Elizabeth Winder: “The Sylvia Plath Cliché”

Elizabeth Winder: “The Sylvia Plath Cliché”

Pain, Parties, Work book coverElizabeth Winder wrote the book on Sylvia Plath’s wild 26 days in New York City—Pain, Parties, Work—and nothing makes her blood boil more than reducing Plath to a stereotype. Winder describes The Bell Jar author, who would’ve celebrated her 81st birthday October 27th, as a young woman filled with joy, inspiration, and a taste for hot red lipstick.

Zola: You go into great detail about the summer of 1953; how much research was involved in that? How much was reading Sylvia’s diaries versus talking to Millies (Mademoiselle’s term for its female interns) versus reading vintage fashion magazines?

Elizabeth Winder: Oddly enough, Sylvia Plath—who was a prolific journal keeper—wrote less than a page about her month in New York. So my interviews with the Millies—the women who worked and lived with Sylvia that summer are the backbone of the narrative. My book wouldn’t have been possible without their generosity and wisdom.

Of course Sylvia’s diaries informed my work— in a more oblique but equally relevant way. I’ve been reading and rereading her journals for the past fifteen years. Without them, I wouldn’t know those vital things about her—what she loved, what she feared, what she resented—and what she wore!

Zola: In your book, you also recall some of the clothing looks, perfumes, and lipstick colors that were popular back then. Did you seek out and buy any clothing or cosmetics, or try anything else from that time period, as part of your “immersive process”?

EW: Yes! This was like Candyland for me. I happily launched myself into full immersion. First there were the perfumes—those heavy, aldehyde mossy ones like Youth Dew and Tabu and Sylvia’s favorite—Tigress by Faberge. I tried them all! Sylvia Plath always wore red lipstick—Revlon’s Fire and Ice was huge that year and they still make it! It looked a little ghastly on me but I wore it inside as I worked. This is what I found out—red lipstick makes you sit up a little straighter—it’s deliberate, high maintenance, grown up and fussy in a good way. It made me cut my apples into slices instead of biting into them like an animal and tossing the cores on the floor. To this day, red lipstick is my magic wand if I need to do laundry, file papers, or any other task that “organized” people do. (Now we know why Sylvia Plath made her bed and labeled her nail polish—Revlon!!) Stockings, lipstick, perfume, powder—these things aren’t inconsequential. How could they be? Just like furniture and food, they are the bits and pieces of everyday life, and they shape our movements daily. If you put one woman in silk stockings and her identical twin in tube socks—they’re going to have very different days.

Zola: Do you believe there’s a certain image of Sylvia that’s been distorted by public perception? In what ways does your book paint a fairer picture of who she really was?

EW: I can’t even dwell on this because the Sylvia Plath Cliché makes my blood boil so much. It’s always the same: Sylvia Plath—Pageboy Medusa. Sylvia Plath—Sullen Smithie. Just a few months ago, I flew into a rage when Terry Castle—a writer I previously adored—called Plath “tasteless, grisly—unbearable.” You know what’s really grisly? All this regurgitated lumbering logic. Sylvia Plath was capable of experiencing more joy in one week than most of us can hope to squeeze out of a lifetime.

Zola: Why exactly was the summer of ’53 such a catalyst for the Sylvia we would come to perceive?

EW: Until 1953, Sylvia Plath had never left New England. Then she lands her dream job in New York, only she has twenty-six days to live it—the art, the editing, the bistros, the boyfriends, the streets and the sounds, the drinking and dancing and working, the shopping, the gossip, the flirting and the fatigue—only twenty-six days to cram it all in. A less intense woman might say to herself  “Okay–I’m going to work hard and enjoy myself and come home with some wild stories.” But that wasn’t enough for Sylvia. She had New Year’s Eve Syndrome—that’s one of her qualities I relate to and love.

Zola: Although we tend to forget this, it was highly atypical for young women in the 50s to live in New York (or any other big city) by themselves. What were these “atypical” women like? Have you learned anything about them that you find particularly interesting?

EW: This is such an important point! In the early 1950’s masses of single, educated girls were moving to New York for the first time. This was a shocking concept—shocking enough for LIFE magazine to feature a report on in it 1954— think of today’s articles on “hookup culture” or “women having it all” but minus the antagonism. Instead of judging them, LIFE let the women speak for themselves in the form of a photo spread. We see them brushing their teeth, sewing a button on their “interview suit,” sharing breakfasts of toast and tea amongst piles of magazines. They pool their money together for wine and chicken breasts and host weekend dinner parties. They smoke cigarettes on the fire escape wearing men’s pajamas. Basically, they are like HBO’s Girls in pencil skirts and pageboys! These girls were just like us but braver—they faced an enormous amount of pressure to marry their college boyfriends, buy houses and have babies. They are the original trailblazers—and my heroes!

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

Jordan Scott
Jordan Scott has worked as a designer and web manager for years, leading projects in web design, magazine layout, and print media. He has championed many organizations and artists through processes of brand growth. He is the editor of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine Moonshot, and writes under the name JD Scott. His publications include Night Errands (YellowJacket Press, 2012) and Funerals & Thrones (Birds of Lace, 2013).