Sylvia Plath Revisited
By Elizabeth Winder
Harper, $25.99, 288 pages
Author Elizabeth Winder claims that her book is an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as a demon-plagued artist,” written in order to reveal the troubled author as “an electrically alive young woman on the brink of life.” Indeed, Winder characterizes Plath during her guest editorship of Mademoiselle Magazine, in June of 1953, as “someone who liked to play, who loved to shop, as much as she loved to read.” Winder uses anecdotal evidence for this new take on Plath’s persona via quotes from fellow Mademoiselle guest editors, and the title of the Winder’s book, taken from Plath’s journals, reaffirms this view of Plath’s time on the magazine’s staff as an enjoyable one.
“On June 29th, 1953, Marilyn Monroe appeared on the debut cover of Playboy magazine. She was sitting cross-legged in a white crochet bikini […] Sylvia Plath would have liked it–the absurd sexiness, all that blond and red.”
It is telling, however, that the word “pain” is first on Plath’s mind, as though to signify her suffering in New York City; despite the author’s best efforts, Winder cannot morph the historical image of Plath as troubled genius into a beautiful blond who wore crinolines and loved to shop.
The author’s own evidence shows this to be true: during the 30 days Plath spent as a guest editor, for example, she was under the tyrannical thumb of Mademoiselle’s legendary editor, Betsy Talbot Blackwell, who not only worked Plath to the point of exhaustion, but isolated her from the camaraderie of the other girls at the magazine. Blackwell’s well-intended but misguided aim was evidently to mold Plath into a top notch editor, like herself, but it is clear that not only did Blackwell fail to guess where Plath’s true talent lay, but also seemed blind to the effect her pressure had on the young poet: fifty-eight days after Plath returned from New York City, for example, she crawled underneath her house in a state of hopelessness and swallowed 40 Nembutal, and would probably have died if her brother had not found her three days later.
Altogether the book is an entertaining examination of the “hot house of pretty brainy American ingenues” that was Mademoiselle, and as an exploration of the “tropical exoticism” of the 1953 Madison Avenue fashion scene. While it will hold interest to an audience interested in that period, the reader of “Pain, Parties, Work” will likely not be convinced by Winder’s argument that Sylvia Plath was a party girl who just wanted to have fun.
Reviewed by Sheila Erwin