Tuesday, March 30, 2021

How Much Money Did Aurelia Plath Make From Sylvia's Work?

Aurelia Plath taught at Boston University for 29 years but never made much money. Paying for Sylvia's needs and wants, and, after Sylvia's death, annual visits to the motherless grandchildren in England, smoked Aurelia's accounts down to their filter. Boston University forcibly retired employees at age 65, so a year before that, in 1970, Aurelia found another job teaching secretarial skills at Cape Cod Community College, 80 miles from Wellesley, where she could teach full-time until age 70. She was too old to enroll in its pension program, but without the job she'd have no income. [1]

What, didn't Aurelia ever get any money for being Sylvia Plath's mother?

Sylvia died without writing a will, so her husband Ted Hughes inherited Sylvia's bank accounts and property, valued shortly after Sylvia's death in 1963 at 2,147 English pounds. Hughes phoned Aurelia saying he was willing to return to Aurelia and to Sylvia's Aunt Dottie and to Olive Higgins Prouty the cash they gave Sylvia during her final desperate months. Aurelia told him, "Keep it for the children." Hughes also by default owned the copyrights to all of Sylvia's writings, the most valuable asset in Sylvia's estate. He assigned his sister Olwyn the job of managing these rights.

Aurelia had other assets, in 1963 worthless except to a sentimental mother. Sylvia had told Aurelia to throw out or use for scrap the accumulated junque of Sylvia's childhood and youth: letters from camp, early manuscripts, schoolwork, artwork, childhood diaries, paper dolls, and Sylvia's long ponytail, to name a few. Sylvia left these items with her mother when Sylvia settled in England. The material was destined to balloon in value after Aurelia's worst nightmares came true.

Appalled after reading The Bell Jar, published only in England, Aurelia refused to allow Ted and Olwyn Hughes to sell it to a U.S. publisher. Olwyn nagged Aurelia for three years. In 1970 Aurelia gave in, but demanded and won in exchange the right to edit and publish a volume of Sylvia's letters to her family. Aurelia owned the letters, but Sylvia's estate owned what was written on them. The deal was made, with hard feelings all around.

There is some evidence that Aurelia was to receive from publishers Harper & Row a percentage of royalties from Sylvia's books Crossing the Water or Winter Trees (both 1971) or even The Bell Jar, but the checks were so small they disgusted her.

Aurelia quit Cape Cod Community College to edit Sylvia's letters for Letters Home, receiving from publishers Harper & Row a $5,000 cash advance. [2] Aurelia immediately spent $2,400 for new siding for the house in Wellesley, and for two years worked at editing and typing the Letters Home manuscript, published in 1975.

In March 1977, with the money from Letters Home dwindling, Aurelia sold the bulk of her stored material, including the original letters from Sylvia to her family. A broker sold them to Indiana University's Lilly Library for a sum kept secret. Aurelia received payment in installments. (Why Indiana? The Lilly Library already owned Plath manuscripts a London bookseller had purchased from Sylvia Plath in 1961.) Aurelia also sold items the Lilly Library later purchased and added to its now-resplendent Sylvia Plath archives, where pack-rat Aurelia's storehouse of Sylvia's junque is today so valuable one must wear gloves to handle it.

Aurelia felt comfortable enough to vacation in Antigua in 1978 and 1979. Aurelia told a correspondent in 1979 that she received no money from her daughter's writing with the exception of Letters Home [3] and, without mentioning the Lilly Library, said she had "eked out" a few years of living on Sylvia's name, hoping she wouldn't outlive that money. In 1988 Aurelia told Elizabeth Compton Sigmund she was receiving interest income from the sale of the letters. [4] A 1979 play based on Letters Home paid Aurelia $750, half of the profit from its New York run. [5] A later production netted her $291.63. 

In 1980 Aurelia wrote that she still wore some of Sylvia's clothes. [6] Before selling the Wellesley house and furniture and moving to an apartment in the North Hill retirement complex, Aurelia in December 1983 donated books and papers to Smith College's Plath collection. These included Aurelia's own Sylvia-related papers and family documents, and letters and clippings about the effect of Sylvia's life and death on her family and friends. This got Aurelia a tax break that year when she sold her house.

In exchange for all of a resident's funds, North Hill agreed to house and care for residents, as needed, until they died. [7] This sounded to Aurelia like a good deal. Aurelia died at North Hill, of Alzheimer's disease, in 1994.

[1] ASP to TH, 11 March 1973, Emory.

[2] Journal of Mary Clarke, 11 October 1973, Smith College. There is evidence that Olwyn Hughes opposed the $5,000 advance going to Aurelia.

