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Telling Tales Out of School

Retired but never retiring, Diane Middlebrook turns full attention to writing biography. As in the classroom, she packs a punch.

Photo: Amanda Lane

BETWEEN POETS: Middlebrook, in London, plans some downtime before taking on Ovid.

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By Cynthia Haven

Hunkered down in the 46-story Helmsley Park Lane Hotel on Central Park, author and English professor emerita Diane Middlebrook is making last-minute revisions on her latest manuscript for Viking. A few blocks away, editors are poring over their own copies of Her Husband: Hughes & Plath, A Marriage. The subject is the notorious union of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The pressure is intense as deadline approaches.

“These are the clothes I’ve had on for the last week,” she announces with cheerful resignation. “I’m not going anywhere.” She’s wearing a black turtleneck sweater and leggings, fittingly anonymous for the drizzling New York weather. Middlebrook is small—5 feet 4 inches—and her very short brown hair stands straight up, giving her an electric-socket effect that belies her current exhaustion. She flies to London for a four-month sojourn at 1 p.m. tomorrow (she divides her time between San Francisco and London). She will be at Viking until the last possible minute before grabbing a taxi to the airport.

Middlebrook retired from her active teaching schedule last year to become a full-time biographer. “One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she muses. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”

Yet the career move doesn’t appear to have slackened her pace. And success is still dogging her heels: Her Husband was named a “must read” by Library Journal even as Middlebrook and her editor were fine-tuning text and endnotes over international phone lines.

At the hotel, she had requested a room with a desk. She got one on the 36th floor. “There’s lots of drawer space. Everything is organized and out of sight,” she says approvingly. Nevertheless, work isn’t completely hidden: a tall pile of finished manuscript pages sits on the marble desktop, a short stack of unfinished pages next to it. She has 1 1/2 chapters left to revamp.

Each revision makes the story tighter, more focused on the subject at hand: the story of Hughes and Plath—two of the 20th century’s most famous poets, told yet again, but this time concentrated on how they shaped each other as poets during their marriage.

And such a marriage! The six-year union ended with Hughes’s disastrous affair and Plath’s suicide. Is there that much to say about the debacle, after thousands of articles, books, TV shows and this fall a movie, Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow? Yes; Middlebrook’s book is different—“sure to be the gold standard,” according to Publishers Weekly’s starred review.

“I don’t think that marriage was a failure,” she says. “They had an aim that they worked out together: to become poets. It was very courageous. They turned down contracts [for reliable work] to become poets. They had no way to know where their luck would come from. Each one was incredibly helpful to the other.” Her book describes Hughes’s middle-age rediscovery of Plath’s genius. Not that he ever doubted it, according to Middlebrook. “What I really wanted to do was write the story of a romance and its aftermath—and to tell it as rapidly and with as much juice as I could find in myself.”

Middlebrook’s previous biographies—of the poet Anne Sexton and the jazz musician Billy Tipton—generated controversy. Will this one? “She’s not interested in hanging Ted,” says Kathryn Court, president of Viking/Penguin Books. “I think the people who feel Ted murdered Sylvia will be very upset by this book.”

Stanford English professor Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and a friend of Middlebrook’s, says, “I’m sure that Diane will make a real contribution to the debate. She has a particularly vivid sense of the lives—erotic, imaginative, actual—of her subjects. Because of that, I know her work will be scholarly, but never remote. There’s always something fresh and intense about the way she sees poetry and poets.”

Her current incarnation as a biographer almost overshadows the work Middlebrook’s former students and colleagues praise most often—her teaching and scholarship. She is one of the founders of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), formerly the Center for Research on Women (CROW). By all accounts, she is a gifted teacher, an inventive networker of colleagues, ideas and disciplines, and a provocative scholar.

One former disciple is black feminist writer bell hooks. In her introduction to Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, hooks, ’73, recalls Middlebrook handing out photocopied sheets of poetry at the beginning of class. There were no authors’ names given; Middlebrook lectured on whether their gender could be determined by style and content. Hardly a groundbreaking demonstration now, perhaps, but the lesson occurred more than 30 years ago.

