Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Bell Jar Movie: Would You Sue Too?

Donna Mitchell and Marilyn Hassett in The Bell Jar (1979)

In some databases, Hollywood's The Bell Jar (1979), viewable on YouTube, is classed as a horror movie. I watched it for its portrayal of the heroine Esther's mother, "Mrs. Greenwood," based on Aurelia Plath. Tony-Award-winning and Oscar-nominated Julie Harris acted the thankless role of a ditz whose hobby is Tyrolean folk dancing. The actors are good but the script and direction, ruinous: When "Buddy Willard" drops his pants the room's electricity and lights happen to go out. Esther confidently tips a New York cab driver, and she is sexually aroused by the antics of Lenny and Doreen at Lenny's apartment. On her last night in her hotel room Esther strips to her knickers, bellowing while throwing her clothes out the window.

Critics hated it and star Marilyn Hassett's career never recovered: another Bell Jar casualty, one of many. Sylvia Plath knew the novel was toxic, and although she worked all her life for recognition did not want her name on it. It was the only such request she ever made and it was not honored. Ted Hughes sold the movie rights in the mid-1970s for $60,000 ($250,000 today) and had no part in the result except for starting it.

Donna Mitchell plays "Joan," Plath's fictional fusion of two real-life Smith College classmates. A bit player in the novel, "Joan" in the movie is Esther's best friend and smolders to seduce her. When Esther edges away from clingy Joan at the mental hospital and does not say, as in the novel, "You make me puke," Joan proposes a romantic double suicide. That's not in the book. Esther runs away and later finds Joan's body hanging in the woods. That's not in the book either. We get a horror-movie closeup of Joan's dead face.

Julie Harris as the tasteless and exasperated Mrs. Greenwood.

Jane Anderson in 1986 sued the screenwriter, director, Hughes and others for defamation, asking for $6 million and withdrawal of the film from circulation. In 1979 Anderson, Plath's classmate and fellow patient at McLean but never her good friend, saw the movie but said nothing. By 1986 it had aired as a made-for-TV movie and Plath's biographers had identified Anderson as one of the models for "Joan." The Harvard professor of psychiatry found she had a growing reputation as a suicidal lesbian (she was neither) when those were bad things to be. She said she couldn't teach and couldn't write.

My takeaway from watching was that Anderson, a private citizen, had good reason to sue the filmmakers who had exploited "her" character.

Anderson settled for having been "unintentionally defamed" and $150,000, enough to pay her lawyers. Since 2012, Bell Jar remakes have been announced but never made. It's now said it will be a TV series on Showtime, but no other news has emerged as of late 2023. Probably to the good.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

How to Research Family History

A while back I heard that Sylvia Plath's ancestry had been researched and written up but mostly cut from the final draft of Red Comet (2020), the very fine Plath biography. Another biography declined to discuss Plath's family and childhood to concentrate instead on Plath's "intensity." But where did she get that intensity?

Such questions led me to research Plath's family history (the "stock" or pedigree Sylvia found important when judging her boyfriends), finding patterns and plenty of drama:

Sylvia and Aurelia had African-American cousins. Aurelia's aunt's 1906 marriage to an African-American fits what is now a five-generation family pattern of marriages made to defy a parent or a family.

The first known photo of Otto Plath's parents, Theodor, and Ernestine, Sylvia's grandmother, who died in a mental hospital, I found on a genealogy website. Aurelia Plath, keeper and handler of Plath-Schober-Greenwood-Hughes dirty laundry, kept Ernestine's illness a secret so Sylvia could continue to idealize her dead father, a "pacifist" who to his wife and family was verbally abusive.

Sylvia had no Jewish ancestor. Sylvia had a German father, but she's also Polish, Austrian, and Hungarian. Plath's intelligence and no-nonsense work ethic came to her from both sides of the family. (She wrote: "I don't have time to be intelligent in a fluid, versatile way. I'm too nose-to-the-grindstone.")

