In 1950s America, women were not supposed to be ambitious. When Sylvia Plath graduated from Smith College in 1955, her commencement speaker, Adlai Stevenson, praised the female graduates and pronounced the purpose of their education was so they could be entertaining and well-informed wives when their husbands returned home from work. The postwar ideals of domesticity, the nuclear family, and the white middle-class woman who stayed at home dominated American thought until the mid-1960s. For those with enough privilege, a woman’s place was ensuring that a strong family unit would mean a strong, united society. Women were respected for not pursuing their own careers or ambitions. So, they had a lot to look forward to then.
Six years after graduation, when she was writing The Bell Jar, Plath satirized this viewpoint with the memorable lines: “What a man is is an arrow into the future, and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.” But subversively, Plath’s narrator, the sassy and wry Esther Greenwood, declared, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way.”
Far from planning to be a well-informed and interesting wife, Plath’s protagonist wanted an ambitious and varied future on her own terms. She rejected gendered double standards in all their forms, declaring that if men could do what they wanted and have sex with whom they wanted, so could she. One can only imagine how men must have withered beneath her gaze. Upon her first glimpse of male genitalia, Esther Greenwood pondered, “The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” (Hetero)sexual liberation had its drawbacks.
In 1959, when Anne Sexton won a fellowship to study poetry under the greatly respected American poet Theodore Roethke, she wrote sarcastically to her poet friend Carolyn Kizer that he probably wouldn’t like her work and she’d be left sobbing in her “cave of womanhood.” More seriously, though, Sexton described the frustration of “kicking at the door of fame that men run and own and won’t give us the password for.”
But in 1950s America, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton met for the first time. Both were emerging poets, and both were hugely ambitious women in a cultural moment that did not know how to deal with ambitious women. They realized that to pursue their desire to be writers would require determination, energy, and resilience. Operating in a male-dominated discipline was not easy, and their rebellion against the status quo seethed just below the surface.
Curiously, Plath and Sexton both grew up in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, but never met during their teenage years. When their paths did finally cross, Plath was 26 and Sexton was 30. Their meeting was dramatic and literary, in a writing workshop at Boston University run by the well-known poet Robert Lowell.
Throughout the spring of 1959, on a Tuesday afternoon between 2 and 4 p.m., Plath and Sexton shared the same seminar space, room 222 at 236 Bay State Road. This room still exists today: tiny, with creaking wooden floors, a book-lined wall, and three airy windows offering a glimpse of the Charles River. It is a space that seems too small to have housed the personalities of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath. Sexton described it as “a dismal room the shape of a shoe box. It was a bleak spot, as if it had been forgotten for years, like the spinning room in Sleeping Beauty’s castle.”
The two women spent hours reading their poems, listening to about 18 other students, and taking advice from Lowell about what they were working on. The atmosphere was mostly awkward silences, slight terror at having their poems chosen for discussion, and equal terror at having them ignored. Poet Kathleen Spivack, who attended these classes as an undergraduate student, wrote, “The experience of being there was nerve-racking.”
Lowell dominated with one question he repeated again and again, “But what does the poem really mean?” Often long, uncomfortable silences would follow, and students would make embarrassed eye contact with each other or shift nervously in their seats. Sometimes, for Sexton, the silences would get too much “so I act like a bitch… [H]e will be dissecting some great poem and will say ‘Why is this line so good. What makes it good?’ and there is total silence. Everyone afraid to speak. And finally, because I can stand it no longer, I speak up saying, ‘I don’t think it’s so good at all. You would never allow us sloppy language like that.’”
Students also observed Lowell’s moods and manic depression with some alarm, noticing how during certain seminars he simply seemed, in Sexton’s words, “so gracefully insane.” Insomuch as he was a brilliant poet-critic, he could be distracted and vague, and would become increasingly obsessed with the same point during his manic phases. He could lash out at students if they said the wrong thing or irritated him. One April afternoon, he was so agitated that they became convinced he was about to throw himself out the window. In fact, immediately after the class, he was admitted to McLean Hospital on the outskirts of Boston, where Plath had already been a patient and Sexton would eventually become one.
Although during these sessions Plath and Sexton tentatively circled each other, Lowell finally paired them up. Perhaps he saw a similarity that neither woman could see. Perhaps he saw thematic connections in their work. Or maybe it was just chance. Whatever it was, the two women were then connected and forced to work together, and from this point on their friendship took a different turn. Plath had a grudging respect for Sexton and was ambivalent in her praise. Her journal notes that Lowell had “set me up with Ann [sic] Sexton, an honor, I suppose. Well about time. She has very good things, and they get better, though there is a lot of loose stuff.”
