While I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz my research took me to Boston. A highlight of the visit there was to be shown the room where Plath and Sexton met for their poetry workshop with Robert Lowell in 1959. It was a small room and felt much unchanged from the 1950s. A wonderfully old, worn, wooden floor; a narrow shape leading to a bay window overlooking the Charles (just). The back wall by the entrance door lined with bookshelves and the edges of the room lined with chair-desks.
Although initial research had suggested to me that the room was small, nothing much prepares you for the actual dimensions of a space you have only read about. The staircase leading up from the entrance hall has a beautifully carved balustrade. The red, white, black tiles on the floor are original and jaunt their way along corridors. It is easy to imagine Plath and Sexton making their way to class; Plath early and organised in her camel coat, Sexton late, rushing up the stairs in her printed dresses with jangling jewellery and dropping cigarette ash.
It was while I was researching photographs to include in my book that I came across an old press photo of Sexton teaching her writing class. I bought a print because the details in the image were wonderful. Had I not visited Room 222 on Bay State Road, the significance of the image may have passed me by. I immediately recognised that in a wonderful cyclical turn of events, in the late 1960s, Sexton ended up teaching her own writing classes in the same room that had housed Lowell’s workshop. Of course, I immediately wanted this photograph for my book, but first I had to clear copyright and get written permission.
This is where the problems began. From sketchy writing on the back of the picture it suggested that this image was perhaps used by a Boston newspaper to accompany an obituary of Sexton, but which Boston newspaper was not clear. Archive searches revealed nothing. So, I contacted Boston newspapers. Nothing. Then I threw my net wider and contacted Magnum, Getty, Associated Press, and a company that claimed (quite wildly) to be able to find all photos used in American newspapers. Nothing. Other images that seemed to be taken from the same era were found but there was no photographer’s name attached to them.
After months, and many transatlantic twists and turns, I did not find the photographer. I could not clear copyright. I could not use the image. I am posting it here because it is too good an image not to be seen. And the thing about posting on a blog (as opposed to in a book) is that if the photographer does recognise the image, I can either credit them or remove the post.
The details in this image make me smile: Sexton’s ever-present cigarette with a convenient ashtray built into her chair. The shoe half-dangling off her foot. Not enough seats for everyone so students have to sit on the floor. The room temperature clearly low as many are huddled in coats, apart from the brace girl in sandals. Sexton is in the middle of explaining something, her hands flaring, papers balanced on her checked-trousered legs. The floor is the same floor that I walked across. This photo from the late 1960s helps us visualise how crowded that room must have been ten years earlier with 18 students jammed into Lowell’s workshop, the fug of Sexton’s cigarettes, and the awkward silences in so small a space. A tiny space housing what now feels like the giants of Plath and Sexton.
I wish that this photograph could have been in my book, but I am glad that it is here, for now.
Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz can be ordered from here
(All photographs, other than Sexton, copyright Gail Crowther)