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The New Arranged Marriage

The New York Times > Magazine: "Janis is a persuasive sort. She has the glitzy confidence — and look — of someone who moves a lot of oversize jewels on QVC. Although she likes to put off the monetary specifics until after more chitchat, she doesn't blanch. Janis Spindel Serious Matchmaking Incorporated's fees begin — begin! — at $20,000 for an initiation fee, plus $1,000 for a one-year membership that includes 12 dates. That also includes a background check and a home visit, during which Janis spends time with the client, to get a sense of him and verify that he is who he says he is (i.e., rich or very rich). Her image consultant also comes to inspect his wardrobe and, if necessary, make plans to revamp his look. Janis has many clients outside the New York area (in Tampa, Miami, Los Angeles, Toronto, Las Vegas). An out-of-town client must fly Janis and an assistant first class and put them up in a hotel for the home visit. Additionally, a marriage bonus is expected — sometimes it's a car or extravagant jewelry; other times it's cash. She has received gifts in the $75,000-to-$250,000 range.

This strikes me as an extremely realistic concern. How else to describe the women who, Janis says, pay $750 for a 30-minute meeting to audition for her databank of women (6,800 of them, Janis claims) who want to marry a man rich enough to pay for her services? (Janis will waive the fee if an attractive woman organizes a group of six to eight friends, because she says that attractive women have attractive friends — and, conversely, homely types often stick together. Attractive friends of homely women, however, are out of luck.) When Janis's database proves inadequate for a specific client's needs, she holds ''casting'' parties, for which she advertises in publications like New York magazine, at which hundreds of women show up to fill out her questionnaire and hand in their snapshots, which she and her staff will vet for the anonymous Prince.

Behind this kind of matchmaking lies a deep distrust of romance, as we usually imagine the word. Matchmakers believe that people should stop their agonized search for soul mates. After all, a soul mate can be glimpsed in many inappropriate objects: the soul may be located in someone who is too young or too old or too poor or the wrong religion or a convicted felon who is married to your sister. Half of literature concerns the perils of falling for a soul mate: the Victorian heroine runs off with the gardener; Romeo decides he can't live without the daughter of a family with whom his is feuding. And these tales always end badly, with disgrace and death, so that the normal order of society can be soberly restored.

The new matchmakers take a traditional approach. They believe that people do and should marry within their tribes. The count's daughter is not going to be happy as a gardener's wife, no matter how mad she was for him at first, whereas a person from affluent Millburn, N.J., will find comfort in a spouse who grew up in nearby Short Hills and went to the same tennis camp. They will speak the same dialect. They will move back to New Jersey and send their kids to that tennis camp. The matchmakers themselves need not necessarily speak their — or any of their clients' — languages. Rather, matchmakers are like linguists who recognize the sounds and structure of many languages and then get the natives together. And if the clients protest that their hearts aren't beating fast enough (Short Hills? Near my parents?), the matchmakers will insist that the pairing is right. Once they commit and start building that long-delayed life, they'll be happy — or happier, at least, than when they were single.

Of course, you wonder if these kinds of matches actually last, or whether a few months or years after that hefty wedding bonus has been paid, one of them starts saying: Do we really communicate? Sometimes I wonder if you really understand me. Does the man think, What about all that money I paid for you? Does the woman wonder, Should I have a profitable divorce and marry for love the next time?

None of the professional matchmakers keep track of their divorce rates (or would admit it if they do). But since half of Americans who find their own turtledoves let them go, there is no reason to think that match-made marriages don't do as well — or better.

On first dates, people are heavily influenced by perceptions of appearance, Florence says. Yet everyone has had the experience of finding their dates' appearances metamorphosizing during the course of an evening: their faces rearranging themselves like a Picasso painting into something compelling or ugly. On the second date, Florence says, people start to see the way they are really going to see each other. And Florence's theory has been confirmed: many of her couples told her they would not have gone out a second time if that hadn't been the bargain.

Florence matches the same way that the high-end matchmakers do, with the goal of creating stable families by finding partners with similar values and backgrounds. She shares the same essentially conservative philosophy: get married.

At times it strikes me that she talks about marrying as if it were shopping for a dress. Everyone knows that when you go out looking for the perfect dress, you can't find it. You drag your friends to store after store. The event grows closer; you're still shopping. How about this one, your friends ask, or this? Any of these would look lovely. The event has started; you're still in the store. Better to buy an imperfect dress than to miss the party entirely, your friends counsel. You cave. Then you go to the party and have a great time and get compliments, and you can't remember why you agonized so long.

Most of Samantha's clients are in her peer group — age 27 to 50. ''Almost all of my male clients make over half a million dollars a year,'' she says, ''and many make over a million.'' She says that she represents 50 to 75 clients at a time (at $10,000 a pop, that puts her in the same financial category as her clients), whom she meets at her office: an appointed table at Manhattan hotels, usually the Regency, where the waiters know her favorite drinks (cranberry juice without ice, hot chocolate). During an initial $400 consultation, she tells potential clients that she will think about whether she can match them. (She keeps the fee whether or not she accepts them.)

