Take up writers’ biographies: Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell, for example

When any old book won't do...

A common approach to getting through holidays is reading one after another off-the-rack crime novels. You’re hardly caring what’s on the page, anxious only not to be left alone with your own terrible thoughts. You barely finish off one greasy little paperback, comforted by the murderer’s capture, before you find yourself knee deep again in new gore. Read enough of these and soon the husband in New Canaan who beat his wife’s lover to a pulp with a garlic press slips into pages where the murder weapon was a Swiss Army knife and the victim a Detroit go-go dancer.

This isn’t good for a person. At the shank of the year, when you audit your heart’s basest motives, assess failures, and face up to promises you’ve broken, to yourself and others, murder’s not what you should be reading about. When any old book won’t do, I go for biography. Find another life to lead.

Don’t plunge into bookstore or library and seize the first pretty cover. You don’t want someone about whom too much has been written. You don’t want to be overwhelmed. Right off, eschew the more popular U.S. presidents. Likewise, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Henry James.

You want also to sidestep suicides. Thus the poet Sylvia Plath, who ended her life by sticking her head in the oven; or the poet Anne Sexton, who took too many pills; and the poet Hart Crane, who jumped ship between Havana and New York; or Hemingway or Vachel Lindsay (whose last drink was Lysol); or Sara Teasdale, who overdosed when told about Lindsay’s death; or John Berryman, who jumped off a bridge; or Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with rocks and drowned herself in the River Ouse. All are to be avoided.

You may believe you want a happy life. You don’t. Triumphal progress from rags to renown, interminable virtue, will make you feel worse than you do. You want somebody bad enough to leave you feeling good or, at least, better.

I like writers’ biographies. You’ve got the life (and often several versions of the life), frequently you’ve got gossipy letters, your biographer likely will go to parties in other writers’ biographies, and you’ve got the work.

Let’s say you had taken up (as I did recently) Jean Stafford, dead in 1979 and already graced by three biographies. Stafford’s a particularly felicitous subject because she married two writers—poet Robert Lowell was her first husband and the New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling her third. So you have Ian Hamilton’s Lowell biography and Raymond Sokolov’s life of Liebling. And because, through Lowell, Stafford got to know the mad Delmore Schwartz and bridge-jumper Berryman, you also have biographies or memoirs of these men, and you have Berryman’s first wife Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth. You can see how this works.

God knows, Stafford’s life wasn’t happy. Her father, blessed with a comfortable inheritance, was a largely unsuccessful writer of Western novels who wrote under the pseudonyms Jack Wonder and Ben Delight. Jean was the last of the Staffords’ four children. She was born on a walnut ranch in Covina and lived there until she was five, when her father sold the ranch and moved the family to San Diego, where he hoped to triple his money (about $300,000) by investing in the stock market. They rented a white stucco house near Balboa Park, so close to the zoo that Jean would remember all her life hearing the lions roar. She would remember, too, a trip to Coronado to hear the outdoor band concerts. Her father almost immediately lost every cent, and after eight months in San Diego, the family left in shame for Colorado, where Jean’s mother kept them alive by taking in boarders. (Only David Roberts’s Jean Stafford: A Biography gives the San Diego information. Ann Hulbert’s Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford packs Stafford’s stay in San Diego to a few lines.)

Though Stafford from childhood looked down on her father’s writing and suffered the poverty brought on by his failure (“For 15 years he sat before the typewriter, filling page after page. We bought our father postage and paper; my mother spared his feelings; we believed he was an artist”), she’d decided by the time she turned ten that she’d write too. She graduated from the University of Colorado, which she attended on scholarship, got herself to Europe and then New York. She was no innocent by 1938, when she began dating Lowell (David Roberts proposes that Stafford, by the time she met Lowell, was syphilitic, a proposal that Ann Hulbert rejects).

