Diane Wood Middlebrook; Poet, Biographer and Feminist Scholar

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

Diane Wood Middlebrook, 68, a poet, intellectual and feminist scholar whose biographies of poet Anne Sexton, novelist Sylvia Plath and jazz musician Billy Tipton drew attention for their revelations of gender-related creativity, died of cancer Dec. 15 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

A Stanford University literature professor for 35 years, Ms. Middlebrook drew crowds for her poetry classes, which she began with a seemingly unpremeditated riff on watching the fog seep over the Golden Gate Bridge from her home on San Francisco's Russian Hill.

A published poet herself, her transition from verse to biography began with a letter from an editor who wanted to know whether she would be interested in meeting the daughter of Anne Sexton. Ms. Middlebrook, then the director of Stanford's Center for Research on Women, agreed.

The meeting led to years of research and a windfall: Sexton's psychiatrist gave her all 312 tapes of the poet's psychotherapy sessions. The result was the best-selling "Anne Sexton: A Biography" (1991), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Its revelations of incest, as well as its use of therapy records, ensured controversy, although reviewers called it sympathetic, just, insightful and complex in its sympathies and judgment.

For research on her next book, "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton" (1998), about a female jazz musician who lived as a man, she turned to the investigative reporting expertise of mid-career journalists who were at Stanford on professional fellowships. She found that Tipton fooled Duke Ellington and five wives, and "fathered" three children.

"Every year, there were one or two fellows who were blown away by Diane," said Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight journalism fellowship program. She had "an actor's sense of her body" and was "a dramatic presence, bright, vivacious and alluring," Bettinger said.

Her 2003 "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- a Marriage," examined the literary and romantic relationship of the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. A fourth biography, of a Roman poet who has been dead for 2,000 years, "Young Ovid," is due to be published next year.

"No estate, nobody to interview, and actually, no history. Just me and him!" Ms. Middlebrook told the online magazine Salon in 2003.

She was born in Pocatello, Idaho, and raised in Spokane, Wash., where, before age 10, she had a poem published on a newspaper's comics page and her grandmother gave her a library card, which set the direction of her life. She graduated from the University of Washington, then received a master's degree in 1962 and a doctorate in 1968 from Yale University. One of the first women hired in Stanford's literature program, she retired in 2002 to concentrate on writing.

She organized salons for female writers and artists in San Francisco and an online book group for Stanford alumni.

"Women have a different kind of conversation," she told the San Francisco Chronicle this year. "Everybody who participates is there on an equal basis."

During her career, she received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the Stanford Humanities Center, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy.

With her third husband, chemist and writer Carl Djerassi, she helped create the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, Calif.

Her marriages to Michael D. Shough and Jonathan Middlebrook ended in divorce.

In addition to Djerassi, survivors include a daughter, Leah Middlebrook, from her first marriage; a stepson, Dale Djerassi of Woodside, Calif.; two sisters; and a grandson.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company