Sexton, on the other hand, was keen to indicate that she was the trailblazer whom Plath, and other poets, followed: “She heard, and George Starbuck heard, that I was auditing a class at Boston University given by Robert Lowell. They kind of followed me in…”
What Sexton’s casual claim overlooks was her insecurity and fear at asking to be admitted. Her exchange of letters with Robert Lowell reveal a nervous, apologetic-sounding Sexton admitting that she is not a graduate, has not been to college, and has been writing for only a year. Included with the letter are manuscripts of “The Musicians,” “Consorting with Angels,” “Man and Wife,” and “Mother and Jack and the Rain.” Lowell responded warmly, assuring Sexton that of course she qualified for the course and that he had read her poems with admiration and envy. An elated Sexton replied, saying she planned to frame his letter and would require no further praise from anyone for “possibly a month.”
As with all small literary circles there was competition and jealousy among the same people applying for the same prizes, fellowships, and publishing opportunities. Literary life in the cobbled streets of the Beacon Hill area of Boston brimmed with poets: Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Starbuck, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, and W. S. Merwin. Plath immediately felt direct competition and rivalry over awards such as the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, an award she coveted (but much to her fury finally went to George Starbuck).
Students who audited Lowell’s class recalled the polar differences between Sexton and Plath, who each in her own way created an atmosphere of awe. Sexton was often late, all breezy and open, jangling with jewelry, wearing brightly printed dresses and glamorous hairstyles, and chain-smoking. According to Spivack, Sexton was a soft presence in the class, observing keenly with her green eyes behind cigarette smoke. She used her shoe as an ashtray. Her late entrances were dramatic as she stood in the doorway, dropping books and papers and cigarette stubs, while the men in the class jumped to their feet and found her a seat. Her hands shook when she read her poems aloud.
Plath on the other hand was mostly silent and often turned up early. Spivack would find her already seated at the table when she arrived, astonishingly still and perfectly composed. Her pencil would be poised over a notebook, or she would be reading and paying no attention to the comings and goings, the chair scrapings and nervous coughing. Occasionally Spivack found Plath a little restless and preoccupied, pleasant but noncommittal, with an intent, unnerving stare.
In contrast to Sexton’s appearance, Plath wore her hair pulled severely into a bun and owned a range of sensible buttoned-up shirts and cardigans. Her camel hair coat would either be carefully folded over the back of her chair or wrapped around her shoulders. She mostly took the seat at the foot of the table, directly opposite Lowell, and was the only student there who was not out intellectualized by him. None of his obscure references were obscure to Plath; she was impeccably educated. When she did speak it was often to make a devastating comment about somebody else’s work, though she could be equally brilliant at analyzing structure, rhythms, and scanning.
Most students were afraid of her. While outwardly Plath seemed self-contained and critical, those sharing the room with her could not have known the doubt, agony, and longing she was pouring into her journals: “I have a vision of the poems I would write, but do not. When will they come?” she asked plaintively in March 1959.
At this early stage in their writing careers, both Sexton and Plath were married, seemingly living the conventional lifestyle expected of white, middle-class, heterosexual American women lucky enough to have a certain level of privilege. Sexton’s husband, Alfred Muller Sexton II, known as Kayo, worked in her family’s business selling wool samples. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, was an increasingly well-known poet whose success at that stage easily eclipsed Plath’s. But running alongside this surface acceptance of the dutiful housewife was an underlying rejection of suffocating gender roles and expectations.
Plath mostly vented these frustrations in her journals, complaining about herself, her husband, her writer’s block, and her fury at rejections and failed applications. Sexton took lovers, and in the spring of 1959 she began an affair with her classmate George Starbuck. He, too, was an emerging poet and a junior editor at the publishing house Houghton Mifflin. The poet-editor Peter Davison recalls Starbuck being “all knees and elbows, tall as a crane with great shadows under his eyes, and a slow melancholy, throw-away manner of speaking…”
This affair developed under the watchful and disapproving eye of Plath, who decided the best way to deal with it was to turn it into a story: “Here is horror. And all the details.”
