Pain, Parties, Work
Sixty years ago in May, Sylvia Plath was finishing her junior year at Smith College and preparing to travel to New York City to join the Mademoiselle magazine “College Board,” a group of college girls who would spend the month of June living in the Barbizon hotel and appearing as guest editors for the August issue. Elizabeth Winder, the author of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, paints a picture of this era in order to understand more about how it affected Sylvia’s hopes and dreams. They “wore girdles, conical bras, kitten and Cuban heels. Whether playing badminton or clacking away at a typewriter, they worked at cultivating a veneer of knowing sophistication—they wanted to ‘own’ the ladylike details of their dresses and clutches. The goal was to feel and look as turned out and spotless as a white kid glove.”
Sylvia and the 19 other guest editors conducted interviews with literary celebrities of the day, attended parties, appeared in fashion shows, and went to lunches and on dates to events around the city sponsored by the magazine. Later in the summer Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time, and ten years later she would publish The Bell Jar, her version of that month in New York and the mental breakdown that followed.
Winder has interviewed many of the other guest editors about the month they spent with Sylvia, and the result is the jarring juxtaposition promised by her title; one has to wonder how it was possible for an intelligent and sensitive young woman to contend with so many rigid expectations without letting go of so many of her own ambitions that she would become like everyone else. Before Sylvia even got to New York, for example, she did her guest interview with the novelist Elizabeth Bowen wearing a “tight blue and white sheath dress with matching jacket and a curvy little white hat. As usual, she adorned herself simply—with her signature cherry red lipstick, a pearl cuff around her right wrist and a delicate watch around her left. That day both women wore three layers of pearls looped around their throats.” A photograph is included.
The photographs in this book show Sylvia’s attempts to conform to the requirements for young women of her day. Winder asserts that her preparations for New York consisted of organizing her wardrobe: “she wasn’t preoccupied with organizing notes, brushing up on her typing, or reading short stories. She obsessed over clothes—thinking about them, budgeting for them, writing about them, and shopping for them.” After the first third of the book, the tone of Winder’s assertions began to wear on me; rather than commenting on what seems to me to be ample evidence that, like pearls around her throat, the stringent rules about appearance strangled some of what Sylvia could have become, Winder claims that “new clothes left Sylvia reeling with happiness. For Sylvia, a shopping list was a poem.” Since I read an advance copy of the book, provided by HarperCollins courtesy of TLC Blog Tours, I couldn’t trace the path of the unfinished notes well enough to see which young guest editor might have said something that allowed Winder to draw this conclusion.
Winder’s deliberate cheeriness does echo the cheeriness forced on the young guest editors, however–girls who were once required to pose for hours in a star formation in rubber girdles and wool kilts on a 94-degree day (while the Mademoiselle staff members wore “chic black suits”) and then write about their day “as dressy and fun.” The book’s cheery tone is amplified by magazine-like boxes interspersed throughout the text. One called “Vitals” reveals details about Sylvia, like that “she smelled like soap and water, lipstick, and Prell and Lustre-Creme shampoo” and that “she wanted her children to be conceived in the ocean.”
Sylvia’s longing for the ocean towards the end of June is one of Winder’s most convincingly established facts about her month in New York. “Away from her beloved beaches, she began to wither. Summers were for reading and sunbathing marathons—the sun gave her ‘a great glowing peace.’” Readers can see that her expectations were high when she got to the beach later in the summer, only to discover that her chosen book—Joyce’s Ulysses—was difficult to read, and her difficulty with it made her feel that she was a failure at something important she had set out to do.
Finally, towards the end of her book, Winder comments perceptively on “the instability of identity—how we are seen only one dimension at a time. Cyrilly saw a kindred bluestocking. Laurie Glazer saw a cultivated beauty. Ann Burnside saw a caviar-stuffing barbarian.” If this purposely-limited book has a place beside Plath’s own journals in providing another view of the complicated person she was, it is because of the way we see her through the eyes of the girls who saw mostly what she wanted them to see, reflections of themselves. Her quest to spot Dylan Thomas in person becomes trivial: “the whole mad frolic became known as ‘the Dylan Thomas episode’ and remains a testament to Sylvia’s infectious enthusiasm for whatever, whomever, she loved.”
The cover photo is eerily similar to photos of Jennifer Lawrence’s fall at this year’s Oscars, don’t you think? The big skirt, the up-do, the fragile-looking shoulder blades—these have not yet been banished from our picture of how a beautifully dressed young girl looks.