Pygmalion is a figure from Greek mythology, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved, which then came to life. It is also the title of a play by George Bernard Shaw, first presented on the stage in 1913, that tells the story of a professor who takes upon himself the task of “carving” his own creation, by educating a Cockney working class girl and transform her in such a way that she might pass as a member of the upper class. He teaches her how to speak “properly”, how to eat, how to conduct herself…turning her into a totally different person. From then on, the “Pygmalion” concept has been forever related to an older man who, for some reason – often a romantic relationship – significantly improves the social status of a younger girl, giving her access to a world otherwise inaccessible to her, and inevitably changes her in the process.
I know several “Pygmalion” stories, some with happy endings and some with less happy outcomes. This one is just one among many.
He was a good looking, successful man in his early forties, the Managing Director for Portugal of an international bank. Fit and always smartly dressed, it seemed he had everything one could wish for: a great career, a more than comfortable salary plus fringe benefits, a happy marriage and four handsome children; his wife also worked – as do most women in Portugal – but she had no real career ambitions, she was there to support his career and be there for their young family. He had many business travels but quite often he would take his wife with him on a romantic escapade, leaving the children with the grandparents. They often went to Italy where they had the most romantic holidays, from Tuscany to Venice, and it seemed they would live happily ever after.
But they didn’t, and one day he gave his wife the classical excuse. He needed “some time”. She gave him all the space he needed, only to find out a few weeks later that he was seeing a girl who had recently joined the bank.
I will leave out the details of his bitter separation and divorce and concentrate on his playing Pygmalion to his new love. She was young and pretty, from a lower middle class family and beginning a career. Of course he dazzled her – he was sophisticated, worldly, had been to many places, only wore fine clothes and accessories from expensive brands…and all of a sudden she, who used to go shopping to Zara and Massimo Dutti, was being showered with Gucci belts, Prada bags and designer dresses, in addition to the inevitable Manolo Blahnik shoes. Things she had seen only on fashion magazines and that were now at her feet…literally! He flew her to New York to eat at the best restaurants there; took her on the most romantic holidays in Bali and to shopping sprees in London in Paris, making the most of the occasion to take her to the theatre and to musicals; he taught her all about contemporary art and showed her the MoMa and Tate Modern, and she absorbed it all, so much that once, as I was listening to a conversation between her and a friend of mine, an older and sophisticated woman, I realised that she, still in her early twenties, had already seen and experienced so many things that I couldn’t say who was the most experienced of the two…
For a few years he moulded her and she really absorbed all his teachings, all he had taught and shown her, and it seemed they lived an eternal honeymoon, and an affluent one at that, always knowing the most fashionable restaurants or hotels, all over the world.
At a point I think they were both living in an unreal world, thinking it would go on forever. They had it all – love, money, careers. Of course she advanced pretty quickly in her career and soon was a Department manager – after all her boss was her lover and vice versa, and as much as people think they can separate things they never can.
Sometimes he thought this was a dangerous situation that would explode in his hands sooner or later; he was responsible for the Portuguese operation and after all she was one of his employees. I told him many times there was only one thing for him to do, and that would be to open up with his boss (the European CEO) and tell him he was living with this girl. Of course there was the risk – more of a certainty, in fact – that she would have to leave the bank, but it would be much better for him to take the initiative than be confronted with their discovering an awkward – to say the least – situation.
But he postponed it indefinitely, and one day he was sharply called to Madrid to HR Department. Not even to his boss. There he was told they were aware of the situation and there were only two options: one of them would have to leave. He was utterly shocked that they might consider his leaving, after all the operation was a success. And, for the first time, he felt really frightened.
Of course she was the one to leave. In the midst of a crisis in Portugal, and after being promoted much beyond her abilities, she could not find a job.
One year later, he was again called to Madrid and told the bank was making some changes and letting go of him. Just like that. And then he understood what I had so often told him, that they had stopped trusting him due to the fact that he had omitted such relevant information from then.
He was in utter shock. All that he had worked for, all the hard climbing up the ladder of success had come to nothing, and the fall was harsh and abrupt. Suddenly he had no job, no company car, no employees, no money and worst of all, no status. He fell into a deep depression and would not see reality for a long time. He simply could not believe what had befallen him.
Years have passed. We all thought the girl would leave him now that he was suddenly much less glamorous, but for our surprise she stuck with him. She got a much more modest job and he found a way to make some money as an advisor, and they have been through much hardship but are still together. I sometimes wonder if he ever looks back to his previous life and thinks how much he has lost, and how dangerous it is to play Pygmalion when you are not a mythical figure with supernatural powers, but a simple human being, subject to the whims of the gods. Who can turn your life upside down in the flicker of a second.