News of the 50th anniversary of "The Bell Jar" is interesting, if premature. Fifty years, yes, since the book came out in London under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. But it wasn't until 1971 that the novel reached the United States with Sylvia Plath listed as author. What's even more interesting to me is that people are still reading Plath and her version of that month in 1953 at the defunct, bereaved Mademoiselle magazine.
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I was one of the 20 young women who, along with Plath, spent June 1953 as a guest editor at Mademoiselle. Sylvia's long gone, and I'm lucky enough to be 80 now, having survived cancer, surveries and a satisfying journalism career — grateful to be alive. Recently, Elizabeth Winder, author of "Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953," called to talk to me about that month at Mademoiselle. I told her everything I remember and am surprised I remember so much. I recently pulled out an essay I wrote in 1973 for The Ohio Review about that time. It was mean to be a reminiscence, but also the cry of a woman writer of the 1970s. Here is an edited excerpt.
We are very verbal survivors. We invoke stasis with interpretation, achieve catharsis in disclosure. Like reluctant travelers aboard electronic sidewalks, clinging to railings as if to deny propulsion toward the inevitable, we stave off loneliness and keep a grip on immortality by relating ourselves to our mutual loss: Sylvia Plath.
The more essays and memoirs, the more frequently and intensely she haunts us. I survive in limbo, at the rear of a line in the supermarket. Drugged in an aisle by fluorescence. I leaf through a magazine, a marshmallow monthly for the young, and Sylvia is back again, the subject of another nervous paean ... but extinguished. I blink past it, focus on an old photo across the page. A reprint of 20 young women smiling insincerely, their 40 arms extended to form a human star. They seem unaware that in 20 years they will return, parodying my survival.
Maybe the fault is not really in ourselves, but in our stars ... my watch ticks frantically, like a bomb or a pulse ... I see that Sylvia Plath is still at the top of the star and I'm still at the bottom.
Although the horoscopes for our ultimate orbits aren't yet in, we guest editors are counting on a favorable forecast.
— Sylvia Plath, Mademoiselle, August, 1953
By plane and train, from coastal cities and dusty inland towns, we crossed the Rockies, the Mason-Dixon and the Mississippi. Twenty — count 'em, 20 — from urban universities and the towers of academia and many a Babbittville campus thick with the rotting lilacs of that fruitful May. Eisenhower-era innocents transported (Broadway! Times Square!) to the "real-life workaday world" of Madison Avenue. Half-century girls, strangers, we assembled in the Editor's office, hugging ourselves as if to contain the private ecstasy of winning: Grace, Eileen, Carol, Sylvia, others.
We were to use our talents to help create the August College Issue, and there would be fringe benefits (a wand appeared in the Editor's hand): prizes, luncheons, interviews in fashion, communications, the arts.
We marched twenty abreast from the hotel for women on glamorous Lexington to the office on glamorous Madison. We whispered in awesome places atop pastel carpets thick as cream cheese, our palms and upper lips sodden: each too self-immobilized to involve herself in the others' worlds, yet eager to submerge identity by joining the group. I must have joined. I looked everywhere, but I seemed to be missing, marching with the chosen.
"You and Sylvia are our writers," said the Editor. "I expect great things."
Would I like them to publish my humorous pastiche on college men? I would? Consider it done and done.
Sylvia asked why I hid my literary attempts, submitting only humorous bits and pieces, and I told her I needed time to develop style, sophistication. Rural roots, I explained, were a handicap.
By 1973, the pages long buried in desk drawers turn yellow when exposed to light.
"For now," said the Editor in caps and italics, "let's put all our sparkle, shall we?, into our fashion copy."
I longed to be tanned with a swinging American champagne-colored pageboy, like Sylvia's. But I had no choice; in her opinion, humorists ("look at Benchley and Dorothy Parker") must have dark hair and pallid flesh. I remember vowing to make a study of wan, dark-haired humorists, but of course I never did that, either. We passed each other in hallways, Sylvia and I, our teeth white against the magenta lipstick of 1953.
One afternoon we were curried and carted like horses in a van to Central Park to participate in the human star photo. We posed in 94-degree sunshine in identical woolen tartans and 40-inch bust-producing longsleeved button-down boy-shirts, our arms flung wide, while a mad photographer aimed at us from a footbridge and tried to evoke a stylish delight from our general mood of prolonged humiliation. Would I have been more cooperative if I'd known that someday in a supermarket I would feel such a throb of adulthood, at the sight of myself?
Instead, I squinted, shirt wet again the small of my back, and gritted through my cheshire-cat grin, "I wish I'd remembered to dab some lipstick on my chin" — and Sylvia above gave a small yip of amusement.
Finally, near the end of that month that we thought would not end, Sylvia and I talked until the wee hours, a marathon of shared impressions, confessions of mutual ambitions and future plans. We drank a good deal of a bottle of warm white wine, which had been smuggled into my room by a boy I knew before he was kicked out of our women-only residence by someone — maybe me.
We examined our girls'-school feminist liberal-arts backgrounds: Sylvia's at Smith, mine at Mount Holyoke. We pondered self-tragedies of regional origin. Sylvia thought Iowa was mysterious and lamented my parents' thoughtlessness for raising me in a town, instead of on a farm. I told her how I used to imagine that my town was an island in the sea — cornfields surrounded my town on all sides — and I told her about trips to the Bohnsack's farm ("Bohnsack!" Sylvia cried) for corn and cucumbers and pumpkins. And she told me about growing up near water. It sounded much the same.
We discussed books and writing and careers — and how I had mismanaged my chance to be a star of stage and screen. The magazine had granted all 20 of us a chance to ladder-climb and interview any celebrity we chose in New York. Sylvia, choosing from a list that included George Plimpton of The Paris Review ("But I've met him anyway"), had interviewed author Elizabeth Bowen. I had chosen composer Richard Rodgers. I had intended to break into song, once alone with him, at which he'd scream, "A star is born!" I didn't. Nor did he.
"You could've at least hummed a bit," Sylvia said.
Some of the guest editors were startled to tears when June ended, but all of us were too tired to protest. We dispersed in different directions to have our letdowns alone. I remember Sylvia's wide painted mouth and her June Allyson pageboy. "Write to me," she said.
I never wrote to her. I forgot her, and the others — until too many years had flown by.
Laurie Levy lives in Chicago.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun