What Didn’t Kill Sylvia Plath Made Her Stronger

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 12:30 PM

Mad Girls

The story of 20-year-old Sylvia Plath’s “real whirl” in 1953 Manhattan.

Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle.
Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle

Photo by Landshoff/Mademoiselle © Conde Nast

“I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” Sylvia Plath’s young protagonist sighs in the 1963 classic The Bell Jar. Sulking, acerbic Esther Greenwood—Holden Caulfield in a shantung sheath—is in Manhattan, supposedly “having a real whirl,” but is actually spending most of her time obsessing over executions and stuffing herself with expensive condiments. “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus,” she admits. She manages to make New York and all of its youthful splendors sound like a Bataan death march for striving debutantes, which, while not unrealistic, is hardly the Manhattan dream.

That’s probably why Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work, the most recent addition to the ever-expanding Plath biographical oeuvre, feels so unlikely. Much of the book, about Plath’s month in New York City in 1953, is downright cheery. Then a 20-year-old student at Smith College, she won a spot as a guest editor for Mademoiselle’s annual college issue and would live with 19 other young “guest editors” spending a month in New York filled with parties, fashion shows, dates, ballets, cocktails, and caviar, mostly paid for by the magazine. When she arrived on May 31, she had a new wardrobe, a perfect pageboy haircut, and plenty of red lipstick.

She was also 58 days away from her first suicide attempt and 10 years away from publishing The Bell Jar, the roman à clef that chronicled that month in New York and her ensuing breakdown. (She killed herself just a few months after the book was published.) How did this golden girl go from the pinnacle of her budding career to sitting in a crawl space, swallowing a bottle of Nembutal?

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Plath was, as Winder points out, part of a growing tide of young, single women moving to New York, which was becoming “a safe haven for women who were more interested in becoming fully formed adults than wives and mothers.” Her base was on 63rd and Lexington Avenue at the Barbizon, the famed all-women’s hotel and protector of female virtue. (Other residents of note over the years included Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Liza Minnelli, Eudora Welty, and Joan Didion, who did her own stint as a Mademoiselle guest editor.) The young editors each had a small, un-air conditioned room at the hotel, from which they would walk to the Mademoiselle offices on 79th Street.

As the guest managing editor, Plath’s work at the magazine was particularly demanding. Soon she was “spending hours chained to a makeshift desk” under the watchful gaze of editor Cyrilly Abels, who realized just how talented the young writer was. But Plath didn’t just want to work. Like most 20-year-olds, she was there to stay up late with the other editors and wear strapless silver lamé dresses and drink daiquiris and, of course, date. Before she made it to New York, Plath wrote in her diary, “My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk about everybody.” In New York, she hoped to meet an endless array of new characters and headed out with everyone from preppy Ivy Leaguers to South American diplomats (although she was ultimately disappointed).

When delving into Plath’s short life, biographers have more or less focused on her older years, particularly her turbulent relationship with future British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Winder sees her book as “an attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.” (Andrew Wilson’s recent Plath biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song, also refocuses on the pre-Hughes years.) She relies heavily on interviews with the other 1953 Mademoiselle guest editors to paint a rather different image of Plath from the one most readers are familiar with today. On these pages, we get a portrait of the artist as a typical young woman in 1950s America. “Sylvia seemed to me like a girl who was eager to please,” says fellow guest editor Gloria Kirshner. “She was anxious to do right—the epitome of the good girl.” Another describes her as “slightly unapproachable, but not awkward or shy or rude. She was very pleasant and courteous. One felt like you couldn’t tell her a dirty joke.” And Carol Levarn, the young woman whom Plath twisted into The Bell Jar’s wild Southern belle Doreen, distills what most of the women seem to be thinking: “I never could have imagined the life she had ahead of her. She seemed just like me.”

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