Sylvia Plath travelled to New York City in June 1953 full of excitement and ambition about a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. But soon her anticipation turned to suffering. She was to return home a changed person…
While studying at Smith College in Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath had been submitting assignments to Mademoiselle magazine and secured one of 20 month-long placements starting in June 1953. She knew winning the guest editorship was an important step towards fulfilling her literary aspirations. So far, success had come easily: Sylvia had published many short stories and not only won two poetry prizes from Smith – the Ethel Olin Corbin prize and the Elizabeth Babcock award, which netted her $120 – but she had also been commissioned by Mademoiselle to interview Elizabeth Bowen in Cambridge. She just hoped, as she wrote to [her brother] Warren, that the world wasn't destroyed by war before both of them were able to enjoy the fruits of their labours. An implosion – rather than an explosion – was indeed on the horizon. Sylvia's world was about to be nearly destroyed, not by an external enemy but by forces much closer to home.
On 31 May 1953, Sylvia travelled by train from her home in Wellesley to New York City. Accompanying her on the journey to Manhattan was fellow Mademoiselle guest editor Laurie Totten, a junior at Syracuse University. "We lived only two blocks apart in Wellesley and so, when I heard that she had won it too, we got in touch and travelled to New York together," says Laurie. "We hit it off right away, but I must say I thought she was a typical co-ed – at that first meeting there was nothing remarkable about her."
At Grand Central Station, the two young women – with the help of a couple of soldiers they had enlisted to carry their suitcases – fought their way through what Sylvia described [in her journal] as a rather threatening crowd. The yellow cab honked its way through the glass and steel canyons of Manhattan and pulled up outside the Barbizon, a women-only hotel on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.
On the morning of her first day at Mademoiselle, she dressed in a smart suit, but just as she was about to leave her room she suffered a nose bleed; drops of blood splattered on to her outfit, forcing her to change into a brown dress. From the Barbizon, she walked the eight blocks to the offices of Mademoiselle at 575 Madison Avenue. At 9am, in the magazine's dark-green and pink conference room, she met the magazine's legendary editor, Betsy Talbot Blackwell – "the force which propels and inspires the magazine forward" – who had been with Mademoiselle since 1935. "She took plain young women to New York, where she put them in stylish clothes, restyled their hair and makeup and then put their pictures in her magazine," wrote one observer.
According to Edith Raymond Locke, who worked on Mademoiselle as associate fashion editor at the time, Blackwell saw the magazine as something that "nourished young women inside and out" and indeed her first words of welcome to the 20 guest editors on that June morning included a plea to put "health before genius".
In many ways, the New York offered by Mademoiselle was like a stage set, an artificially constructed world that Sylvia knew was a sham. On 10 June, Sylvia and her fellow guest editors were invited to a formal party at the terrace room of the St Regis Hotel on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. On the surface, it was all rather lovely – in the restaurant, with its ceiling painted the colours of a sky at sunset, Sylvia enjoyed the music from two alternating bands. As each course of her dinner – shrimp, chicken, salad, then parfait – was taken away she was whisked on to the dance floor and, with a daiquiri in her hand, she could look down from the roof terrace across the glittering skyline of Manhattan. Yet there was something not right about the evening. For a start, all the men, albeit young, handsome specimens, had been hired for the occasion by the magazine. As she went on to write in The Bell Jar, from an outside perspective a witness would assume she was having the time of her life. Wasn't this the perfect example of the American Dream? For 19 years, a girl from a poor background has lived in some nondescript town, wins a scholarship to a top college and "ends up steering New York like her own private car".
The truth was more complex. As Plath writes of her fictional persona, Esther [in The Bell Jar], she wasn't capable of steering anything, let alone herself. She knew she should have been excited about the month in New York, but there was something wrong with her reactions. She felt hollow and lifeless and compared herself to the calm centre of a tornado, "moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo", she writes.
Sylvia maintained that she enjoyed New York, yet the more time she spent in the city the more she realised that she had led a relatively sheltered existence. In a letter to her brother, whose graduation from Exeter in mid-June she couldn't attend because of lack of funds, she compared her relatively simple and straightforward life at Smith to the hyper-charged intensity of Manhattan, populated with people who seemed, to paraphrase DH Lawrence in Women in Love, like "dead brilliant galls on the tree of life".
In the same letter, Sylvia said that, over the course of only a few weeks, she had witnessed the world split open before her eyes and [it had] "spilt out its guts like a cracked watermelon". The image had its roots in a physical purging that Sylvia experienced as a result of ptomaine poisoning that she had contracted on 16 June, during a lunch at an advertising agency.