For research I used most often two genealogy databases that anyone seeking their own family history can use:

On the free-of-charge database Familysearch.org view billions of pages of digitized info about a billion ancestors, each linked with documentation: census, immigration papers, birth/baptism, marriage, military, and death records, if any exist. Site is run by the Mormon church (also called LDS). Free, but you must register on Familysearch.org as a user.

A good feature: Each ancestor on FamilySearch is assigned a short alphanumeric label so you can be sure, for example, that your ancestor "Anna Campbell" is the same "Anna Campbell" who is listed among 30 different Anna Campbells all born around the same time.

The site Ancestry.com is a gold mine of digitized records. Home subscriptions are costly, but my public library subscribes, and at the library I use it free. Libraries also subscribe to other helpful historical databases such as Newspapers.com. Ask your librarian.

You'll hit walls where there are no records or confusing records. I've learned that guesses are always wrong. These are human records of human beings, so sometimes inaccurate. My stepfather's gravestone says "1916" when he was born in 1919 because when he got his first job in the U.S. there was a mistake when he signed up for Social Security, and he wouldn't correct even the gravestone (ordered years in advance), fearing Social Security would find him out. 

My own record says I lived in Ferguson, MO, a place I never even went. So trust but verify.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Sylvia Plath Had Black Cousins

Uncle Christopher J. Nicholson checked "Negro" on his draft card, 1918. (Click image to enlarge.)

Sylvia Plath had African-American second cousins who were first cousins to her mother Aurelia Schober Plath. Using public records and genealogical tools, I drilled down into Sylvia's Austrian-born maternal relatives the Greenwoods and Schobers, and discovered:

Sylvia's great-aunt -- her grandmother's sister Anna Johanna Greenwood, from Vienna -- in Boston in 1906 married African-American waiter Christopher Nicholson.

Interracial marriages were legal in Massachusetts, but rare. Sylvia Plath's writings, and what we have of her mother's writings, never mention an Aunt Anna or Annie. I had thought that odd because Aurelia Plath and her mother so much valued contact and visits with relatives. Sylvia's future grandmother with her sister Annie as teenagers left Vienna in 1904 and together crossed the Atlantic to Boston, where they moved in with their brother. Both girls soon married professional waiters. Annie married Christopher J. Nicholson, born in Boston of parents from North Carolina.

In 1907 the Nicholsons moved to Philadelphia, where in November Christopher Jr. was born. The state of Pennsylvania registered the baby as "mulatto." Their daughter Deborah's birth certificate says "1/2 black, 1/2 white."

Nicholson was out of work for much of 1909 and the federal census for 1910 shows the family living in a South Philadelphia boarding house, its head and tenants all designated black except for Nicholson, 28, his wife, 26, and their son and daughter, all designated white. In 1911 the family moved to New Jersey. Its 1915 state census says Nicholson and the children are black.

Nicholson worked steadily as a waiter at Atlantic City's Royal Palace Hotel. In September 1918 he registered for the draft as Christopher Jessee Nicholson, checkmarking the category "Negro," and on the back of the card, the categories "Slender" and "Tall."

The couple had another son, Melvin, and a daughter, Martha. Seeking what happened to them led me to this horrifying photo:

The Nicholson children, ages 11, 8, 5, and 3, all died in October 1918, probably of influenza, and are buried in Atlantic City Cemetery, Pleasantville, New Jersey.

Their parents survived. Nicholson kept his job until Prohibition in 1920 led to layoffs of professional waitstaff. Atlantic City directories show him employed as a laborer through 1923. Then he is a waiter again, but after 1925 I found no further records. Anna Nicholson surfaces, alone, in the 1928 directory, working as a domestic. In 1932, as Anna Greenwood she married British-born Joseph Campbell in New York City. The couple moved to England in 1939. The story of their later life is posted here.

Sylvia's Plath's mother Aurelia Schober was 12 when her four cousins died. Did she know about them? Could anyone keep secret such a family tragedy? I think Aurelia, who lived with her mother for 40 years, probably knew. Did Sylvia know that she had African-American relatives? Probably not. But we do.

