Author Elizabeth Winder chronicles the poet's unlikely experience in New York City as a guest editor at Mademoiselle
Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel, The Best of Everything, chronicled the lives of five young women in New York. The novel is thoroughly engaging and beautifully captures New York for a young woman in the ’50s—the crisp, modish outfits, the eager romances, the struggles to get ahead, the boozy, smoke-filled nights, the inevitable disappointments, the incandescent moments of joy. In Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, we are offered a glimpse into what that 1950s New York life was like for Sylvia Plath.
"New York was just beginning to emerge as a safe haven for women who were more interested in becoming fully formed adults than wives and mothers—a vision of the city that would be crystallized nearly a decade later in Breakfast at Tiffany’s."
A relentless number of books have been written about Plath—her life, her death, her marriage, her children, her writing. She was brilliant, beautiful and died young so her life has always held a tragic-glamorous allure. And yet. What more could possibly be said about Plath? Winder tries to answer that question by narrowing her focus to the summer of 1953 when Plath worked as a guest editor for Mademoiselle, a prestigious opportunity at the time.
During that heady month, Plath lived with 19 other young women at The Barbizon Hotel for Women on the corner of Lexington and 63rd. In addition to Plath, famous women like Grace Kelly, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Joan Crawford and Liza Minnelli all spent time at the Barbizon. The building still stands, though it has changed hands several times and is now mostly given over to expensive condominiums. As is the way of New York, the past and present are always overlapping.
Winder chose this focus because, “The stark facts of Sylvia Plath’s suicide have led to decades of reductionist writing about her person and her writing.” Though Pain, Parties, Work does not ignore Plath’s emotional issues, Winder takes a meticulous, ebullient look at Plath’s life through a fairly unique lens—examining Plath’s youthful ambitions, her appreciation for beauty and her impeccable fashion sense. For example, Winder details Plath’s appearance: “At twenty, Sylvia was five feet, nine inches and weighed 137 pounds. She preened and fretted over her height. She resented being sentenced to flats for dances, and would have liked the elegance of a heeled pump. She wore tight preppy vests, crisp tennis whites, wide belts, and lots of silky scarves in heraldic prints.…White halter bikinis in summer, and black cotton sundresses with skinny straps pulled down for tanning.… Dressy black coats with red boots and red gloves, a red leather satchel, red ballerina flats, several red headbands—and endless tubes of wet red lipstick.”
Though the book largely focuses on one month of Plath’s life, it is an engaging read—this portrait of the young woman in the city, the young woman who realized she wanted more for herself. Winder provides ample context on what young womanhood was like in New York during the 1950s and is clearly passionate about the subject. As Winder notes, “New York was just beginning to emerge as a safe haven for women who were more interested in becoming fully formed adults than wives and mothers—a vision of the city that would be crystallized nearly a decade later in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
What remains so fascinating about Sylvia Plath is that we know so much about her life, from how she felt on a given day to what she ate for breakfast on June 1, 1953—“fruit juice, an egg, two pieces of toast, and coffee.” Her unabridged journals offer us unprecedented insight into the woman and Winder draws from those journals liberally, as well as Plath’s correspondence and interviews with several of the women with whom Plath spent that summer in New York, where she was keenly eager to have a true New York experience.
“Sylvia was not in New York to work. The prestige of the award, the professional experience, was little more than a pretext. She was there to live.” Live, Plath did. During those whirlwind weeks, she participated in photo shoots and had evening outings. She wrote and plotted and socialized with the other girls and went on dates. The schedule for the guest editors was demanding, and the young women were often forced to be on display, the editors and photographers Plath worked for, “evaluating her social, intellectual, and feminine talents.”
Plath played her role as best she could but as the city became less of an idea and more of an obdurate place that might not be conquered, Plath’s spirits sagged. “Sylvia had begun her month in New York with princessy pomp and fanfare. She arrived in Grand Central Terminal flanked by two soldiers (she had met them on the train, and apparently they were ‘lovely and muscular’). Like a starlet’s bodyguards, they took her suitcases, led her through the swarm, hailed her a taxi, and gallantly accompanied her to the Barbizon Hotel. Her departure on June 27 was entirely different. She left New York shaken, depleted, and utterly alone.” This often seems to be the narrative arc of a New York story—it always begins with promise but there’s no way to predict the ending. Had she lived, Plath would have turned 81 this month.