In her essay “Yellowstone Park,” collected in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy describes a friend:
In school she had the name of being fast, which was based partly on her clothes and partly on the direct stare of her reddish-brown eyes, very wide open and rounded by the thick lenses of her glasses so that the whites had the look of boiled eggs. She made me think of a college widow.
Now, there’s a term you don’t hear anymore! The “college widow”! Once a byword for a predatory vamp, the college widow is an extinct American species.
I’ve read various definitions of the college-widow meme, which appears regularly in books and films from the first half of the twentieth century, and was de rigueur in any discussion of campus life. In some cases, these characters were portrayed as literal widows—young women who’d known the marriage bed and were hungry for young collegiate flesh. But more often, the term seems to have applied to a townie—or grad; at any rate, a woman hanging around—who dated men in successive senior classes, and were subsequently “widowed” with each passing graduation. In Slang and Sociability, Connie Eble defines her as “a girl whom new men meet from year to year but whom no one ever marries.”
In the Marx Brothers classic Horse Feathers—many a modern viewer’s only exposure to the trope—the college widow is just sort of there, without explanation. (But then, it is a Marx Brothers movie.) Horse Feathers was in fact a parody of the play (and subsequent 1927 film) The College Widow, about a college president’s daughter—played by Drew Barrymore’s grandmother, Dolores Costello—who seduces rival schools’ football stars at her father’s behest. It’s as creepy as it sounds.
The excellent blog Paper Pop has this to say on the subject:
Filmmakers had to assure us that our heroes were healthy, red-blooded American men, who would never resort to all that Brideshead Revisited stuff that was rumored to go on at many an all-male campus. Obviously in the 1910s–1940s (the heyday of this trope), prostitution couldn’t be depicted on screen, so our protagonists couldn’t get their kicks that way. Once the Hays Code came into effect, adulterers must be punished. And for a hero to seduce an unmarried young woman would be caddish. So the college widow served as an effective outlet for all of our heroes’ wants and needs (and those of the writer): it proved the protagonist was straight, sexually desirous and desirable, and yet still a gentleman. Of course, the trope began to be played for laughs even more often than it was played straight, in movies like Horse Feathers. With the rise of co-education and the fall of the production code, the college widow found herself expelled from campus in favor of flirtatious co-eds.
Put in this way, the college widow’s death seems a mercy. Especially when one considers the lyrics to the popular prewar ditty “Mimi the College Widow”:
Pride of the university
Mimi the college widow
She taught the boys anatomy.
Mimi the college widow,
To know her is to love her, it’s sure.
She laid the cornerstone of knowledge,
Also the whole damn college,
She’s Mimi the college … widow.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.