How Elizabeth Hardwick Spent Her “Starving Artist” Years in the Big City
Cathy Curtis on the Author of Sleepless Nights Leaving School
In September 1939, Elizabeth Hardwick took a Greyhound bus to New York to pursue a doctorate in 17th-century English literature at Columbia University. A few years earlier she had visited the city with two high school friends, staying at the Hotel Taft in Times Square. The women’s accents had piqued the curiosity of people, who asked where they were from. This time Elizabeth hoped to save money by staying with her older sister Margaret. The first in the family to venture far from home, she lived on Staten Island with her husband, a Lexington man who directed the physical education program at a high school in that borough.
But after about a month of enduring the long and exhausting commute by ferry and subway to the campus on 114th Street, Elizabeth realized that she had to live in the city. Rooming houses near the university (“those bricky towers in the smoky air” with “the marigold odor of multiple occupancy. . . the greasy couches and scarred table tops”) were the only places she could afford. To pay the bills, she worked part time at the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency, and in the university registrar’s office, jobs she hated.
Elizabeth was attracted by the idea of graduate school. As she said later, “I am one of those people who feels going to school beats the rest of your life, at least it beats working.” But her courses at Columbia were a disappointment. She was not inspired by F.A. Patterson, editor of The Works of John Milton, or by most of his colleagues on the English faculty. The university was useful to her mostly as a place to meet interesting people, including Morton White, a young professor of philosophy; Richard Volney Chase, later a distinguished critic; and Robert Snyder, who became a documentary filmmaker.
Home for the summer of 1940, she gave a talk to a luncheon meeting of the Lexington Altrusa Club, at which her mother was a guest. Elizabeth’s topic was Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, which she discussed in terms of its “psychological significance and . . . the controversies aroused among some reviewers.” She was already edging away from the 17th century to contemplate the literary world of her own time.“I am one of those people who feels going to school beats the rest of your life, at least it beats working.”
Back at Columbia for her second year, Elizabeth received a resident scholarship that paid for her room and board. Living in a dormitory was a new experience. Her letter to her friend Sally Alexander was filled with pointed remarks about the women in Johnson Hall and news about everything except her studies. At a concert by the University Choir, “the music was charming; the unspiked wassail was terrible.” Elizabeth was practicing “a neat little pas de deux” with another woman, in case a man might ask her to a dance. She did have a boyfriend, “Jerry with the dark black hair,” who was “as nice as ever,” and she was “still beautiful in the morning”—a reference to their sexual intimacy.
For six years, she would have an on-and-off relationship with Jerry Felder, a medical student. (“He has that merry, optimistic psychology of the chronically ill.”) After studying at New York University Medical School, he interned at several hospitals in the city. There must have been a strong physical or emotional attraction to keep the affair going so long—he told her later that the relationship was the best thing that ever happened to him—but he lacked the intellectual interests that were so important to Elizabeth.
She was attempting to teach herself German, traditionally the primary language of scholarship, but soon realized she lacked sufficient ambition to earn a Ph.D. She did not want to write “some dull little textual thing.” Learning was enjoyable, but she wasn’t really intent on becoming a scholar. Another consideration was that women were not getting college teaching jobs in New York in those days, and she was determined to stay in the city. After skipping the required oral examinations (“I just couldn’t face it,” she said later), Elizabeth dropped out of the program. From then on, she planned to devote her time to writing. But she felt like a fraud and found it difficult to explain to her family that she had had “all that education” but was not going to be a university professor. “They said, ‘When are you getting a teaching job?’ And I said, ‘Leave me alone.’ ” The stress of trying to pursue a writing career made her “defensive, nerve-wrung and spiteful.”
To support herself, she worked for a publishing company that did not require her to show up at the office. Elizabeth was hired to condense “very bad” detective novels to about 128 pages, suitable for pulp fiction paperbacks. Without even bothering to read the books, she would take about two hours to edit each one to the desired length. Decades later, she claimed she had “always hated mystery stories.” Another job during these years was teaching English to young women from the South at an understaffed “academy” on Riverside Drive. “I couldn’t stand it,” she said, “and they couldn’t stand me. . . . I wasn’t sentimental enough.” Elizabeth described the students as “kind of feeble minded from well to do families.” She lasted just half a term. At one point during this period, she wrote to Sally about another part-time office job she hated that was supposed to be over, though she wasn’t actually sure.
