Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder
No one could blame a reader for being weary of Sylvia Plath. For starters, February of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary both of her death and of the publication of The Bell Jar. In commemoration, virtually every news outlet with a culture desk ran a piece about Plath -- criticism, mostly, with a few straight homages tossed in there, as there can be no more "stories" about her. The UK-based newspaper The Guardian assembled an e-panel of intellectual ladies, including no less than Jeanette Winterson, Jennifer Egan, and our modern day confessional princess Lena Dunham, to discuss Plath's place in the canon. A New Yorker writer mused on the joyous aspects of her poetry, a journalist at The Atlantic freaked out over the fact that there are no obituaries of her, and NPR asked poet and critic Craig Morgan Teicher to examine her early poetry. In addition to all this, two new biographies -- to add to a shelf already sinking beneath the weight of multiple tomes -- came out just in time for the mass cultural memorial. In the first, American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, scholar and writer Carl Rollyson attempts to examine the mythology of Plath the woman (he barely touches on her work). The second, Mad Girl's Love Song by British journalist Andrew Wilson, explores, as the subtitle declares "Life Before Ted." Wilson catalogues the forces at work on the young Sylvia, and very convincingly argues against the vigorously held belief that the philandering Hughes practically shoved Plath's head into the oven.
In Pain, Parties, Work, poet Elizabeth Winder narrows Wilson's focus even further by examining not just Sylvia pre-Ted, but Sylvia specifically in the summer of 1953, when she lived in New York and was a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. The internship was a major coup for Plath, who nabbed it by winning a fiction contest in Seventeen, and indeed for all the participants; it was perhaps the most prestigious literary recognition a young college girl could get. It was also a meaningful month, because it arguably drove Sylvia to her first suicide attempt, and was the basis for much of The Bell Jar. It is very easy -- and somewhat fun, albeit in a twisted way -- to pick out correlations between events in Plath's novel and in Winder's factual account of that sweltering summer. There is Sylvia stuffing herself with caviar, and there she is fretting over the Rosenbergs. Here are all the girls flitting about the office or the Amazon Hotel, Plath's name for the Barbizon, the legendary ladies' boarding house on Lexington Avenue where the guest editors lived. Here, too, are the familiar people: the smarmy disc jockey, the fastidious boss, the capricious friend, the benefactress with the finger bowls. And there, at the end of it all, is the drained and defeated Plath, still sweating as she disembarks the train back in Massachusetts, not quite as young as she was just four weeks earlier.
Winder's being a poet by trade serves her well here. She describes the aesthetics of the era beautifully -- the sartorial trimmings, the bobbed hair and bright red lipstick. Reading this book sparks feelings of impossible nostalgia for someone who didn't live through the fifties; in this way, it is an experience akin to watching Mad Men. Winder focuses mostly on the luxuries that Plath herself enjoys, namely clothing, shoes, and food. When she writes about food, you get the sense that she herself is channeling the hedonistic pleasure with which Plath relished cuisine. "[Sylvia] loved the claret, the filet mignon, the green salad, and the thick dark coffee," Winder writes of a meal at La Petite Maison (followed by drinks at Delmonico's). After describing the caviar debacle -- when Sylvia ate an entire bowl with a distinctly unladylike gusto -- Winder comes to her subject's defense. "She simply loved food the way she loved so much of the material world: cashmere, caviar, beer -- all of it... caviar was just another food for her." Winder brings approaches descriptions of clothing and accouterment with similar joy, though in this case it seems that everyone, not just Sylvia, is fixated on style after the end of wartime austerity. Nightgowns, sleek leather slippers, black shantung sheaths (Winder's favorite), Cuban heels and "little damp gloves hanging... like tiny white flags" abound. For Sylvia maybe more than the other girls, these objects of beauty become almost talismanic in that they promise to elevate her to a new level of fashion, maturity, or worldliness. She clutches her purses like treasures, and wears her Revlon Cherries in the Snow lipstick like armor.
But in her plentiful descriptions of earthly pleasures, Winder reveals a tendency toward the overly precious, which is nowhere more apparent than in the formatting of the text itself, liberally interrupted by pictures, stand-alone quotations from other guest editors, and asides encased in flourished faux-frames. The book is like a little jewelry box of fact-lets. Some of the extra information Winder provides is interesting enough; for example, it is humorous to learn that on Sylvia's application to the Mademoiselle college board, she boasted about her "excellent" New Zealand picking skills. Others, such as the box she devotes to the favorite red lip tints of the fifties, are just blatant padding, and could have been done away with entirely. The pastiche effect is distracting at best and aggravating at worst. One wonders what the book would have looked like had Winder managed to construct the prose in a more flowing way without breaking once a page to describe a merry widow corset, and also if perhaps she wasn't capable of doing this because she simply didn't have enough material. A few months, after all, isn't such a long time.
Other than this, there is one more thing about this text that is slightly disconcerting, and that is the author's stated goal. "Pain, Parties, Work," Winder writes in her introduction, "is an attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist." She wouldn't be the first writer to try to de-mythologize Plath, and she almost certainly won't be the last, which is rather unfortunate considering this is probably an impossible task. For one, disassembling one myth -- in this case, that Plath was always a depressed ascetic -- often means erecting another in its place. Winder's Sylvia is a changeling of sorts, a creature sprung forth from the sea, equally as magical and alluring as the tortured poetess. She often evokes the imagery of mermaids when describing Plath's babyhood, and once compares child Sylvia to St. Therese de Lisieux, thus completing her reverse hagiography. And it seems equally "reductionist," as Winder calls much of the other writing devoted to her subject, to portray Plath a lubricious sybarite, some creature of the wild, as if having those qualities precludes one from also being depressed. There is often gluttony in misery, too, after all.
There is a chilling moment at the end of Pain, Parties, Work -- in an annoying little sidebar -- when Winder reveals that a handwriting analyst, hired secretly by Mademoiselle, had warned the editor-in-chief of the magazine that one of the young editors was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Of course, we know which editor it was, and we know, by now, her story, but we -- Winder, Plath's other biographers, Dunham, other casual readers of Plath -- cannot help returning to it, and in returning to it, we create a new Sylvia, our own Sylvia. All our versions are basically mythical, but we need them to explain her, and to help us cope with the tragedy of a young, vibrant woman choosing to end her life as it was just beginning. And though she is just another paper doll version, Winder's Sylvia, young, tan, "more California than New York," sensitive but biting, literary but wrapped up in earthly delights, is delightful to be with.
Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder