The inside story behind the parallel lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton

An exploration of how two of the greatest poets of the 20th century became bitter rivals, and eventually, friends.
April 24, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC
Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz-book cover featured
'Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz' by Gail Crowther
Courtesy of Gallery Books

In 1950s America, women were not supposed to be ambitious. In fact, women were respected for not pursuing their own careers and instead focusing their attentions on the home and family.

Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were born into this cultural moment and reached their formative years when this ideology of the dutiful woman was at its height. When Plath graduated from Smith College, her commencement speaker, Adlai Stevenson, praised the female graduates and pronounced that the purpose of their education was to help them become intelligent, interesting wives.

But in 1959, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton met for the first time at a poetry workshop run by Robert Lowell at Boston University. They were both aware of the challenges facing them as aspiring writers trying to get ahead and be successful in a male-dominated literary discipline. For this short period of time, a matter of months, the two women’s lives collided.

On a Tuesday after class Sexton would drive them to The Ritz-Carlton in her old Ford to drink three martinis and talk intensely about life, poetry, suicide, and death. Pulling up in a Loading Only zone, Sexton would yell “It’s okay, because we are only going to get loaded!” Then, over dishes of free potato chips in the hushed, red hotel bar they would pile their books and papers on the table, and talk. Both understood the tensions and challenges of trying to negotiate their way through the world balancing their desire to be wives, mothers, and writers. Both had a strong sense of social rebellion and a belief that women were more than entitled to their own careers.

This extract adapted from my book, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz begins to explore some of these tensions and how Plath and Sexton found their lives a juggling act between the personal, domestic, and professional.

Author Gail Crowther
Kevin Cummins

There are two items in the Plath and Sexton archives that evoke a sense of social rebellion. Their address books.

Plath’s is a green snakeskin-patterned pocket-sized book filled mostly with her immaculate handwriting, notes, and annotations. The front cover has the word Addresses on it in embossed gold lettering. The black ink is shiny in places, almost wet looking. Sexton’s is a loose-leafed vibrant red folder that still retains an odd odor. When the archive storage box is opened, it exudes a faint smell of musty nicotine. The plastic cover is sticky to the touch. The front page has a vague imprint of the word Telephone engraved around the bottom of a square plinth holding a picture of what looks to be a once-gold tele- phone. This item was left on the top of Sexton’s filing cabinet by her desk at the time of her death.

Like Plath, Sexton’s address book was important to her, so important that she wrote a poem about it called “Telephone,” beginning with a clear, accurate description: “Take a red book called TELEPHONE, / Size eight by four. There it sits. / My red book, name, address and number. / These are all people that I somehow own.”

While the poem then muses upon all the “dear dead names” that “won’t erase” from the book, what we can see in Sexton’s list of contacts is how closely family, therapists, psychiatric hospitals, suicide hotlines, and pharmacies sit side by side with journals, editors, poetry prize committees, and university contacts. As with Plath’s address book, Sexton’s showed the range of people she was dealing with and the almost double life of housewife-poet, or, as she put it, “I do not live a poet’s life. I look and act like a housewife” until the point when a poem has to be written and then, she writes, “I am a lousy cook, a lousy wife, a lousy mother, because I am too busy wrestling with the poem to remember that I am a normal (?) American housewife.”

The tension of these two areas running alongside each other, the housewife-mother and the professional poet, was one that both women felt throughout their careers. But it was a position that was frowned upon at the time. Women were expected to sacrifice their careers to ensure a stable home. In fact, in more affluent homes, if women chose to work when the paycheck was not needed, they were regarded as selfish for putting their own needs before those of the family. Marriage and children were part of the national agenda and regarded as one feature that made America superior. Operating within the Cold War agenda, stay-at-home mothers were contrasted favorably with mothers in communist Russia who worked in dismal factories and left their children in cold day-care centers. American wives could be well-groomed, focusing on orderly homes and tending to all their children’s needs. As a result of this propaganda, by the 1950s marriage rates were at an all- time high, and women were getting married younger.

