July 04, 1988 12:00 PM

Three years ago author Barbara Gordon was lounging by a rooftop pool in Manhattan watching a bikinied young woman when Gordon became aware that she was not alone in her scrutiny; several older men were checking out the woman as well. Recalls Gordon: “I took out a notebook and wrote, ‘The Jennifer Syndrome: Middle-aged men and young girls from ancient times to today. What’s it all about? What do the men say? What do the girls say?’ ”

To find the answers, Gordon interviewed some 250 subjects, male and female, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists and divorce lawyers, over a period of 2½ years. Her conclusions are contained in Jennifer Fever, a recently published study of an age-old phenomenon. (Gordon says she chose the name Jennifer because it is so common among young women today.)

The author of the 1979 best-seller I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can, about her onetime addiction to Valium, Gordon, 52, has also won two Emmys for her work in television as a writer and producer of documentaries. The Miami-born daughter of a kitchen-and-bar-equipment salesman and his wife, Gordon also wrote for the Today show. She is divorced and lives alone in Manhattan. She spoke with reporter Lee Powell about her current fascination.

What is your definition of a “Jennifer”?

A Jennifer is a woman whose main attribute is her youth in comparison with the age of the beholder. In that sense I could be a Jennifer to a 75-year-old man. But real Jennifers, according to the men I interviewed, have a certain amount of bounce and youth and malleability. They’re not scarred.

What do you mean by “scarred”?

They’re untouched by life. They have yet to be disappointed by lovers, have yet to experience a bad career blow, and they don’t have children who have disappointed them. They’re all future, hope, possibility. Several men I interviewed admitted that these women are not judgmental. They offer blind adoration.

What do men hope will happen?

A lot of these men married too young, right after World War II or Korea, before they had really found themselves. For some men who are wondering, “Is that all there is?” it’s a chance to remake themselves; it gives them hope that they’ll write that book they’ve always wanted to write or take that trip they’ve always dreamed about. It’s a chance to prove that life hasn’t passed them by.

At what age do men become involved with Jennifers?

Originally I thought it was mainly a 40s-and-50s phenomenon. But I have also met 65-year-olds who are attracted to Jennifers, as well as men in their 30s. One 35-year-old man left his 31-year-old wife for a 21-year-old Jennifer.

What is the basis of the attraction?

Some people say it’s just a question of a firm body. Sure, men like that, but they like the Jennifer mind-set just as much. Jennifers are less bitter and more easily pleased.

You write about being a Jennifer yourself for six years. What did you want?

I wanted to be with this one particular man all the time. He kept saying he was going to get divorced, but it didn’t ever happen. And I hung in there with this blind belief that it would. He was 42, and I was 26; we both worked in television. I adored him. I never judged him. A cynical observer might say I did it to advance my career, but I truly loved him. That’s why I’m careful about judging Jennifers.

What else is involved?

Psychologist David Gutmann of Northwestern University has a theory that makes a lot of sense to me. At mid-life, men and women go through a slightly androgynous shift. Women who have been at home start wanting to experience the “male” part of their persona, and men who have been out slaying dragons and making deals feel a desire to experience a more passive, sensual, dependent part of themselves. Very often this assertiveness by the wife is threatening to a man who is panicked by his own new feelings. He may even fear he’s slightly homosexual, he feels so tender. And what is the one thing that may quiet that fear and make him feel as macho and aggressive as he used to feel? A young, adoring woman who doesn’t judge him.

Are men more likely to marry their young lovers today?

Yes, that’s a new aspect. It’s not only a chance for a new future, it’s an opportunity to correct the past. Look at the issue of children. These men, who never expected to have another child, are in Lamaze classes and delivery rooms. It’s not too late—they feel they can make up for the time they didn’t spend with their first set of children.

Do older men ever think of their Jennifers as children themselves?

I was shocked that a couple of men brought up the idea of “licensed incest”—that it added a whole dimension of illicit thrill. But for most men, it may just be the desire to be a mentor.

In your research, did you come across any Jennifer-proof men?

They’re my favorites. There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance, and these men seemed quietly sure of who they were. They weren’t flashy; they seemed less involved with exteriors. Many said their parents had given them a sense of being terrific at a very early age.

Are wives sometimes responsible when their husbands pursue Jennifers?

I do not want to blame the victim. But one analyst I interviewed said the wife can contribute to the situation. If she believes that at 45 or 50 or 55 her sexual shelf life has diminished and that bad times lie ahead, she can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t mean to say that all mid-life women drive their husbands into a Jennifer’s arms—there are some absolutely terrific women whose husbands have young lovers, and that’s because of the men.

What about those men?

Some of these men suffer from low self-esteem and demand confirmation of their worth from the outside. Some of them need a big office, an expensive sports car or a Jennifer—in other words, a trophy—to define themselves. I’ve had relationships with men like this. It’s very hard to get their attention. They love you for your good taste in loving them.

What can a woman do to encourage her husband to be Jennifer-proof?

As a woman ages, she reminds her husband more and more of his mother She is the taskmaster, ordering her family about and keeping them on schedule. She needs to be careful how she plays that role with her husband because, for men, maternal figures have to be desexualized.

What if nothing the wife does works?

I’d like to see these women give up their victimhood. Women who want a chance to catch one of the few available Jennifer-proof men around should think about excising some of the scar tissue they’ve accumulated and moving on.

What about older women and younger men?

A woman at 45 or 50 is at her sexual peak of responsiveness, even though she may have lost the ability to bear children. And she’s experienced. Young men are not only potent but often eager to learn. It’s not as commonplace in this country as it is, say, in France, but things are definitely changing. Wherever I lecture now, women always stand up and ask, “What about us getting a Jeffrey?”

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