Prouty and Plath,
Patron and Poet
Today novelist and poet Olive Higgins Prouty is known mainly for her novels Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, when she is remembered at all. But Prouty also had a profound impact on the career of acclaimed poet Sylvia Plath: Prouty endowed Plath’s scholarship for “promising young writers” at Smith College and also paid for Plath’s psychiatric treatment after a suicide attempt. Plath “repaid” her with targeted satire in her best-selling novel The Bell Jar.
When her novel The Bell Jar debuted in January 1963, Plath was living in a freezing London flat, separated from her husband, poet Ted Hughes, and struggling to raise their two small children. She furiously churned out poems that, according to her journal, were “written at about four in the morning…that still blue, almost eternal hour before the baby’s cry.” Plath wrote to her mother, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.” But in the early morning hours of February 11, 1963, after sealing her children’s door with towels, Plath opened the oven, knelt down, turned on the gas and placed her head on a folded cloth on the oven door. Her body was discovered a few hours later. Plath’s ambition to be “the Poetess of America” was realized posthumously, and her suicide sadly enhances The Bell Jar’s mystique. As she foretells in her 1962 poem “Lady Lazarus,” “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” In his film Annie Hall, Woody Allen glibly describes the legacy of this iconic, beloved poet: “Oh, Sylvia Plath, whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the schoolgirl mentality.”
Sylvia Plath first met Olive Higgins Prouty in 1950, when Prouty, who had endowed Plath’s scholarship at Smith College, invited her young protégée to tea. Prouty was the author of Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, novels about women’s struggles with identity and motherhood that had been adapted into successful movies. Plath regaled Prouty with fanciful story ideas until Prouty suggested Plath write about what she knew. “Take life!” Prouty urged. “Think of the material you have!” Plath later based her novel The Bell Jar on her own nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. Prouty, who had also suffered a breakdown as a young woman, paid the medical expenses for Plath’s recovery.
Plath had described The Bell Jar as a “potboiler” in a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath. Aurelia, however, thought even less of it, complaining, “It was accepted as an autobiography, which it wasn’t.” To her, the novel represented the “basest ingratitude” to the real-life people Plath had thinly veiled as fictional characters. If Prouty was offended by her caricature in the book, she didn’t let on: She is satirized as Philomena Guinea, an elderly writer of melodramatic romances that Plath’s stand-in, Esther Greenwood, can’t abide reading.
Olive Higgins Prouty had it all. She married a loving, rich man, had four children and wrote 10 novels. But she downplayed her writing as only a hobby. Feeling “constantly torn” between family and art, Prouty wrote in her memoir, Pencil Shavings (1961), that she tried to “give the impression that I just dashed off, at spare moments, those short stories or an occasional light novel.” Two of her daughters, Anne and Olivia, died in infancy; in 1925, two years after Olivia’s death, Prouty suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized at the Austen Riggs Foundation, an innovative psychotherapy center, where Prouty’s psychiatrist advised her to treat writing as a profession. She was encouraged to rent a room outside her home and write five days a week. In 1941 Prouty published Now, Voyager, a pioneering examination of psychotherapy disguised as a tear-jerking romance. Protagonist Charlotte Vale, a repressed Boston spinster, blossoms under the care of her psychiatrist and finds love and happiness. Screen star Bette Davis desperately wanted to play Charlotte in the film adaptation and battled the Warner Bros. studio bosses for the part, later writing, “There wasn’t one of my best pictures I didn’t have to fight to get.”
In her book A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960, film historian Jeanine Basinger defines the “woman’s picture” as a film that “places a woman at the center of the story universe” and reaffirms that “a woman’s true job is that of just being a woman.” Movies produced for female audiences today are dismissed as “chick flicks,” but in their three-decade heyday, from the 1930s through the 1950s, they generated major revenue. Stars billed above the title—such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman—could carry a movie and draw millions of female fans to the theaters.
Davis had already won two Oscars for best actress and was the top-grossing female star for two years running when she made 1942’s Now, Voyager. The film brought Davis more fan mail than ever, and TV network Turner Classic Movies notes most film historians consider Now, Voyager the “ultimate woman’s picture.” Davis described the “constant vigil to preserve the quality of the book as written by Olive Higgins Prouty.” Both book and film end with the protagonist’s romantic, self-sacrificing plea as she rejects her married ex-lover: “Don’t let’s ask for the moon! We have the stars!”
In her seminal work From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, feminist film critic Molly Haskell notes, “There are as many kinds of women’s films as there are kinds of women.” Whether they called them weepies, tearjerkers or soap operas, Hollywood studios gladly produced such movies as Mildred Pierce, Imitation of Life, Camille, Alice Adams, Dark Victory, Gaslight, Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager because women made up the majority of the filmgoing audience. In 1939 four of the top 10 highest-grossing films, including Gone With the Wind, were about and aimed at women. Barbara Stanwyck is described in Jeanine Basinger’s book A Woman’s View as one of the “exaggerated women” who “acted out women’s rage and rebellion, got punished for it and returned to the fold (or not) in time to get the women in the audience home to cook dinner.” Stanwyck’s career spanned six decades; she could be a sexy comedian in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire or a cold-blooded femme fatale in Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Stanwyck also rode tall in the saddle, starring in many Westerns, including the TV series The Big Valley.
