01 January 2019

Sylvia Plath's Mary Ventura

With the imminent publication of Sylvia Plath's short story "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom", her readers may wonder about the name "Mary Ventura". Any reader of her diaries, journals, and letters will recognize it as that of a girl with whom Plath attended Wellesley public schools. Here is the real Mary Ventura's story.

Mary Ventura was born Maria Domenica Ventura in Natick, Massachusetts, on 21 February 1932, daughter of Italian immigrants Joseph (1901-1977) and Adelia Di Giacomantonio (1910-1994) Ventura. According to information recorded in the 1930 Census, Joseph and Adelia married around 1925; he was 24 and she was 15. Joseph's occupation was listed as Gardener and in the Industry of "Odd jobs". Delia was not employed and the couple resided at 4 Waban Street, Natick.

Sometime between 1932 and the mid 1940s, the Ventura family moved to Wellesley, the next town over. It was at Junior High School where Plath and Mary Ventura met each other. The Venturas lived at 357 Linden Street, which backs onto the main train line between Boston, Worcester, and beyond.

Mary had literary aspirations. She was published a few times in the Wellesley town newspaper, The Townsman, authoring three reports: "Junior High Briefs" on 16 January 1947 (p.11) and two "High School Highlights" on 29 September 1949 (p. 4) and 10 November 1949 (p. 7). In May 1948 Plath and Ventura co-wrote a radio play called "The Island"; a typescript copy with holograph corrections is held by the Lilly Library. At some point in 1950, Mary wrote a beautiful 34 line poem entitled "sylvia". Composed of one four-line stanza and six five-lined stanzas, the poem shows Mary meditating on Plath, with most first lines in each stanza beginning "i think of her…". Mary's last published article that I could find was a letter to the editor which appeared on 27 January 1972 in the Townsman.

In the autumn of 1949, in her senior year at Bradford (later Wellesley) High School, Mary Ventura and her family moved back to Natick. The Townsman reported on 24 November 1949 that her English class held a "Mary Ventura Day" in which the class, at Mary's request, listened to Bach recordings. Plath noted Mary's absence in her High School scrapbook (p. 25). And she appears several times in Plath's early diaries, as well as in her published Journals. Mary graduated from Natick High School in 1950. Though she was in the class of 1950, circumstances in her life lead to a delay in matriculating into college, graduating from Boston University in 1958.

Mary Ventura married her Natick High School sweetheart John P Detore, Jr. (1933-2008) in December 1952 at St. Paul's Church, Wellesley. By this time the Venturas had moved back to Wellesley and were living at 440 Washington Street, which faces the railroad tracks, in Wellesley Hills. At the time of her wedding, Mary was taking evening courses at Boston University and Detore was at Northeastern. After a honeymoon in Vermont, the Detores settled in Natick.

However, by 1954 and 1955 Mary Ventura appeared as Mary V Detore in the Boston City Directory as a typist in Boston at the YMCA. Yet in both directories, her home is listed as the old 440 Washington Street in Wellesley which we can deduce indicates that her marriage was short-lived.

By March 1955, Mary was taking courses at the Newton Junior College, having worked for the previous few years. By October 1957, she was again just Mary Ventura. She was elected to the executive board of the Student Christian Association at Boston University. She was at this time a senior at BU in the college of Liberal Arts majoring in American Literature and History. Mary was awarded a Bachelor of Arts from Boston University at their summer commencement in 1958. In 1961, there is an immigration card for a "Maria D. Ventura", with "our" Mary's exact birthday and birthplace, recording that she arrived in NYC on the SS Independence from Naples, Italy, and which lists her home as Malden, Mass.

Between 1958 and her death in 1973, little is known about Mary Ventura. At the time of her death, Ventura was listed as a social worker in Natick who had lived in Wellesley for 36 years. She died at her home, 29 Kingsbury Street, Wellesley, at the age of 41, where she was living with her parents. In her Townsman obituary, it is listed that she died "after a long illness." Her death certificate lists the cause of death as Hodgkin's Disease. Mary was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery with a lovely headstone engraved with "Till we meet again". She was joined by her parents five and twenty-two years later, respectively. I visited the cemetery in Wellesley on a below-freezing morning in November 2018 to find the final resting place of Mary Ventura and her parents.

Sylvia Plath used Mary Ventura as a character and name in two stories written for courses at Smith College in her second and third years. Her "Mary Ventura", written for English 220a "Practice in Various Forms of Writing", is probably an exercise in the genre of nonfiction as other pieces written just before seem also to fall into this category. While a very crude summary… in "Mary Ventura", Mary and the narrator meet for lunch after a chance encounter. Mary works at Filene's, and the narrator has been away at college. They discuss their once close but now divergent lives after the passing of a year. In the story Mary admits to having an affair with a married man, and likes to watch trains go by her house with the narrator, hoping one day to be on one and ride it "to the end of the earth." A typescript, dated 14 December 1951, is held by the Lilly Library.

The following year, Plath wrote a story called "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" for English 347a "Style and Form". That typescript, also held by the Lilly, is dated 12 December 1952. In January 1953, Plath revised the story and asked her mother to retype it and submit it immediately to Mademoiselle (see Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, p. 553). Mademoiselle rejected the story in March 1953 and it is this copy of "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom"—the only known existing copy of the story in this form—that Faber and Faber is printing in their Faber 90 series (press release), commemorating the 90th anniversary of the firm. Plath later revised the story in December 1954, changing the title to "Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" and considered submitting it to the Christophers contest, ultimately selecting a different story for the competition.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom will be published in the UK by Faber on 3 January 2019 and by HarperCollins in the USA on 15 January 2019. Excerpts appeared in the 29 December 2018 issues of The Guardian (UK) and Wall Street Journal (US).

All links accessed 16 November 2018 and 1 January 2019.

1 comment :

Amy Rea said...

Is the poem she wrote online somewhere?

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.