“I still recall the relief I felt that day,” writes hooks. “A burden had been lifted. She had shown us that there was no basis in reality for the biased sexist stereotypes that were so often taught by other professors as fact. I left class assured that I could write work that was both specific to my experience as a southern black female as well as rooted in different locations and different perspectives.”

Middlebrook has a talent for juggling disciplines, ideas, allusions, metaphors—which, in the early days of CROW, led to an unusual intellectual cross-fertilization among junior faculty. “We had friendships and intellectual colleagues across the entire campus,” recalls education professor Myra Strober, the founding director of CROW. “Partly because there were so few women on campus, we gravitated toward one another. We lectured in one another’s courses, taught courses together, had study groups together, and to some extent that’s still true.”

For example, Strober co-taught a course with Middlebrook called Women’s Choices, cross-listed with the English department, feminist studies and the School of Education. Examining Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Strober discussed the economic ramifications of the choices the women make and the class structures underlying their social interactions and marital goals. Middlebrook gave a provocative psychoanalytic interpretation of Darcy’s estate. Strober says her own discussions of the development of human capital and women’s careers sparked Middlebrook’s interest in Anne Sexton, a relatively uneducated housewife who became a poet and academic. And Middlebrook’s work influenced Strober.

“She is inspiring and spellbinding,” says Strober, enumerating her colleague’s pedagogical virtues. “Even speaking prose, her choice of words and sense of drama are poetic. She has a very interesting perspective on literary issues. She combines an understanding of the text with an understanding of social issues—particularly feminist issues, but not exclusively. She’s very well-versed in psychoanalysis and brings that perspective to her analyses.” (Middlebrook received the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1987.)

History professor Estelle Freedman, speaking at a retirement party to celebrate Middlebrook’s remarkable teaching career, noted, “Often, when I have to be ‘on,’ as at public events, I think ‘WWDD.’ Instead of ‘What would Jesus do?’ it is ‘What would Diane do?’ And I reach deep inside for a touch of spark, wit, words and connecting thoughts that might, in her style, embrace those around me with the intellectual and personal vibrancy that she brings with her always.”

Middlebrook’s interest in other people’s lives invites speculation on her own, including her marriage to Stanford organic chemist and now novelist/playwright Carl Djerassi, father of “the Pill.”

Her transatlantic literary career was not foretold by birth or upbringing. She was born Diane Wood in Pocatello, Idaho, the first of three sisters. The family moved to Spokane, Wash., when she was 5. Because their mother had health problems, “she was kind of a hip surrogate mother for me,” says Michole Nicholson, eight years younger. “Diane took care of me and let me follow her around. I adored Diane as a child—and I still do.”

Nicholson describes growing up “lower middle-class” in a tiny postwar house on a busy street. Their father, a pharmacist, had been raised by his schoolteacher mother; his father had died in the mines of Idaho. Their mother, orphaned at age 9, had “barely made it through high school,” says Nicholson. “I used to think of Diane as a changeling—from those naughty mischievous fairies who would sometimes switch babies. She just came out of nowhere. Nobody in our family even read poetry, let alone studied poetry.”

Middlebrook admits she was somewhat pampered as the first child. “My mother named me very fancifully—my middle name is Helen, my first name is Diane. She was thinking of the moon goddess,” she said in a 1998 interview with the e-zine Ellavon. Wonderwoman was her first hero. “I used to have this fantasy that I was actually a goddess. Wonderwoman came about as close as they got. I used to buy those thick Wonderwoman comic books.”

However, her parents’ attitude toward education was pragmatic. “When Diane declared that she wanted to be a poet and writer, it caused a great uproar,” says Nicholson. Her father insisted she at least get a teaching certificate. Middlebrook replied that she didn’t want to waste the time. Her father demanded that she pay her own way through college.

“Diane, of course, totally vindicated her decision,” Nicholson says. “She had a strong mind, a strong will, as if she had an inner compass that pushed her wherever she wanted to go.” Middlebrook first attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, then transferred to the University of Washington-Seattle, where she received her BA. She arrived at Stanford as an assistant professor of English in 1966 and got her phd from Yale in 1968.

She has married three times. The name “Middlebrook” is a souvenir of the second, by which she had a daughter, Leah, now an assistant professor of comparative literature at the University of Oregon. By the time she met Djerassi in 1977, she had established a scholarly reputation as Diane Wood Middlebrook.

