#62: Sylvia And The Month At ‘Mademoiselle’
This letter is the second in a series about Sylvia Plath and $$$. Part One is here.
Hi hi, friends,
This time capsule is from a 1971 New York Times article about the retirement of Betsy Talbot Blackwell (one of those names that seems to go everywhere in a pearl necklace), editor in chief at the magazine Mademoiselle:
At an English desk also painted green, sits B.T.B., as she is known to her staff and signs her memos. Staff members sometimes also refer to her as “Mother” among themselves.
A tall glass of water is provided by her secretary to sip when B.T.B. is racked by paroxysms of coughing, terrifying to her audiences, but which she passes off as “the way I announce myself.” The coughing spells come less frequently now that she has stopped smoking and given up the Scotch and soda that used to appear promptly on the dot of 5.
I admire the old-school iron fortitude of that “the way I announce myself.” The article is studded with other nice period details, too, like a mention of the time a new staff member, mistaking BTB’s mink hat for a pillow, sat on it. (Poor anonymous new staff member—we sympathize, across the decades, with your consternation.)
BTB was already reigning over Mademoiselle the summer of 1953, when Sylvia Plath served as one of the magazine’s guest editors—the same experience Esther Greenwood has working for Ladies’ Day in The Bell Jar. For the guest editor program, twenty young women were picked from colleges across the U.S. to come to New York to work on the magazine’s August issue. It was a huge honor to be chosen, like landing the most glamorous kind of paid internship. (Other “Millies” over the years: Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, and Mona Simpson.)
I say “paid internship” as the guest editors received a salary but I haven’t been able to track down how much the salary was. What I do know is that they were housed in a women-only hotel called the Barbizon (called the Amazon in The Bell Jar)—and at the end of June at least one of Plath’s fellow guest editors, Neva Nelson, was shocked to find that she had to pay for her month at the hotel. She was broke and had to scramble to find the money for a plane ticket home. Recollecting the experience later, she said:
I entered the contest thinking that working in New York at a big magazine would bring me a lot more money. Instead, I came back in debt with bills to pay for the clothes I purchased and the airfare I borrowed for the trip.
That quote comes from Pain, Parties, Work, a marvelous biography by Elizabeth Winder that centers on Plath’s month at the magazine. The book came out a few years ago and I missed hearing about it somehow, stumbled across it last week while looking up factoids for this letter, and read it in a big happy gulp. I highly recommend it, even if you’re not in the market for a new biography of the poet. The book’s narrow focus—just that single summer of Plath’s life— is part of its charm. Many of the incidents and people who pass by in other biographies at a swift, dutiful clip take on a whirring life and freshness here. If the version of Plath that comes across in the book is a little more sunny and sturdy than the Jupiter-her that occupies my brain, I appreciate the work Winder had to do to wrench a reader toward any new conception of a figure so familiar.
And there are lots of fascinating bits, too, on fashion history, perfumes, magazine life, and the glittery grimy “come here and make it” lure of 1950s New York—which seems, in Winder’s rendering, not all that different from the glittery grimy lure of the city in later decades, just with more trotting around in white gloves and small, not-especially-flattering hats.
“DON’T LET THE WICKED CITY GET YOU DOWN”
In The Bell Jar, Esther is called into the office of Ladies’ Day editor, Jay Cee, for a “terrible” talk. The subtext is that Esther hasn’t shown enough enthusiasm for her tasks at the magazine, and Jay Cee asks her about her plans after college. Esther considers:
What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort. Usually I had these plans on the tip of my tongue.
“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.
It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.
(Side observation: When I first read this book at fifteen, I don’t think I half-understood how funny it is.)
Growing impatient, Jay Cee tells Esther that she’s going to have to learn some languages if she’s ever going to get ahead: “Hundreds of girls flood into New York every June thinking they’ll be editors. You need to offer something more than the run-of-the-mill person.”
Jay Cee then puts on a small, not-especially-flattering hat that makes her look “terrible, but very wise.” She pats Esther on the shoulder, says, “Don’t let the wicked city get you down,” and sails off to lunch. Afterward:
I sat quietly in my swivel chair for a few minutes and thought about Jay Cee. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I were Ee Gee, the famous editor, in an office full of potted rubber plants and African violets my secretary had to water each morning. I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do.
My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died… She was always on me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree. “Even the apostles were tentmakers,” she’d say. “They had to live, just the way we do.”
The character Jay Cee seems to have emerged as a sort of amalgam of BTB and Cyrilly Abels, Mademoiselle’s managing editor, to whom Plath was assigned during her guest editorship. In Winder’s account of the summer, Abels comes across as grinding and harsh (and also, as she was subsisting on a ’50s fashion-editor diet of cigarettes and grapefruit, likely very hungry). Still, it was Abels who had picked out Plath’s story “Sunday at the Mintons” to win the magazine’s fiction prize the year before, with its prize of $500. Meanwhile, another guest editor was going through the magazine’s files one day when she came across one of her own short-story submissions. It had “UGH” written across the top.
After Abels left the magazine, she founded a literary agency. From her Times obituary:
Before forming her agency in 1962, she had served as managing editor of Mademoiselle for 15 years’ and as associate editor of The Reporter for two years.
She played a major role in transforming Mademoiselle from a fashion magazine for young women to an important medium for the display of the work of young and talented writers.
