Sociologist and author Gail Crowther joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton, and the incredible history behind it. Gail shares the ghostly experience she had while conducting archival research, why she wants to argue against stereotyping these two poets as crazy women, and the story of how she first fell in love with Sylvia Plath.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gail. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Gail Crowther: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Your book, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton, first of all, you are the foremost scholar on Sylvia Plath. You must be the most accomplished Sylvia Plath scholar in the world. Is that true, pretty much?

Gail: That’s very kind of you to say, but I think there are many really amazing Plath scholars out there. I don’t think I could take a top spot. Certainly, I spent a long time researching Sylvia Plath and writing about her. This is actually my fourth book about her. I’ve dedicated quite a lot of time to her.

Zibby: I do want to talk about this book, but I first just need to know, what draws you so much to her? Why dedicate your professional life to delving so deep into another woman’s career and life and history? What is it, do you think, that draws you so much to her?

Gail: It happened by accident, which is a very odd thing, really. I was thirteen years old at school in a library. We were just told to spend the afternoon choosing a book and reading a book. I just randomly went to the poetry section and pulled out this collection which was very randomly Sylvia Plath. I opened the book. It was the poem “Mirror” that started with the line, “I am silver and exact.” My thirteen-year-old self, I honestly fell into this book. I’ve never got out again. I’d never heard a voice like it. Then from the age thirteen on, I just started reading everything that she’d written. Then oddly, my background isn’t in English literature. It isn’t in literary theory either. I’m a sociologist. I’m coming at it from quite an odd angle, so looking at, I suppose, the culture figure of Plath and why she has such significance for so many people. My PhD was about why people become so attached to her. I spent four years researching that, and I still don’t have an answer.

Zibby: Four years well-spent.

Gail: Obviously, she’s an incredible writer. I think there are lots of reasons. People seem to have a very special relationship to Plath. I can obviously relate to that, but I still never really quite managed to know why.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. In Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, you also track an interesting path at all the different intersections of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s lives, how they grew up only four years apart and in basically the same town outside Boston and how there were so many parallels between the two and yet so many differences and how they culminated finally in them getting to know each other after this course they were both enrolled in. You use it as a great way to really shine a light on what they were even writing about and some of their innermost feelings and how those came out over time. I was particularly struck by their shared frustration at their roles as these upper-middle-class, white women trapped in the roles of mother and the limitations on their roles in society at the time and how they fought against that. I was hoping maybe you could talk a little bit about that angle of the two of them and how they dealt with that, the mothering section, the feelings about their lot in life. If they had been born today, things would be very different. They’d probably be bloggers and whatever. Tell me a little more about that.

Gail: The subtitle of the book is The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton. I was quite interested in all of the ways that they kicked against that 1950s message of what women should be and the type of wife they should be, the type of mother that they should be. I was quite interested to explore what parts of that 1950s very patriarchal ideology they had absorbed and which parts of it that they decided to just completely boot out of their lives. You could see them balancing that tension. Particularly with Plath, I think you can see that in so much as she was determined to be this amazing writer and that her time should be her own and that she would carve out writing time; she still wanted to be the perfect wife and the perfect mother and the perfect cook and the perfect homekeeper and all of these different things that she was trying to manage at the same time, whereas I think Sexton was a bit more relaxed about that. She was much bolder and seemed to have much more confidence about taking time for herself, grasping it, not caring if her house was messy. She had someone who came in to clean for her, to do her laundry. Her husband did the cooking and all of the shopping for food. She had family members who dropped the children to school and took them to their lessons after school. I think Sexton was more comfortable with rejecting those traditional expectations of what she should’ve been doing as a wife and a mother, whereas Plath seemed to be very much trying to handle it all and do it all and be exceptionally brilliant at all of it as well.

Zibby: I do want to talk also about their relationships with their own mothers and their own families, but just a little piece more on growing up so constrained. You pointed out there were all these ads and everything in the culture at the time was pointing towards how women belonged at home. Get your wife this Hoover vacuum. That’s what she needs. There was just so much pressure to be a wife. Yet they had these thoughts and feelings that they expressed in their writing, particularly the quotes from Sylvia Plath in her early work about not wanting to feel this trap and saying that her writing was really the only way out of it. How do you think they used their writing to kind of escape the trap of where they felt themselves ended up to be? That was not my most articulate question, but I think you got the point.

