Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. HarperCollins. 2013. Personal Copy. Vacation reads — when I review not-teen books that people may be interested in reading!
It’s About: In June, 1953, Sylvia Plath was a guest editor for the fashion magazine, Mademoiselle.
The guest editor program was prestigious. The month long stay in Manhattan, editing the annual college edition of the magazine, was supposed to be both about fun and about work.
Plath returned home, to Massachusetts, after the program. In August of 1953, Plath attempted suicide.
Plath would go on to use these experiences in her work of fiction, The Bell Jar, shortly before her death in 1963.
But what about the real program, not Plath’s fictional account?
What was it like? What happened? What did it mean to be one of the best and brightest young women in 1953, in Manhattan?
It meant — pain, and parties, and work.
The Good: Why, yes, I was one of those teenage girls. One of those girls who read and adored Plath.
I won’t bore you with all the details of why and what, exactly, it was about Plath and her work that captivated me.
I will say this: part of it was, and continues to be, the documentation of a time in history (the 1950s and early 1960s) from the point of a view of a talented, articulate, woman who wanted both what her society said (home, husband, children) and more (success, on her terms, using her name). I watch shows like The Hour, Mad Men, and Call the Midwife, and think of Plath.
Pain, Parties, Work concentrates on one specific time in Plath’s life. For readers advisory purposes, I’ll be brief: interested in Plath? Yes, you’ll like this. Do I recommend this as the “first” nonfiction book to read about Plath? No; I think a broader biography is a better place to start, but once started, you will crave the details that Pain, Parties, Work provide. Pain, Parties, Work is also a good look at a side of Plath, the one who loved food and fashion and fun, that is sometimes forgotten, when Plath is thought of the author of Lady Lazarus and Daddy, as the woman who killed herself as her children slept.
So, is this just for Plath readers? No. Pain, Parties, Work is not just about Plath; it is also about 1953, and being a woman in 1953, and the types of other young women who came to New York for the summer to do what Plath did. It is also about Mademoiselle, and what it was (an “intellectual fashion magazine”) and the women who worked there, such as Betsy Talbot Blackwell and Cyrilly Abels.
It’s about a world where wearing white gloves, in the summer, mattered.
A world where girdles were required.
Those details — the clothes, the food, the clubs, the taxis, the lipsticks, how to survive New York City in a heatwave with no air conditioning — I adored them. To me, this is what makes history interesting and makes it come alive.
Back to Pain, Parties, Work: for Plath, that was New York and Mademoiselle. The pain both real (food poisoning) and emotional, as she pushed herself to both succeed and to make this chance matter. Plath was well aware of the opportunity she had, and she wanted. The parties; much like any internship or program, while Mademoiselle was about the work the young women did during that month, it was also about being in New York and attending the various parties and events the magazine organized. And finally it was about the work, and Winder argues that Plath’s role as guest managing editor was perhaps not the best fit for her talents, even though it was most prestigious. It also was one of the more demanding guest editor jobs, with perhaps less time for some of the parties and fun.
Now that I’ve read Pain, Parties, Work, I want to go back and read The Bell Jar. I know, I know — The Bell Jar is fiction. But, it is about a specific time and place, and I think having read Pain, Parties, Work will give me a better understanding of that setting.
Because Pain, Parties, Work, is about such a short time in Plath’s life, it doesn’t give answers to the “why” of Plath’s life or the “who” she really was. Most, now, would diagnose Plath with depression, or bipolar. Yes, she attempted suicide later that summer; and Pain, Parties, Work can be read to look for clues of that happening. However, those things are few and far between, and it wasn’t the whole Plath. Or, at least, the self Plath was presenting to others — the successful, confident, talented woman. Winder doesn’t write looking to provide answers, but the reader can, if they choose, make their own decisions about Plath.
Other reviews: Slate; BookSlut; A Bookish Affair; Seeing Sylvia Plath With New Eyes.