Lowell was descended from the Boston Lowells and born in a brownstone on Beacon Hill. He was broad shouldered, tall, and “handsome,” his friend Berryman said, “as a matinee idol.” He was also an untreatable manic depressive who off and on had to be sequestered in loony bins, as Stafford and two subsequent wives (also literary — Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood) would learn. And he was given to violence — he was a wife beater.

Lowell was so wild and untamable that by the time he was a 13-year-old student, at St. Mark’s, friends were calling him “Cal.” Hamilton’s biography explains, “The nickname ‘Cal’…was part Caligula and part Caliban. His classmates considered both models thoroughly appropriate.”

As Lowell got older, he got worse. In fall 1938, Stafford described Lowell to a friend as “an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”

On Christmas Day 1938, according to Hamilton’s account, Lowell, notorious for his bad driving, borrowed his father’s big blue Packard and, with Jean in the passenger seat, crashed it into a wall at the end of a Cambridge cul-de-sac. Jean’s nose was crushed. Lowell may or may not have fled the scene. He may or may not have been drunk. Stafford was hospitalized “to begin a long saga of dreadful operations on her nose.”

David Roberts tells the tale this way:

“A few days before Christmas, Lowell borrowed his father’s car and took her out on a date. A poor driver under the best of circumstances, that evening Lowell had a good deal to drink. As he drove her through west Cambridge on the way to Concord, he took the wrong turn at a fork in the road, entering a dead-end lane, and ran head-on into a wall. Lowell was unhurt, but Stafford’s head smashed into the windshield, crushing her nose and fracturing her skull.”

Ann Hulbert places the accident on December 21 and presents it through the eyes of James Hightower, Stafford’s lover at the time: “He received an urgent message to call Mount Auburn Hospital. He found Stafford swaddled in bandages and, learning of the accident, discovered that she hadn’t kept Lowell at a safe distance after all.”

Lowell, a junior then at Kenyon College, returned to Ohio, leaving Jean in the hospital. The “long saga” described by Lowell biographer Hamilton lasted well over a year. There were five operations on her nose and excruciating dental work.

The 1938 car wreck is a milestone in all three biographies of Stafford, in Hamilton’s Lowell, and of course earns mention in other books. Eileen Simpson, telling of a summer in 1946 that she and Berryman spent in Maine with the Lowells in the comfortable house Stafford bought with money from her successful first novel The Boston Adventure (a success that drove Lowell wild with envy), places the accident in 1937 rather than 1938. The day that Simpson and Berryman arrive for their summer visit, Simpson “remembered Delmore’s having told us that Jean had been very pretty before the accident.” (This is a commonplace of the Stafford story — that she had been so much prettier before the car wreck.)

Simpson continues. “She and Cal had gone on a date to the Crawford House, a nightclub in downtown Boston. On the way home Cal, who was driving, had careened into a stanchion. When Jean regained consciousness she was in a hospital, her face swathed in bandages.”

I go on so long with accountings of the car wreck as illustration of the pleasure this kind of reading can give. (The uncertainty about dates, however, dizzies me and is a lesson in the fallibility of books.) Each biographer gives his or her own slightly different version of the accident and fits it differently into the Stafford/ Lowell saga. Lowell-partisan Hamilton falters a bit—maybe Cal was drunk, maybe he wasn’t. Hulbert, rather than portraying the accident as an important turning point in the Stafford/ Lowell relationship, uses the event to show Stafford’s duplicity. For Stafford had lied to Hightower, who had been her lover, about the intensity of her feeling for Lowell. Roberts, harsher toward Lowell than Hulbert or Hamilton and more protective of Stafford, presents the accident as clearly Lowell’s fault.

April 2, 1940, Lowell and Stafford were married. Before the year ended, Lowell had socked his bride in the face and rebroken her nose. From then on she would always look a bit off-center. In the last year they lived together, soon after Stafford had finished her second novel, The Mountain Lion, Lowell beat her up and threatened to kill her. Lines in Lowell’s “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” apparently refer to this event. The speaker in this section of the poem is Anne Kavanaugh, Harry Kavanaugh’s wife, who can be regarded here as a stand-in for Stafford, and Harry for Lowell:

“...you shook the bed, And struck me, Harry. ‘I will shake you dead As earth,’ you chattered…I’ll tell them, listen Harry: husband kills His wife for dreaming.”