Djerassi was born in 1923, the son of Jewish physicians in Vienna. Fleeing the Nazis, at 16 he arrived in New York penniless yet graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Ohio’s Kenyon College at 19 and received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin three years later. Djerassi’s work in synthetic organic chemistry led to the invention of oral contraceptives, antihistamines and anti-inflammatory drugs. His rise was meteoric—the London Sunday Times Magazine named him “one of the Top Thirty Persons of the Millennium”—and his wealth allowed him to establish an artists’ colony near Woodside. He also became an eminent collector.

The couple’s art interests are evident in their home, surely one of the most fabulous apartments in San Francisco. It occupies the entire 15th floor (they gradually absorbed four apartments) of an art-deco building on Green Street, atop Russian Hill. The elevator from the lobby opens onto blue walls meant to suggest a night sky, with poetry by Ovid, Paul Klee, Wallace Stevens, Basho, Hughes and others written across it in different scripts and languages and illustrated with zodiacal signs. To the left are living quarters; to the right, offices and the salon area, where the couple entertains. They enjoy a 360-degree view of the city.

Middlebrook’s office features Eurodesign cabinets and built-in bookcases, with a computer desk and round work table. As in the hotel room, all is very neat, very well-organized—a Middlebrook cardinal virtue. A painted baroque ceiling, with blue, gray and plum-colored swirls, gives the impression the sky is right above you.

Works of art by Klee, usually on the walls in the salon area, are currently on loan to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, keeping company with the permanent Klee collection Djerassi donated. The couple has one of the world’s most significant private Klee collections.

“There’s nobody like either one of them,” says Barbara Babcock, Crown Professor of Law and Middlebrook’s friend for three decades. “They really, truly enjoy each other’s company—that’s a real hallmark of a true marriage.”

It was a rocky courtship. In his autobiography, Djerassi describes how in 1983 Middlebrook informed him that she had decided to live with another man. And Djerassi has been called a ladies’ man on more than one occasion. (When Salon in 2001 asked point-blank if he was, he responded clumsily: “I’m just an ordinary heterosexual person to whom the opposite sex applies, so the possibility let us say of sexual attraction, even confirmation, is an extra bonus in these relations.”) Despite infidelity, the couple married in 1985.

Unlike Plath and Hughes, Middlebrook and Djerassi appear to have found their happy ending. “Diane is very committed to her marriage,” says Nicholson. “Each is strong-willed, driven, ambitious. She pays a lot of attention to the dynamics between them. Part of her insight for the Plath-Hughes book is from looking at her own marriage—where the boundaries are between them and how they affect each other creatively. She got into the Plath book and realized it was about a marriage.”

Clearly, the Djerassi-Middlebrook marriage withstands a lot of time apart. While Middlebrook went off in late spring to engagements in London and Wales, Djerassi was speaking in Frankfurt and Berlin and attending rehearsals and performances of his plays in Tokyo and Oxford. Somewhere in Europe, they reconnoitered before returning to San Francisco in the fall.

Even while she was still chewing the end of her pen, Middlebrook attracted bullets for Her Husband. In an unpublished letter to the San Francisco Chronicle dated May 22, 2001 (circulated on the Internet), Lucas Meyer, a friend of the late Hughes, predicted Middlebrook would create a “fairyland account” of Plath and Hughes, citing her controversial book on Anne Sexton.

Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991), a finalist for the National Book Award, was Middlebrook’s rough baptism into the cutting edge of biographical research. Her work got attention for its revelations of Sexton’s adultery, incest and sexually abusive relationship with her own daughter. But most controversial were the tapes offered by Sexton’s psychiatrist, Martin Orne, tapes in which Sexton—who killed herself in 1974, at 45—revealed her hopes, anxieties, childhood abuse (real or imagined), affairs with both sexes, and poetic aspirations.

“For me, listening to the tapes provided immeasurably valuable insight into the person Sexton had been during the most important period of her creative life,” Middlebrook wrote in a letter to the New York Times, which covered the debate extensively. “The tapes made me privy not only to anguish but also to thousands of homely particulars that make up an actual life.”

