In Meg Wolitzer’s new YA novel Belzhar, a group of teenagers packed off to an idyllic boarding school learn that they have the ability to undo their most serious traumas. Their discovery is sparked by a writing assignment in a class on Sylvia Plath. At Slate, Jennifer Ray Morell connects Wolitzer’s novel to Plath’s classic The Bell Jar. Related: our own Hannah Gersen’s interview with biographer Elizabeth Winder.
It’s been fifty years since Sylvia Plath’s premature death at age thirty, but this summer marks a subtler anniversary in the Plath biography: it was sixty years ago, in July of 1953, that Plath arrived in New York City to work as an intern for Mademoiselle. A magazine internship may sound banal, but for Plath it was life-changing. Along with nineteen other “Millies” — Mademoiselle’s name for its female interns — Plath lived in Manhattan for a month and helped to put together the magazine’s fall college issue. It was one of the most intense experiences of Plath’s young life, leading to her first major breakdown and, a decade later, providing the raw material for The Bell Jar, her now classic coming-of-age novel.
Elizabeth Winder’s new biography, Pain, Parties, Work, documents this crucial time, drawing from new research and bringing a fresh, almost sunny perspective to a subject whose life is usually painted in shades of gray. The Plath we meet in Winder’s book is a frivolous, fashion-forward girl; a girl addicted to tanning and Revlon’s new Fire & Ice lipstick; a girl for whom “a shopping list was a poem.” To uncover this new version of Plath, Winder interviewed her contemporaries, the 19 other “Millies” who lived and worked with Plath. To these women, Plath was just another girl trying to make it in Manhattan, not a tortured, soul-bearing artist. “I could never have imagined the life she had ahead of her,” one Millie told Winder. “She seemed just like me.”
I spoke to Winder by phone a few weeks before her book’s release. We talked about getting to know the Millies, eating 1950s diner food, the joys of researching perfume, and the virtues of composing sentences on index cards.
The Millions: What inspired you to write this book?
Elizabeth Winder: I’ve read everything that Sylvia Plath has written and everything’s that’s been written about her. And I was always surprised that this time in her life is skimmed over, even as it’s always mentioned as the month that leads to that breakdown. And also, the whole Sylvia Plath life story has been approached in a reductionist way. I wanted to do something different. Because when I read her journals I see someone who’s so lively, so hungry for life, and really engaged in the world in a relatable way.
TM: How do you think she’s been unfairly portrayed?
EW: Depressed, pathological, humorless. Neurotic — well, she probably was neurotic. Competitive. Delusional — ambitious in a delusional way. And then later on, as sort of like a nagging wife. And then on another level, I think that she’s also diminished because of the way she looks. It’s not like she was some great beauty, but she fit in with the cultural standards of the time. Somehow, we always have a problem with a woman who’s a writer who also wears make-up and likes lipstick. That’s always been included as part of her pathology. People pathologize everything with Plath and that’s always rubbed me the wrong way.
TM: Tell me about the Millies. Did you know, from the get-go, that you would get in touch with them?
EW: No, I didn’t. I wrote the proposal and then I got the book deal and it overwhelmed me. When I sat down to do the research for the book I thought, oh my god, what am I going to do? Sylvia didn’t even write about this month in her journals! And I just started googling the names of the women — because they had been listed in biographies — and I wrote them letters.
TM: What was their reaction when you told them about your project? Did anyone refuse to meet with you?
EW: They were really interested for the most part. Excited, curious. They had so much fun going back to the past and reliving that stuff. Most of them I talked with on the phone or corresponded by letter. I was really careful. For me, the absolute most important part was being respectful and courteous with those interviews.
TM: What was most surprising thing about talking with them?
EW: I know the thing that I liked the most…they were just so smart and so funny. Some of them talk like writers, like really good writers. Well, some of them are. The way they remembered the month and all of the wonderful details, like the clothes that they wore. And what they were eating and the way the carpet felt and the little scenes that happened in the office. It made me feel like I was there and it just brought everything to life. In the process of writing it, I just sort of left the world. I felt like I was living in some Technicolor dream of the 1950s. And it was because of them and their generosity that I was able to completely enter that world.
TM: Did you have any other source materials? Did you get old magazines or watch movies from the period?
EW: I got a copy of the original magazine that they worked on. Neva, one of the Millies I interviewed, sent me one of her copies. I also went on Ebay and bought some other old magazines from the period. I got a Mademoiselle from 1952. And I went to some archives and looked at the magazines I couldn’t buy. I love fashion history, it’s always been an interest of mine. I learned a lot from looking at the advertisements, and I got a book on the history of make-up. Immersing myself in that period was so interesting. I got samples of some of the old perfumes. Sylvia wore Tigress. I tried on Youth Dew, too, which I think is kind of repulsive. I even started eating 1950s diner food. Like the salad with all the mayonnaise and frozen peas and things like that. Maraschino cherries. I was sort of method acting, I guess.
TM: As you reconstructed that month, were there gaps in the narrative that you were unable to fill?
