It was the 1950s and future-M*A*S*H star Alan Alda was at a friend’s dinner party. There, he ran into a mutual acquaintance, a budding musician from the Bronx named Arlene. From that moment on, the two began what would go on to become a 60-year long relationship. And yet their union wouldn’t have existed if the two hadn’t indulged in a peculiar mutual quirk that night.
Not many romances span six decades – especially ones that have some link with show business. But then again Alan and Arlene Alda don’t have what you would call an average romance. For over 60 years the pair have doted over each other. And they’re just as much in love today as they were all those moons ago.
Of course, the pair’s prolonged affection has attracted a lot of curiosity from interested parties. Given their age, they seem to agree that their secret “is a short memory” as the 84-year-old Alan joked to Closer Weekly in 2019. And yet a closer look at the Aldas’ life together shows their relationship hinges just as much on a series of shared habits.
First, there’s the way they spend their evenings: in spite of their accumulated wealth, the two prefer simpler pleasures like playing board games together. Then there are the decades-old routines such as celebrating with pizza every time Alan gets an acting gig. And to top it all off, whenever one is reading something, they read it aloud to the other.
So how did the Aldas come to appreciate these little habits so much? And why does such a financially successful couple – he, the beloved star of M*A*S*H; she, a respected photographer and writer – still go back to them. For her, at least, it comes partly down to personal experience.
Back in her childhood, Arlene witnessed firsthand the effects of an unhappy relationship. Born Arlene Weiss in the Bronx in 1933, the young author’s parents put closeness on the backseat as they worked to keep food on the family’s table. The consequence of this – as she told The New York Times in 2015 – was Arlene possessing a thirst “for something different…something without stress.”
Like his spouse, Alan too came from a turbulent household, though for different reasons than money. Following his wife’s words, the actor added, “There was a lot of unhappiness in my parents’ marriage partly because my mother was psychotic. [Arlene and I] were already ahead of the game in that neither of us were seriously mentally ill.”
When they were old enough to choose their own careers, both opted to go into the arts. Alan – like his father before him – went into acting, while Arlene trained to become a world class clarinettist. So the pair already had something in common when they met for the first time in 1956.
As Arlene divulged years later to The New York Times, “He was a kindred spirit who was also funny, so there was this great chemistry.” So the two didn’t waste any time starting their lives as a couple. And just 11 months after getting together, they tied the knot in front of 18 of their closest friends and family.
Within one year of marriage, the Aldas welcomed their first child Eve into the world. And in the following three years, the birth of Elizabeth in 1960 and Beatrice in 1961 would make their family complete. Yet the arrival of kids made this rock-solid couple realize for the first time that they had their differences, too.
Looking back on their first years as parents, Arlene remembered how their diverging parent techniques caused some friction at first. “I was the drill sergeant, and he liked to play with the kids,” the photographer recalled to the The New York Times. “These were disagreements we had to work out…We would talk a lot and talk angrily.”
Plus there was the issue of work and money to consider. With Arlene now dedicating herself fully to raising their children, Alan was left as the family’s sole breadwinner. And in these early days, well-paying acting jobs could be slim pickings – the star’s first jobs averaged him around $10 a night.
But as you know, Alan would not stay an obscure actor all his life. By 1959 the star took his first steps onto a Broadway stage with Only in America. Soon the roles started piling up and the Aldas found themselves moving from their home in Connecticut to New Jersey to be closer to the big city.
With his profile on the rise in the 1960s, Alan received the gig of a lifetime in the following decade. Inspired by the 1970 film, CBS’s M*A*S*H was a hit and took the actor from Broadway to national stardom. And the series drew upwards of 106 million viewers at its peak, making Alda one of the most watched men on television.
Being a TV star had its drawbacks, though. For one, the show’s production took place in California which obviously necessitated another relocation on Alan’s part. This time, however, it meant that for the 11 years that M*A*S*H was on the air the actor was constantly traveling between the East and West Coast.
Then there was the added strain that the show’s demands took at home. With her husband out on business more days than not, Arlene had to shoulder more of the family responsibilities. “I was not a good juggler,” she confessed years later to The New York Times. “It all took energy and I had spurts of energy. Not sustained at all.”
Finding herself more at home, Arlene began looking for new ways to stretch herself creatively. This is when she began looking seriously at photography, an art form that let her work while looking after her family. Plus it was a medium Arlene excelled at, and it wasn’t long before she was receiving job offers.
In the years that Alan was filming M*A*S*H, Arlene’s photos were picked up by magazines like Vogue and People. Of course, spousal rivalry was no motivation for these new bursts of expression. But a bonus of her photos becoming well-known was that Arlene didn’t have to feel like she was living in the shadow of her celebrity husband.
Musing on the subject in 2015, Arlene opined to The New York Times, “One challenge of marriage is how to keep your sense of self yet be able to meld and blend with the other person.” And while she does “like basking in someone else’s glow,” the photographer also noted the importance of self-worth. “[A celebrity spouse] diminishes you, unless you feel really secure in yourself,” she added.
Over the years Arlene would keep expanding her portfolio, and her client list grew to include customers like The Saturday Evening Post. As Alan grew beyond the confines of M*A*S*H, the photographer would also get a chance to work with her husband. For her spouse’s 1981 directorial effort The Four Seasons, Arlene created the accompanying backstage photo essay On Set.