Now living in a single room, she was “on the threshold of starvation,” with money for just one month’s rent. (In Sleepless Nights, the narrator mentions having to make a choice among “the woeful macaroni . . . bready meatloaf . . . drying sandwiches” at the Automat, with its “deformed diners and their revolting habits.”) Dinner that night was an egg and mushroom soup. Her poverty and loneliness made her look forward to dining with her boyfriend’s parents (“the food is an important item”) and spending time in a home redolent with the warmth of family life. “I suppose I don’t like to face the reality of myself,” she mused to a friend, “which is that I am solely dependent on my own ability to support myself.” She felt “estranged” from her own family now, unable to look to them “for consolation” if she could not make her own way. They were becoming a burden “not in the physical but in the mental sense,” and this was “destroying” her.
Elizabeth failed to describe the problem more fully, but her hints in this letter and other evidence suggest that financial support from one of her brothers was making her feel guilty for not being able to take care of herself. Adding to her concerns, an unidentified full-time job (this might have been the teaching position) had led to a period of bad health. Elizabeth wrote that she was feeling “anchorless and . . . a little bit afraid,” concerned that she had “much less physical endurance than I had imagined—and I never thought I had much.”
She would allude to this period of her life in a semiautobiographical short story. “The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann.” It opens with a lonely young woman living in a building where the other residents were women of a certain age, “mostly quite mad.” (In Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth described the older female occupants of rooming houses as reminiscing about the houses in which they grew up, secretive about their jobs, and filling their wastepaper baskets with “cracker boxes, candy wrappers, hot-dog cartons.”) An acquaintance from Kentucky invites the young woman to meet Dr. Hoffmann, a German theologian devoted to radical causes. She becomes friendly with Hoffmann and his wife, an atheist like herself, who is in poor health.
The couple’s devout teenaged daughter reminds the woman of her own efforts at piety at age 12, giving up dancing and movies. The daughter reveals that Hoffmann’s mother faked a heart attack to take him away from his wife’s bedside when the daughter was born. After Hoffmann’s wife leaves for Arizona to recuperate, the daughter continues to attack her father, accusing his mother of being a Nazi. Hoffmann is shaken. The young woman, who had wondered about the strength of his faith, now thinks his mother-dominated life caused him “to seek his fulfillment in a Heavenly Father.” The strangeness of this rather clumsy story—so dominated by the narrator’s fascination with the mysterious figure of Hoffmann—is that for all its grandiose notions, it is ultimately about a lonely person in a metropolis who attaches herself to a substitute family and becomes enmeshed in the dramas of their lives.
Elizabeth went home during the summers to work on short stories set in Lexington and two early novels; the advantage of free room and board undercut by her emotional stress. “I was frightened of getting trapped there,” she recalled. “I was always maneouvering to come back.” (In those years, it was easy to find another room or apartment in New York to replace the one given up for the journey home.) She realized that her first novel was not worthy of being published. But by working on it, as she said later, “you get rid of a lot of childish things and you learn a good deal about how to write.” Elizabeth was too insecure about her hoped-for career to announce it to her family. “I have dreams of stories in mind if I can ever get around to doing them,” she confided to her friend Sally. “Right now”—after typing the first draft of her novel—“ I never want to see a typewriter again.”
In this undated letter, Elizabeth wrote that she planned to return to New York in early September, staying with Margaret for a while and with friends. (“If I don’t get to New York, Mama is petitioning to have me put in the Asylum for the Crazy and Mad,” she joked.) Sally was evidently planning to stay in Manhattan, too, and Elizabeth hoped to find an apartment in a residence club, which would allow each of them to have a room as well as kitchen privileges. One problem, besides their up-in-the-air plans, was that she had “exactly $1.98.” Maybe, she added wistfully, one dollar could serve as a deposit.
