In the 1960s and 70s nearly everyone watched endless reruns of “Gilligan’s Island,” the sitcom featuring seven castaways on an uncharted island. If you were a male viewer, you had to express a preference for one of the two single women on the island: Ginger, the elegant, tall, and pale-haired starlet, or Mary Ann, the innocent dark-haired farm girl from Kansas. I was always on team Mary Ann.
Sadly, Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann, died yesterday at age 82 from complications of COVID-19.
It made me think of two of my past romances.
In my late 20s I spent a year depressed, recovering from a divorce. I was very lonely. Then a couple I knew introduced me to a beautiful woman. She was tall and blonde and moved through space in a smooth and languid way that attracted attention. I’d never dated a Ginger before, but after the year I had, I was willing to try.
I was a rising manager in a Boston tech startup while she was secretary to a high-powered ad executive in New York. This made things geographically difficult, but she was committed to trying to make things work. I would meet her at the train station or airport or drive down to her place. We’d go out to restaurants and shows in Boston or Manhattan or sometimes, just stay in bed. She dabbled in ballet, which showed in her figure and the way she moved.
Wherever we went, when we walked in the door, people turned to look, and they weren’t looking at me. She knew how to order wine and appreciate theater. I had some money and she was happy to spend it.
Some things were different from what I was used to. It took 45 minutes for her to apply makeup before we went out anywhere — and this was somebody who looked great rolling out of bed in the morning. And when we were apart, she appreciated — and eventually insisted — that I would send her flowers at work on Mondays.
While I was having fun, it became clear to me that this relationship wasn’t going to last. I think, if we’d been in the same city, it would have been over in a few weeks. She just wasn’t my type — we didn’t connect at some fundamental level. But it was a pleasant way to pass the time. I felt guilty, because it started to be clear that she had something more permanent in mind. Early on, I suggested we weren’t really a match, but she wasn’t having it. I did the same thing months later, but she again asked me to reconsider and give it a chance. When a beautiful woman tells a lonely man she wants to keep going, it’s hard to say no. So I ignored my feelings and kept trying to be the man she wanted me to be.
Finally, in the middle of an island vacation we’d planned together, she asked about my future plans for us. I again told the truth, that I felt this wasn’t going anywhere. So she left. I paid for her flight back to New York and spent a few more lonely days in a secluded cabin I’d rented.
Shortly after that, the friends that had introduced us got married. She refused to attend if I was going. Last I heard, she was married to a technology security expert with his own consulting company.
A few months later I met my Mary Ann. She had dark straight hair, which I have always preferred, and a face that lit up when she smiled. We had an immediate connection. I knew from our first date that we would be friends for a very long time. Somehow, it felt as if there was no artifice between us — that I was in touch with someone real, a fellow traveler whose experiences I could relate to. She wore no makeup. She was a teacher and didn’t really care whether I had a high-powered career.
We built a life together. She has been a wonderful companion, a good cook, a great mother, and my favorite human being in the whole world. We talk about everything — it is a blessing to have a wife with a varied and intelligent perspective on the world and everything in it. I saw something in her face 32 years ago and I still see it now. Our relationship is one of equals, there is a fundamental mutual respect, and we make all the decisions together and rarely argue. We love to travel and have been all over the world. I’ve been delighted to support her as she has developed into an artist who creates beautiful and amazing things.
People don’t stare at her when we enter a room. But I still stare at her. I never get tired of it. I stare at her at breakfast and at bedtime. Her hair is mostly grey now, as is mine, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t just seem to see her face; instead I see her, someone who I truly like to be around.
It’s work to be a Ginger. But being a Mary Ann is something you’re just born with. If you love a Ginger, I hope you’re happy. But if you love a Mary Ann, you almost certainly are.
Thanks to the creators of “Gilligan’s Island,” to Dawn Wells, and to Tina Louise, who played Ginger, for making us all think about such things.
“There hasn’t been a Mary Ann on the air for I don’t know how long,” Wells told the TV Academy Foundation in a 2008 sit-down for “The Interviews” video series. “There hasn’t been a good girl over 14, and Mary Ann was very much that. The Mary Ann-Ginger issue is always there. You had to be a real man to understand Ginger, and Mary Ann would’ve gone to the prom with you and been your best friend. A lot of guys would come up to me and say I married a Mary Ann. She had the values.”Deadline