Do you think President Nicolas Sarkozy and model/actor/singer Carla Bruni are really having an affair? I mean, we all know that they’ve been photographed canoodling together on vacations, but how real is the relationship?
The French press has suggested that it is a publicity stunt, a cunning ploy to restore Sarkozy’s image after his glamorous wife left him for another man. Bruni is an accomplished publicity hound, has been the girlfriend of such rock stars as Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton and would not be averse to a new stint in the headlines as the First Mistress.
Foot fetish: Publicity stunt or real love?
But why should Sarkozy care so much? Surely, the people of France will judge him on his performance in the meeting rooms of the Élysée Palace and not on the basis of his performance in the bedroom?
Well, yes and no. The French like their Presidents to be virile; Charles de Gaulle is the only head of the current version of the French Republic to have been faithful to his wife. And Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor, was such a playboy that his wife said she never knew which of his many girlfriends he was with when he was out.
But there’s another reason. As much as Sarkozy may want to be seen as a ladies’ man, he suffers from one disadvantage: he’s not very tall. Actually, he’s quite short by European standards. He’s only five foot five.
Hence, say the pop psychologists, the desperate need to be seen with glamorous women, to play the great lover and therefore, the terrible humiliation when his wife dumped him for a less powerful but much taller man.
I’m not sure how much of this psychoanalysis is accurate. May be Sarkozy just gets a kick out of hanging out with ageing groupies. But there’s no doubt that, in the minds of the French at least, short men are seen to have a need to overcompensate. The most obvious historical parallel is, of course, with Napoleon. But while the Emperor may have been the most important midget in French history, can we really attribute his lust for power and his desire to be regarded as a great lover to his small frame?
The French certainly think so. And sure enough, there are enough little people in French popular culture who have gone on to be regarded as Casanova-like figures for the theory to hold some weight. Charles Azanavour, the lover of Edith Piaf and singer of melodramatic songs was, essentially an Armenian dwarf. Roman Polanski now lives in France and many people attribute his compulsive womanizing (with under-age girls, most famously) to a complex about his height (“Who is the midget?” Jack Nicholson asks about the Polanski character in Chinatown.)
Indians tend to be shorter than Europeans so we are less height conscious. Many of our movie stars are much shorter in real life than they seem on screen—Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, for instance—but nobody makes too much of their lack of height. On the other hand, Hollywood stars go to great lengths to seem taller. Dustin Hoffman is tiny (Elmore Leonard wrote Get Shorty about him though the character was eventually played by Danny DeVito in the movie of the book), Mel Gibson was too short to play Batman and Nicole Kidman told a talk show host that the best thing about divorcing the diminutive Tom Cruise was that she could wear high heels again.
In the world of business, the conventional wisdom has it that short people tend to be more aggressive to compensate for their lack of height. A famous lawsuit in the 1990s concerned Disney, whose then boss Michael Eisner was believed to have discriminated against his lieutenant Jeffrey Katzenberg. When Katzenberg left to start Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen (also tiny, also aggressive) he sued Disney arguing that Eisner (who is very tall) had said about him, “I hate that little midget”. I asked Eisner about the case (which was eventually settled by Disney at considerable cost) a couple of years ago and though he denied ever having said “I hate the little midget” he did not seem too perturbed by the suggestion that Katzenberg’s legendary aggression had its roots in his height.
The caricature view of most fascists is that they are small men. Sometimes this can be true: Hitler was not very tall. But it’s not as simple as that. In the 1980s, Dom Moraes authored a Time-Life book on Bombay, which made some references to the Shiv Sena and to its founder Bal Thackeray.
The references were innocuous enough but the Sena objected to the sale of the book anyway on the grounds that it was hostile to Bombay. I was mystified by the objections till I asked Thackeray why he hated the book so much.
At first, he hummed and hawed. Finally, he said. “Tell me, do you think I’m short?”
As he’s nearly my height, I was quick to assure him that he was tall and strapping.
“Then, why this bloody Moraes has said I am short?”
So, that’s why the Shiv Sena was burning copies of the book.
My favourite short person story concerns an Indian tycoon who denies it is true so it’s probably apocryphal. But it is such a great story that I’ll tell it anyway.
The Indian tycoon in question hosted Ahmet Ertegun the legendary founder of Atlantic Records (in whose memory Led Zeppelin played that one-off concert last month) in India. Ertegun was so overwhelmed by the hospitality that he asked the tycoon if there was anything he could do for him when he came to New York.
“Well”, said the tycoon, who is not very tall, “make me feel six feet tall.”
A few months later the tycoon went to New York and was invited by Ertegun to a party in his honour. When he got there, he realized, to his surprise, that he was the tallest person in the room. All the guests were dwarves.
It was a joke, of course. The dwarves had been hired for the occasion and they left as soon as the real guests began arriving. But the Indian tycoon was thrilled; he had never before been in a room where everybody else was shorter than him!
When the story appeared in my column in Brunch a couple of years ago, I prefaced it with the tycoon’s denials. But the funny thing was this: nobody wanted to believe that it was made up. It had, they said, the ring of truth about it.
So, who knows? Perhaps Sarkozy likes Carla Bruni because she makes him feel six feet tall.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org