This article from Town & Country Weddings (Spring/Summer 2012) just…got it…
Wedding stress prompts countless fantasies of eloping. But is forgoing the traditional affair for better or for worse? One writer who has experienced it both ways takes stock. By Christine Lennon
Once, I walked down the aisle of my parents’ tiny church in Naples, FL — its white steeple pointing, optimistically, into the cloudless blue sky — in a white Reem Acra dress with tiny seed pearls stitched into handmade Lebanese lace. My sister stood at the altar with me as my maid of honor, and my best friend sang an Irish folk song during the service. Later, over a catered dinner for 120, my father raised his glass in a heartfelt toast that many of my friends still talk about, and I danced with cousins and friends to a Chicago blues band until my feet couldn’t take it and my new husband and I made our escape in a trolley draped with white ribbon.
Once, I drove to Palm Springs with my fiance, with a wedding cake for two tucked in a box at my feet on the passenger side of his Prius. A few days before, I’d picked up a dress off the rack at Catherine Malandrino and booked a suite at the Parker hotel. After 15 minutes of Googling, I found a photographer and a civil servant in the desert, both of whom happened to be free on June 17. At about 6:00 on that blazing hot Saturday, we asked the front desk if they could turn off the sprinklers for the next 15 minutes. We were getting married on the lawn, just the 2 of us, and didn’t want to get wet.
As you may have guessed, I’ve been married twice, to 2 different men, in 2 dramatically different ways. I’ve lived the dueling dreams of brides everywhere, first by throwing the traditional parent-pleasing, costly, elegant, anxiety-producing wedding, and then by running away for the hassle-free, inexpensive, spontaneous, heart-racing elopement. Eloping isn’t such a new idea, though people’s reasons for doing it seem to have changed quite a bit. (For one thing, the shotgun wedding is thankfully pretty much a relic, at least in America.) Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning eloped in 1846, knowing that her father would disapprove of their union. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio didn’t last a year as a married couple, but their sudden wedding at SF City Hall in 1954 will be remembered forever. And who knew that socialite/preppy icon Lilly McKim, who eloped with Peter Pulitzer Jr. in 1952 before moving with him to Palm Beach and opening her famed juice stand and designing her iconic prints, had such a rebellious streak? In more recent years the list of famous couples who have skipped opulent weddings in favor of tiny, private ceremonies (Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom) has grown.
Usually, famous people wed in secret to avoid lurking paparazzi and public scrutiny, but most of us who choose to skip the fanfare do it for economic reasons or to avoid the enormous pressure on brides to throw an event that pleases everyone. An elopement means fewer variables to control and an opportunity to splurge on a few meaningful items: the perfect dress, an exotic honeymoon, even a down payment on a home. And it guarantees that the focus of the day remains firmly where it should be: on the bride and groom’s happiness, and the weight of the commitment they are making to each other.
Which tends to get obscured by all the hors d’oeuvre stations, seating chart dramatics, and commemorative canvas bags routinely handed out these days as wedding favors. (When, by the way, did the multicourse meal, open bar, live music, lively company, and 12-tier cake become an inadequate show of hospitality?) I remembered 2 of my own wedding-planning arguments vividly, even though they happened more than a decade ago. First, my dad walked out of a catering meeting when it was suggested that we include edible flowers in the salad. The thought of eating dainty and colorful petals enraged him, apparently — as did the cost of the meal, I’m sure. The second was with my mother about a veil. I refused to wear one, and my mother suggested that there was impropriety in baring my shoulders in church. It was an oddly Victorian moment, considering that we are not particularly religious; even she was an itinerant churchgoer at best. It felt inauthentic and fluffy to me, and I held fast to the no veil decree…until just a few weeks before the wedding, when I gave in and bought a simple but rather expensive double-layer veil attached to a small comb just to shut her up.
My ex had checked out of planning mode after we made the guest list, which included 65 family members from both sides who needed corralling into hotel rooms at various price points, as well as dozens of RSVP-averse friends. At the time, I was a beauty editor of a fashion magazine, and it was just assumed that I’d embark on a grueling, expensive, months-long training regimen to get in shape for the big day, though the stress of planning kept me the thinnest I’d been since high school. The one joy in the experience for me was the visits to the letterpress printer in a grungy Soho loft. If it hadn’t been for those crisp and simple invitations, I might have called it off.
On the blog In My Shoes, Lisa Stoner, founder of her own FL-based wedding planning company, E-Events, details her decision to elope with her videographer husband in spite of her profession. “Not to betray my industry, but the emotion and the priorities with an elopement are clear,” she says. “It’s about the marriage, not the wedding. We had our doubts about whether it was the right thing to do, but luckily we had them at different times. I love nothing more than planning these big affairs, but Jeffrey and I are very private people, and we knew it wasn’t right for us.”
Like mine, Stoner’s first wedding was a big, formal affair — much like the ones she plans for other people. “I have a lot of what I call sorority brides, those 23-year-olds who are right out of college, who want the huge ballroom bonanza. They’re beautiful events. Then I have the ethnic brides, from Indian and Asian families who are bound by tradition to have very elaborate events. There’s an understanding that it’s not about them; it’s a direct reflection on their families,” she says. “Then there are my more progressive brides, who are often a little older; they’re established professionals, and there’s more compromise. Everybody gives a little.”
