Elizabeth Winder's Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 is an interesting look at one summer in the life of poet Sylvia Plath. In 1953 she spent a month in New York City living at the famed Barbizon Hotel working as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. It was a plum job since Mademoiselle at the time was as much a literary magazine as one filled with fashion and beauty advice. She, along with nineteen other girls were selected from hundreds of applicants to help edit the magazine's popular fall college issue.
Winder presents her readers with a work that is as much a biography of one period of Plath's life, but also a fascinating look at America in the mid-1950s when the lives of women were just about to change irrevocably. It's biography, history, social history and gossipy storytelling, but gossipy in the best possible way. She uses a variety of sources including Plath's writing and interviews with the other women who worked as guest editors.
"You would work, but you also went to parties, plays, and fashion shows. You met people like Hubert de Givenchy, E.B. White, and Marlon Brando. In 1953, the program was in its heyday, and for a literary-minded college girl like Sylvia, it was the best you could do."
The book is probably a look at Plath you might not have encountered before. There is less about her life as "tragedy" as it is a look at a young woman with the world literally at her feet. There are bits about her writing but, too, about her social life and her likes and dislikes, her fears and desires and her dreams. This is a view of a twenty-year-old Plath, a young woman just figuring out who she is. It's an interesting side to Plath, though it is tinged with sadness and pain. It's strange to think that a mere three years later Plath would be married to Ted Hughes and not a decade later her life would be cut short.
This was a summer filled with parties and elegance, many, many dates and opportunities to rub shoulders with the literati, go to fashion shows and do fashion shoots. Here is a side of Sylvia you won't likely find in any other biography--what she liked to eat and wear and who she liked to date. She had a lot of particular favorites and was quite social. I almost began doubting my idea of who Plath was. She seems almost too giddy in this portrait of her, which upon further reflection seems a little unfair on my part. Liking clothes and a certain shade of lipstick (which the reader is privy to here) and liking tall attractive men doesn't mean she was any less talented or serious about her writing.
I think for most of the young women this summer was an adventurous hiatus for them before they set out on the life that was expected for young American women. To marry and have a family and care for others. If any of the women were offered a job in New York it would be a dream, but not necessarily a realistic path to follow. Sylvia was not like other girls however. She was really talented and wanted for herself what only men until then could have--both a family and a career. It seems as though the world didn't quite know how to deal with a woman like Sylvia who was so talented.
"Like nearly all the other women, Sylvia assumed that she would be married in five years (the idea was to get things lined up before graduation.) Many of the girls had steady boyfriends or fiancés."
"Sylvia summered in Manhattan during a unique cultural moment. It was one of the most ambiguous, baffling, vertigo-inducing epochs in history for educated, ambitious young women."
I think this summer for Sylvia was eye opening and exciting but also difficult and stressful. The managing editor of the magazine sounds like a terror and a horrible taskmaster (who purportedly was on a diet and would start the day with half a grapefruit and a cigarette which pretty much ensured her mood would be foul) who seemed to belittle some of the girls and expect more from them than expected. Sylvia got to work "in the bullpen" meaning she got to read manuscripts and interact with authors, write and type rejection letters but the work was endless and on more than one occasion she or one of the other women would end up in tears. It was a highly demanding job and Sylvia felt the weight of it.
It sounds like a mixed bag of a summer. Sylvia had to be someone that wasn't exactly in her nature. There were expectations, which she tried to meet but by summer's end she seemed happy, too, to throw them off (supposedly she dumped all her "New York" clothes off the top of the building and went home in borrowed finery--so to speak). The women had to dress properly down to pristine white gloves but no white shoes.
"Ironically, Sylvia actually entered the city looking like a New Yorker and left the city in Janet's (one of the other guest editors) peasant drindl. She was sick of tight skirts in black orlons and rayons, sick of wearing hose in this tropical heat. Out of Janet's entire wardrobe, Sylvia selected the two items most likely to make her look like an alpine shepherdess."
Sylvia was indeed ready to move on. It was after this summer she had her nervous breakdown and went through shock therapy, which is (frighteningly) touched upon here, but only periperally. But then look what she went on to achieve. This book is a curious and light look at Sylvia Plath, a sort of foundation on which it would be so easy to build. I read The Bell Jar ages ago and think it is time now for a reread. I would love to get my hands on that August 1953 issue of Mademoiselle which with 380 pages weighed in at a pound (not bad for a magazine!). Sylvia's winning short story is in that issue I believe. Definitely a light read and an interesting look at a time and place and one side of Sylvia Plath. I am curious if anyone could suggest a good biography of her, something broader, perhaps, and more comprehensive.