did this because we just wanted one honest account of how this happened for our sakes and for our kids’ sakes. We are really proud of our family and proud of the way we handled the situation. There was nothing in the story to be ashamed of.”
To be sure, the couple let it all hang out — frankly airing what some consider dirty laundry — in giving the Times an account of their love story.
The article begins: “Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla met in 2006 in a pre-kindergarten classroom. They both had children attending the same Upper West Side school. They also both had spouses. ... The connection was immediate, but platonic. In fact, as they became friends so did their spouses. There were dinners, Christmas parties and even family vacations together.”
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Riddell told the Times it all changed two years later when Partilla invited her out for a drink at a local watering hole, the first time they had gotten together away from their spouses. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” Riddell recalled Partilla as saying. She said she beat a path out of the bar, only to return five minutes later to tell him, “I feel the exact same way.”
Riddell said the pair decided to not have a clandestine affair, instead opting to do the “honorable” thing and separate from their spouses. Their love affair reached its height last month when the pair exchanged vows in a small ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental New York hotel. Then, the pair was surprisingly picked from among a sea of blue-blooded aspirants to tell their love story to the New York Times on its wedding pages. It was actually their second appearance in the section, as both had announced their first marriages in the Times as well.
Perhaps most surprisingly, neither ex was quoted in the story. Riddell told Forbes.com she didn’t know if the reporter covering their love story contacted either, but “I would assume not.” And for its part, the Times isn’t saying.
But the Gray Lady issued a statement to TODAY saying it is not the arbiter of what makes a love story. “The Vows feature gives a close-in account of a wedding every week. Every one is different. We don’t attempt to pass judgment on the suitability of the match, the narrative of the romance, the quality of the ceremony or the flavor of the cake.”
Besides, both the Times and Riddell-Partilla have their defenders. Writing on Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams asked whether sticking to an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage “is for the ultimate best?” And while admitting the story was eyebrow-raising, in an age of oversharing, it might have been “easier to give a public version of events than to repeat it forever to every curious friend,” she wrote.
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A New York Times poster actually applauded the couple: “The world is not perfect and life is far from perfect. Love happens at inconvenient times. I commend the couple for handling this situation with honesty and openness.”
Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford tackled the Riddell-Partilla story on Monday’s fourth hour of TODAY. Kotb expressed concern about whether the write-up in the Times “glorified” the situation, a question Gifford was quick to answer.
“If you’re going to do it, do it,” Gifford said of the couple’s decision to break up their marriages so they could be together. “I guess our big question is why advertise it, why celebrate it, why say “Look at us!’ ”
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