Heaven knows what possessed the Muses to come down from Mount Olympus and, as they went about their business of inspiring great art, to put on–as their business attire–the bodies of human beings. Ever since the Renaissance, when we first noticed their presence among us, we’ve seen the nine goddesses reincarnated as a series of remarkable, formidable, often volatile, difficult women who have moved painters to go to their studios, made poets rush to their desks, and jacked up the intensity of the world around them.
The four women considered in the books reviewed below belong to this fiercely individualistic sisterhood, about whom it is hard to generalize except to observe that Muses tend to be beautiful, to lead dramatic lives, to have peculiar and highly theatrical love affairs with their artists, to reflect a particular cultural moment and to take a passionate interest in what their artists eat.
Perhaps a more important writer than Ted Hughes, the poet she inspired, Sylvia Plath has become the Muse of a small but lucrative and clamorous cottage industry of posthumous literary gossip. Like all the great Serial Muses (Lou Andreas-Salome, Alma Mahler, Misia Sert), Lady Caroline Blackwood fascinated one genius after another. And who can possibly estimate the creativity unleashed in the millions of young fans first elevated toward the heights of art by the transcendent vision of Natalie Wood lip-synching “I Feel Pretty”? Among the strangest and mostly unlikely of Muses was Typhoid Mary, a vector of contagion who continues to demonstrate the mysterious operations of the goddess, her paranormal powers of seduction and persuasion. Decades after her death, Typhoid Mary has moved Anthony Bourdain, one of our most gifted and visible chefs, to bury his kitchen knife in the earth at her grave–to pay her the highest homage a smitten cook can offer his departed Muse of cuisine and reputation.
Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of “Birthday Letters,” by Erica Wagner. W.W. Norton, 312 pages, $25.95.
Sylvia and Ted , by Emma Tennant. Henry Holt, 192 pages, $22.
Madness, genius, violence, betrayal–all in the first five minutes. Anyone looking for a defining moment in the tempestuous union of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes could do no better than their first, now-legendary meeting in 1956 at a noisy Cambridge party, when Plath, a 23-year-old Fulbright scholar and aspiring writer, shouted lines of Hughes’ own poetry to him while he chased her around a kitchen, tore off her tantalizing red headband, made off with her silver earrings and crushed her to him in an embrace that had everything to do with her vivacious American blondness and nothing to do with his girlfriend Shirley. “And when he kissed my neck,” Plath recorded in her diary, “I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face …. Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists.”
Seven years later, Sylvia Plath was dead. Her finest work, the Ariel poems that she had known would make her name, lay on her desk in typescript. A handful of these were published in a London newspaper just six days after she died, and over the next several months poems that had been rejected by publications like The New Yorker began to be accepted. The details of her suicide (the folded towel on the oven door, the milk and bread left by the bedsides of her sleeping children) were soon disclosed; they became, like those white-hot final poems, established elements of the Sylvia Plath mystique, as did the bare facts of her separation from Hughes: He had fallen in love with another woman, Assia Wevill, and Plath’s most powerful poems emerged from this betrayal. In even its sparest version, it’s a compelling story, and any writer can be forgiven for wanting to revisit the rooms where Sylvia Plath and her big-boned, charismatic husband read Blake to each other and hunched over the planchette of an Ouija board.
In Sylvia and Ted , her lyrical evocation of the love triangle that broke up the Hughes’ marriage, Emma Tennant recounts events that she learned about not only from the usual sources but also from Hughes himself, during his brief romance with Ms. Tennant in the late 1970′s. In particular, the author’s note at the beginning of the novel promises the revelation of “previously concealed or unknown” facts about Plath’s mysterious rival, Assia Wevill. One difficulty with Ms. Tennant’s project, though, is the absurd richness of the story she is attempting to retell. Each character has its double, for example. While Sylvia Plath was alive, both she and Hughes himself identified Ted with Professor Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father, who died when she was 8. Hughes blamed Plath’s recurrent depression on her father fixation, and in a late interview with an Israeli journalist expressed his belief that all of Plath’s creative work “tells just one story: her Oedipal love for her father, her complex relationship with her mother, the [early] attempt at suicide, the shock therapy.” For her part, Assia Wevill was fascinated by Sylvia Plath, and in Tennant’s novel sends an unfinished tapestry of a rose to her rival, expressing the hope that Plath would fill in the greenery around the dark red needlepoint bloom in the center. Wevill would later kill herself, a Plath copycat.
