When Benjamin Franklin offered his Advice on the Choice of a Mistress to a young man in 1745, the last of his eight reasons to choose an older woman was: “They are so grateful!” Author Toni Tucci, who turns 60 on October 1, is certainly on the side of the mature woman, although gratitude has nothing to do with it. In her raunchy best-seller The Butterfly Secret, she argues that older women are not only entitled to pursue younger partners, but should be encouraged to do so. She cheerfully cites her own flamboyant life as a case study. Since the death of her third husband five years ago, Tucci claims to have had 10 lovers young enough to be her son. The daughter of a Syracuse, N.Y. construction worker and his homemaker wife, Tucci was 16 when she married a 31-year-old insurance broker. Her second husband was a New York lawyer 30 years her senior. In 1950, having divorced him, she wed textile tycoon Neal Pansey and during their marriage acted in such TV oldies as Naked City and The Untouchables. Pansey died at the age of 59. Toni, mother of two children and grandmother of five, recently broke up with her 32-year-old boyfriend. In her lavish Park Avenue apartment she talked with Judy Kessler of PEOPLE about her unconventional May-December philosophy.
Why did you become interested in younger men?
I saw my friends taking a Dexedrine when they got up, a drink by 11 in the morning, a Valium by 3 in the afternoon and a sleeping pill at night. I said to myself: I’m not going to do it.
What did you do about it?
I always had a sense that women should be liberated. When my last husband died I found that the men my age who were interested in me wanted to go to bed with me, but didn’t want any relationship beyond that. If their wives died or they got divorced, they married a girl 25 or 30 years old. Why should there be a double standard? Still, when a younger man—he was 30, I was 55—started chasing me, I told him I wasn’t ready for a sexual relationship. Now when young men come after me, I whisper in their ear, “I’ll bet you’ve never slept with a grandmother.”
Do older women seek security in a relationship with a young man?
There is no such thing as security. I ask women: When you got married for the first time, didn’t you think you were marrying forever? Did you ever suspect that when you were 50 the doctor you helped through medical school or the lawyer you got through law school would desert you, divorce you or die? Just when we think we are going to enjoy life we are thrust into a society where we have no place. Every woman should expect her marriage to end in one of three ways: desertion, divorce or death.
How does taking a young lover help solve this problem?
The most important thing a young man can give an older woman is her self-esteem. If she no longer just wants to be accommodating to men her age and abused by them, if she wants to find herself and live for herself—a younger man can help.
What can an older woman do for a younger man?
Plenty. For instance, I’m the most marvelous cook in the world. I can keep house. I can press his pants. A young man hasn’t got time for a younger woman who is busy with her own career. He’s looking for someone to listen to him, to take care of him. I tell mature women: Your contemporaries don’t want you. But don’t worry, because there are young men out there who are looking for a real relationship.
In some ways, isn’t this a mother-son relationship?
A lot of people say the younger man is looking for another mother. What’s wrong with that? Most mothers are good mothers. A young man has got it tough; he’s always told he’s got to make it by the time he’s 30. Why do younger girls go out with older men? We all know it’s a father image. Why is it okay to have sugar daddies and not sugar mommies?
Don’t most people assume a younger man who dates an older woman is after her money?
Yes, we have been conditioned to think that any man with an older woman is a gigolo. But often he is working and is paying the check. And if he isn’t, that doesn’t bother me. Certainly when my husband died and left me some money, he meant me to be happy. If I take some of this money and give it to somebody who brings me happiness, is that wrong? It’s the double standard. Men have been picking up tabs for hundreds of years.
Are more older women and younger men dating today?
Yes. The taboo is being lifted. A year ago I would go out with my boyfriend and be very embarrassed among my contemporaries because he was so young. But my friends and family would rather see me getting something out of life than sitting home waiting for some older man to come and take care of me—especially when there’s no possibility of that happening.
How does an older woman find a younger man?
Young men will find you if you make yourself available, if you’re pleasant and alive in the culture of today. Walk down the street and be aware of young men. Go to restaurants by yourself. It will happen if you start turning yourself on.
Why are attitudes changing?
We’re all going to be old someday, and young people are beginning to realize it. Age is not a dirty word. Older women should stop being forced by the culture to do all those things to make themselves look younger. I hardly wear makeup. I’m not ashamed of being my age. And the more I feel that way the better I look. It works for everybody. But the older woman is still the last one in the closet. She was born too late for women’s liberation and she usually has no skills. What’s she going to do?
What advice can you give her?
Pick yourself up a little bit. Don’t let society make you feel old. Don’t worry about the wrinkles or the stomach. Don’t worry about getting your face lifted. Don’t let society do that to you. Worry about living, and if you feel good about yourself, good things will come to you. Change your way of thinking. Sex is your birthright. You need it. There is no age where you don’t. You have to sexually psych yourself up.
What is the “Butterfly Secret”?
It saved my life. It is taking time off, dropping everything and saying, who am I? Wrapping a cocoon around yourself and staying there until you’re ready to come out. Say to yourself: “I’ve been a good person all my life. I deserve something for being older.”
Is sex different with a younger man?
Yes. There is a freedom—that is the most important thing. The younger man wants you to be satisfied. He does not think you are bad because you expect it. Women like to be aggressive. The younger man is liberated enough not to be intimidated by this. If you’re aggressive with an older man he thinks you’re either crazy or a whore.
Are younger men better lovers?
Technically they usually are. They are better because they are more sensitive to your needs. Old social mores do not bother them. The young man makes you feel that sex is another glorious appetite—like enjoying a beautiful meal or a play.
Isn’t it difficult for an older woman to adjust to a younger man?
Older women do have guilt. You can’t be brought up with all the no-nos we’ve been brought up with and not feel guilt. I realize it isn’t the answer for everybody, but smoking marijuana helps me relax and loosens up my inhibitions.
Why not alcohol?
I think alcohol can be a very destructive thing for women. It stretches the skin and destroys the body. The worst thing a woman can do is stagger down the street drunk.
What is your message to women who have reached middle age and beyond?
They have to believe in themselves as older women and not be ashamed of it. They have to believe they can have a better life. They have to accept that younger men are looking for them. This is a two-way street. We’re not holding a gun to their heads. If young guys are looking for us, they must need us—and if they need us, it’s a good relationship.