[3] ASP to Mary Ann Montgomery, 30 January 1979, Lilly.

[4] Elizabeth Compton Sigmund phone interview with ASP,  February 1988, Smith.

[5] ASP to Montgomery, 23 November 1979.

[6] ASP to Montgomery, 25 June 1980.

[7] ASP to Carol Hughes, 17 May 1983, Emory.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Aurelia Plath's Importance

Sylvia Plath and Aurelia Plath were a team, one of literature's most successful teams.

Sylvia Plath in 1946 was a fatherless Girl Scout from Wellesley. Sylvia in 1955 was a Smith College graduate with poems published in Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and The Nation – top showcases of American poetry -- and a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge, England. She was not yet 23 years old. 

This was before Sylvia met Ted Hughes and 15 years after her father’s death. With no man's support, only her mother's support for her talent and drive, Sylvia Plath cracked barriers of sex and class that were intended to dissuade fatherless suburban Girl Scouts from aiming for literary immortality.

Patriarchy has ignored the women's alliance, as if Sylvia achieved what she did on her own. Or its agents appoint for Sylvia a different ally: Ted Hughes, or Al Alvarez, or her teacher Mr. Crockett, or her brother, or her father; anyone but the female parent who for 30 years unfailingly showed up, kept vigil, and delivered support.

Who might have been a better mother for Sylvia Plath? Charlotte Lowell? Donna Reed? Olive Higgins Prouty? Dr. Ruth Beuscher? (They all had more money.)

Aurelia's Letters Home foregrounded the two women’s tenacity as they were assailed, every day of their lives, by institutionalized forces invading their homes, heads, bodies, and pocketbooks: academia, politics, commerce, the double moral standard, medicine, sexism, gender roles. These forces have since tried with their every weapon to prove that the Plath women’s toughest battle was with each other. Sylvia Plath came to believe that, only furthering her distress.

Instead of focusing on the obstacles the Plath women, like all women, faced and made the best of, critics dwell on the rare examples of antagonism: two poems, "Medusa" and "The Disquieting Muses"; Sylvia's agitated accusations and projections in December 1958's blood-lusty journal entries ("Now this is what I feel my mother felt"); excerpts from her letters such as "Don't be so frightened, Mother! Every other word in your letter is 'frightened'!" (Aurelia's fears in late 1962 were entirely justified.) Sylvia didn't always like or want to resemble her mother, but she never risked their relationship by telling her so.

The tension worked both ways: Do not assume Aurelia always gladly served as Sylvia's crisis counselor, bursar, and supply line. She wept, lay awake, was exasperated, wrote snide comments in margins. Worry and sacrifice -- what Sylvia said she disliked about Aurelia -- were the price of supporting Sylvia's life and her talent, which bloomed as it did because of Aurelia's talent for mothering.

Theirs is not at all the first or only example of such teamwork. But it's well documented.

That's true even though Sylvia burned her mother's half of their correspondence. This absence of paper has made it easy to label Aurelia a zero, empty, a void with "no life of her own." It also saved a lot of work: There is no need to pay attention to a void.

Aurelia is the “elephant in the room,” the large, discomfiting, unglamorous, enduring factor that must be acknowledged and approached with a spirit of inquiry. Try to sidestep Aurelia by fetishizing details about, for example, the words Sylvia underlined in her books; where she lived or traveled; her sex life; the color of her lipstick -- and the cornerstone of her achievement is still Aurelia Plath, who loved literature and worked hard to get the best for her kids.

Readers are so stunned by the sheer volume of only one-half of their correspondence -- Sylvia's half -- we label their relationship "sick" or "too close." Today they'd be texting each other daily, or e-mailing or FaceTiming each week.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Aurelia Plath's Live-In Students

In her letter of September 28, 1956, Sylvia Plath responded with horror to her mother’s idea to rent out a room in the family home in Wellesley: “So glad you aren’t renting room. DON’T!” Sylvia – then living temporarily with her in-laws in England – went on to explain why sharing living space was awful.

But in 1957 Sylvia heartily approved of the familiar "Aunt Marion" Freeman, Aurelia's friend and mother of Sylvia's childhood playmates, moving in with Aurelia during the year Ted and Sylvia were in the United States. "Aunt Marion" lived with Aurelia at least until May 1958. [1]  

So it wasn't unprecedented when, after Sylvia's death, Aurelia took in at least two more roomers. These were young women, her students from Boston University.  