Sylvia’s double, in a harder, freer, masculine version, was Ted himself. To Sylvia, he seemed God-like in his talent and physique, indifferent to the social pressures that she recounted in her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar , and that fed her contradictory ambitions–to achieve artistic greatness while earning the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. She would be a poet, yes, but also a smiling wife, a doting mother, happy to take second place to her celebrated husband.
As a prose poem, Sylvia and Ted is lovely and resonant. As a novel, however, the book falls short. The characterization is too thin and the plot too airily sketched for the book to stand on its own, without the knowledge of Plath’s life a reader might bring to it. Paradoxically, however, if the reader is too well-versed in Plath, he or she ends up simply trolling the pages for those promised scraps of new biographical detail. Perhaps this is why Assia Wevill emerges as the surprise heroine of the novel. She has barely appeared in the historical record; no one is an expert in Wevill. Now she gets the best line in the book: “And then the winter came, with Assia glowing in the heart of it like a red-shaded bedroom lamp you just can’t turn off.”
When, horribly, Wevill gassed herself in 1969, choosing also to kill her young daughter by Hughes, the bitter symmetries of Ted Hughes’ life fell into place. For the next 30 years, he made almost no public statement about his relationship with either woman, arguing that he would never be believed in any case, but also that the story of his separation from Plath, and its appalling aftermath, was “permanent dynamite” for his children. As her literary executor, he denied permission to quote from Plath’s work in any biography that he was not allowed to vet. He suppressed (and destroyed) parts of her journals. His refusal to explain or apologize or to oil the Plath machine did not endear him to critics, especially those who regarded Plath as a martyr to the brutish male ego.
Hence the surprise of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters , first published in 1998, nine months before his death from cancer. Birthday Letters is a spectacular series of 88 poems about his life with Plath; Hughes described them as an attempt to make “direct, private, inner contact” with his dead wife. In a letter to a friend, Hughes explained that he had always thought the poems, begun in the late 1970′s, “too unpublishably raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable.” Yet he felt that the story they released was the one that all his work since Plath’s death had been evading. “How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets,” he concluded. “But we do.”
In Ariel’s Gift , Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times of London, gives the story of Birthday Letters and of the Plath-Hughes marriage. She regards Hughes’ final book as “the artistic flowering of more than thirty years of pent-up emotion” and concurs with Seamus Heaney that, in the end, Hughes found the only way for his version of his life with Plath to become more than “simply that, another version, with no special authority over the versions of those who had not lived it. The only way for him to enter this discussion was through the complex structure of his art.”
A thoughtful critic, at ease with both Hughes’ and Plath’s poetry, Ms. Wagner reads the poems in Birthday Letters as a dialogue with Plath’s poems. They sometimes share titles, and cover much of the same ground–not only from Hughes’ point of view, in the sense of “he said, she said,” but from his vantage in time, as a careworn man looking back on his youth. With hindsight, he can see Fate working against him. So profound is Hughes’ belief in this malevolent guiding force that it almost constitutes a third party in the marriage. Recalling his first night with Plath in “18 Rugby Street,” he describes his growing infatuation with her and how he had caught sight of the facial scar from her first suicide attempt: “And I heard / Without ceasing for a moment to kiss you / As if a sober star had whispered it / Above the revolving, rumbling city: stay clear.” He watches helplessly as his youthful self ignores the warning and is drawn into Plath’s troubled life: “the male lead in your drama,” as he describes himself in an earlier poem in the sequence.
Biography, of course, cannot explain art, as Ms. Wagner is quick to point out in her introduction. Poems “may be linked to events, but they are not those events; they are themselves.” For this reason, and because Ms. Wagner uses only brief quotes to illustrate her narrative, Ariel’s Gift is best read alongside copies of both Birthday Letters and Plath’s Collected Poems .
In Birthday Letters , Hughes gives vent to much of his pain, along with regret, sorrow, anger, love–and, above all, his continuing bewilderment. Although Plath’s friend Wendy Christie has said that Plath chose Hughes because “her vividness demanded largeness, intensity, an extreme,” Birthday Letters suggests a brilliant but emotionally rough-hewn man: dazzled, even 40 years later, by an American girl in a red headband, and desperately wishing that he and she could still be happy.
Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood , by Suzanne Finstad. Harmony Books, 454 pages, $25.
In her new biography of Natalie Wood, Suzanne Finstad writes: “The tragic, anomalous events of Natalie’s sad, last, lost weekend off Catalina Island, leading to her greatest fear realized–drowning in deep, dark water–have been speculated about and exploited throughout the twenty years since she died, threatening to eclipse the memory of her poignant performances.” Which is presumably why Ms. Finstad keeps the mentions of that death down to a bare minimum: just the first page of her author’s note, and then in the first paragraph of her first chapter, and then on the page after that, and thereafter at regular intervals whenever Wood comes within an inch of any water. She can barely take a bath without Ms. Finstad going into a conniption fit of fateful intimations of that “tragic climax, the details of which may remain as murky as the dark seawater she had a premonition would take her life.” But hey, apart from that, this life of Natalie Wood is hardly turned on by her death.
