Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Otto's Gangrene

The Plath family doctor brought surgeon Halsey B. Loder to the Plaths' house in Winthrop to examine Otto Plath's gangrenous foot. Gangrene is rotting flesh and looks and smells like it, and hurts so terribly that patients can't bear the weight of a bedsheet. Dr. Loder told Otto's wife Aurelia that to save Otto's life he needed his leg amputated from the thigh.

Aurelia Plath's Letters Home narrative of Otto's decline describes a textbook case of untreated diabetes, two or three miserable years start to finish. Their children barely knew a healthy father. All the same Otto, a biologist, refused to see any doctor until his toes turned gray and black. The amputation was performed at Boston's Deaconess Hospital on October 12, 1940.

Halsey Beach Loder (1884-1966) was a "society surgeon" held in the highest esteem among New England physicians and patients. A visiting and consulting surgeon at nearly every Boston-area hospital, Loder was an employee of none: He was his own boss, in 1939 working 42 weeks. [1] Otto had the best available care. Yet three weeks after surgery Otto had not yet gone home. On Nov. 5 Loder phoned Aurelia to say Otto had died. The final medical bill must have been colossal.

Before Otto left home for the surgery, seven-year-old Sylvia Plath made two haunting pencil drawings of her sick father at home in his bed. Each image centers on Otto Plath's dreadfully swollen foot sticking up from his cover sheet. Sylvia drew the same scene twice and one is more finished. Bonham's auctioned and sold those drawings, not to me, so view them here

Aurelia captioned and dated the drawings (October 7, 1940) and in one of them, traced over Sylvia's outline of the affected foot.

It was Dr. Loder who had said to Aurelia, "How could such a brilliant man be so stupid."

[1] U.S. federal census 1940, Mass., Suffolk, Boston, 15-213.

[Photo] The Boston American, Sept. 18, 1926, p. 2. Caption: "Dr. Loder is the surgeon who amputated the leg of Mrs. Pauline LeRoy French, New York and Newport society leader."

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

"My Mother, a Sea-Girl Herself"

Aurelia Schober, c. 1927

We've all seen photos of Sylvia Plath lounging on the beach, so here is her mother, as 21-year-old college student Aurelia Schober, having her own bathing-beauty moment. Her boyfriend/lover Karl Terzaghi's diary says: "Enjoyed seeing [Aurelia] in bathing suit, well built and very pretty."

Aurelia loved the ocean and beaches, lived in oceanfront Winthrop from 1918 through 1931, and in 1936 persuaded her husband Otto Plath to move their family there. The Plaths would have continued to live in Winthrop, but breadwinner Otto refused health care and died, forcing Aurelia to reconfigure her family and move. 

Source: Sivad yearbook, 1928

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Plath Family Baby Names

Time was if in the U.S. you heard the name "Sylvia" the next word was "Plath." U.S. Social Security baby-name stats tell us "Sylvia" was never a common name: It peaked in 1937 at #56 on the popular-name list and hit its low in 2003. Since then Hispanic families in particular are restoring "Sylvia" to the top 500 U.S. girl names. The same is true of "Aurelia," currently #371, up 117 places from 2022. "Aurelia" peaked in 1908 and hit its rock bottom in 1999 at position #2,680.

Of course Aurelia Plath, born in 1906, was named not for a fad but for her Austrian-born mother. "Sylvia" was emphatically not a family name but a conscious reference to the natural world her parents Aurelia and Otto Plath hoped to study and write books about. They also made the unusual choice to give Sylvia, born in 1932, no middle name.

That likely avoided a minefield of creaky family names. "Ernestine," Otto's mother's name, means "serious" or "battle to the death." Their fathers were Francis and Theodor; Aurelia was already Aurelia Frances. The most faddish girls' names of the 1930s were Mary, Betty, and Barbara, and Otto's name feminized is "Ottilie" -- none compatible with Sylvia's first name.

