Saturday, March 30, 2024

Sylvia Plath's Black Relatives: More

The Nicholsons rented 116R North New Jersey Ave., Atlantic City, in 1915. The storefront and rear extension are additions; more typical houses c. 1910 sit to its right and left. [1]

Their marriage lasted 20 years -- from the wedding in Boston in 1906 to sometime after 1925, when the husband, a waiter, was last listed in the Atlantic City directory. In 1928 the wife was still using his surname, "Nicholson" -- in various papers rendered as "Nichols," "Nicholason," and "Nicholas." Husband Christopher J. Nicholson also gave his birth year as 1881, 1882, and 1883, making his later years yet harder to trace.

Something led Nicholson to leave his wife, nee Anna Greenwood, on her own in Atlantic City -- where their four children had died in 1918, of influenza, all four names carved on a single gravestone. Perhaps he sought a better job or a marital separation. Anna remained in Atlantic City, working as a domestic.

Anna was Sylvia Plath's blood relative, the Viennese great-aunt who had married a black American. I have learned that more than any other U.S. city, fin de siecle Boston saw unskilled white immigrant females like Anna marry African-American men employed in skilled occupations. For young women from Europe not yet seized by the very American horror at "miscegenation" (word coined in 1863) it was a step up.

Christopher Nicholson's 1942 draft registration card -- the next obtainable document -- shows him in New York City, working downtown and lodging in Harlem. Anna, under her maiden name, had remarried in New York in 1932, to a white British ironworker formerly employed in Atlantic City. They'd moved to England.

U.S. federal census takers missed Nicholson in both 1930 and 1940. Nicholson filed for Social Security benefits on 23 August 1948, giving what is probably his real birthday: 21 August 1883. [2] The 1950 federal census shows him retired, at the same address as in 1942; his marital status is "separated." I found no divorce in New York legal records, only a civil suit Nicholson filed in the Bronx, in 1953, against one Dominick DeLillo, the nature of which I don't know.

Nicholson's death record still eludes me. The Social Security Death Index does not have it. A "Christopher Nicholson" was buried in New Jersey in 1956, but no birth date was given and several people share that name. Nicholson's niece Aurelia Plath never mentioned any Nicholsons in letters or papers we have access to.

It weighed on me that I had told Anna's story and not Christopher's. Now I have told all I know.

[1] This is the only Nicholson family address still standing. The 1915 New Jersey census shows a racially integrated neighborhood.

[2] Nicholson's 1918 draft registration card gives his birthday as 4 July 1881. It was common for men to claim to the draft board that they were older. Otto Plath's brother did the same.

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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

What Happens to the Estranged

After her children died of influenza and her husband vanished, Anna Greenwood Nicholson lived alone in Atlantic City and was working as a domestic when the Great Depression hit. Anna's whole family had come to the U.S. from Vienna, and Boston was her only American hometown, but her married sister there had a full house and would soon have a granddaughter named Sylvia Plath. Anna's mother and brothers knew Anna had married a black American and they never forgave her. Anna left Atlantic City but cannot be found anywhere in the U.S. census of 1930. She was 45.

Two years later in Manhattan, registering as Anna Greenwood, Anna married Joseph Campbell, born in Lancashire, England of Irish parents. Anna Campbell filed with Social Security in 1938. That was the last U.S. trace of her until her mother's obituary (1945) called Anna "Ina Champee of London, England," and her brother's obituary (1957) called her "Mrs. Joseph Chappell, England."

This told me that 1) Anna's family knew she had remarried but was unsure of her name. 2) Anna was alive in 1957 and had moved to England. 3) For a while Anna shared an island with her great-niece Sylvia Plath. So Sylvia wasn't the first in her family to reverse-emigrate: It was the errant, whispered-about great-aunt she never met -- who couldn't be, could she, the "gypsy ancestress" who got around?

Hard-to-get British records (below) show Joseph and Anna in 1939 lived far from London, in the Lancashire shipbuilding town Barrow-in-Furness, population then about 75,000: the industrial north as Orwell described it in Wigan Pier. Anna was ninth in a household of nine, six of them Campbells. I hope she liked these relatives better. Joseph worked as a "boiler fireman, heavy." The town survived two 1941 bombardments, and Joseph died in Barrow-in-Furness in 1959 and Anna in 1964. Joseph has a grave. Anna doesn't.