In another letter written from home, Elizabeth informed Sally that she was “sleeping like a fool. . . . Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and say: Watch it Hardwick, you don’t want to sleep your life away.” Throughout her life, Elizabeth seemed to tire fairly easily; she would often write to friends about taking pleasure in being able to get to sleep early. This summer she arose at seven o’clock in the morning to start writing. (Although Daylight Savings had begun a month earlier in Lexington, her mother stubbornly chose not to put the clocks ahead. “What are you hurrying for?” she asked, to Elizabeth’s irritation.) Turning to the topic of suitors, Elizabeth reported that the phone was not ringing, which “isn’t the complete joy I expected.” If the date drought kept up, she would be calling her New York boyfriend long-distance “just to talk”—which would have been an expensive luxury in those days. “Walking down to the drug store alone to drink my evening coke” and playing pinball “with the masses,” she missed Manhattan “terribly.”
Elizabeth also spent Christmas back home during these years. Wearing the fur coat she had purchased at a thrift shop, she would travel to Lexington on the George Washington passenger train of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. It rumbled through West Virginia’s mining country (hauling coal was C&O’s prime source of income) and small-town Kentucky: Morehead, Owingsville, Mount Sterling, Ledges, Winchester, Pine Grove, Combs Ferry. Decades later, she described “a stinging, green stillness along the way, the hills rising up on either side to cradle the train as it slipped through the valleys.” In an undated letter to Sally about one of these Christmas visits, she wrote, “There aren’t words to describe the Marx brothers comedy that’s going on here.”
While the woman she refers to is never named, it is clear that this is her mother. Mary had wanted bedroom slippers, but Elizabeth decided to buy something much nicer: “I thought the sense of guilt would be touched by such an act from one so poor.” She asked her mother, “Do you think $16.95 is too much for me to pay for your present?” Meant as a joke—Elizabeth hadn’t actually bought anything yet—this remark was taken seriously. Her mother felt she had to reciprocate, bringing home a bounty of pigs’ feet, sausage, figs, Limburger cheese, and other unwanted food. Despite Elizabeth’s own need for new clothes, she felt called upon to up the ante, so she bought her mother a nine-dollar dress. “I had to do it,” she wrote. “I had to win.”
In Elizabeth’s short story “Evenings at Home,” the push-pull of the narrator’s feelings captures her (and the author’s) struggle to become independent from her family and its expectations. She is startled that her first visit home from New York is not the horror she imagined; her mother “carries no whips,” and the family “accuse me of no crimes, made no demands upon me.” The woman had been involved with a local man years earlier, heedless of her family’s efforts to end the romance. Despite his apathy and mediocrity—in school, in sports—she slept with him (an event only fleetingly alluded to) and pledged her love. Thank goodness she finally spurned him. To her relief, old friends see her only as a former “radical,” not as this man’s sometime lover.
But now he is waiting for her on the steps of the family home. Why hasn’t her mother tipped her off to his presence in the neighborhood? Unable to confront her mother directly, she picks a silly quarrel with her. (“ ‘If there is something wrong with me it’s your fault,’ I said triumphantly. ‘Mine!’ she called back. ‘What madness!’ ”) To her mother’s bewilderment, the woman decides that she must leave home the next day. Launching into one more quarrel makes her feel better. Then, on a visit to the family’s cemetery plot, graced by flowering dogwood, her mother points to the space reserved for the young woman. The last line of the story reinforces the narrator’s conflicted emotions about her family, attesting to the comfort of “roots.”
When Elizabeth’s mother visited her in New York, they would go to the uptown branch of Café Society, a nightclub that featured Black musicians and (unusually, in those days) welcomed patrons of both races, as well as to Broadway hits like Oklahoma! and Tobacco Road. Another standby of these visits was dinner at the Latin Quarter, “a large Hungarian sort of place with a large menu featuring the splendid oxymoron, baked Alaska, and a long, florid floor show.” According to one New York friend, Elizabeth would tell her city acquaintances that they “didn’t want to know” the people from back home who came to see her. It was obviously important to the urban persona she was creating to keep the two parts of her life separate.
Excerpted from A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick by Cathy Curtis. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2021 by Cathy Curtis.