The affair was almost certainly sparked by the after-class drinking that Plath, Sexton, and Starbuck started soon after encountering one another. Following the seminar, the three of them would pile into the front seat of Sexton’s old Ford Saloon and drive through Boston to the Ritz-Carlton on the edge of the Public Garden. Here, Sexton would pull into a loading-only zone, yelling at bemused hotel workers, “It’s okay, because we are only going to get loaded!”
Then Starbuck would hold out his arms and Plath and Sexton would take one each and drink, in Sexton’s words, “three or four or two martinis” in the lounge bar of the hotel. Sexton recalled the hushed quiet, plush, dark-red carpeting, leather chairs, and white-coated waiters serving the best of Boston. The three young poets hoped they might be mistaken for Hollywood types with their books, poems, and fiery conversations.
The two women must have realized at this point the many ways in which they were linked and the sensibilities they shared. Poised at the magnificent door of the Ritz, it is tempting to look back through a ghostly history to imagine the conversations that must have taken place over martinis and free potato chips. Both women were demonstrative and enthusiastic talkers, becoming relaxed and louder as they drank more alcohol. If, as Sexton claimed, the conversations were fiery, they must have been talking about things that mattered to them. What might those topics have been? We get tantalizing glimpses and memories, details here and there from journals and letters.
Although they came from very different economic backgrounds, both women had overbearing and emotionally demanding mothers. From a young age, both were ambitious in a subversive gendered way, thinking and acting in a manner that was regarded as unusual for women at that time. Neither accepted the double standards regarding sexual pleasure, relationships, marriage, children, and careers. They could only cope with domestic and social expectations if they gave priority to their own time and ambitions. Women were not supposed to even think this in 1950s America, nor were they supposed to leave their husbands waiting for them at home while they went out to drink martinis with friends and lovers in the middle of the afternoon.
Family, poetry, husbands, sex, and Boston gossip in general were all fascinating topics. But Plath and Sexton shared an experience that overshadowed all other conversations that took place at the Ritz bar: they had both survived suicide attempts and mental illness.
“We talked death with burned-up intensity,” said Sexton. Yes, they knew, in Sexton’s phrasing, that it was “sick,” but they felt death made them more real. Plath had survived a suicide attempt six years earlier when, at age 20, she hid away in a crawl space of the family home and took a large quantity of sleeping pills. Although this was a determined effort to die, Plath took too many pills and vomited them back up. She gradually came to consciousness two days later with a nasty gash under her right eye where she had repeatedly banged her head on the concrete ground. Sexton had survived numerous suicide attempts, all overdoses, some more serious than others.
These death conversations were treated as scandalous gossip, swapping stories in loving detail under the mostly silent gaze of George Starbuck. “It is a wonder we didn’t depress George with our egocentricity,” wrote Sexton. Both women were seeing therapists, and Sexton was completely open about this. Her daughter Linda observed that her mother had no sense of privacy, so if death and suicide were on the table, it seems likely therapy would be too.
After their afternoon drinking at the Ritz, they would weave through the streets of Boston to the Waldorf Cafeteria on Tremont Street for a 70-cent dinner and then Sexton would drive to an evening appointment with her psychiatrist in the city. Plath was in weekly therapy sessions with Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who had treated her immediately following her suicide attempt in 1953. Sexton recalled during these death-suicide talks that they would fix their eyes intently on each other, soaking up the gossip and the details while devouring dish after dish of free potato chips. Aware that this was unusual, that people could not understand the fascination, Sexton was always asked “Why, why?” She tried to answer in her poem “Wanting to Die.” “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.”
Which tools, she said, was the fascination.
These strange conversations formed the basis of their brief but intense friendship, a friendship based on rivalry, respect, and admiration. Now, years later, the poets are long gone from the Ritz, and the martinis consumed. But the aftermath of those conversations ripple uneasily through time and space. This is partly because both poets trouble what society and culture does to women. Their voices disrupt dominant ideals as their poems tear apart unfaithful men, gender expectations, the difficulties of marriage, how it feels to be a mother, a woman, a woman who menstruates, suffers miscarriages, who enjoys masturbation and sex.
On those springtime Boston afternoons during their confessional drinking, Plath and Sexton were more radical than they realized. They began to pave the way for the rest of us. For although Sexton felt as though they were kicking at the door of fame waiting for men to share the password, in the end, the two poets kicked the door down anyway, no password needed, and found their own fame, on their own terms. We, at this later point in time, are lucky to see what is on the other side of that door.
Excerpted from Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton. Used with the permission of the publisher, Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2021 by Gail Crowther.