Ms. Finstad’s big angle is Wood’s Russian heritage, which gives all these premonitions a slighter tonier feel: for in Russia, as we all know, the dark roiling clouds of fate come as a side order with your borscht. Hence the book’s title, not Natalie but Natasha –her Russian nickname, although the air of Chekhovian tragedy evaporates slightly when you find out that one of her brothers was called Semen. The Wood family–the Zakharenkos–were possibly of Gypsy extraction, and also quite possibly related to the Romanovs, although one thing is absolutely clear: In 1917, “Bolshevik workers seized the Winter Palace by October, naming Communist Vladimir Lenin as their leader.”
Grateful though I was for this important news, I couldn’t help getting a little fidgety for my first sighting of little Natalie, her “flashing dark eyes … deep, dark pools of sensitivity” that seemed, to her proud father, “to go way back to Russia or beyond.” But then, looking at a family photograph, Ms. Finstad notes that “everyone has captivating eyes,” which makes you wonder if her standards don’t need tightening up.
Natalie started acting at age 6, at the behest of her mother, Maria or “Mud”–and for once, the nickname fits: In this book, her name really is mud. A stage mother of a particularly sharp-fanged variety–a “snake coiled round her neck,” in one of Ms. Finstad’s better phrases–Mud would hire private detectives to keep track of Natalie on dates, but send her hurtling out of the house in her best dress when the date turned out to be Frank Sinatra. (Lexicologists specializing in Rat Pack slang will be delighted to learn that Sinatra picked up his pet name for the penis–”Clyde”–from Wood.) She finally loosed herself from her mother’s clutches in time for Rebel Without a Cause , although it took a real car crash, with Dennis Hopper at the wheel, to convince director Nicholas Ray that she was right for the role. “Nick, they called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent!” she told him excitedly from her hospital bed, and there is something touchingly sad in that excitement–the raving ingenue with a touch of convent-girl rebellion.
Wood’s friendship with Mr. Hopper and James Dean marked the beginning of her Zelda Fitzgerald years: smoking and drinking, strolling barefoot, mimicking strangers, talking pseudo-nihilist talk long into the night. “We used to talk about how unhappy we were. Whoever was the unhappiest, whoever came closest to suicide the night before, he was the winner.” There is a nicely satirical slant to that observation which hints at high spirits out of kilter with the times. This was the 50′s, the era of hot, roiling Tennessee Williams adaptations, jagged with sexual hysteria. Actors scouted hungrily for big breakdown scenes, and Wood got hers in Splendor in the Grass , emerging naked from a bathtub to rage at her mother, wet with water and tears–a sort of Ophelia in reverse, or maybe just Venus on a really, really bad day.
This sort of thing goes down big with those who measure acting like rainfall–in inches of tears–but in truth, Sturm und Drang were never Wood’s card. Her real gift, infinitely rarer and more valuable, was for a particular brand of unforced gaiety. What you remember best about her in Rebel are not her attempts to snarl sexily while leaning against the hood of Dean’s car, but her fleetness of foot as she runs around the abandoned mansion in the film brief’s pre-climactic idyll. I’d happily exchange the waterworks in Splendor in the Grass for the gaze of molten adoration that she directs at Warren Beatty: She manages to look more interested in Warren Beatty than Warren Beatty is, a singular achievement. According to Ms. Finstad, Wood arrived on the set each day to find Mr. Beatty separating each eyelash with a pin to give them added luster.
Wood tried for the opposite trajectory: She took her built-in luster and attempted to run it through the mangler. It was a battle she was bound to lose–the perfectionism she learnt as a child star proved hard to shake–and if her performances are touching today, it is in part because they present us with the sight of an actress locked tight within her loveliness, trying to break free of the curse of eternal poise. She was desperate to play Blanche Dubois, but her tiny teeth–milk teeth, really–were never those of a sexual carnivore. She was flat-chested in an era of busts you could wrap your fenders around. Now that the shock of her death–in 1981, when she was 43–has subsided, the more lasting shock for most people is that she ever got as far as 43: She’s frozen in our memories as the teenage poppet of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause .
“Her life is more compelling than any of her movie roles,” concludes Ms. Finstad, a sad and rather shameful admission from someone who calls herself a movie fan–but then, I’m not sure she is one. Anybody who can write that Robert Wagner dropped a pair of diamond earrings into a glass of champagne “the way Cary Grant, his role model, might have done on screen” has simply never seen a Cary Grant movie. As for Wood herself, well: “Natasha, the real Natalie, was submerged inside the star persona of ‘Natalie Wood’ …. She existed in a twilight zone between fantasy and reality, movie life and real life …. [T]he movie star façade that was ‘Natalie Wood’ concealed the person inside, gasping for breath …. The person inside the illusion of Natalie Wood was lost for years, even to hers2fg38sy6721djh5jsa*61#@#$!^@*Y@
Oops. Fell asleep for a second there. Head hit the keyboard. Dreadfully sorry. It’s just that this sort of turbo-charged therapy-speak depersonalizes–it processes the self into an anonymous assembly line of traumas, crises, breakdowns and flare-ups. Only occasionally do you glimpse a real person in this book: for instance, when Laurence Olivier catches Wood checking out her reflection with a knife at dinner. “There was a kind of breathless vulnerability,” said Sydney Pollack of her. “You wanted to say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’” “[S]he had this tinkly laugh, it was just so adorable,” said Gil Cates. “I can hear it, it was just light and merry–just this merry, merry laugh.” The real tragedy is that she came into her own at just the time when movies were abandoning their high spirits for a prolonged bout of forehead-pounding. Someone should have set her loose in Shakespearean comedy; then we’d have seen her run.
Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood ,byNancySchoenberger.NanA. Talese-Doubleday, 377 pages, $27.50.
Once upon a time, artistic genius was predominantly male and inspiration predominantly female. Genius invoked the goddess for inspiration: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course”–Homer’s old song.
The great modern muses tend to be charismatic society ladies who collect artistic husbands and lovers. Alma Mahler is perhaps the most notorious; she “collected” Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel. (A fictionalized Alma Mahler narrates Max Phillips’ recent novel, The Artist’s Wife .)
And then there’s Caroline Blackwood, another lover of great men, the subject of Nancy Schoenberger’s new biography, Dangerous Muse . Beautiful, drunken, depressed, a landed Irish aristocrat and an heir to the Guinness ale fortune, Lady Caroline Blackwood collected, among others, painter Lucian Freud, musician Israel Citkowitz and the poet Robert Lowell. But Blackwood wrought more destruction than inspiration over the course of her tragic life. Despite Ms. Schoenberger’s title, she’s not a “dangerous” muse, just a very bad one.
Sullen, unkempt and often drunk, Blackwood’s allure was nonetheless enduring. An obituary in The Independent of London described Caroline as “one of the most beautiful women of her generation …. Even in the last years, when life and illness ravaged her, you could not look at anyone else when she was in the room.” Too shy to be an actress, too smart to be a model, Lady Blackwood disparaged her attributes with the exclusive panache of a great beauty: “I think beauty is fraudulent,” she said. “Nothing to do with you.”
Being a muse was the least of Blackwood’s ambitions. She was a renegade-style aristocrat and a distinguished writer. An industrious journalist, she started writing books of fiction and nonfiction in her late 30′s, and in 1977 her autobiographical novel Great Granny Webster was short-listed for the Booker Prize. She didn’t make anyone’s career or channel inspiration. She was simply attracted to smart, gifted, handsome men.
The destinies of the men she teamed up with were already established by the time she got to them. The staggeringly gorgeous Lucian Freud was already a London celebrity when he met the 18-year-old Caroline, and under the devoted tutelage of Francis Bacon would soon become an art-world celebrity. Israel Citkowitz had great promise but was already washed up by the time Blackwood darkened his threshold, and he cowered in her shadow until his death many years later. The New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers was well launched when he had his affair with her (rumor names him as the father of Blackwood’s third daughter, Ivana). Screenwriter Ivan Moffat worked in Hollywood and didn’t need a muse for that. Robert Lowell, her third, “main” husband, wrote The Dolphin for her, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. But Lowell was already great before he met Blackwood. She didn’t even inspire his self-destruction: Lowell was clinically bipolar, and Blackwood proved too high-maintenance herself to handle his manic episodes. “In Caroline, Cal [Lowell] had met his match ‘for unreality and carelessness’”–take that with a grain of salt; it was written by Elizabeth Hardwick right after Lowell abandoned her.