Miss Abels was responsible for the publication in the magazine in its entirety of Dylan Thomas’s play, “Under Milk Wood,” which established the author’s American reputation.
She also brought to a mass audience the work of Truman Capote, the young Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, James Baldwin, Hortense Calisher, Eugene lonesco, Flannery O’Connor, James Purdy and others.
And while we’re looking at obituaries, here’s one for Mademoiselle itself, from the fall of 2001 when Condé Nast closed it down.
I’m sharing that part of the article because a. I enjoy this sort of media history and hope you do to; and b. I remember a couple of those re-launches distinctly from reading Mademoiselle during the ‘80s and ’90s and it’s odd and funny to see them cited here as something as quaint and yesteryear as BTB’s five o’clock scotch and squashed fur hat. As I remember it, not all the re-launches were bad. There was one iteration when the magazine seemed to get especially smart and knowing and funny—as if all of Tama Janowitz’s friends in NY were writing their eight-hundred-word ditties, turning them in, and gliding off to the bank to cash their freelance checks. The piece I remember most from this period was a guide to oral sex that a friend and I must have passed back and forth roughly a thousand million times (conservative estimate) and, while I understand now how that piece was likely hatched out of a broader business plan to compete with Cosmo, I can also still remember a couple of the jokes from it and I THINK THEY HOLD UP. Thank you, Mademoiselle ’80s freelancer. I hope you made bank. Or at least rent.
CINDERELLA, CINDERELLA, WHAT HAPPENS AT MIDNIGHT?
In The Bell Jar, when Esther Greenwood returns home from her month at Ladies’ Day, she takes a few shorthand lessons from her mother. Plath did the same with her mom, Aurelia, during the hot static July weeks preceding her breakdown, and this is how Aurelia recalls it in Letters Home:
In an effort to pull herself together, Sylvia felt that some form of scheduled activity would keep her from feeling that the whole summer was being wasted. Her plan was that I should teach her shorthand for an hour each morning so that she could “get a job to support my writing—if I can ever write again.” For four lessons we worked together. But her disjointed style of handwriting did not lend itself well to the connected strokes of the Gregg system, and I was relieved when she agreed with me that this was a skill she could manage to live without.
Plath wasn’t the only guest editor who had the specter of “maybe I should learn some shorthand” haunting her that summer. As you read Winder’s interviews with the other guest editors (an interesting bunch), there’s a strong sense of Cinderella-at-the-ball about their time at the magazine. That anxious strain of getting to go to something giddy and glorious but knowing, unless something magic happens, you won’t be able to stay long. Many of these women, not just Plath, were scholarship students who worked side jobs along with going to classes (one of Plath’s sidelines was selling nylons on campus) and who entered contests like Mademoiselle’s not just because it’d be fun and prestigious, but because it was a way to get through a door that might otherwise be barred. So even as they were being swept around the city to fashion shows and went to rooftop parties in silvery, shimmery gowns, there must have been a gnawing sense beneath it: if this glittery grimy summer doesn’t lead anywhere, then what exactly are you going to do with yourself? Especially if—in 1953—you didn’t want to leap right from college to marriage and motherhood? Well, there’s always shorthand.
In Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath, there’s an appendix in the back where Lucas Myers, one of Ted Hughes’s closest friends, gives his account of meeting Plath during her Fulbright year at Cambridge. One night, soon after they meet, he has her over for supper.
She sat on the floor and I sat in a chair preparing food on a gas ring. … She was effusive and a little like one of my sisters; there was something in her I liked. There was also something in her that met with my puritanical disapproval, and the disapproval registered on my face in spite of my effort to disguise it. We talked about Wallace Stevens, and I approved of this, but she told me about working for or publishing in magazines like Mademoiselle and Seventeen, and I disapproved of that. The average circulation of magazines I thought it was proper to write for would have been around two thousand. What surprised me most about Sylvia was that she didn’t seem to notice my disapproval. She chatted on, with energy.
Note: Myers is being self-deprecating here. He was writing this remembrance from the vantage of several decades on, and it’s clear that his younger, more puritanical self is funny to him. Still it gave me a pang when I came across that passage recently—like overhearing someone joking when they only half-realize in what way they’re being a dick. It made me think how lonely it must have been at times for Plath to be hanging out in that particular crowd of male poets. None of them quite understanding what it was like to feel that if you didn’t execute every next step of your life perfectly, perfectly, perfectly—presenting yourself to the fairy godmothers of New York in your white gloves and red lipstick and small, not-especially flattering hat and with a folder of sellable short stories tucked under your arm—that everything was going to turn out cinders and ash and shorthand. That you might wake up the next morning and find that after all that hard work and all that pretty spinning, still no one had paid your bill at the Barbizon.
A NOTE ABOUT THE BLACK CARDIGAN LETTER
I was moving the schedule of this letter around for a while, partly out of a hope to hit on some window where there was a steady, quiet weekly pocket when it wouldn’t feel tone-deaf amid the cascading news to be sending out a letter about, say, Mademoiselle in the 1950s. I have given up! You can expect this letter on Fridays now. I hope you like the new design of it! Thanks so much for reading.
Until next time,
hoping wherever you are, you chat on, with energy,
p.s. If you haven’t already subscribed to this letter and would like to, go here.