Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Padma Lakshmi, the Indian model and food writer. I was appearing as a guest judge on Top Chef, the food reality show she hosts in America, and the two of us would be working together for the next fortnight. The word "gorgeous" is inadequate to describe her. She is so dazzling, it is almost as if she is accompanied by her own lighting system. My first thought was, "How on earth did Salman Rushdie manage to pull you?"
Padma isn't the only beautiful woman Salman has been involved with. Since their divorce last year, the best-selling Indian novelist has been linked with the actresses Scarlett Johanson, Rosario Dawson and Olivia Wilde, not to mention athlete Aimee Mullins and, most recently, the Bollywood starlet Riya Sen. It is an impressive roster for a man approaching retirement age who barely reaches 5ft 7in in his slippers.
How does he do it? The explanation offered up by sexually-jealous, middle-aged journalists -- i.e., people like me -- is that the women he attracts are only in it for the publicity. Actresses like Riya Sen, described as "the Indian equivalent of Jordan", know that being photographed with Rushdie in the tabloids will boost their careers, particularly on the sub-continent where Rushdie has rock-star status.
Yet could there be another, more interesting explanation? A report published last week by the Institute of Psychiatry claimed that intelligent men produce better sperm. Not only is there more of it, apparently, but it is more mobile too, and the children they conceive are likely to be fit, healthy and smart.
If this is true, it means there is a biological reason why women are attracted to smart men -- just as there is a biological explanation for why men are attracted to women with the right waist-to-hip ratio. According to evolutionary psychologists, the reason men find women like Jessica Alba, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren so irresistible is because they have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7, a measurement that correspondents with health and fertility. Could a similar biological imperative explain why women are so attracted to Salman Rushdie?
He is far from the only literary novelist who has punched above his weight in the sexual arena. The Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow was married five times and Norman Mailer was on his sixth marriage when he died last year. Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, once pointed out that women aren't attracted to good-looking men, they're attracted to men who associate with good-looking women. But perhaps it is not merely their big reputations as literary lotharios that make men like Rushdie so appealing; it is also their big brains.
Other examples of clever men linked with beautiful women include Henry Kissinger and Jill St John, AJ Ayer and Naomi Campbell, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, Martin Amis and Isobel Fonseca, Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni and, most recently, Bernard-Henri Levy and Daphne Guinness.
In the light of the biological theory, perhaps Mrs Merton's put-down to Debbie McGee wasn't as accurate as we imagine: "So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" Maybe McGee was attracted to the fact that Daniels is obviously an intelligent man.
The most famous example of an intellectual making an unlikely conquest of a beautiful woman is Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. In Christopher Bigsby's recently-published biography of Miller, he includes the following quotation from Elia Kazan, who observed the two lovebirds together at a party in 1951: "I could see that need had met need and the lovely light of desire was in their eyes. I watched them dance; Art was a good dancer. And how happy she was in his arms! Not only was he tall and handsome in a Lincolnesque way, but he was a Pulitzer Prize playwright."
The conventional wisdom is that Monroe was attracted to Miller because she was intellectually insecure -- if she could get someone as clever as Arthur Miller to marry her, then she wouldn't be thought of as such a bimbo. But perhaps she found his intelligence appealing for more primordial reasons. She was desperate to have children when she met the playwright and the fact that he had such a large brain may have triggered a biological response in her reptile brain.
Whatever the explanation, I am personally grateful that women find intelligent men so interesting. I cannot boast of having a string of ex-wives, but I am happily wedded to a woman who is considerably more attractive than me. I always assumed she married me because I can make her laugh, but perhaps it's my ability to do complicated sums in my head that impressed her. One thing's for sure: I'm never going to introduce her to Salman Rushdie.