Gail: I think you’re completely right. I think they actually directly used their writing to manage the rest of their lives. Certainly, Plath is very open about this. Just off the top of my head, there are at least two letters that I can think of where she actually states, “I can only be a wife and mother because I write,” and that she would not be able to take all that domestic responsibility if she didn’t have the time to write. I think that the writing was absolutely vital for both of them. I think for Sexton, writing was vital in terms of keeping her quite healthy too. Her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton who’s written two very eloquent, articulate memoirs about her mom and growing up with her mom, talks about how, “My mom was never crazy when she wrote.” The times that Ann Sexton became most ill were the times, Linda said, when the typewriter fell silent. In that sense, I think writing, for them, formed a number of different purposes. What’s interesting is that both of them also saw it as a business too. It was a career. It was a job. It was a business. Although they both state, “We don’t do this to make money. We do this because we have to write,” they both also said, “But also, we like to get paid. We want to get paid fairly. We should get paid.” Sexton in particular, she was like a one-woman campaign activist for fair pay before all of that was even in our social consciousness. Her letters are astounding when you read them.

Zibby: Then when she didn’t win the prize — there was some prize that went to the third member of their trifecta in the class. She was so upset that she hadn’t won it when her poem was probably better. She’s like, “A man got it, and this is why.” I love how you also talk in this book about the effects of their upbringing and how there’s this cultural assumption that these women and mental illness and things that have happened with them are only because of their own makeup when in fact, their upbringing has completely dictated or at least has a huge part in how they ended up becoming and what happened with their early lives, nine years after Sylvia Plath’s dad passed away and how her life took on a totally different shape after that in these years that she doesn’t talk about and her relationship with her mother who ended up having to take on the burden of being a single mom with two little kids and having to support the family and not necessarily being warm and loving. Then you contrast to Ann Sexton and her very question-mark, question-mark relationship with Nana and how that might have affected her upbringing and the things you inherit, essentially, that can change your mental makeup. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on what actually happened in the family and how that translated into how perhaps their emotional makeup evolved over time.

Gail: If I can just start off by saying, one of the main reasons for writing this book was because I find it very tiresome and very annoying when women like Plath and Sexton are written off as these crazy poets. It’s this very, very lazy stereotype about women writers. They’re just written off as these mad poets. Oh, they were always going to kill themselves. It almost becomes a joke. I just wanted to explore and try to perhaps argue that there’s a bit more going on here. First of all, let’s blast that useless and quite annoying stereotype out of the water because it’s not helpful. It’s sexist. It’s misogynistic. We don’t need it in our lives. Think about what was actually going on in their lives. Try to look for a multidimensional explanation. Yes, of course, there might well have been psychological reasons, maybe for all I know, even physiological reasons why some people are more prone to depression than others. Also, there are environmental reasons too.

I think when you look at their upbringings, you can certainly see elements that took place there that would have created trauma in both of their lives; for Plath, the loss of her father; for Ann Sexton, potentially being sexually abused by her father. Although, this is not confirmed. We have to be quite careful about that. The way that Sexton wrote about it and spoke it in therapy, there’s certainly a big question mark over that. Sexton’s an emotionally distant mother as well. She was constantly wanting her mother’s love and never quite getting it and getting disapproval instead. In contrast, we have Plath who had, in her own words, quite a suffocating mother who didn’t let her breathe. She shared a bedroom with her until she was in her late teens, early twenties. They had these perhaps unusual elements in their formative years that I think would certainly have influenced their future behavior, perhaps their future mindset, and how they were able negotiate their own way through the world as well.

Zibby: I love how you joke, you were like, maybe they joked at one of these martini afternoons about the fact that they each got the wrong mother for the kind that they needed for their personalities. Perhaps they should’ve swapped. It would’ve worked out a lot .

Gail: I guess speculating like that isn’t the best thing to do, but it’s so tempting to do. They had such great senses of humor. I’m sure if they mourned about their moms, they were like, oh, you should have mine and I’ll have yours. You could just picture that conversation, especially after the third martini.

Zibby: The thing that I really loved in this book, well, many things, but that you clearly have had in your hands, these artifacts of the women, the address books and even the image of Ann Sexton’s lock of baby hair on a pink tissue carefully wrapped and Sylvia Plath’s longer ponytail or something. It almost gave me the chills thinking that you must be, you today, looking at these items. Tell me what that feels like. Obviously, you wrote about it really powerfully, but what did it feel like for you having to remember that these are not just fictious people, these are actually real living people, multidimensional, with belongings? Just tell me a little bit about that.