Sylvia described her time in New York as a deadly mix of "pain, parties, work" and it's interesting to speculate on the significance and source of her suffering. We know she endured extreme discomfort – in addition to the food poisoning itself, the treatment involved injections with hypodermic needles – and she found the heat of the city in June oppressive and energy-sapping. The agony she wrote about in this entry in her journal could refer to the anguish she felt when faced with a city she found alienating and altogether too modern for her sensitive soul. In a letter to her brother, she described one day in Manhattan when she got lost on the subway, where she saw a number of beggars, disabled men with amputated limbs, holding out cups for small change. She recalled what she had seen in the zoo in Central Park and posited that the only thing that differentiated men from the beasts was the fact that there were bars on the windows of the cages.
When she tried to think of everything she had witnessed, and experienced, she felt like her mind would split open. In the same letter to Warren, she also compared the train that would take her home from New York to Wellesley to a coffin; and, although a spirit of black humour runs through the lines, there is no doubt that by the end of June Sylvia was feeling seriously disturbed.
What had she experienced to make her feel so ill at ease? On 20 June, at a country club dance in Forest Hills, she had met a Peruvian man, José Antonio La Vias, whom she described in her journal as "cruel". She did not expand on this, nor did she detail how his cruelty manifested itself. All we know, from the brief entries she made on a 1953 calendar – which featured idyllic scenes of the cities and landscape of Austria – is that Sylvia returned to his apartment on the East Side. What happened there we will probably never know, but if we take The Bell Jar as our guide it seems as though Sylvia could have been the victim of a rape or a near rape.
In the novel, Plath provides a devastating description of a sexual assault at a country club in the suburbs of New York involving Esther, her alter ego, and Marco, a wealthy Peruvian, and a friend of disc jockey Lenny Shepherd. On their first meeting, Esther cannot take her eyes off Marco's diamond tiepin, which he hands over to her with the promise that, in exchange, he would perform some of kind of service "worthy of a diamond". As he gives her the jewel, his fingers digging into the underside of her arm, Esther realises that Marco is a misogynist. "Women-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power," Plath writes. Later that night, Marco hits her, repeatedly calls her a slut, rips off her dress and then forces himself upon her.
In the novel, Esther manages to beat him off, but is left dirtied, humiliated and abused, and on her return to the Amazon [the Barbizon] goes up to the roof of the hotel and throws all her clothes off the parapet. As she stands there, in the hour before dawn, she watches her outfits – the outward symbols of her false self – disappear into the dark heart of Manhattan. "I heard she did do that – she went up on to the roof of the Barbizon and threw her clothes off," says Ann Burnside Love [fellow guest editor at Mademoiselle]. It wasn't just a few items either, but "her entire wardrobe, dress by slip by gown, on the last night of her residency there as a guest editor," she adds.
On her return from "Babylon", as one of her Smith professors described New York, Sylvia was met by her family at the station. Her mother described her as looking "tired" and "unsmiling" and, as a result, Aurelia dreaded telling her daughter the news that she said had come that same morning – that Sylvia had not been accepted on to Frank O'Connor's short-story class at Harvard summer school.
During the first few days of July, she debated whether she should still go to Harvard and take another subject, such as elementary psychology or O'Connor's 20th-century novel course. Her main worry was the money, as she estimated that the experience would cost her around $250. In her journal, she wrote again about the fact she did not come from a rich family and how she only had limited resources to cover the following year's expenses. She was also concerned that, if she did go to Harvard to take another course – and, in effect, earn nothing over the summer – it would reduce her chances of getting a good scholarship from Smith when she returned in September. She resolved that, instead of going to Harvard, she would read Joyce, whom she considered writing about for her thesis, and try and write for Seventeen, Ladies' Home Journal, perhaps also the New Yorker and Accent on Living.
Although she was tempted to retreat from life, she realised she would have to force herself to live in as an imaginative way as possible. Such a task required not only creative thinking but some kind of clever strategy too.
She tried to take her mind off her immediate anxieties by spending more time with [new boyfriend] Gordon Lameyer, who was living with his mother in Wellesley while he waited to enrol in the navy's Officer Candidate School in Newport. Sylvia and Gordon saw each other almost every day for the next two weeks, often at his aunt's house in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, listening to the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and recordings of Frost, ee cummings and Dylan Thomas reading their own poetry and ploughing their way through sections of Finnegans Wake. "We both felt that Joyce's final work was a great compilation of enigmas, a Chinese box, a labyrinthine puzzle, a Gordian knot which seemed impossible to cut."
With Gordon, Sylvia acted as though nothing was wrong and he had no inkling about the private hell his girlfriend was suffering. By 6 July, she started to regret her decision not to take one of the other courses at Harvard summer school and she felt trapped by a stifling negativity that threatened to consume her. She recognised that she was "sick" in her head and told herself that she had to stop thinking about self-harming by cutting herself with razor blades, even the possibility of ending it all. Her insomnia was so severe by 14 July that she was managing to get only two hours' sleep a night. She was plagued by visions of ending up in a straitjacket, locked away in a mental asylum, and felt so full of murderous rage that she even considered killing her mother, with whom she was sharing a room.
