Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Otto Plath's Wives and His Sister Frieda Plath

Frieda Anna Plath and brother Hugo, Sylvia's aunt and uncle, c. 1918 [1]

Otto Plath blamed and hated his first wife, Lydia Bartz Plath, but gosh, it seems she tried to be a good wife, and at UC-Berkeley where Otto was teaching German and working toward his doctoral degree, Lydia too took courses, passing a two-credit course in German and the noncredit "Phys Ed 4a" and "Household Econ 6" and a first-level course in Graphic Art. [2]

Part of Otto's complaint was that Lydia was not educated, and that is true: The first high school in her hometown, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, opened in 1913, the year after she'd married Otto and moved west with him. But Lydia was not stupid or lazy, and when Otto in 1915 went East to graduate school and did not send for her as he had promised, she went home, earned college credit from a University of Wisconsin correspondence course, and enrolled in a Chicago hospital's nursing school where Otto's younger sister Frieda -- who had grown up in her aunt's house in Wisconsin -- was a year ahead of her.

Frieda Plath befriended and encouraged both of Otto's wives. They needed the solidarity. Lydia's only work experience was as a clerk in her hometown's general store. She liked Frieda well enough to join her at nursing school. After Otto married Aurelia, Frieda wrote the new well-educated wife and they exchanged letters as long as Frieda lived. Frieda sent gifts to her niece Sylvia and nephew Warren, and was the only Plath relative Sylvia ever met, out in California, where Frieda had married Walter Heinrichs, M.D. Aunt Frieda left a good enough impression that Sylvia, pregnant when they met in 1959, named her daughter Frieda. Up for auction not long ago was an ugly little German hymnal owned by Aunt Frieda (1897-1970) and passed down to her namesake. Frieda Plath Heinrichs and her husband had no children.

Otto had left Lydia owing her money. He told people she had been sexually "cold." (Always, when defaming a woman, reference her sex life!) Lydia Plath by 1924 was an operating-room supervisor at Luther Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a title she held until retirement. In the 1930 federal census, although still married she called herself "single," probably to keep her job; all the hospital's nurses are listed as single, and that was still true in 1940. In 1950 Lydia declared herself divorced.

Laws made life hard for women. Sylvia Plath's life was bounded and frustrated by laws governing birth control, marriage, and divorce. Inheritance and copyright laws still dog her estate. Aurelia Plath dated married man Otto because Lydia wouldn't divorce him, and Aurelia couldn't marry him until new Nevada laws opened a way. After marrying, Aurelia would not leave Otto -- Sylvia's big complaint about her mother -- because Depression-era law gave any open jobs to men or single women -- and separated-with-kids was not "single," as Sylvia found out. 

While Otto Plath pursued his academic dreams, Lydia kept writing him, proof that she had not legally deserted him. He hated her letters. I'd love to read them. There is one sample of Lydia's writing in researcher Harriet Rosenstein's archive at Emory University, dated 12 July 1975:

Dear Miss Rosenstein,

In reply to your letter, I have just two things to say:

1) My life with Otto Plath became a closed book when we were divorced; and so, under no circumstance, would I give out any information about him.

2) You had your nerve sending me an open copy of a letter, which you had addressed to me, to the village clerk.

Yours truly,

Lydia Plath [4]

Rosenstein, undaunted, did a workaround, and in February 1977 the Fall Creek village clerk Marjorie Shong spilled the tea about Otto's investing and losing his wife's and in-laws' money, and that Otto wanted his sick brother to move in with them and Lydia said no, and that Otto got to thinking he was too good for her. But by 1977 Rosenstein had given up on writing a Plath biography.

Years after separating, Lydia still had to mop up after Otto when she -- born in Wisconsin -- had to petition for U.S. citizenship. Under the law, Lydia had become a German citizen when she married German citizen Otto. Otto was naturalized in 1926, but by then the laws had changed so that wives married under the old law had to petition for naturalization on their own.

On 15 September 1931 Lydia Bartz Plath renounced The German Reich, and a Wisconsin circuit court restored her U.S. citizenship. [2] After fifteen years estranged, Otto, she wrote, was still "my husband." But not for long.

[1] Studio photo taken in Chicago, dated by its former owner 1917, but Hugo Plath first enlisted in the army in July 1918 and was discharged in December 1918. [2] Wisconsin State Board of Health Application for Registration, Wis., dated 5 December 1924; U.S. Employment Records, 1903-1988. [3] Wisconsin, County Naturalization Records, 1807-1992, Eau Claire, Petitions, v. 4-13 1927-1943, p. 73. [4] Rosenstein mss. 1489, Plath, Otto, circa 1927-, "Otto Plath Colleagues Bussey"

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