It’s typical of this gossipy biography that the descriptions of Blackwood come from those who were on the margins of her intimate world and possibly hostile. Blackwood died right after making overtures to Ms. Schoenberger about collaborating on a biography; her death left the would-be biographer with significantly diminished resources. Those resources got poorer still when Blackwood’s family recused themselves from the project. The resulting anecdotal–but not intimate–portrait of Blackwood exacerbates the impression that she was an extremely difficult person to know. “Caroline refused to examine herself, in life and in literature, afraid she’d be ostracized if she revealed too much,” explained her onetime lover, the poet Andrew Harvey. He speaks warmly of their relationship but still nurses wounds (she ridiculed his burgeoning interest in spirituality).
Blackwood was expert at alienating people. She “suffered silences” and could only talk or socialize when she was liquored up–a pattern that began during the heady days of her marriage to Lucian Freud. Composer Ned Rorem met her in Paris during that time and reports that she “was heart-stoppingly beautiful, but vague. There she sat … on the edge of a sofa, legs crossed, one knee supporting an elbow extending into a smoking hand, which flicked ash abstractedly onto the blue Persian rug. Caroline, very blond, with eyes the hue of the Persian rug and large as eagle eggs, uttered nary a word, neither approved nor disapproved, just smoked.”
It’s said that muses only need to possess two qualities: beauty and mystery. Blackwood had both in spades. Her daughter Ivana described life with her as “a lot of unspoken things and a lot of closed doors.” Caroline Blackwood carried the unspoken things and what was behind those closed doors to her grave, and so remains the glamorous enigma at the center of her own life story.
Typhoid Mary , by Anthony Bourdain, Bloomsbury, 148 pages, $19.95.
Typhoid Mary, the Irish-American cook whose merest effluvium could bring on diarrhea and death (as if one of those things wasn’t bad enough), unwittingly spread the disease that became her first name to the wealthy New Yorkers she worked for in 1907. Anthony Bourdain, a cook and writer, the author of Kitchen Confidential and a couple of novels, tells her story in this slim, exuberant new biography.
In a sense, it’s two stories: the history of Mary Mallon herself and then Mr. Bourdain’s peculiar take on her, which resembles a love letter from one cook to another. The second story is more moving, and seems somehow more interesting to the author. Mr. Bourdain weaves between the two, sometimes doling out the minimal facts we know about Mary Mallon, sometimes speculating about how a proud cook must have felt when she learned she had served up biological poison to her employers and their families.
It’s a good plot to excavate. Though completely healthy herself, Mallon was a lethal carrier, and left a trail of victims wherever she worked. A tireless sanitary engineer, George Soper, tracked her through the city until he finally confronted her one day by barging into her place of employment and asking for a stool sample. Understandably, he was rebuffed. It’s worth telling the story in his words: “I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood. It did not take Mary long to react to this suggestion. She seized a carving knife and advanced in my direction.”
There wasn’t much humor after that. After a ferocious struggle, Mallon was brought in for examination and tested positive for a high level of typhoid. She was sent into sullen exile on North Brother Island off the Bronx. After a few years, her case excited attention from civil libertarians, who pointed out that she had committed no crime. She promised never to cook again and was released in 1910. Then, tragically, she fell into all her old habits and got a job as a cook–at a hospital, of all places (her coworkers had jokingly called her “Typhoid Mary,” never suspecting the truth). When typhoid hit the hospital, she was discovered and sent back to the island forever. After three decades of urban exile, she died in November 1938, a fortnight after Orson Welles terrified New York all over again with his War of the Worlds broadcast.
Mr. Bourdain gleaned most of his biographical information from a recent academic study, Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (1996), which will not be displaced as a source for serious researchers. But the cook’s perspective is exclusively his own, and he makes the most of it, particularly in the book’s final scene, when he finds Mary’s untended grave in the Bronx, slips one of his favorite knives into the ground and covers it up “the way it had looked before–this sharp-edged gift is presumably an act of devotion, though it suggests that some counseling might be in order.
Mr. Bourdain convincingly recreates the overwhelming odds that faced a single immigrant woman at the mercy of a phalanx of health inspectors and angry yellow journalists (she was also labeled “the Human Typhoid Germ”). Her situation was not made easier by her unrelentingly snotty attitude toward her pursuers and the lack of remorse she showed throughout her life. Mr. Bourdain admires her toughness, and gleefully describes the scenes in which she attacks her pursuers with volleys of profanity and great physical strength (it took five policemen to haul her in for analysis). It’s a provocative stance, but it’s hard not to feel creeping sympathy for the poor scientists who were chasing Mary on the assumption–correct, as it turned out–that her gall bladder was a boarding house for deadly bacilli. Would Mr. Bourdain still feel admiration if she prepared her specialty–peaches and ice cream–just for him?