Despite the power of this message, neither Plath nor Sexton could fully accept this cultural norm. In 1962, in a candid letter to the sculptor Leonard Baskin, Plath admitted that she was only able to cope with being a wife and mother and all the domestic chores that came with it because she could also write, “which is my life blood & makes it possible for me to be domes- tic & motherly, which latter is my nature some of the time, & only when I have the other consolations & reprieves.” Sexton, too, records on numerous occasions the tension of being a woman as both poet and mother and how she felt displaced among other suburban housewives of the time. And yet neither could, at first, fully reject the societal expectations that formed part of their upbringing. Neither was there really a precedent yet that would support their breaking away from such domestic ideals. That would come too late for Plath, who died just months before the advent of second-wave feminism, a movement that surprisingly did not sweep Sexton up to the extent one might expect.

What Plath and Sexton did try to achieve was a subversive rebellion that increasingly became an open rebellion as they found their voices and their platforms from which to speak. If in 1950s America women of a certain class were supposed to sacrifice their own careers for those of their husbands, Plath and Sexton were having none of it. Both became increasingly outspoken in their poetry, prose, interviews, and correspondence while somehow balancing this against staying fairly conventional in their home lives. Marian Foster, a Devon neighbor, recalls how Plath insisted on going to the Sunday church services in town even though she despised them. When Foster asked her why she persisted, Plath admitted that she was concerned about what people would think if she didn’t attend. Yet Plath’s poems at that time are markedly hostile to religion, and her 1962 short story “Mothers” does little to disguise the local vicar whom Plath exposes as misogynistic and hypocritical. In a letter to her mother she was even more open about the “ghastly sermons” and the rector for whom she was full of “scorn.”

Yet she still planned to have her children christened there. This rebellion and conformity ran in uneasy conjunction, often bumping into each other. In September 1962, when Plath invited the Fosters to her home for genteel afternoon tea and homemade cakes, they had no idea that that morning she had been furiously writing her infamous Ariel poems.

Sexton was slightly more daring than Plath in her rejection of conventional ideals and domestic chores. She sometimes tried to bake cakes with the children, but they often went wrong. Kayo, her husband, did most of the cooking. She employed a cleaner and someone to do the laundry. While Sexton occasionally expressed some guilt about this seeming domestic aberration from the expected norm, she also had the courage to stand by her belief that she deserved the time to write and would take it and use it.

What Plath and Sexton established was a position that would last for the rest of their lives and afterlives—that of women who refuse to be silent. Their voices were not just asserting some louder version of the oppressed female experience; their voices were confrontational and started to open up a space for women to express anger, disgust, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Rage became legitimized. They also began writing about the female body in a way that caused genuine shock and revulsion among male editors and critics. Plath’s poems, such as “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “The Applicant,” and “Fever 103°,” were regarded as dangerously extreme. Sexton’s poems, such as “The Abortion,” “Menstruation at Forty,” and “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” sent some male critics into apoplectic rage—rage and criticism that Sexton then took on and replied back to in her poems, which presumably left the critics even more paralyzed with fury.

The result was that Plath and Sexton were, and still are, regarded as both troubling and troublesome figures in society. Their work is subjected to the kind of misogynistic critique rarely heaped on other writers. And this gendered attitude filters down to their readers too. Young women are told they’ll “grow out” of reading Plath, that they lack any critical faculties, merely worship at the shrine of a suicide death goddess, and so on. They become objects of humor, no longer proper or serious readers, but rather devotees. Goths and emos who wear black with a death fixation.

Although both died young, Plath and Sexton have never really gone away. This presence is around in a number of ways. Their books remain in print, and their poems anthologized, ensuring their disruptive voices are still heard. They were, and remain, relatable women, if extraordinarily gifted poets.

Copyright © 2021 by Gail Crowther. Adapted from the recently published Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther, published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.