In many of her 80-plus films, Barbara Stanwyck either duped some poor sap into committing murder or simply did the deed herself. She was good at playing bad girls with a heart of stone in such films noir as Double Indemnity and The File on Thelma Jordon, so it’s ironic that one of Stanwyck’s most iconic characters is Stella Dallas: the mother of all self-sacrificing mothers, who gives up her daughter to ensure a better life for her. Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1922 novel Stella Dallas has been filmed for the screen three times—a 1925 silent version, the 1937 Stanwyck classic and 1990’s Stella, starring Bette Midler. (The radio serial, which ran from 1937 to 1955, has been called the first soap opera.) Stanwyck wanted to play the role of Stella so much she agreed to studio head Samuel Goldwyn’s insistence on a screen test. A star of Stanwyck’s stature testing for a part was unheard of, but Goldwyn was concerned that she did not have enough experience with motherhood to play Stella convincingly. He was wrong. Stanwyck received the first of her four best actress Academy Award nominations for Stella Dallas.
Upon reading a new poem by Sylvia Plath, Olive Higgins Prouty once suggested the young poet “write me a poem that isn’t intense. A lamp turned too high might shatter its chimney. Please just glow sometimes.” Plath did not heed her patron’s advice on poetry or on love. As Plath wrote in her journal, “I desire the things which will destroy me in the end.” Plath met Ted Hughes while both were students at Cambridge University. She described him as “that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one…huge enough for me.” The couple married on June 16, 1956, despite Prouty’s warning that Hughes made her “fearful.” They had two children together, Frieda and Nicholas. On July 9, 1962, Plath intercepted a phone call from another woman, Assia Wevill, who had called Hughes at home. The marriage was over. Plath and her children moved into a building where Irish poet William Butler Yeats had once lived. In this London flat Plath wrote her greatest poems and ended her life. Her son also later committed suicide, at age 47.
On August 24, 1953, Sylvia Plath disappeared, leaving a note saying she had gone out for a long walk but would return the next day. The search for the 20-year-old soon became a search for a possible suicide: A bottle of sleeping pills was also missing. Her mother told the press, “She has set standards for herself that are almost unattainable.” Plath had been denied admission to a Harvard summer writing seminar; despondent, she took the sleeping pills, a glass of water and a blanket and hid herself in a crawl space in the basement of her family’s home. She was found two days later and admitted to McLean psychiatric hospital. Her patron, Olive Higgins Prouty, paid the bills but was unhappy with Plath’s care. Prouty wrote to the hospital director, “I usually find Sylvia wandering listlessly up and down the corridor.” Electroshock therapy was prescribed. In December Plath received the first of three treatments later chronicled in the 1963 poem “The Hanging Man”: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.” McLean deemed the treatments effective enough to discharge Plath in January 1954.
Founded in 1811 as the Asylum for the Insane, McLean Hospital sits on a 240-acre campus in Belmont, Massachusetts, in an area chosen by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park. According to U.S. News & World Report, McLean is still ranked second among all psychiatric hospitals in the U.S., but the institution’s famous “alumni” are what fascinates the public. Such musicians as Ray Charles, Marianne Faithfull, Rick James and James Taylor have been patients; noted writers and poets who have sought treatment there include Robert Lowell, Zelda Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace. Sylvia Plath was admitted to McLean after her 1953 suicide attempt, and she later demonstrated considerable business savvy in her journal: “There is an increasing market for mental hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don’t relive, re-create it.” Plath fictionalized her recovery at McLean in the novel The Bell Jar. In 1967 another young Massachusetts girl was admitted to McLean after a suicide attempt—Susanna Kaysen, who spent 18 months there. Her memoir, Girl, Interrupted, became a 1993 best-seller and the basis for the Oscar-winning 1999 movie starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.
After a brief visit to a psychiatrist she had never met before, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital, where she was ultimately diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a type of impulsive emotional instability. The money her parents had saved for her college education was spent on her treatment. Kaysen chronicled her recovery in the memoir Girl, Interrupted, observing, “The only way to stay sane is to go a little crazy.” Time magazine made the inevitable comparison: “Not since Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has a personal account of a life in a mental hospital achieved as much popularity and acclaim.” Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar was published in the U.K. in 1963, bearing the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. A few weeks after its appearance to mixed reviews, Plath killed herself. Her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes, saw financial potential in his dead wife’s novel, and in 1970, despite his mother-in-law’s objections, Hughes sold the American rights to publisher Harper & Row. When the book was rereleased in 1971 under Plath’s name, it was an immediate best-seller and a literary sensation. It has sold more than 3 million copies.