The Nicholson family should be added to Sylvia Plath's family tree.

Draft registration card: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-8BRR-L4C?i=3882&cc=1968530&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AKZJ7-ZNJ  Headstone: Findagrave.com. "England as of 1939": In January 2024 I researched Anna's later life and the story is posted here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Meditation on a Photo: Aurelia Plath's Ankles of Clay

Front row, third from left. Her Winthrop High graduating class had 146 students.

Aurelia Schober in this yearbook photo from 1924 -- she's a high-school senior, 18 -- differs from her classmates in height and build and is the worst-dressed of the lot, her faded cap-sleeved cotton dress, with a decorative bow and ribbon so it's not a housedress or what her mother called a "wash dress," a vivid contrast to her schoolmates' woolen sweaters and skirts. They're dressed for autumn or winter, yet wear pretty shoes while "Ri-Ri's" oxfords look too tight. Her ankles will always be a weak point, broken twice (when she was 10, and again at 21) then repeatedly twisted or injured. Ankles of clay. Or maybe ill-fitting shoes.

Readymade clothes didn't (and still don't) accommodate tall women, so Aurelia wore whatever fit. In this photo she looks like what she is: eldest daughter of immigrants with two younger siblings and a breadwinner father who in 1924 was literally walking Boston's streets seeking jobs, a former headwaiter reduced to taking intermittent or seasonal employment. He had already chosen for Aurelia a two-year business college that would train her to make her own money. Her parents would never recover from her father's underemployment and later depended on Aurelia for housing.

In the photo Aurelia stands tall, doesn't look unhappy or self-conscious or shunned. She was the First Rebuttal speaker on her women's debating team and a star at school -- always, always, a top honor student. Freshman year, the yearbook's "Who's Who" picked her out and said: "Aurelia Schober doesn't hesitate to swallow every morsel of knowledge to be found." Sophomore year, when they knew she could take a joke: "A. Schober doesn't swallow the books much. She has brains in her feet, even. Just think!" The 1924 Winthrop High School senior class "prediction" said:

". . . one of [a classmate's] planes [is] making its daily trip to Florida. Seated at the extreme left is George B., world-famed violinist. . . in the third seat is Cecelia D., a school teacher . . . The young aviatrix is Aurelia Schober, who, not able to get seated comfortably because of her height, stood during the entire trip. Aurelia is now President of Schober Soapy Soap Flakes, Inc."

The future Aurelia piloted the plane and CEO'd an industrial firm! Which female in your own graduating class compares? (On the yearbook staff, Aurelia might have written this "prediction" herself.) It seems that the Schober family was poor but clean, as the trope goes. Aurelia wore to school a shapeless over-washed unseasonable thing without publicly pouting because her parents, as immigrant parents do, scolded her to mind her schoolwork and be at the top of her class because they'd sacrificed their whole lives for her and she should be grateful for any shoes and clothes she got.

Aurelia had friends and always did. The local newspaper records that she attended a classmate's quite elegant tea party, but never that she gave one. For certain of my readers I must point out that in 1924 females holding hands or linking arms with besties was not gay.

Photos of Aurelia -- fairly rare -- show that except for the first years of her marriage to Otto Plath she wore unflattering or misfit clothing, often secondhand. That for years she wore a ratty coat "like some teachers you'll see," a witness has confirmed. In her late 60s Aurelia, retired from teaching, made some money from the work of her famously dead writer daughter and was photographed in suits that fit and pearl earrings, her incorrigibly wavy hair tamed with a permanent. The best she could do in high school was a hairband.

Aurelia Schober, later Plath, as her class salutatorian gave a speech about "Loyalty" (a mind-blowing document to be discussed in a future post). Unwillingly, and unprepared for it, "Ri-Ri" became the most famous alumna of them all.

["146 students," Winthrop Sun, 14 June 1924.]