Stafford’s story, “The Interior Castle,” started in 1939 and finished finally in 1946 when the marriage to Lowell was broken for good (he was sleeping with Delmore Schwartz’s pretty ex-wife Gertrude Buckman and Stafford was drinking too much), told the story as Stafford remembered it. What Stafford remembered was pain and terror. As “Interior Castle”’s Pansy Vanneman’s nose is anesthetized in preparation for her operation, the doctor “plucked the packs from the cold, numb nose. The pincers bit at nothing, snapped at the air, and cracked a nerveless icicle.”

After her split from Lowell, Stafford scuttled into Manhattan’s Payne Whitney Clinic, crazy from drink and sorrow. She wanted Lowell back and wrote him heartrending letters: “I have continued to wait for you as I shall wait for you all my life, not because I am possessive, not because I am a coward, but because I love you and because I desire you and desire to be married to you and because even if you never come back, there will be my hope that you will.”

And, “I know this, Cal, and the knowledge eats me like an inward animal: there is nothing worse for a woman than to be deprived of her womanliness. For me, there is nothing worse than the knowledge that my life holds nothing for me but being a writer.”

When Stafford wrote that letter, her first two novels, Boston Adventure and Mountain Lion, were already behind her. Her third and last finished novel (she would struggle for the rest of her life with novel manuscripts that she could never bring to an end), The Catherine Wheel, was published in 1952. She wrote short stories, most of which were published in the New Yorker, and odd pieces of journalism that appeared in Vogue and Mademoiselle.

Stafford was considered a writer’s writer, someone who wrote elegantly, with polish, and with no thought for the fame that would put one’s book in the grocer’s rack. Her critical detractors thought her writing and her characters not much more than delirious stick figures. Many of her stories are stories of lonely children, better behaved than the youngsters who peopled stories of Stafford’s contemporaries J.D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote.

December 1946, Lowell’s second book of poetry, Lord Weary’s Castle, was published, and by spring 1947, he had been awarded a Pulitzer and had his picture in Life magazine.

I didn’t find Lowell that much a jerk when I first read the Ian Hamilton biography. Sure, his mother was a social-climbing old bag and his father a thorough weakling, and Robert was a spoiled only child, a mama’s boy. But he was easy to forgive because of the wonder of his rolling lines as lush as undeveloped prairie and as stubborn underfoot. Re-reading him, however, as an accessory to Jean Stafford’s story, he comes to seem someone like the monsters who lent him his nickname.

After the breakup, with Stafford put to bed behind locked doors in Payne Whitney and her Mountain Lion, with its tale of two youngsters, sister and brother, Molly and Ralph, growing up in first California and then Colorado, about to come into print, Lowell’s poem “The Dead Brother” was published in the Nation. The poem seemed to reflect on the incestuous feelings hinted at in Stafford’s Mountain Lion. She wrote him from the hospital that his poem “appearing a week before the publication of my book with its…theme of latent incest, at a time when you have left me and I am in the hospital, seems to me an act of so deep dishonor that it passes beyond dishonor and approaches madness. And I am trembling in the presence of your hate.”

Lowell, surely wittingly, acted as something of a bottomfish, a scavenger of the heart, recording secrets people told him as lines in poems. The most egregious example of this nasty habit, writes David Roberts, was Lowell’s publishing, in The Dolphin in 1972, several poems whose lines were taken verbatim from anguished letters his then-estranged second wife Elizabeth Hardwick had written to him.