British National Archives register, 1939, address 12 Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, E.B., Lancashire, England. Anna's identity is confirmed by her birth date, 28 March 1888*, and her husband's. Housewives were listed as "unpaid."

*Anna's baptismal record says she was born 28 March 1885, but much of her life she used the date 1888.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Book Review: Sylvia Plath Day by Day, Volume I, by Carl Rollyson

Sylvia Plath Day by Day, Volume I (1932-1955),
by Carl Rollyson, University of Mississippi Press (2023), 400 pp., $24.14 at

If you want Sylvia Plath without poetry, dip into this timeline of gleanings from diaries, letters, personal calendars, and other Plath biographies and sources, spanning her life from birth to September 1955. Biographer Carl Rollyson has published 40-plus books including two Plath biographies which elided Plath's early years. Currently he is completing a biography about Plath's early years. Sylvia Plath Day by Day Vol. 1 assembles his source facts, quoting the published and unpublished. According to Rollyson this chronicle restores "precious details" and the objectivity lost when biographers shape facts into narratives. His introduction says:

In effect, you are presented with the raw data, without commentary, so that you become the biographer.

Rollyson edited this raw data, so it is not raw data. The introduction explains:

The entries in this book are shorter than the sources they are taken from. My principle of selection has been to record the most striking events and comments that reveal Plath but also to minimize repetition, except when repetition . . . seems important . . .

Examples (I'm choosing interesting ones):


October 14: Writes up the program of a school assembly, featuring a reading, a piano solo, choral singing and reading, a harmonica solo, a skit, a vocal trio, tap dance, and an accordion solo.

October 15: A sixteen-line poem for Miss Cox, which ends "But behind the cold, white stillness / There's the promise of a spring."

October 16: Clippings about World Series games, visual-aid education, physical exams.

October 17: "World news is really discouraging--wish I could run things for a while."

October 18: Orchestra rehearsal, pleased to realize she has left her ancient history book at home, "Oh! Well! I'll get along."

October 19: Wears a yellow evening gown with black velvet bows to a dance. One boy steps on her toes, but she has fun dancing with another partner who is "very nice" [drawing of a heart].

October 20: "All the girls were talking about last night happenings and were comparing partners."

October 21: "Dear Diary, I don't know what possesses me to mess you up by such scribbling. Some old nagging things inside me prompts me to waste such nice paper. . . . From now on I won't let the weak side of my character hold sway."


April 28, 9:30 a.m.: "Hair."

10:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m.: News office.

2:00-6:00 p.m., 7:00-10:00 p.m.: "STUDY MILTON."

April 29, 8:30 a.m.: Chapel.

9:00-10:00 a.m.: In News Office.

10:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m.: Studies Milton.

2:00 p.m.: "Davis paper due."

3:00 p.m.: "Milton Exam."

6:00 p.m.: Press board banquet, Auden in attendance.

April 30, 8:00 a.m.: "Activities board."

9:00 a.m.: Audits science class.

10:00 a.m.: Bells.

Hampshire Book Shop.

2:00 p.m.: Class with Professor Davis.

3:00 p.m.: Milton class.

4:00-6:00 p.m.: Sally.

"Phi Beta Banquet."

Day by Day is the first Plath bio to poach lots of direct quotations from Plath's childhood diaries, so I focused there. Those diaries remain unpublished because they are boring. From art teachers to camp counselors, every authority every hour dangled rewards and awards for doing as they asked. Plath responded like a trained seal. The flip side was that she grew up firmly disciplined and knowing her own value. She could control the situation when "parking" with dates. Plath fighting off a rapist (December 3, 1950) Day by Day however renders as "She strongly rejects the idea."

I did like Day by Day's glimpses of Plath's grandfather, who gave her hugs, gifts of money, and violets for planting. Extremes of mood, symptoms of Plath's mental illness, emerged when she was 16 or 17.

It is a standard joke that writings about Plath must be faultless, so I will fine-tooth and fume over Day by Day's errors, and omissions not only of childhood events I think significant but those important enough for Dr. Heather Clark to flesh out in her definitive biography Red Comet. For example, Red Comet (p. 93) gives most of a paragraph to Sylvia's diary entry of July 25, 1947, a rare hateful one calling her mother a stinker and a "damn cuss'd old thing" for not buying her a dress she wanted. Sylvia then recanted her angry words. Rollyson's version reads:

July 25: "It's good to be able to spread out and stretch again, knowing that I have a new diary waiting." Buys "a dream of a dress" at Filene's "aquamarine with black bands around the neck, waist, the sleepers, and a narrow black-square outline all through the material."

