Thursday, February 29, 2024

Pushed Off the School Bus

School bus, 1918

Aurelia Plath's preface to Letters Home sets her "early childhood" in a "primarily Irish-Italian neighborhood in Winthrop, Massachusetts during World War I." She remembered those schoolmates jeering her for speaking only German, and during the war they called Aurelia "Spy-face" and once pushed her down the school bus steps and left her sprawling, while the bus driver looked the other way.

Yet Aurelia lived from birth in 1906 until she was 12 not by the sea in Winthrop but in the Boston neighborhood Jamaica Plain. There she first went to school and was promoted from first grade to third. The Schobers moved in 1918 to Shirley Street in Winthrop, their neighbors almost all Anglos. "Schober" was most non-Anglo name on the block. [1] Census records show that the Irish and Italian schoolmates Aurelia placed in Winthrop were in Jamaica Plain. If she was assaulted in Winthrop it was by Anglos.

Few with German names or heritage escaped pan-Germanic harassment during World War I -- scholar Otto Plath in California got grilled by the FBI -- and given Aurelia's tendency to sugarcoat, it was probably worse than Aurelia said. Sylvia wrote that Aurelia was stoned for speaking German. One of Sylvia's fictional mothers dreads a second war with Germany not because it's war but because she remembers the U.S. during World War I.

Because Aurelia's narrative of her childhood is unreliable -- so many forces were at work on her as she was writing it -- and there is no other source, I wondered if I ought to try to believe the school bus incident happened in Winthrop, if Winthrop even had a school bus in 1918.

It turns out Winthrop had a Shirley Street school bus as early as 1910.

Caption says "About 1910. 'School Bus' of those days on Shirley Street . . . Girl in gingham dress inside right rear 'bus' is Evelyn Floyd Clark."

Evelyn Floyd is listed with Winthrop High graduating class of 1913, with 165 graduates, mostly with Anglo surnames such as Floyd and Clark. There are some Irish and Jewish surnames. Only one graduate has an Italian surname (Monafo). That was Winthrop before the Schobers moved in.

Aurelia Schober graduated from Winthrop High School in 1924. There were 146 graduates. They had Anglo, Irish, Jewish, and a sprinkling of Germanic surnames. Only one graduate had an Italian surname (Carro). That was Aurelia's Winthrop, with a school bus more like the enclosed one at the top of this post.

Aurelia's letters to her many correspondents do not give more details about her childhood. Nor do the archives she assembled that she made publicly available. By contrast Aurelia saved everything about her daughter Sylvia Plath's childhood. In the Letters Home preface Aurelia moved on from a brief discussion of her childhood to describe what she liked to read. I'm reminded of what Sylvia wrote her mother from summer camp in 1949: "Tell me something personal in your postcards. I don't care about book reviews as much as you and the family."

[1] 1920 United States Federal Census, Massachusetts, Suffolk, Winthrop, District 0676, p. 49.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Lovely Light-Skinned Plath Friend, Nat LaMar

Sylvia Plath met her only African-American friend at Cambridge in autumn 1955, when both were new students on scholarships there. Nathaniel "Nat" LaMar (1933-2022) while still at Harvard had published a short story in The Atlantic. He'd been at Phillips Exeter prep school with Sylvia's brother Warren. Plath wrote her mother Aurelia, "I begged some boys at pembroke [College] to introduce me to him . . . he is a lovely, light-skinned negro" [29 Oct. 1955].

The ambitious young writers became friends. On 7 November Plath wrote her mother, "I saw a good bit of that outgoing, creative negro boy, Nathaniel LaMar (from Exeter and Harvard) and went to coffee with him Monday."

Plath's association with the wonderfully colored and credentialed LaMar is today sometimes cited as proof that Plath was personally not a racist, although her creative works and private writings include racial and ethnic slurs and "othering."

In letters to her mother, Plath laid it on thick that her feelings for Nat were fraternal. LaMar and his school friend would guard her from the perils of Paris when Plath made her first trip there at Christmas break 1955:

"most happy to have made a very warm, good friend in Nat Lamar, the negro writer from Harvard, who is a wonderful sort of psychic brother. . . . [Nat is] already flying to Paris to stay with his very attractive, intelligent, Clem-Moorish type friend at the Sorbonne, they will look around and get me a cheap, good place to stay. . . Then we plan to see Paris together  . . I like the idea of having two "brothers" to go around with, both as guides and sort of champion protectors" [21 Nov. 1955].

Besides denying any attraction, Plath was heavy-hinting that Nat was gay. What a gal.