"Otto" means "wealthy" and "Emil" means "rival," "industrious," or "to excel." Sylvia as a mother-to-be considered the baby name "Emily" and hoped to name a second daughter Megan (pronounced "meg-un," she told her mother). She liked those names and "Nicholas" twenty years ahead of their mass popularity. "Frieda," Germanic for "peace" or "joy," reached its U.S. peak in 1896 -- the year Sylvia's Aunt Frieda was born in Germany -- and despite a few vogue years in the U.K. the name is currently ranked around #4,000 there and in the U.S.

We do know that Sylvia's brother Warren (meaning "protective enclosure") was named for William Marshall Warren, dean of Boston University's College of Liberal Arts, where professor Otto Plath received the dean's counsel. B.U. had several distinguished Warrens, first names and surnames. As a baby name for boys, "Warren" peaked in 1921 at #24. Surprise, it's on the rise as a gender-neutral name.

I had kind of hoped the "Ariels" I met were named for a book of poems.
Re Sylvia's fictional characters: "Esther" is Persian for "star," but compared with Queen Esther's Hebrew name "Hadassah" it grates on the ear. It's Sylvia's cousin's name. One Bell Jar oddity is that Esther Greenwood has no nickname, even among intimates such as Buddy Willard. "Esther" topped out in 1896 at #31 and sank to its low in 1970. Girls' name "Dody" ("dodo," "doughy," "dowdy") never ranked higher than in 1959 at #2,303. "Dody" seems a very un-Lawrentian name for the Lawrentian protagonist of Sylvia's first, unfinished novel, unless she was referencing "doughty" or "do-or-die."

Pop singers and prominent characters in fantasy fictions and video games are reviving old-man old-lady names, so expect more of the above to catch fire and to meet a young Sylvia soon.

"Johann" and "Ernestine" dominated Prussian baptismal records in 1853.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

In The Polish Town

My first trip overseas was to Poland and I'd move there except my house is Polish already, with a flowering meadow across the lane, etc. Finding Sylvia Plath's grandmother's Polish home address I Google-Mapped it. Ernestine Kottke Plath died in an Oregon mental hospital in 1919 but her childhood home still stands: 12, Strozewo (a village).

I saw the address in Ernestine Plath's Oregon State Hospital record.
Just six miles away is a Plath landmark town, under German rule spelled "Budsin," today in Polish spelled "Budzyn," population 2,000. It's Plath's grandfather's hometown. Sylvia called it a "manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia." Theodor Plath married local girl Ernestine in 1882 and settled there. I think Ernestine gave birth to Otto in Grabowo because she had relatives there, but Otto grew up in Budsin, and tired of maps I wanted to see the place.
"Strolling" through the older part of Budsin I saw where the Plaths might have raised their children, not quite to their adulthood. The year Otto was born the German Empire's increasingly menacing army started cleansing the empire of Russians, Poles, and Jews. Masses of ethnic Germans like the Plaths were already leaving for the U.S., partly to escape conscription. Otto was 15 when he went to the U.S. His father, and then his mother and five siblings, ages 4 to 13, left Prussia the following year, 1901.

Traditional Polish houses are stone covered in paintable stucco. I learned Gmin means local government, and this is Budzyn's City Hall at the center of town.

Poles put flowers wherever they feel like it. It's a celebratory thing.

For the address of the Plath house in Budsin I'd need church or civil records not readily accessible. But I like Poland for itself and felt at home there. My mother's parents were Polish immigrants. They died when I was very small but I remember the Polishness of their house and ours. I hope you too grew up amid abundant cabbage-rose decor.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Why an Aurelia Plath Biography is Impossible (For Now)

Analyze the appeal to young women of this creative collage-style ad (1957)

Here's what's derailed my longtime goal to write a book-length Aurelia Plath biography in the classic birth-to-death mode:

-Insufficient material. After ten years I find Aurelia's childhood a blank except for what she tells in Letters Home. Hundreds of Aurelia's letters to Sylvia are missing. I'll wager that Aurelia withheld from archives and filed away some crucial letters and writings, hers and Sylvia's, and they're privately owned. Aurelia kept diaries or journals, she said so, but they'd look anemic alongside of Sylvia's. Aurelia's associates and friends didn't write and publish memoirs.

-Aurelia was a polite, generous, hard-working lady and caring mother and neighbor who did her best. I found in her life some exciting episodes and prefigurements and secrets, yet the lives of unglamorous people who never wrote poems or held office lack drama and are unlikely to sell.