Maybe these are not the same diaries?

Understanding that the text I read was in galleys, I think if Rollyson had taken a minute to check the first few pages of Plath's Letters Vol. 1 he'd know it's incorrect to say that "Plath's first extant letter to Aurelia Plath is a postcard dated July 14" [1944] (note 102, p. 329). It was Aurelia Plath, not Sylvia, who inscribed Sylvia's diary with "Not to be written in after 8 p.m." Visitors designated Uncle Henry and Aunt Elizabeth "Aldrich" -- the surname of Plath's neighbors -- were in fact Sylvia's blood relatives Henry and Elizabeth Schober (9, 31). And "Grampy" died in 1965, not 1963.

Now I feel better. (What made me feel better?)

The accuracy improves and, oddly, interest heightens as the timeline enters and atomizes familiar territory. I was grateful that author comments were few. When in May 1945 12-year-old Plath rescued and fed a baby bird, a comment says this prefigures the baby bird that Plath and her husband tried to save in 1958. This has nothing to do with her art and growth, and in this world of real fire and bombs through the roofs I felt it should be embarrassing to care.

And I wonder how every detail about Sylvia Plath's life has come to be so precious there's a market for barrel scrapings and granules ever smaller, as if by crafting lists and footnotes and smartmaps instead of prose we stay safe.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

"Family Reunion"'s Real People

Sylvia Plath published the satirical poem "Family Reunion" in The Bradford, her high-school newspaper (she was co-editor) in April of 1950, her senior year; she was 17. Aurelia Plath first read the poem in the paper and was shocked, in part because it names real family members. The poem's speaker is upstairs at home, listening as relatives arrive for a visit:

Oh, hear the clash of people meeting--

The laughter and the screams of greeting:

Fat always, and out of breath,

A greasy smack on every cheek

From Aunt Elizabeth;

There, that's the pink, pleased squeak

Of Cousin Jane, our spinster with

The faded eyes

And hands like nervous butterflies;

While rough as splintered wood

  Across them all

Rasps the jarring baritone of Uncle Paul;

The poem is witty but at the expense of the real-life Elizabeth and Paul, Aurelia's aunt and cousin, both by marriage. Elizabeth C. Schober, nee Etlin, married Aurelia's uncle Henry Schober in 1912. They named their only child Esther, then a fashionable name.

Paul McCue, college grad, 1931
Esther Schober might have been the model for the poem's pallid "Cousin Jane." After high school Esther got a secretarial job and lived with her parents until she was 30, escaping spinsterhood by marrying Paul McCue in 1943. In the extended family there was no one named Jane.

Esther's wedding was late enough in 1943 so that Boston's 1944 city directory (above) still shows her as one of three Schobers employed in Boston. Her husband Paul McCue, a college graduate, worked at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as shipping clerk and custodian, finishing his career at Harvard University Art Museums, which threw him a retirement party in 1973.

The poem does not name or describe "Schober Herman F," a more distant relative. Yet he was close enough that Aurelia in her preface to Letters Home transferred Herman's job title "cost accountant" -- an industrial job -- to her own father, Frank Schober, a waiter like his brother. In the 1930s Frank managed a tearoom and after 1942 was maitre d'hotel in a country club outside of Boston. Good at his job, Frank was bad with money, losing family funds to the stock market, prompting his wife to take control. He was never a cost accountant. Why Aurelia wanted readers to see her father more prestigiously titled and employed than he was, we don't know.

"Family Reunion" specifies and belittles maternal relatives. Yet before assuming, because Sylvia in this early poem said so, that all of them must have been laughable or gross, know that Sylvia never met a paternal relative until she was 26 and went to visit one.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Aurelia Plath Videos and Audio

Mini-cassette, 1967
Delighted by a lively 1976 radio interview with Aurelia Plath from WGBH-Boston, a recording recently recovered by Peter K. Steinberg, I have created and will keep at the top of this blog a page with links to all publicly available Aurelia media, audio and video, mostly educational films. Click here to access the 30-minute radio interview, interwoven with recordings of Sylvia reading her poems.