In 1966, Aurelia was living alone in a house full of memories. Sylvia was three years dead; Aurelia's father had died the year before. Ted Hughes had written Aurelia forbidding her to visit England in 1966; it was the first summer in five years Aurelia would not see her grandchildren. Aurelia wrote on Hughes' letter, in black marker, "BOMB #1" -- signifying that she made this annotation in retrospect -- and drew a tearful face. Then the sensational U.S. release of Ariel in June let the whole world know Aurelia's daughter had killed herself. Strangers phoned asking whether Sylvia's "Daddy" had really been a Nazi. It was as if Sylvia had died a second time. Aurelia, overwhelmed, couldn't eat or sleep.

During that turbulent year Aurelia had a student living with her. To her friend Miriam Baggett on April 19, 1966, Aurelia wrote, “When my 19-year-old student is here with me, I can submerge myself in her interests and problems.” On July 7 Aurelia wrote Baggett about “my teenager here” who “spills out her difficulties nightly.” The student is never named.


Ten years later a journalist came to the Wellesley house to profile Aurelia for Boston University’s alumnae magazine. She mailed Aurelia a draft of her article. Aurelia struck out its whole third paragraph, which read: “When one favorite student contracted mononucleosis and thought she would have to quit school, [Mrs.] Plath brought her home for ‘rest and relaxation’ and the young woman ended up staying for two years. Today they still maintain their friendship.” [2] 


This was a different student. This longer-term roomer occupied the Wellesley house while Aurelia taught at Cape Cod Community College during 1970-71. In July 1970 Aurelia wrote her longtime friend and former high-school student Mary Stetson Clarke: “I shall let a friend live in my house here -- she is with me now five days a week . . . she returns to her home every Friday evening for the weekend.” In April 1971 Aurelia wrote, again to Clarke: “If my good friend can continue to live in my Wellesley home . . .” The arrangement must have been satisfactory.


So Aurelia’s having occasional live-ins was not a secret, but Aurelia -- by 1976 known for editing Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home -- did not want her fellow Boston University alumnae or the wider public to know.


The friendship with the second student was durable. Aurelia told a correspondent in 1983 that her "one-time student friend, who is now with her own family spending a year in Wurtzburg, West Germany," had recently phoned and her voice "came through with perfect clarity." [3] 


[1] Sylvia Plath to Aurelia S. Plath, 24 May 1957.

[2] The draft is in Smith College’s Sylvia Plath Papers IX, “Aurelia Plath.” The published article is “Aurelia Plath: A Lasting Commitment,” by Linda Heller, in Bostonia (Boston University alumnae magazine) Spring 1976, 36.

[3] ASP to Mary Ann Montgomery, 12 May 1983.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Aurelia Moves Out of the House

Built in 1925

Aurelia Schober roomed her first year after college at 86 Vinton Street in Melrose, Massachusetts, teaching at Melrose High School in 1928-29. In the group photo of the faculty she looks older than 22. Melrose, where no windows look out upon the sea, isn't far from her parents' and siblings' house in Winthrop. But she'd lived during her senior year in her college dormitory in mid-town Boston, and instead of moving back in with her family, the novice teacher roomed in this house perched on a hill, with the elderly homeowner, his wife, their grown daughter, and a seamstress.

Vinton Street was a half-hour walk from Melrose High School, then at 585 Main Street. One of her students, Mary Stetson (1911-1994), later known as novelist Mary Stetson Clarke, became Aurelia's good friend and correspondent. [1]

Whether teaching at Melrose was a one-year appointment, or what the rooming arrangements were, we do not know. On November 5, 1928, as Aurelia and her boyfriend of two years, her first love, Karl, were hiking in the Middlesex Fells Reservation just west of Melrose, he broke up with her. She cried and was horribly grieved. Karl moved on to date and marry a Radcliffe graduate student. Fifty years later, Aurelia incorrectly remembered their painful parting as taking place in 1927. We know it was autumn 1928 and the exact date and place because he kept a diary.

Aurelia waited tables in New Hampshire in summer 1929 and attended Boston University graduate school during the academic year 1929-1930 (while Mary Stetson was a freshman there). Aurelia lived in Winthrop with her parents while earning her master's degree, and remained at home after securing a very good full-time teaching job at Brookline High School. In 1932 Aurelia quit her job and moved in with her new husband Otto Plath. But we cannot say Aurelia otherwise ever really left her parents. They rented out their Winthrop house and stayed with Aurelia and Otto during the summer of 1932, while Aurelia was pregnant with Sylvia, and also in summer 1933.

[1] Aurelia S. Plath to Mary Stetson Clarke, letter 15 March 1959.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The White Waiter: Sylvia Plath's Grandfather at Work

More cosmopolitan than either his daughter or granddaughter was Frank Schober, Aurelia Plath's father and Sylvia Plath's "Grampy," headwaiter at Boston's elegant Hotel Thorndike from 1908 to 1921. He spoke four European languages; neither Aurelia nor Sylvia ever matched that. Schober had worked in hospitality since his boyhood in Austria and then in Italy, France, and England. Neither his daughter nor his granddaughter ever went abroad to find work.