I was 27 the first time I got engaged, and I didn’t yet understand what I wanted or needed from a wedding — or a marriage, for that matter. I threw a big wedding because that’s what all of my friends were doing. My boyfriend and I had been using every available vacation day to travel to our friends’ weddings around the world. We got engaged in Paris while there for another wedding. Never mind that our relationship was turbulent, that what had once been minor issues were foreshadowing marriage-crushing problems, and that the Paris trip was actually a disaster. The reflected glow of our friends getting married in that ancient French church was contagious. He proposed at 3am in front of the Luxembourg Gardens.
And thus the wedding planning began. Because my beloved grandmother was a frail 90yo who disliked traveling, we decided to have the wedding not in NY, where we lived, but in FL, where she and my parents were living. That decision alone represented a shift in the tenor of the event, deferring to my parents and to tradition instead of taking a long, hard look at what it was that I wanted.
The wedding itself was spectacular. My florist helped me transform a black box theater at the Naples Philharmonic into a dramatically lit event with spare centerpieces of 3ft tall flaming orange parrot tulips and crisp white linens. (What can I say? It was the ‘90s.) Friends flew in from all over the country to watch us make it official. We had sprawling family photos taken in the sculpture garden. My fiance’s boss and a handful of colleagues came in from London for the week, rented a small fleet of convertibles, and passed out a rainbow of Nat Sherman Fantasia cigarettes to coordinate with all of my friends’ dresses at the reception. My Tri-Delt sisters formed a circle around me and sang a painful, half-forgotten version of our sorority anthem. When the bartender ran out of booze, my brother hijacked the trolley and the driver to make a beer run. It turned into a raucous party, which was all I really wanted anyway. It was perfect.
Except for the fact that my ex-fiance and I were fighting with increasing frequency by the time the date finally arrived — about the stress and expense of planning the wedding, among many other things, and, in hindsight I understand, about the uncertainty of our decision. 4 years later it was over. To this day I’m in awe of men and women who are able to walk away from a wedding at the last minute. There’s no greater shame than being left at the altar, but my sympathy for the dumped is nearly eclipsed by my admiration, if not respect exactly, for the one who flew the coop. How brave you must be to forfeit those deposits, to willingly submit to the torture of returning all those gifts, to publicly explain the error in judgment.
The second time I was married I was 35, wizened by a painful (if amicable) divorce, and so certain of my future with my husband-to-be that I didn’t need a 120piece band and an open bar to legitimize our decision to make it official. My husband, Andrea, had also been married before, coincidentally just 3 weeks after I had walked down the aisle. When our relationship first became serious enough to discuss kids and marriage, a commitment he once swore he’d never make again, we were both adamant about not having a big wedding. The discussions weren’t completely devoid of romance, but we were both well into our 30s and, let’s just say, “seasoned” by experience. We’d joke that we’d both had the right wedding to the wrong people, though our decision to elope wasn’t predicated on the fact that we were both on round 2. We genuinely didn’t want to endure the hassle and expense of hosting a giant party and coordinating guests, most of whom would be traveling across the country to LA to watch us form a more perfect union. We spent a couple of days trying and failing to come up with a list of 20, even 40 people to invite to a more intimate wedding, but we couldn’t bear the thought of excluding so many people close to us. So we decided to just go for it. We went to Cartier and picked out wedding bands. For a moment we thought about going farther afield, staging a dramatic event on the edge of a cliff in Mendocino or Big Sur, or maybe on the Amalfi Coast. But we had a vacation planned, a weeklong hike around Mont Blanc, through Italy, Switzerland, and France, followed by 5 days on Lake Como, which we decided to call a honeymoon. Since we both loved the desert and had spent a few memorable weekends there, Palm Springs seemed like the ideal spot. It was decadent and glamorous enough for this very grown-up, romantic decision we were making, not to mention only 2 hours away by car. The June heat alone is enough to make you hallucinate a little, which added to the other worldly “What are we doing, exactly?” feeling we both had. Isn’t that the fantasy all brides have on some level, to feel so profoundly connected to their spouse, to have his undivided attention for days on end? I was fully aware of the choice I was making, the decision to let myself be vulnerable again, and I cried when the strange officiant we found online read the “Now there is no loneliness” line of the Apache wedding prayer. I knew it would be true this time.
And yet, though we were both convinced that eloping was the right decision for us, we nevertheless buckled under the pressure and called our closest friends and families with the news a few days beforehand. To their credit, all of our parents were supportive and understanding (“Even if you elope, spend the money on a good photographer,” advises Stoner, wisely. “It’s hard for friends and family to stay mad at someone once they’ve seen the joy in those photos.”) Andrew’s best friend and his wife sent us off with a care package of caviar and a perfect bottle of champagne. When we checked into the hotel, flowers sent with the blessing of our families filled our suite.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the party. It’s funny: People say eloping is a selfish choice, denying your loved ones the chance to share this life-changing moment with you. I’d like to argue that it’s kind of a selfless decision, that brides and grooms sacrifice the rush that comes from the attention, the funny and touching toasts from their friends, the chance to make the ultimate dance party playlist. After my brief Palm Springs service was over, after we had a beautiful candlelit dinner on our patio and finished the champagne, I wanted to turn to my best friends and say, “Can you believe it?” I called my parents and wept into the phone, with joy, relief, and a little bit of regret that they could only hear how happy I was.
But our kids love to look at the pictures and tell people, when they see the framed photo of the 2 of us standing alone against a dramatic desert landscape, that Mommy and Daddy had only 2 people at their wedding. It was a perfect, bittersweet day, and a poignant expression of what we now know marriage is about: Once the guests go home, the gifts are unwrapped, and the dress goes into storage, there’s nobody left but the two of you. And that’s just the way we like it.