Samantha's matching method, like Janis's, is frighteningly simple. After the clients sign, she has them fill out a one-page questionnaire and asks them basic biographical questions about their background, family and interests, as well as their income level. (The lowest category is $50,000 to $75,000.) She finds out what schools they went to and what summer camp. She tells them to bring pictures of their exes and asks them to list the qualities they want in an ideal mate.

Samantha's clients, like the clients of other matchmakers, like having their romantic lives managed — feeling someone is captaining their boat and steering them into port. Interestingly, unlike Janis's, Samantha's success is not a product of her personal warmth or expansive enthusiasm. She can have a peevish, critical air and seems easily annoyed. But rather than detracting from her appeal, snobbishness seems essential to it. She's like the ringleader of the popular group in school, who tells initiates she could bring them into her circle — if they do what she says.

I try politics, with even less success than contemporary art. Then I recall Samantha's list of approved conversational topics and test out great vacations (which all of them take). We move on to new bars and restaurants, and the rest of the conversation is smooth sailing.

It isn't the actual topics, I realize: no one cares what I think about bars. But when I tried to formulate a thought about Abstract Expressionism, my brow furrowed; when I moved on to Iraq, it furrowed farther, and I put down my drink. But complaining about the dearth of groovy eateries on the Upper West Side (where I live) while extolling their neighborhood — the Upper East Side — made us want to refill our glasses.

So Samantha's advice had been right — for her market.

Behind all of Samantha's counsel is a simple message: if you want to marry, don't blow it. Play ball, don't rock the boat, avoid controversy, get along, don't drag her or him into heavy conversations. Go out, have sex, take trips. Eventually, you'll become comfortable, and attachment will grow, and pretty soon you'll be cruising on a lane toward that tollbooth, and it's harder to get off than to go forward. It's not just that you should delay turning on that bright light of serious scrutiny (Is this really the right relationship for me?), which inevitably produces ambivalence; you should leave it off forever.

Samantha likes to micromanage her clients' relationships. She strategizes. She'll tell a female client to play a little harder to get while telling her boyfriend he needs to show more devotion. She smoothes over misunderstandings. For example, she tells me, suppose a female client is hurt because the man didn't include her in a family gathering. Samantha calls the man and tells him that it is important to women to be included in family events to make them feel like girlfriends and give them hope that one day they might be a member of that family. And (she says) clients listen. ''A lot of times without me, couples would just break up.''

One morning at the Regency, Samantha and I role-play a consultation. After scolding me for being late, she examines my clothing — a cashmere sweater set that was a gift from my mother — and it thankfully passes. I would have thought there was nothing anyone could tell me about my romantic life that I — and a dozen of my closest friends — didn't already know. But it is a startling experience to be forced to summarize your romantic history to a chilly stranger: not the inner story, in which it is so easy to become entangled, but the facts. Samantha is impatient with details; she only wants to know whom did you date, how old was he, how old were you and why did it go so long if you weren't going to wed? If you don't have a solid answer for your last seven serious relationships, she pounces.

In my mind, (almost) all my relationships have been dear. It's not simply that you discover new things about yourself in different relationships, but you become a new self in each relationship, and that self is not lost when the relationship is. Relationships have an innate logic: they blossom and flower in their own time, whether it's a year or three or a lifetime. You don't want to snip them in the bud just because you know they might not last forever; you want to treasure the blossoming.

I believed that I would spend my life with my ex-fiance. But we didn't marry, and although that is poignant and complicated, my ex-fiance and I still value our engagement because it was a beautiful thing at the time, and now we are friends.

This, at any rate, is the way I understand my life. But this is not the way Samantha understands life, and in part, you are hiring her for her understanding — for suspending your own worldview and adopting hers. And in her view, a broken engagement is like skidding off the road when you were en route to the only place that matters: marriage. I can see from her face (and the horror with which she asks, How close was it to the wedding?) that for her the idea of valuing a trip that ended before the altar is as bizarre as sentimentalizing a bloody car wreck.

Yet she is single herself, I point out: surely she doesn't see her own relationships — each with its world of private particular meaning — as simply a series of failures to marry?

But apparently she does. A look I have never seen before — dreamy and wistful — softens her features as she says, ''Just because I'm a matchmaker doesn't mean I have an express lane to the promised land of marriage.''

Although everything about modern culture has shown that vows do not guarantee happiness, stability or even a future, for all her savvy posturing, Samantha is a deep believer. Every day she strives to bring her clients to the threshold she hopes to one day cross herself. For a matchmaker, that's where romance begins.

Melanie Thernstrom is a contributing writer for the magazine. She has written about mediated divorce and other subjects."