Gail: I never have in an archive and handle these possessions. To handle manuscripts and personal artifacts and, as you say, her typewriters, pressing the keys that Ann Sexton pressed, it’s a very evocative experience. In sociology language, we would use the word spectral and ghostly. It’s a very ghostly experience. I feel a sense of them being there in some way because, what are we? We are made up of things that we own, the things that we are, our hair. It’s like having a part of them there with you. I’ve just written a short piece, actually, that will be coming out in America in a couple months about combining that with audio as well, so not only having their hair and having their handwriting and their address books, but listening to them. It’s like they’re over your shoulder. You can almost feel them breathing on you. It’s an experience that I both love in terms of just — it’s very immersive. Also, I think it really humanizes them as well. We have a tendency to mythologize these women because they were so brilliant and they were so good at what they did. They almost seem superhuman. Then you see a draft of an early poem where there’s really clunky sentences and it really doesn’t work and you think, oh, they were actually human after all. Really bad. They were brilliant and it ended up brilliant, but they didn’t always get it right. I love that human aspect of them as well. You can have a Plath manuscript, and it’s got a coffee ring encrusted. So many of Ann Sexton’s papers have cigarette burns in them where she’s obviously been smoking and the ash has dropped onto her papers. It’s very, very evocative. Ann Sexton’s address book still smells of ink to me, which is also very odd as well. It’s like traveling back in time.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh, I love that. What is it about their time together that you feel is worth noting, the intersection of actually when they got together? Obviously, their disparate careers and lives and the intersection of those are fascinating. What is it that drew you to these afternoons, for example? Why structure the book in that lens, if you will? Was it a device created in how you decided to write the book? Maybe I should ask how you decided to structure the book in general.

Gail: The first thing that I wanted to think about with the book was that although it was being called a dual biography, I wanted to look at them through a particular lens, which was their rebellion. The thing that I found particularly fascinating about them and also something quite maddeningly elusive about them is that their lives collided for this really short period of time. They didn’t see that much of each other. They maybe would’ve had six, seven, eight martini afternoons together. It wasn’t many. They didn’t really spend that much time in each other’s company because shortly after meeting, Plath went back to England at the end of 1959. They stayed in touch by writing to each other, but again, not hugely frequent letters. Also quite maddeningly, Ann Sexton’s side of that correspondence is missing, so we only have Plath’s letters to Sexton. What I found fascinating was that this moment in time, this collision that happened between their two lives, then kind of sparked off this whole influence on each other. Initially when they met, if you read Plath’s journals, she’s so jealous of Sexton. She’s furious, her waking up at three in the morning absolutely raging because Sexton’s got published in places and she hasn’t. Sexton’s got a book contract, and Plath hasn’t. There’s this raging jealousy.

Then in the poetry workshop, Robert Lowell makes them work together. Then obviously, something happens there. They become friends, and so they start going out for these martini afternoons which I imagine were an absolute riot. I imagine they were great fun, accompanied by George Starbuck who was another poet in the workshop. I really wanted to use those very few, very short meetings to meander off through the book. The book isn’t necessarily — it’s kind of chronological, but it isn’t. I didn’t want, Plath was born in 1932. I wanted it to be a little bit interesting in terms of exploring some of those themes. I tried to structure it in a way that would perhaps make sense to people who didn’t know too much about their lives but would also allow me room to use this particular lens of rebellion to explore their lives in terms of all the ways in which they were rebellious, all the ways in which they weren’t. When they weren’t, why might that be? There were certain things that they were still hanging onto. That was the kind of theory behind the structure of the book. I just thought that the idea of drinking martinis in an afternoon in the Ritz, it’s so glamorous, as well, isn’t it?

Zibby: Totally. I hope you’re planning on eventually having some sort of Ritz-centered party where everybody drinks martinis.

Gail: As soon as possible.

Zibby: Please invite me. I will come across the planet.

Gail: Definitely. You’re definitely invited. We’ll have more than three martinis, though.

Zibby: Okay, great. If they were our age today, these ladies, first of all, do you think they would be on medication? What do you think their lives would be like? What do you think they would’ve contributed? What do you think?

