If you flip to the classifieds in Harvard Magazine, you’ll find personal advertisements for anonymous singles in search of a very particular kind of romance.
A CEO seeks a “petite 5’5 (and under)” woman, ideally with interest in “tennis, philanthropy and travel.” A “stunning female physician” is looking for a “loving and successful man” — she’s in her 40s, but she “radiates the energy and warmth of a woman in her 30s.” A management consultant in her late 50s is ready for “play and less work,” and seeks a “fit, kind man” to accompany her.
You might notice that many of these ads end with the same contact information: a New York telephone number and an e-mail address for someone named Sandy.
Sternbach’s job is comparable to that of a corporate headhunter. She regularly travels around the country interviewing candidates to send on dates with her clients. She’s a regular guest at the lavish Taj Hotel in Back Bay: Though Sternbach lives in New York, she comes to Boston every few weeks to meet with prospective partners for her clients.
“This is like my home,” she says in the chandelier-laden parlor of the Taj.
Sternbach’s highly personalized service is a striking contrast to the wide world of online dating. The number of people meeting through online dating apps has soared in recent years, according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In 1995, just 2 percent of introductions took place online. By 2017, that number had shot to 39 percent. Meanwhile, the number of connections made through family and friends has fallen sharply.
But matchmaking and online dating aren’t entirely at odds with one another. Lisa Clampitt, who leads the Matchmaking Institute, an organization that offers certification and networking opportunities for matchmakers, says that dating websites and apps have made people more comfortable with having a “third party” involved in their love lives. As a result, she says, more people have started to see matchmaking as an “acceptable” option.
The appeal of the matchmaker is that the “third party” does most of the work. Sternbach’s matchmaking business, The Right Time Consultants, offers a service that’s rigorous and confidential. Sternbach personally interviews every candidate before arranging a date, and afterward, she collects feedback from both parties about how it went.
“Think of what you tell your girlfriends,” says Lauren, a retired corporate executive who has asked to be identified by her first name only. “Very nice, but boring. He doesn’t know how to pace himself. He’s too desperate. Whatever.”
Sternbach uses the feedback to coach her clients through future dates. If a series of dates goes well enough that both people want to enter a more serious relationship, they can choose to “freeze” their matchmaking programs. If one isn’t interested, Sternbach can let down the other gently. That part of the service is “a blessing for those of us who don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings,” Lauren says.
Sternbach won’t disclose the fee she charges for her services. Sarah Knudson, a sociology professor at the University of Saskatchewan who has written about coupling and matchmaking, says bespoke services like Sternbach’s usually cost thousands of dollars. Among the businesses Knudson has studied, the more expensive personalized services cost up to $30,000, she says. Clampitt says the average price of a luxury matchmaking service in New York is $25,000.
“They want a little more glamour and sex appeal,” she says.
The hefty price tags, uneven gender dynamics, and class-specific ad descriptions might make some feel squeamish. Is there something off-putting about highly privileged people exclusively seeking partnership with each other?
Sternbach, who studied at New York University and the University of Southern California, says she simply decided to work in the social environment she knows and likes best. “I’m used to being with those kinds of people. Those are the people I relate to well,” she says. “If I’m going to represent them, I have to respect them and believe in them.”
Nancy Gold and Barbara Black Goldfarb, best friends who run Elegant Introductions, another luxury matchmaking service that advertises in Harvard Magazine, give a similar rationale. “We both have multiple degrees; that’s our social network,” says Black Goldfarb. “It was a logical extension to find people to match and to gravitate toward those populations. We relate to them and they relate to us.”
Carol Cohen-Hodess, an equestrian who was married to the late Celtics co-owner Alan Cohen, says she was introduced to Gold and Black Goldfarb through a shared Jewish community in Florida. A mutual friend called Cohen-Hodess and said, “Barbara used to be president of [Jewish] Federation in Miami. She’s the real deal.”
Knudson says people generally tend to find partners with similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, whether they’ve hired a matchmaker or not. “It’s really rare for someone who didn’t get a college degree to partner with someone who did,” she says. “There’s nothing deeply unnatural about what the matchmakers are doing.”
In interviews, matchmaking clients tend to describe their preferences in terms of ambition, success, and lifestyle compatibility, not socioeconomic status.
Carol, a widowed writer who found Sternbach through the classified ads in the New York Review of Books, says her new husband’s Ivy League MBA didn’t spark the romance, “but it’s not nothing.” She adds, “it means he’s done certain things and pursued certain things.”
Lauren, the retired executive who worked with Sternbach, says she was dissatisfied with online dating because “it felt like I was fishing in the wrong pool.”
“I needed to find people whose lifestyles aligned more with what I thought would be a good match for me,” she says.
But even if matchmaking isn’t “deeply unnatural,” in Knudson’s words, the industry surely has its unsavory aspects. Some clients refuse to budge on extremely specific criteria — several matchmakers say they have needed to tell clients to be more open-minded about height, for example.
“As soon as they spend money, they expect miracles,” Clampitt says of the more demanding clients.
Then there are the lopsided gender dynamics. Clampitt and Knudson say that many businesses solely take male clients and match them with women who are not paying for the service.
In addition, lots of matchmaking services don’t work with women over 50. “It’s very challenging,” says Clampitt, whose business does work with older women. When a business takes women over 50 as clients, Clampitt says, “you have to be able to source men who will date within 10 years of their age.” Sometimes, this requires Clampitt to collaborate with other matchmakers, whose clients might pair well with her own.
Sternbach, too, is proud to include women over 50 among her clients. She does not, however, work with same-sex couples. She says she lacks the expertise and database to work with gay singles.
It’s easy to imagine the matchmaker as “a figure of fun,” says Carol, the remarried widow who enlisted Sternbach’s services. But it’s clear that the profession deals with unsexy structural factors like education, wealth, and geography as much as it chases the romantic intangibles.
Cohen-Hodess attributes her current marriage, in some measure, to the supernatural. She says she thinks her late husband’s mother, with whom she communicated through a medium, “sent him” to her. Metaphysics aside, she and her husband, Blake Hodess, have commonalities that made them an obvious match. They’re close in age, they’re both Jewish, and they’re both from Massachusetts.
“I wanted someone with that New England mentality,” Cohen-Hodess says. Her husband had been based in Massachusetts, but wanted to date someone in Florida, where he traveled frequently to visit his parents. “He could not take the cold anymore.” These days, the couple spends part of the year in Massachusetts and the rest of the year in Florida.
Lauren didn’t meet her current husband until after she stopped working with Sternbach. She says she had been introduced to around “half a dozen” affluent, educated prospects over two years.
“Even though the people she introduced me to weren’t my endgame, they could have been,” Lauren says. “She was never far off.”