Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz

Gail Crowther

Gallery Books, £20

Review by Rosemary Goring

Shortly before going on stage for a poetry event, WH Auden asked Anne Sexton if she would mind cutting her reading short, so he could catch the 10 o’clock train home. She suggested that she be put top of the bill in his place, and he could scythe his own performance. He did not comply, and neither did she.

It is a minor but telling episode in Sexton’s illustrious career. Even with a Pulitzer prize, she was treated as inferior, because she was a woman. When she demanded $2000 for an appearance, like other men of her standing, some were shocked, and refused to pay. Their loss, was her response.

HeraldScotland: Poet Anne Sexton (Getty Images)Poet Anne Sexton (Getty Images)

The enticingly titled Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz offers a cameo of the literary and personal lives of two of the 20th century’s most feted poets, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. When Plath graduated from Smith College in 1955, she and her classmates were told that “the purpose of their education was so they could be entertaining and well-informed wives when their husbands returned home from work”. The sexist world in which they had to operate is hard now to imagine. And as Gail Crowther reflects, if they as privileged white women found it difficult, what hope for others without their advantages of class and ethnicity?

For a brief period in 1959 the two were friends, as well as rivals, and it is this connection that forms the hinge on which this sparky and well-informed work swings. Crowther sets the stage for the intensely misogynistic culture in which they were trying to make their mark. That they did so shows their determination as well as their talent, but the prejudice they faced was wearing. When Robert Lowell wrote about his breakdowns, he was praised for his courage. When Plath and Sexton described their mental torment, they were deemed "hysterical" or "shrill" (the words used by Stephen Spender and Harold Bloom of Plath’s posthumously published Ariel).

Crowther unpicks the parallels between the poets’ lives. Both grew up in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. Sexton came from a wealthy socialite family, and spent much of her childhood desperately seeking her mother’s attention. Plath’s father was an immigrant from Grabow, Germany, and much older than her mother who, on his death, struggled to keep the family afloat. Perhaps in consequence she became obsessed with her daughter’s life. When Sylvia returned from dates, she would be quizzed for details, including orgasms. After she left home, her mother wrote to her daily.

HeraldScotland: The Boston University room where Plath and Sexton met for Robert Lowell's poetry workshop (PHOTO Kevin Cummins)The Boston University room where Plath and Sexton met for Robert Lowell's poetry workshop (PHOTO Kevin Cummins)

While Sexton was too flighty to settle to college – she would later become a professor – Plath excelled academically. By the time the pair met, at a poetry class taught by Lowell, they were utterly focused on writing. In the class was a fellow poet, George Starbuck, and the three would afterwards go to the Ritz to drink martinis and eat bowls of free crisps. Plath was by then married to Ted Hughes, with whom she would shortly move to England, and Sexton was a mother, who was serially unfaithful to her husband, Alfred Muller Sexton (known as Kayo).

“I think I would like to call myself ‘the girl who wanted to be God’,” Plath wrote in her journal. Sexton wrote: “I’m going to aim high. And why not.” But it was not just ambition that they shared. They had also both attempted suicide. Crowther writes that the “centre bolt” of their relationship was “the death connection and the admiration for each other’s writing”.

The chapters that follow this short spell of bibulous comradeship, cover every aspect of their existence: childhood, sex, motherhood, writing, mental health, and their eventual suicides, Plath at 30, Sexton at 45. Throughout, Crowther repeatedly refers to their friendship, and wonders what they might have said had they still lived near each other. When Plath is faced with Hughes’s affair with Assia Weevil, she speculates: “Not for the first time in Plath’s life, it feels she would have benefited from Sexton’s support at this moment; with her sharp tongue and wry eye she likely would have done Plath’s hair and makeup and dragged her out to drink too much and put cheating men in their place.”

One suspects that had Sexton also been in England at the time, the atmosphere would have become more rather than less fraught. She was no peacenik, no maternal bosom on which to cry. But for all their individual flaws, what shines through this book is the burning life within them. Crowther makes the point that because of their glamorised deaths, “the problem has been that their lives get read backwards”, as if it was inevitable that they would kill themselves, when it was anything but. It was not perhaps inevitable, but with their history of self-harm, depression and in Sexton’s case possible bipolarity, this was always a risk.

Few people come out of this story well, including Sexton. Her daughter has since told of her mother touching her inappropriately, and lying next to her in bed masturbating. Crowther acknowledges that had such revelations been made about a man, he would be cancelled by modern readers. Yet her daughter has forgiven her, insisting “she was not a monster”.

Instead it is Ted Hughes who is the focus of Crowther’s derision, depicted as a wife-beater and cruel cheat. Sexton’s long marriage to Kayo was at one point also violent, so out of control she feared he might kill her. Both women were not unviolent themselves, but there is deep poignancy when Plath miscarries, shortly after a row with Hughes, during which he hit her. A little later she fell pregnant again, with their second child, Nicholas. He was only one, and her daughter Frieda three, when she died. Hughes’s malignity, in this telling, continued after Plath’s death. He removed some of the more “personally aggressive” poems in Ariel, and placed her literary estate in the hands of his sister, who loathed her.

Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz is compelling reading. Crowther handles a wealth of material with ease, making it seamless rather than disjointed. Her tone is that of a fan, rather than coolly judicious, and at times her reflections or conclusions are gauche, too pinned to today’s political sensitivities. The lack of an index is baffling.

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Yet as a portrait of female artists at work, struggling to fulfil roles as wives and mothers as well as poets in a stiflingly repressive era, it is powerful and invigorating. Showing the ways in which Plath and Sexton refused to be silenced – what energy that took! – Crowther writes that, “if anything, their voices are becoming louder”. This impassioned but thoughtful account will further turn up the volume.