Tuesday, March 28, 2023

On Sylvia's Ugliest Clothes

New York City, June 1953

Sylvia Plath wore some very unflattering things, and besides photos of her in swimsuits, only the wool-coat-and-knee-socks photo taken by Jane Baltzell at Newnham College shows Sylvia wearing her clothes with panache. "Panache" originally meant "ornamental feathers on a helmet." It came to mean "with confidence," that one looks as good as one feels. And Sylvia's readers know Sylvia rarely felt good.

"Chic," meaning elegant or sophisticated, Sylvia never was. The "May Week" clothes Sylvia modeled while at Newnham don't suit her. They don't even fit. The suit and hat worn at Mademoiselle in June 1953 looks "put-together," but without "flair" (meaning "originality"). They are someone else's idea of put-together. Sylvia in her ugliest Mademoiselle photo, with the rose [above], was either about to cry her eyes out or had just finished doing so, The Bell Jar says, and the Peter Pan collar on the dress could not have helped.

Cape Cod, 1957

Eliminated from "ugliest clothes" consideration are things Sylvia did not choose for herself (such as in childhood) or expect to be photographed in (bathrobe, gym suit). Sylvia sported her coolie hat on her Aurelia-paid-for-it seven-week honeymoon on the Cape, where both Sylvia and husband Ted Hughes were miserable.

Smith College, Nov. 1954
Aurelia Plath wore some awful clothes too, but as signifiers her clothes operate differently. (An "Aurelia's Ugliest Clothes" post is forthcoming.) Sylvia's sense of style -- as well as her sense of how life should be lived -- came from glossy magazines, so never would she reach the perfection she longed for, because even name-brand clothing and following Look Books to the letter cannot render anyone stylish. Fashion is not style. Bermuda shorts with wool sweaters were the fashion for 1950s college girls. In no other outfit did Sylvia Plath look so two-dimensional. This was one of the happier times in her life.
Rome, April 1956

Sylvia was taller than average, and former classmates remember that Sylvia often slumped, as in the color photo taken in Rome. Her polka-dotted hairband recalls not Brigitte Bardot but Rosie the Riveter. She wore it in Venice to ride a gondola, clutching her brown handbag and hating her travel-mate Gordon Lameyer every minute of their trip.

When Sylvia and Ted married and Aurelia wanted "wedding" photos to show relatives and friends, for spite the couple sent spiritless studio photos with Sylvia wearing what I fear is the "pink knitted dress" she appropriated from Aurelia and had been married in. 

Emphatically not a wedding dress, in the photos its top appears stretched out and the worse for wear. Sylvia had described Aurelia's item as a "suit," so maybe the photo shows a mere sweater. In that case it means not only "buzz off, Mom" but "send money."

Some photos of Sylvia (1950, 1962) show oversized skirt suits she might have hoped to "grow into," vertically, horizontally, or otherwise. I had mercy and do not show them here. I think that like all new clothes, they signified expectations. When I buy clothes a size up, it means I want more power in my life. 


As much as it's said "Sylvia loved clothes," it is our good fortune that she valued other things more highly.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Oh, Aurelia. Auschwitz? Really?

Sylvia Plath wrote on August 16, 1960, to her mother, Aurelia:

As you were reading your World War II book about Colditz

and Aurelia altered it in Letters Home to:

As you were reading your World War II book about Auschwitz

Colditz Castle was an ultra-high-security Nazi prison holding escapees from other prisons, especially American and British officers. Fifty-six prisoners escaped Colditz. I gather the Colditz book was more heartening reading than a book about Auschwitz might be. [1]

Aurelia's edit I think hoped to belie Sylvia's now-famous October 25, 1962 rebuke, "[Y]ou've always been afraid of reading or seeing the world's hardest things--like Hiroshima, the Inquisition or Belsen," a sentence Aurelia left out of Letters Home. She guessed that we'd believe Sylvia when we read it. But if Sylvia was correct in saying Aurelia "always" feared reading about incarceration and mass murder, why was Aurelia reading any book about World War II?

Most of Aurelia's edits in Letters Home were benign, not worth remarking. But to use Auschwitz not for art's sake, as poet Sylvia tried to, but to clap back at her dead daughter: That's not benign.

[1] Books about Auschwitz available in 1959-60 included Elie Wiesel's Night; Dr. Miklos Nyiszli's Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. The two most popular books about Colditz, by Pat Reid, were published as one volume in 1953.

In 1972-74, BBC-TV aired a weekly series about daring escapes from Colditz, inspiring the creation of the Parker Bros. board game [pictured].

Colditz board game, 1970s

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

32 Days After Sylvia Died: March 15, 1963

Sylvia Plath had been dead for 32 days when the publisher of The Colossus and The Bell Jar wrote this letter to Sylvia's widower Ted Hughes. Sylvia had killed herself on February 11, 1963, crushed by circumstances including her husband's extramarital affair. Because she left no will, her husband was in charge of how Heinemann, Plath's British publisher, might market her books--very valuable properties now that their author was dead. Ted agreed to allow Sylvia's real name on a future printing of her novel The Bell Jar. Heinemann on March 15 outlined the deal and wanted even more.

March 15, 1963, is also the day when after 32 days without writing, phoning, or sending a telegram, Ted Hughes at last wrote to Sylvia's mother Aurelia Plath. By then Aurelia knew Ted and his girlfriend had moved into Sylvia's apartment. Ted's letter blamed Sylvia's suicide as much on Sylvia as on himself. Near the end he wrote, "I don't want ever to be forgiven." Next to this Aurelia wrote in the letter's margin, in shorthand, "You won't be!"

Sylvia had used a pen name for The Bell Jar mainly so her mother, and other people the novel spites and satirizes, would never find out Sylvia wrote it. Revealing Sylvia as the author meant Aurelia would inevitably read The Bell Jar and be shocked and hurt. Heinemann's Book Club edition of The Bell Jar says "Victoria Lucas" on its cover, but as the publisher's letter says, with Ted's permission they would announce at once that the real author had been Sylvia Plath, who died so young in such an interesting way that 4000 books would sell like hotcakes.

Later, having found this out, Aurelia shamed Ted and his sister Olwyn, agent for Sylvia's estate, into channeling the novel's royalties to Ted and Sylvia's children, a change effective in April 1965. Sylvia had left on her desk her second book of poems, Ariel, which Ted edited and let Heinemann bid on. Ariel went to a higher bidder, the publishers Faber & Faber.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Hear "Bumble Boogie," Sylvia's Favorite Piano Solo

Playful classmates captioned Sylvia Plath's high-school yearbook photo with things her schoolmates knew she liked or did, and after "warm smile" and "energetic worker" was "Bumble Boogie piano special." "Bumble Boogie" is bandleader Jack Fina's arrangement of a famous bee-themed tune. Here, Fina performs it solo. Recorded with orchestration it was a hit in 1946. If Sylvia could play this, no wonder she got a half-scholarship to Boston's music conservatory. If she only wished she could play "Bumble Boogie," or only tried, one can understand why. It rocks.