But the pair’s collaboration wasn’t just limited to the soundstage. While scripting the movie, Alan turned to Arlene for some constructive criticism. As she explained to The New York Times in 1981, “He’ll write a first draft and then ask me if it sounds right. I tend to be fairly objective, and I’ll tell him if something rings true and if it doesn’t.”
Now both in their 80s, the Aldas are just as committed to their work as they were years before. Following M*A*S*H’s last episode in 1983, Alan continued to receive plaudits for appearances in shows such as The West Wing for which he won an Emmy. He even earned an Academy Award nomination for 2004’s The Aviator.
And Arlene took her career in exciting new directions, too. On top of her photography, she pursued writing further and released a children’s book in 1982. Since then, she’s penned a further 18 books with her most recent – 2015’s Just Kids From the Bronx – paying homage to her old neighborhood.
But these days Alan and Arlene have a far better balance between their work and home lives. Now camped out in the Hamptons, the two regularly spend their days in the house together – writing from separate rooms, but with the doors open for easy conversation. And though their kids have flown the nest, their family – which now include eight grandchildren – is bigger than ever.
So the Aldas have cleared obstacles that would have crumpled lesser couples. But on the secret to their marriage success, the pair seem effortlessly nonchalant. When asked by the Sydney Morning Herald about his long-lasting relationship in 2015, Alan merely shrugged, “We have friends who have been married as long or longer. I think in Hollywood it gets talked about more.”
Yet there is something that both Alan and Arlene agree has become a cornerstone of their relationship. And that little secret is a sense of humor. Speaking in 2015, Arlene even went so far as to call laughter “the real glue that keeps us happily and willingly stuck together.”
“I have a very highfalutin notion about laughter,” Alan added to The New York Times. “I think when you laugh you make yourself momentarily vulnerable. Your defenses are not up, and if you can stay in a playful mood, where you are susceptible to laughter, your chances of being antagonistic with each other are lower.”
This philosophy of unashamed hysterics is central to the Aldas’ relationship, it seems. But their openness doesn’t stop at laughing out loud – it also extends to the peculiar little habits that have kept them going all these years. And if it wasn’t for them, it’s likely the two would never have become an item at all.
Let’s rewind to the 1950s when both Alan and Arlene were still just struggling artists living in New York City. Because back then the two shared a circle of friends and regularly attended the same parties together. Their first meeting was actually an occasion close to Arlene’s heart – a clarinet performance.
And when his future-wife had finished performing, Alan was impressed. Yet at the time he couldn’t get out the words to express his admiration. As the star told The Washington Post in 2020, the best he could think of was, “Hi. You were good.” But the actor would make a better impression on Arlene the next time around.
Returning to his friend’s apartment some days down the line, Alan ran into Arlene again. This time, the event was a dinner party – an occasion that usually requires just the right amount of class and civility. It’s safe to say then that he would have been on his best manners that night.
But not everything would quite go to plan. Because during the evening a rum cake that had sat atop the fridge was somehow knocked from its perch. And rather than serving as the night’s desert, it instead became a shapeless – yet still edible – pile of mush sitting on the kitchen floor.
For most people that would have been the end of the rum cake. After its fall, someone probably would have swept it up and placed it in the trash. But Alan wasn’t most people. And the starving actor had different designs on the desecrated desert than the rest of the party.
We can only imagine what was going through the star’s mind at the time. “Do I keep up appearances, or do I let a perfectly good cake go to waste?,” he must have thought.Yet Alan’s hunger gave out. And ditching the dustpan for a spoon, he took to the delicacy with shameless abandon.
Down on all fours, Alan began digging into the spoiled sweet with gusto. In any other instance this type of social faux pas would have led to his ejection from the party. At the very least, it would have led to some embarrassment on the actor’s part. But luckily for him another guest had the same idea as him – Arlene.
Because Arlene gladly took a spoon and joined her future-husband on the floor. Together they dug into the desert with glee. And in what normally would have been regarded as a childish episode, the pair found their random, quirky behaviour shared in each other. You might even say they had taste in common…
Looking back, Alan knew he had just found his lifelong partner. Or at least, that’s what he told Today in 2015. “Arlene and I were the only two people who went in with spoons and ate it off the floor,” he joked. “That’s how you know. When two people eat a cake off the floor, that’s it for life.”
Likewise Arlene discovered in her cake co-consumer a kindred spirit, a man whose sense of fun gelled with her own and would make for an enduring relationship. “I think it cemented our friendship for life,” she told The New York Times in 1981. “That sort of playfulness has stood us in good stead for 24 years.”
So the pair grew ever closer that night. And by the evening’s end, Alan took Arlene all the way from Manhattan back to her home in the Bronx. More than 60 years later, Alan still pinpoints the party as the moment he and Arlene became “almost inseparable.” To think this would never have happened had it not been for some ruined rum cake.
Thus if you’re still looking Mr. or Mrs. Right, take a little insight from Alan and Arlene’s story. It doesn’t matter if you possess perfect airs and graces; all that matters is you be yourself. And if you’re unashamed about your quirks and habits, then chances are that you’ll meet someone who shares them too. You couldn’t make it up.