EW: There were gaps, there were tons of gaps. But I’m kind of detail-oriented — at least in this way — and I considered it a gap if I didn’t know the exact shade of the carpet. I mean, I spent days figuring out what perfume Sylvia wore. I wanted to know what she was wearing every single day, I wanted to know what everyone else was wearing. I kind of kept researching until there was nothing left.
TM: This book is full of sidebars, describing different products from the time period, or interesting tidbits from Sylvia’s life and journals. Why did you choose to structure it that way? To make it more like a magazine?
EW: I didn’t, but I hope it kind of looks that way. I did that because I’m not too fond of just straight narrative. I like little asides. And because I wanted to get into all the details of the culture that she was so steeped in, because Sylvia Plath was so much of her time. She wasn’t backwards, she wasn’t pushing forward, she was just right in it. How do you fit the details of Halo shampoo, how do you fit it in? You have to reduce it and squash it, and I wanted all those products, all those glittery details.
TM: What you just said about Sylvia being so much of her time strikes me as true, but yet people think of her as a contemporary. Why do you think that is?
EW: First, because her poetry is so contemporary. You read it and it kind of exists outside of time. Somehow it’s so fresh to the point of being scary. Anytime I read her poetry, I feel it’s happening right now. So that’s one reason. The other reason is that she died when she was so young. And when your image is of someone being thirty years old, I think you can be inclined to think that they still exist in some way. She died when she was younger than I am right now. So I guess you kind of think, she’s still thirty, she’s still here. If she were alive now, she’d be eighty years old.
TM: Did your reading of The Bell Jar change after researching this time in Plath’s life?
EW: I think it made The Bell Jar more real for me and this kind of goes back to my experience interviewing all those really great women…when you ask two different people about something you get two different stories. More importantly, if you ask the same person on two different days, you get a different story. I guess what I mean is — and this has to do with being 32 versus being 15 and reading The Bell Jar — what talking with those women brought to light was how a really intense experience can be so thrilling and just so heartbreaking at the same time. It was so important to Sylvia to make the most of her life in that classic sort of post-World War II way, if you know what I mean. To make every moment shine.
TM: You write in Pain, Parties, Work that some of the Millies felt betrayed by The Bell Jar. Did you think Plath betrayed them?
EW: No, I don’t think so. Because…well, because it’s fiction. And because she changed their names. And also, when I read The Bell Jar, the character that I completely fell in love with wasn’t the narrator; it was Doreen, who was Sylvia’s best friend. She’s so glamorous and cool and she knows exactly how much to tip the bellhop. So I feel like the portraits that she did of the women were kind of flattering. If anyone would feel betrayed it would be Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother. But Doreen is still the best thing about the book for me. She’s so glamorous in the coolest way possible.
TM: You’re a poet. What is your relationship to Plath’s work?
EW: She’s one of the first poets I started reading seriously as a young teenager. That really sharp and fresh way she uses language is so deeply personal and so vivid. And every time I read her poems I feel like I’m in some crazy movie. That’s exactly how I want to feel when I read anything. She’s been a huge influence on how I perceive language. She lived and breathed words. She didn’t treat them delicately or with some kind of academic reverence. She just dove right in, like they were a bathtub or food. That’s the first thing I noticed about her writing.
TM: I think your book portrays that, actually. The way you describe her world and her love of fashion, of food, of the feeling of fabrics or the smell of certain perfumes. I can see how that translates into her work.
EW: That’s the most important thing to me. It’s that deep, deep love of beauty. And that ability to spot it and to play with it.
TM: This is your first piece of nonfiction. How was writing it different from writing poetry?
EW: Before I wrote this book I barely wrote complete sentences. When I was an undergrad, I was the worst English major in the world. I loved reading the books but I just couldn’t write about them. And I’m sure I could never write fiction. I had zero experience with prose. The part that was excruciatingly hard was piecing it together in a way that makes logical sense. The way I wrote it was the way I write poems, which was writing words, and then writing words around them into phrases, and then writing sentences. But I don’t write any of these things in any kind of order. So then I just had like, a hundred typed pages that I had to arrange. And then at some point I was just in a room with a bunch of index cards…because that’s the only way I know how to write. So it was a piecing together.
TM: There is so much written on Plath; were you at all intimidated by the amount of previous scholarship?
EW: No. Maybe I should have been. But maybe I wasn’t because I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to do something so different. I wanted to write a book that was very intensely feminine. I think that there’s this impulse in society to kind of neutralize women who write and take away their femininity as if that detracts from them in some way. And I don’t like that.
TM: Why do you think it matters what Plath looked like?
EW: If you want to read a book about someone’s life, you want to know how they experience the world. And the physical world is a huge part of that, for so many different reasons. Especially for women, the way that we look hugely determines certain aspects of how we move through the world. My personality would probably be completely different if I were five inches taller. Or if I had different color hair. I actually think that’s true. I get mad at books that don’t give me more physical details. Because if I’m interested in a subject, I want to know the color of the wall, exactly what they’re wearing, what they had for lunch, I want to know all that stuff. And physical appearance fits into that. You can’t bring someone to life without describing how they look. You’d just be dealing with Slyvia Plath the name, not Sylvia Plath the human.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.