Stafford married a second time to editor Oliver Jensen “and unmarried him again in haste, as one erases a graffito,” writes Wilfrid Sheed in “Miss Jean Stafford” (found in Sheed’s collection, Essays in Disguise). Stafford was 41 and single again when she met Liebling and almost 50 when he died in 1963. “Liebling,” writes Sheed, “with his wisecracking Grand Manner, seems to have opened windows for her and let out some terrors.” Everything I read about Liebling and Stafford made me glad that they met and married. When they were apart he wrote her adoring, witty letters. Unlike Lowell, Liebling was not envious of Stafford’s talent. He urged her to write again.

Liebling’s early death at age 59, “left Jean well and truly stranded.” (Sheed)

Liebling did, however, leave Stafford a spacious house in East Hampton, land, and some money. She lived another 16 years. During her time with Liebling, she had written hardly at all. She’d never had children, and given that she’d been drinking fairly steadily since college, it’s perhaps as well she didn’t (she told anyone who asked that she knew she’d be an awful mother). Her collected short stories won a Pulitzer in 1970 and made her briefly popular again. The popularity came too late to enjoy.

A year after her 60th birthday, a stroke made Stafford aphasic and increasingly helpless. Except to go to doctors, from this point on she rarely left the house.

Lowell died in 1977. An inebriated Stafford had to be talked out of dolling herself up in widow’s weeds, announcing herself as “the first Mrs. Robert Lowell,” and sweeping into the funeral.

When Stafford died, the books stacked on her bedside table were two by Mark Twain and Lowell’s Mills of the Kavanaughs, published 28 years earlier, containing line after line about her first marriage. Even then, 64 and deaf and speechless, hardly able to breathe without an oxygen tank, Stafford must have been thinking about Lowell.

You can see, I hope, how this getting-through-the-holidays reading could work for you. I’d gotten started with Hulbert’s Stafford biography because someone gave me the book as a gift. I plundered used bookstores for the other two Stafford biographies and found David Roberts’s (and never found the third, Charlotte Margolis Goodman’s Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart). Libraries provided Stafford’s novels and short stories and gave me a week when I was entranced by the Jamesian thrall Stafford cast in The Boston Adventure.

I soon began to wonder what “Jean” (who as a young woman took pleasure in fixing up houses she lived in) would think of the white shower curtain I considered buying (“Too plain,” I thought she’d say. She liked big patterns) or Tina Brown’s accession to the editorship of the New Yorker. (She would have liked, I guessed, Brown’s putting the aberrant Harold Brodkey to write about the election.)

I owned Hamilton’s Lowell and Lowell’s poems and gave over an evening to re-reading Mills of the Kavanaughs with what I’d read about Lowell’s marriage to Stafford. The Anne and Harry dialogue quoted above had before gone by me like some lovely cinema (and must have been quite satisfying because I’d remembered it). The poem opens with Anne playing solitaire. In the copy of Mills of the Kavanaughs found on Stafford’s bedside table, she’d noted that she had taught Lowell to play solitaire. She added: “…in the last months in Maine, we did nothing but play solitaire in separate rooms.”

In a bookstore, I flipped through Wilfred Sheed’s essay collection because I’d read, in the Stafford biographies, that Stafford and Lowell worked one year for Sheed’s father’s publishing house (Stafford had typed his father’s translation of The Confessions of St. Augustine). There was the surprise of Sheed’s “Miss Jean Stafford” and his account of her funeral that begins with this: “Jean Stafford’s memorial service was almost as ironic as she was.”

Sheed goes on to tell that because of a scheduling bollix, almost no one attended and no one had been asked to speak. Sheed, however, was there, noting that Stafford’s cleaning woman, whom she’d recently made her sole heir, “stood slightly apart from the other mourners, looking a mite embattled in her smart tattersall pants.”

What Sheed characterizes as “the dank little ceremony” ended with Stafford’s ashes being lowered into a hole next to Liebling’s. “The survivors traipsed off, not huddled together by loss, but scattered and bemused, and feeling perhaps that the ending was wrong for the story, not one of Stafford’s best. This was one of our finest writers, not some eccentric country lady, and she should have been buried with honor whether she liked it or not.”

Poor Jean Stafford.

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