19 June 2009

June 19, 1953

On June 19, 1953, Sylvia Plath was in New York City working as Guest Managing Editor for Mademoiselle magazine. This was a crucial experience for her, one in which she relived - to a certain degree - in The Bell Jar. The Bell Jar, in the absence of substantial journal entries, provides us with some insight into Plath's experiences and conversations during this month (see also a couple of letters in Letters Home).

The novel memorably begins, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs..." Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were killed, by electric chair, on June 19, 1953, 56 years ago today. It was major news making event, as Esther Greenwood relates in the novels second sentence, "The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers -- goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner..."

The day of the execution, Plath typed a journal fragment (likely while working). Strangely, her Mademoiselle schedule was completely open that day: no meetings, tours, events, etc. The journal begins, "All right, so the headlines blare the two of them are going to killed at eleven o'clock tonight." (541) She discusses reading journalist reports about the electrocutions and what happens, so much so that she is "sick at the stomach." (541)

The day after the execution, June 20, Plath would have seen these images below staring at her from the front page of the New York Times.

The headline read:


Also on June 20, Plath saw the Detroit Tigers play the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, where she was photographed with Mel Allen, and attended a dance at a tennis club, probably the West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, Queens.

By the way, on Thursday, June 11, Sylvia Plath met disc jockey Art Ford (aka Lenny "This is your twelve o'clock disc jock...with a roundup of the tops in pops" Shepherd).

Image courtesy of Life.

The Sylvia Plath materials held at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, contain Plath's letters, schedules, and other important documents from this experience. They also hold letters written to her that month from people like Richard Norton, as well as calendars that detail what she did.


panther said...

Reading of these events makes me feel anew how disturbing they must have been to a young sensitive mind already under great strain.

And how unfortunate that SP's first psychiatrist should, even before her suicide attempt, have treated her with electricity. I daresay there was no connection is HIS mind between the Rosenbergs and his patient but I don't suppose SP felt that ! Apparently his treatment of her fell short even of the guidelines in place at the time. She should have been anaesthetized, and was not. She should have received counselling before the actual shocks, and was not.

I wonder how many other people were damaged in this way. When I hear horror stories about mental health practice nowadays-and there ARE horror stories-I remind myself that we have nevertheless made a lot of progress.

angelictenderbutton said...

a fantastic recap of SP's 1953 June activities!

Have you read Revolutionary Road yet?

On top of enjoying RR, I am spending the summer watching Marilyn Monroe films.

I am forever immersed in 1950s culture!

Hope your have a fab weekend :)

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comments; this little post is just the tip of the iceberg! One really must go to Indiana to get the full spectrum of that insanely busy, emotional month.

Thanks to Amanda for pointing me in the direction of YouTube, which has a 94 seconds clip of someone describing Ethel Rosenberg's execution by electrocution: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54Ua7BVG--M While the video itself isn't graphic, watching it almost made me sick, too!

Jenny Lerew said...

Peter, what are the stipulations for access to the archives? As a longtime reader of Plath's work and of all the writing about her, I'd be fascinated to see the source material-it's the mundane details that really do give a full impression(or "fuller) of life.

Are they open to the public, available upon request(with advance notice I'd imagine)?

Peter K Steinberg said...


Hey there. Lilly (and Smith, and Emory I think) are all open to the public. It's always best plan ahead, call ahead, etc. If you have any other questions, please email me... peterksteinberg at hotmail dot com.


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