What LaMar's family in Atlanta thought about his friend Sylvia, we can only wonder. Plath assured her mother that a meeting in her dorm room included a chaperone:

"I had dear, lovable Nat LaMar over for tea with Mallory and the three of us had a most pleasant time. . ." [10 December 1955]

To other correspondents, while touting LaMar's virtues or feeling that she must because he was African-American, Plath stressed that the relationship was platonic:

"Nat LaMar. . . has already gone over [to Paris] to visit his friend Steve at the Sorbonne (by the way, Nat is a really lovely person). . . " [to Warren Plath, 11 Dec. 1955]

"most of my good friends are men. There's the American Negro from Harvard, Nat LaMar (whose story 'Creole Love Song' I may have pointed out in the Atlantic, who is simply a dear: friendly, open, & wonderfully frank. We have periodic bull sessions like brother & sister (he went to exeter & knew Warren" [to Gordon Lameyer, 12 Dec. 1955]

"I have been very lucky, however, in making some special friends: There is Nathaniel LaMar, a warm, friendly Negro boy from Harvard . . ." [to Olive Higgins Prouty, 13 Dec. 1955]

"I am getting to know some magnificent people: there's friendly, vital Nathaniel LaMar (whose story 'Creole Love Song' was in the Atlantic), the negro writer who knew Warren at Harvard & Exeter. . . [Nat] is good for simple, frank 'American talk.' " [to Marcia Stern, 14 Dec. 1955]

To a close female friend, Plath wrote a bit differently:

"am flying to paris to hang tinsel on eiffel tower under escort of negro writer from harvard, nat lamar ('creole love song' in atlantic)" . . . [to Elinor Friedman, 12 Dec. 1955].

Plath wrote her grandparents on 20 January 1956 about "the warm, friendly negro writer from Harvard, and a few other more casual acquaintances. . ."

Further letters to her family warbled:

"My dearest friend in Cambridge is Nat LaMar. I had a wonderful coffee-session with him Sunday" [25 Jan. 1956]

"Nat LaMar, who is a blessing. I had a good talk with him" [29 Jan.]

"Dear Nat LaMar is such a pleasure; I see him for coffee about once a week." [6 Feb.]

"I am gifted with the dearest, most wonderful friends: Nat LaMar, Gordon, Elly Friedman . . ." [10 Feb.]

Elinor Friedman said Plath told her she and Nat had "a brief affair" in Paris. [1] In her journal, Plath wrote that she used her love for Richard Sassoon, who was in Paris, to excuse herself from deeper involvement with Nat, having used that excuse to dial it down with other men:

"Richard," I say, and tell Nat, and tell Win, and tell Chris, as I have told Mallory, and Iko, and Brian, and Martin, and David: There Is This Boy In France." [Journals, 19 Feb. 1956] 

Plath was devastated when Sassoon dumped her after Christmas. She met and fell for Ted Hughes in late February, and in agony over whether Hughes too had abandoned her, she asked herself what to do next:

"Let me know where and to whom to give: to Nat, to Gary, to Chris even, to Iko, to dear Gordon in his way: to give the small moments and the casual talk that very special infusion of devotion and love which make our epiphanies." [Journals, Mar. 6, 1956]

It seems Plath hoped to minimize previous romantic or sexual contacts to clear the decks for serious involvement with Sassoon or with Hughes, if one of the two would have her.

Nathaniel Reid LaMar lived 88 years and never wrote a Sylvia Plath tell-all. He said only that they had been friends. Both were creative writers; both wrote senior theses on "doubles." [2] Yet what sounds like a meeting of true minds was finished when she met Ted Hughes. LaMar completed his post-graduate year and in 1957 was writing a novel with a grant from The Atlantic. When the money ran out he joined the army. This proved fatal to his creative writing. He worked for publisher McGraw-Hill from 1960 to 1980.

Nat LaMar lived most of his life in Brooklyn, New York.

Never married, with a gay partner who predeceased him [3], LaMar amassed $8 million in real-estate holdings, and LaMar after his death made news because a court-appointed guardian had failed to report his passing, kept taking payouts, and sold his house. This delayed the distribution of "millions of dollars LaMar had bequeathed to the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, Cambridge University, Howard University College of Medicine where LaMar's father went to medical school, and Phillips Exeter Academy."

[1] Clark, H. Red Comet, 387.

[2] LaMar, N., "The Duality of Macbeth: A Breach in Nature," Harvard University thesis, 1955.

[3] See Lichtblau, J., "The Value of an English Garden in Brooklyn," The Common, 15 Dec. 2020

Plath's letters are quoted from Kukil, K. and Steinberg, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, vol. 1, 2017.

Summa cum laude, Harvard, 1955. Before Phillips Exeter, LaMar attended a segregated high school.