-Lack of funds. I've funded most of my own research because I think it's worth it, but don't want in my lap a multi-year book project without a sponsor or publisher's backing. Lucky you if you have a working spouse.

-Permissions. I asked the distinguished Plath biographer Dr. Heather Clark about the hardest thing she faced while writing Red Comet, and she said "Permissions." What was difficult for Dr. Clark would drive an independent scholar insane.

-Shifting perspectives. Increasingly I'm viewing Aurelia and Sylvia Plath less in terms of their personal trivia and more in the context of the cards they were dealt and the forces acting on and against them. I'm thinking that they maintained their bond -- incomprehensible to most -- because they needed it.

I'll think of alternatives!

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

From Germany to the Pacific Northwest

Sylvia Plath's story is so New England that links to the Pacific Northwest seem sort of odd. A true Bostonian, she saw England and France before venturing west of the Hudson. In 1910 her future dad Otto Plath left Wisconsin for grad school in Seattle despite universities aplenty nearer by and out east. Otto's classmate inspired his move to Seattle, where in 1912 he got a master's degree and his first teaching job and first wife. But I think it mattered too that Otto's parents and three brothers were already in the Pacific Northwest. 

Although Otto's grandfather disowned him, his family stayed in touch and asked him whether he'd take in his sickly brother Paul. Otto said no.

Otto had been getting kid-glove fine schooling while his family came from Prussia straight to the North Dakota plains where Otto's blacksmith uncle had prospered. After eight lean years, the Plaths in 1910 joined the rootless hundreds of thousands picturing the far-western forests they could mill, mountains to mine, ocean to harvest, friendly neighbors and homesteading land purged of natives. And some good universities. The Northern Pacific Railway made it easier to migrate west than north or south -- and easy to go back if anyone had to.

The railroad further baited its hook with discount ticket prices for passengers going west to the end of the line.

The Plaths like every family in the Northwest labored at lumber mills, paper mills, smithing, shipping, repair shops, contracting, and farming. This map helped me understand why they chose the Pacific Northwest, where some of their descendants still live.

Northern Pacific Railway, 1910. Otto would have got aboard at St. Paul.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Ernestine Plath's Extreme Mental Illness

Sylvia Plath's mentally ill grandmother, Ernestine Plath, was much sicker than we ever knew, a mental hospital veteran when her husband signed her into the Oregon State Hospital in autumn 1916 (see her photo in last week's post). Ernestine was then 62, diagnosed with senile dementia, and died in the hospital in 1919, and I have a copy of her hospital files including the chilling photo with the black eye.

Ready to post this week about domestic violence, I took time to consult other sources and learned:

1)  That photo probably wasn't from the day of intake. Although it's undated I'd assumed that, and thought Ernestine's husband or sons had beaten her. Hospital historian Jessica Cole told me a photographer came to the hospital every few months, and the staff lined up new patients for mugshots one after another: efficient. The black eye -- terrible in any case -- then might have come from anywhere.

2) Ernestine had lived in North Dakota from 1902 to 1905 when she was admitted to the state insane asylum at Jamestown, N.D., staying until 1910. I wanted proof of a five-year stay. I found it in the 1910 federal census listing the inmates of the Jamestown women's ward. All inmates gave their first and last names while Ernestine gave the name "Mrs. Antonio Plath." That's why she hadn't shown up in searches of that census. There was no Antonio Plath in the family. Yet Ernestine's surname and demographics matched her husband's answers to the Oregon hospital's questionnaire:

Patient ever insane before? "Yes, one time five year in Jamestown N. Dakota." First symptoms: "1905, head-ache, sleep and appetite loss, and anxious an [sic] persecution."

The Oregon state hospital could not get Ernestine's Jamestown records, and we don't have them, so we've had the illusion that Ernestine's second, documented, hospitalization was the first one, the only one, or the really big one, and that her illness was mostly from aging when it was cyclic and chronic.

Although Sylvia wasn't told about her paternal grandmother's illness, she was terrified of becoming chronically mentally ill and a charity case in state mental hospitals.