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.”
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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.”