In "Tongues of Stone" – an autobiographical short story she wrote in 1955 and which she entered for the Mademoiselle fiction contest – Plath wrote of how her main character lay in her bed listening to her mother's breathing, a sound so annoying she felt like getting out of bed and strangling her. By doing so at least she would stop the awful process of decay that she witnessed, something that "grinned at her" like a "death's head".
On 15 July, when Sylvia came downstairs, Aurelia noticed that her daughter had a couple of partially healed scars on her legs. After being questioned about them, Sylvia told her mother that she had gashed herself in an effort to see if she had the guts. Then she took hold of Aurelia's hand and said: "Oh, Mother, the world is so rotten! I want to die! Let's die together!"
It's significant that Sylvia's psychological crisis manifested itself not only in a desire to end her own life but also in a wish for her mother to die with her. Aurelia took her daughter in her arms and tried to reassure her that she was simply exhausted and that she really did have everything to live for. Within an hour, the two women had booked an appointment with the family doctor, Francesca Racioppi, who recommended immediate psychiatric counselling.
After a session with a psychiatrist – whom Sylvia did not like and who soon left for vacation – she was taken on by Dr Kenneth Tillotson. Tillotson recommended a course of sleeping pills for his new patient. Perhaps it would also be a good idea if she found a job that would take her mind off her own troubles? In theory, it sounded like a good idea and, at first, Sylvia was pleased to help out each morning at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. One of her duties was to feed patients who were too sick to do it for themselves. While she was there, Sylvia spoonfed her old art teacher, Miss Hazelton, who was dying. In a letter to Gordon, which she wrote on 23 July, she described the range of cases – children born with Down's syndrome, old people suffering from senility, people who seemed healthy enough but who returned to the hospital a few days later unable to recognise her.
The experience, she said, gave her an insight into what we all could expect at the end of our lives. In The Bell Jar, Esther gets a job at the local hospital on the suggestion of her mother – the cure for thinking too much about oneself was to help someone else worse off than you – and how, one day, she causes a scene by mixing up all the patients' flowers in the maternity ward. After the women turn on her, she flees the hospital, never to return.
Sylvia did not last long as an employee at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital either, because soon she was receiving treatment there as an outpatient. Gordon noticed that "she began to buy paperbacks on psychology at a local drugstore. Retreating into herself, she felt she was gradually but progressively losing her mind. She confessed that it was a dangerous thing to have so little knowledge." Gordon also recalled that, one weekend in late July, when the two of them were necking she accused him of being "lascivious". Did the intimate contact between them bring back memories of the sexual assault she had suffered in New York? "It seemed to me that Sylvia, being very forthright and loving to play roles, pretended to being more sensuously involved than she was willing to be," says Gordon. "Like Zelda before she was married to Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia enjoyed giving the impression that she was sexually more knowledgeable than she actually was."
In order to try to shake her out of depression, Dr Tillotson prescribed a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) beginning at the end of July. Sylvia was driven to the hospital by Aurelia's friend Betty Aldrich, who lived across the street. "I remember my mother telling me that Sylvia really hated to go, but she knew she had to," says Peter Aldrich. "Sometimes Aurelia had to force her into the car. I thought, 'What are they doing to her?' I had visions of an electric chair. My only glimpse of her after a treatment was one day when she was coming out of my mother's car and she seemed uncharacteristically lifeless. I thought, 'That's not Sylvia. What have they done to her?' It was almost as if the life had been sucked out of her."
The treatment had been developed in the 1930s, when Italian neuropsychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini had carried out a series of experiments on animals to induce seizures by the application of electric shocks. In 1937, the doctors tested their new technique on a person and by the 1940s the procedure had been introduced to America and Britain as a treatment for depression. At this time, ECT was often administered in an "unmodified" form – without the use of muscle relaxants – and, as a result, patients suffered from convulsions so severe that dislocations or fractures occasionally occurred. Sylvia's own experience, as related in The Bell Jar and in her poetry, reads like something from a modern gothic novel; later, Olive Higgins Prouty [the novelist and poet] would take Dr Tillotson to task for the badly managed ECT, blaming him for Sylvia's suicide attempt.
In "Sylvia's flamboyant imagination, the EST [electric shock treatment] gear resembled some kind of medieval torture equipment," says Gordon Lameyer. "Because this psychiatrist did not give Sylvia a drug or a shot to anaesthetise her before exposing her to this gear, Sylvia felt so traumatised by these EST electrodes that were attached to her temples that she felt, not so irrationally, as if she were being electrocuted for some unknown crime." Sylvia believed that she was being punished, but for what? What had she done? Had she been too ambitious? Set her sights too high? Was it because she was a woman and a writer?
This is an edited extract.