Brain Pickings

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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What a catalog of superficiality reveals about the complex inner worlds of young women.

On June 1, 1953, twenty women in the summer before their senior year of college were selected to travel to New York City from all over the United States to work for one month as guest editors of the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. The young women had already been members of Mademoiselle’s College Board, feeding tips about college life to editors in New York “on frosted pink paper…the general effect was that you were corresponding with an older, very stylish, very sweet, and very pretty friend.”

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (public library) by Elizabeth Widmer is a fascinating chronicle of a busy month in the lives of these twenty young women, made famous by one of their own when guest editor Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known artist and children’s book author, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — published her novel The Bell Jar under a pseudonym in 1963. In writing about Sylvia Plath’s life before her marriage, many have tried to scour her letters, her diaries, her taste in clothes, music, poems, and men, as signposts on the way to an inevitable end, and her month at Mademoiselle as the breakdown that started it all. But this short time was also a period of joyful and intense work for nineteen other women, a summer that was far more about living than dying. In 2003, when the surviving women returned the Barbizon, the hotel for women where the guest editors lived, it was apparent that the famous month was a sliver of time in the lives of these women: “You rarely have a reunion of people who only knew each other for a few weeks.”

'Six Girls in a Two Room Apartment in Greenwich Village, New York,' from LIFE Magazine, January 1954 (Photograph by Lisa Larsen)

In the early 1950s, the single girl living in the city was such a curious phenomenon that the merited a spread in LIFE Magazine, curious about how a young girl could possibly take care of herself at the age of twenty. An array of objects stands in for their hopes and dreams:

There are makeshift desks piled with raspberry jam, toast, tea-cups, leaf-shaped ashtrays and packs of Chesterfield cigarettes. Black Bakelite telephones, hatboxes, and corkboards pinned with glamour shots and modeling cards. Rusty radiators, guitar propped by the window…

It’s a telling description of the Mademoiselle girl, a catalog of accomplishments and things, more suitcase than personality. In her application letter to Mademoiselle, Sylvia addressed her vocational skills: she was a “skilled” waitress, an “excellent” spinach-picker, a governess, a villanelle writer, and a “reasonably” good typist. Her first assignment was to interview the poet Elizabeth Bowen, (and for Sylvia to have her photograph taken while interviewing her). She was concerned about her appearance as she knew it was a powerful and creative force. For months before she left, she had collected “blouses of sheer nylon, straight gray skirts, tight black jerseys, and black heeled pumps.” She wore her very best outfit to interview Bowen, with pearls, gloves, and a hat.

Sylvia Plath is photographed while interviewing poet Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle

One of the most confounding and exhausting parts of the experience was that the girls were both charged with creating a product — writing and editing an issue of Mademoiselle — and simultaneously living that product, showing up neatly pressed to cocktail parties, attending lingerie shows. That June was hot during the week, and it rained every weekend, but the pressure remained to appear dewy and fresh each morning. The month was a mania of seeing and being seen, where every girl expected to be both the model and the mind. The “Millie” guest editor was a member of the most glamorous finishing school of the day, in which the final product was shipped to young women all over the country.

Plath in a Mademoiselle photo shoot of the guest editors

June, 1953 may have been one of the most well-documented months in Sylvia Plath’s life, but she barely wrote about it in her diary. On the night of Friday, June 26, the girls celebrated their last night on the rooftop of the Barbizon, and Sylvia hauled up her suitcase and threw every last nylon, slip, skirt, and blouse off the roof. The next day, she borrowed a skirt and peasant top and, without a single item she brought with her to New York, took the train back home. There was no job after the month at Mademoiselle. Any girl who stayed in the city had likely been spotted by a model scout or hired by a fashion designer she had met during the monthlong gig.

That August, the college issue of Mademoiselle went on newsstands. It contained thirty-three advertisements for secretary schools, an article written by Sylvia about famous poets teaching on college campuses, a column by the inventor of the “Beat Generation” that claimed “careers are passé among young women” next to an add for blouses with French cuffs for career girls, ideas for dorm crafts, how to pin the perfect curl, and tips on finding the perfect Ivy League boyfriend.

Only nine years later, a new kind of magazine would give young women hope for an empowered existence.

The August 1953 college issue of Mademoiselle, which Sylvia Plath worked on.

The college girl, the career girl, and the wife each had their set of accessories, and the choices women had — to be an intellectual, a mother, an editor — were characters to play, not lives to live. That July, small tragedies compounded for Sylvia: a rejection from a fiction writing class, a boyfriend leaving for officer training, depression, electroshock therapy, and twenty-one days without sleep. On August 24, just as her issue was about to leave newsstands forever, Sylvia crawled into the basement of her house with a bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills and made her first medically documented suicide attempt.

Pain, Parties, Work might at first appear like a frivolous account — a catalog of clothes, shoes, haircuts, suitcases, lunches, dates, parties, typewriters, letters, nylons, and men — but it allows that the banalities of the exterior life do affect the interior life, that madness, moods, and depth of feeling exist within the same world as morning coffee and an egg sandwich on the way to work. Most of the working women of Mademoiselle didn’t simply exist on a polar scale of benign beauties and basket cases, burning out their creative energies, but instead lived in that month the best anyone could, and moved on. Complement it with 18-year-old Plath’s meditation on life, death, hope, and happiness.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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