Sexton’s survivors agreed the revelations were exactly what the poet would have wanted, but others, especially psychiatrists, were outraged. They saw Middlebrook’s action opening the way for a flood of posthumous “outing” of clients’ records, undermining the trust between psychiatrist and patient.

The book spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, an unexpected twist for a biography of a minor poet. “Yeah, I was surprised,” says Middlebrook, looking back on the furor with the perspective of a decade or so. “My book was a success because all psychotherapists in the country had to read it. It was an audience I hadn’t anticipated.”

Middlebrook adds that although she was “baffled at the time,” she now realizes “the world of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst was ready to have a controversy. We were on the very brink of the information age.” Issues of privacy and information control were coming to the fore. Who owns patient records—client or doctor? Can they be inherited? In any case, says Middlebrook, Orne “spent two years battling with his own professional organizations before being exonerated.”

The Sexton book apparently whetted Middlebrook’s appetite for the offbeat and controversial. In February 1989, when she read the “respectful, faintly marveling obituary” for Billy Tipton in the New York Times, she was riveted. Suits Me (1998) is her biography of the cross-dressing jazz musician born as Dorothy Tipton, who lived as a man from age 19 until his death at 74. He married five times and reared several adopted children, yet his wives and kids were unaware of the disguise. “When he died, people were absolutely dumbfounded to discover he was a she,” says Middlebrook, whose father had known the musician.

As Middlebrook explained in the Ellavon interview, “Right away, there is the voyeuristic fascination with how can someone not be known by a wife and sons to be the wrong sex? Then, it hit me that the story itself is a very ordinary story, that we are connected by relationships, and our relationships are projected onto who we think [people] are. So when the son said to me, ‘He will always be Dad to me,’ it didn’t matter whether it was a female person, and I thought right away that, yes, that’s correct—‘Father’ is a relationship, it’s not a sex.”

The book won a Lambda Foundation Literary Award, and Middlebrook garnered praise for her sensitivity as well as her style. London’s Financial Times wrote, “Tipton may have spent his life fearing exposure, but he/she could not have wished for a more perceptive or sympathetic biographer than Middlebrook.”

Clearly, though, she wades into questionable waters. “I’ve heard her say in many forums that the dead have no rights, the dead have no interests. It’s a very unsentimental view,” says Babcock. And what of the survivors—someone, say, who has a brief affair and finds years later that their lover has become famous and their passion is being ridiculed? Plath’s early lovers come to mind.

“So what?” responds Middlebrook. “You’re not the first person in the world who had sex—anything said about it is not too surprising. Maybe your attitude should be, ‘So what?’

“I guess I’m not very sympathetic to the idea that telling the life of somebody is intruding on lives of other people,” she adds. “The territoriality that people express about each other’s lives requires some scrutiny.” But, she admits, “I feel that way because I am a biographer.”

That tough stance also belies the thoughtful treatment she has often given the living—Tipton’s widows, for example. “I do know people are capable of feeling shame about things, and writers ought to be careful about that,” says Middlebrook. Still, she reverts to her credo: “The more that each of us knows about each of the other human beings in the world, the better off [we] are,” she says. “It’s true that it is very painful to be exposed to people’s curiosity. But it’s painful in a way that can only lead to self-knowledge, because it’s really not a big deal. In the scope of human endeavor, it’s not a big deal.”

Middlebrook’s next project will sidestep most of these issues. It will be a biography of the Augustan poet Ovid, to be published by Viking in 2008. The subject is dear to her: she has been teaching the Metamorphoses since her first year at Stanford. Not surprisingly, this book may show a slightly feminist twist, and perhaps a Djerassi influence as well. “Ovid is a man who I’m absolutely sure was interested in women,” says Middlebrook. “He’s interested in the way they conduct their lives—especially when men aren’t around, doing both nefarious and kind things to each other.”

The Ovid project will give her “a pretext to live in Rome,” but first there is the upcoming Hughes/Plath brouhaha to get behind her. “He’s my next investment, but I want a little downtime before I do the heavy lifting.”

Read a March 2010 update on this story.


CYNTHIA HAVEN writes about arts and letters for Stanford. She edited Joseph Brodsky: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2003).

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