Gail: I would’ve hoped in terms of their mental health they would’ve received much better, more effective, less barbaric treatment. They were both subjected to really quite traumatic experiences. It’s the chapter on , mental illness , particularly Plath with her botched ECT that she received. Linda Gray Sexton has written about her mom that she does believe that if her mom had been alive today, she would’ve been properly medicated and would’ve hopefully have had a much more comfortable, happier life. You would hope that. It’s really interesting to think what they might have made of things like Twitter. Certainly, they both probably would’ve been great at Twitter because they were so good at witty one-liners. Whether they would’ve blogged or not, I don’t know. Certainly towards the end of Plath’s life, it looked as if she was going to increasingly be doing, for example, becoming a critic. She’d got a job on the BBC on a program called The Critics where she would be reviewing books and theater and I guess music and things like that. It would’ve been interesting that she might have become a bit of a social commentator herself. I guess if she had access to the social media, that would’ve been useful for her. Sexton, it’d be interesting because Sexton was a writer who worked so hard on her drafts. She worked and worked and worked and reworked sometimes twenty, thirty times. I imagine if she was trying to blog doing that, she’d be completely exhausted. I think they’d see a lot of similarities. Some things haven’t moved on at all, have they?

Zibby: Very true. Now of course, you as a woman have added your own book into this infinite universe of literature written by women about things. You have your own commentary on everything as it’s seen through this lens. Where do you go from here? What is next for you? What would you like to see happen with your own career? What’s coming up? Are you going to keep delving deep into these women? Do you have another book coming? Will this be a movie? That was a lot of questions.

Gail: I do have another book coming. Hopefully, the publisher will be talking about that quite soon. I’m just at the contract stage. I can say it’s not about Plath or Sexton. I’m moving away from those two lovely ladies for a little while. Although, they’ll be part of my life. There’ll be another book. Then around this book, I’m writing shorter pieces that will be coming out, so pieces about working with their audio and also a piece about choosing photographs for the book because I think photographs are so important. I love writing about photography. I spent quite a lot of time deciding which photographs should go into the book, so writing a piece about that. There’s lots of little things that will be going on around the book that are not in the book but will be also about the process of putting the book together as well. Then it will be straight into the next book, which of course is going to be really difficult because we’re still kind of in lockdown in the UK, so no international travel’s allowed. I could do with being in some archives as well. It’s interesting trying to negotiate research when you can’t leave your house.

Zibby: That sounds great. I can’t wait to hear what your next project is. By the way, the book trailer that you have for this book with the pictures, I don’t know if you picked those pictures for the trailer, but those were awesome. I just loved it. It was great.

Gail: Thank you. They’re the pictures that are in the book.

Zibby: Love it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Gail: I think this comes across in Three-Martini as well, I think it takes a lot of persistence. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of managing your own emotions because writing is such a personal thing. Sometimes things can feel quite devastatingly personal when they’re not. Getting rejections and things like that are really difficult to manage. Somehow, I don’t know how, somehow you have to hang onto self-belief even in the face of really terrible times. You have to believe that you can carry on doing it. I’d previously published three books. The big difference for me with this book is that I was really, really lucky to get an agent, and a really good agent. We get each other. We’re completely on the same page. We have the same interests. Although that may not be that relevant, it makes working together really enjoyable. I think having an agent is a good idea for an aspiring writer, if you can get one, just because you have that extra support. You feel much less alone as well when you have an agent. The other thing I do is try to connect with other writers too, particularly if you get a bad review or if you get a rejection because everybody’s been there. It’s just quite nice to be able to share that and then also be able to share the really good news and the exciting news because it’s very solitary. I think that’s the biggest challenge for me as a writer, is just how isolated you can be because it’s something that you mainly do by yourself. I also live by myself as well, so I’m quite keen to network and get to know other writers. As Plath and Sexton write about so eloquently, it’s about persistence.

Zibby: Gail, thank you so much. I’m so impressed by just how great a researcher and author and how you bring these women so to life. What a joy it is to read about them and learn more and really view them now as whole — I just feel like I know them much better. I’ve already been very interested in Sylvia Plath over the years and felt like I knew enough, which I obviously did not. My hat’s off to you.

Gail: That’s so nice. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Hopefully, I can connect you to lots of other authors. I’m always talking to authors and would love to put you in touch with whoever.

Gail: That would be nice. Thanks.

Zibby: Perhaps at the Ritz.

Gail: Even better.

Zibby: Thanks so much for all your time.


Three-Martini Afternoons At The Ritz by Gail Crowther

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