Schober had arrived in the U.S. in June 1902, stating his destination as Magnolia, Massachusetts, where rich Americans vacationed at seaside resort hotels. He is listed in the Boston city directory as a "headwaiter" in 1905, and "Hotel Thorndike" is first specified in 1908. His brother Henry was a waiter there too.

Credit: New York Public Libraries

Built in 1886 on "Boston's Fifth Avenue," Boylston Street, by the Public Garden, Hotel Thorndike was one of giant knot of downtown Boston hotels built from the Gilded Age into the Jazz Age. Thousands of recent European immigrants like Frank and Henry Schober staffed the Thorndike, the Parker House, Hotel Vendome, the Westminster, the Touraine, the Lenox, and more.

European staff, desirable in these "European-style" hotels, displaced African-Americans who'd held those jobs during the 19th century. African-American waiters were well organized by the 1880s and making gains. [1] European hotel staff in 1904 created their own trade association, the international Geneva Association of Hotel and Restaurant Employees. The Boston Globe noted in 1908 that the Association's annual ball drew 2000 attendees, many not arriving until after 11 p.m. when their shifts ended. Frank Schober served on the reception committee. The hotels' owners were invited and feted. [2] 

The Geneva Association was not a labor union. In that time and place "Geneva" seems to have evolved into a code word for "white." [3] In case of a strike, hoteliers could replace white staff with African-Americans, as happened in New York City in 1912. The striking white workers became furious not at management but at the African-Americans.

The Hotel Thorndike had a relatively modest 150 rooms, 100 with private baths. Handwritten on the Thorndike picture postcard is "The English Room is the best place in Boston." Harvard students frequented the hotel's Olde English Room and were sometimes thrown out. 

"American-style" hotels provided lodging plus meals. In "European-style" hotels, guests paid for their own meals, so it paid to have a fine hotel restaurant. Here is a December 1907 Thorndike dinner menu [click to enlarge. I will have the roast duck, thank you. How easily I imagined myself the served rather than the server]. The Thorndike also gets credit as the first Boston hotel to make an event out of New Year's Eve, packaging food and drink with entertainment and lodging.

Prohibition, enacted in 1920, ruined fine dining and cut off highly profitable liquor sales, so it is no surprise that Frank Schober's headwaiter job changed and then vanished. From 1924 to 1926 he worked in Swampscott, Mass., hosting at a dine-and-dance palace called The Sunbeam. In 1929 he was a steward at the Hotel Westminster. Then came the Great Depression, and the grand-hotel era was over.

Aurelia's father, 1910
Also gone, forever, in America: "waiter" as a steady job that might support a family. Schober in the 1930s managed unspecified dining rooms, and in 1938 specifically a bakery-tearoom, Dorothy Muriel's, at 127 Tremont Street, one of a chain of about 50 local Dorothy Muriels. [4] The 1940 census shows him unemployed at the end of 1939. [5] As of 1942 he worked as maitre d' at the Brookline Country Club. The "Grampy" Sylvia Plath knew best was required to live at work.

Traits of a good headwaiter: patience, poise, supervisory skills, and a knack for service. Complaining in letters to her mother about how hard it was, Sylvia waited tables for a month in summer 1952 before getting sinusitis and, instead of facing her manager and quitting, had Aurelia do it. Waiting tables was by then a default job, menial, the last in any list of Sylvia's choices; a part-time job for minorities and students. Plath scholars portray it as almost tragic that Plath had to serve lunches or chop vegetables at her Smith College dormitory to earn part of her tuition.

Sylvia Plath had The Bell Jar's narrator kick an African-American orderly who was serving dinner. Now we have further context for that seemingly gratuitous act.

[1] "An African-American Waiters' Ball, Boston, 1892," The American Menu, August 11, 2014. Web.

[2] Boston Globe, "More Than 2000 Make Merry," Dec. 15, 1908, p. 9.

[3] Boston Globe, Sept. 21, 1914, p. 6, reports on a Boston waiter's marathon swim and lists three fellow waiters in his support boat: Francis Schober, Fred Kreuzer, and A. Tussin "of the Geneva Athletic and Swimming Club."

[4] The Dorothy Muriel's bakery chain was bought out in 1940 by what eventually became Brigham's bakery and ice-cream shops.

[5] In Winthrop in mid-March 1940, Frank Schober reported to the federal census that he had been unemployed for 13 weeks and was seeking work as a restaurant manager.