It was Sylvia Plath's night all the way: her party, ballyhooing the film made from her unmistakably autobiographical novel.
Plath, of course, was unable to attend, having put her head in a gas oven in a cold London flat one February morning in 1963 -- at age 30 --less than a month after "The Bell Jar" was published.
So the promoters of the film about the disintegration into madness of a beautiful, incredibly talented college girl did the next best thing. They invited as guests of honor the 19 women who had shared the experiences on which Plath based the first half of her book: the other winners of Mademoiselle magazine's college guest editor contest of 1953.
What better place for the party than New York's Barbizon Hotel for Women, where Mademoiselle guest editors always stay for the month of June, the residence Plath rechristened "the Amazon," and from whose roof she both actually and fictionally pitched her entire wardrobe, dress by slip by gown, on the last night of her residency there as a guest editor.
Six who live near enough to the city to drive or fly in accepted, both out of curiosity about the film and because, along with Avco Embassy Pictures, Mademoiselle was hostessing the celebration. It would be fun to renew acquaintances with the other guest editors and the magazine's editors while meeting the movie's stars.
Respectability rather than decor is still the big thing at the Barbizon. For generations nice parents have sent their nice daughters there, where, as Plath put it, "men couldn't get at them and deceive them." But on this occasion the old haven was nowhere near as drab as the guest editors remembered.
The lobby had apparently had a recent facelifting, and now the combination of outsize Bell Jar graphics standing and hanging and the sound of live music from the mezzanine lent an unaccustomed glamor to the normally chaste surroundings.
At a table to one side junior editors smiled welcome at two of the returnees.
"Oh, you're the '53 editors!" said an earnest young woman who probably was required to read "The Bell Jar" at college, her tone clearly implying awe at those who had actually known the great one. Feeling like survivors of the Titanic, they accepted the proffered folders thick with press releases -- along with a paperback of the book -- and thus armed climbed the wide oak stairway past walls papered with blown-up Mademoiselle covers and huge photographs of Plath and themselves from the August 1953 college issue, long a collector's item.
The dark-panelled reception room sparkled with light and the scent of roses, dozens of long-stemmed rich red roses set about in crystal vases, the roses that, through Plath's picture in Mademoiselle, and the detail from that picture used as the cover design for "The Bell Jar," have become symbolic to devotees of the Plath legend. Juggling purses, PR literature and drinks in glasses the size of small punch bowls, the guest editors gathered first around Edith Raymond Locke, editor-in-chief of the magazine.
"Do you remember that long hot shooting session in Central Park where it took hours to get that star formation right?" she asked. "Well, I was the fashion editor, the one who kep running between the photographer on a bridge over that brick terrace and the 20 of you below, adjusting a cap here, an arm a quarter of an inch there. The photographer was a perfectionist and terribly demanding."
They remembered, especially squinting into the sun and sweltering for hours in long-sleeved blue shirts and wool plaid kilts.
"I've still got the skirt," said Anne Shawber Stolley, wife of People editor Richard Stolley.
"And my blue shirt now has paint the color of every room in my house on it," said another.
As though with an unspoken pact, the guest editors and the editor skirted for the moment comments on the movie which all had seen at a preview two nights earlier. But the tension was unmistakable. The magazine experience had indeed been dramatized, in Plath's own words, "as through the stale dead air and distorted lends of the bell jar" -- coming off as only a parody of an experience that had meant a great deal to those involved, and leaving a very bad taste...
Next to a table laden with hot miniature pastries and a mountain of impressively out-of-season fruit chunks, actor Robert Klein entertained with stories of how he put on 20 pounds and (with wiggle and leer) got into the part of "Lenny," the seducing disc jockey. A lecherous loudmouth in the film with the beginning of a paunch, here he was trim and tweedy as a junior law partner as he proudly introduced his wife, Brenda Boozer, a tall brunette mezzo with the Metropolitan.
"I met the original 'Lenny,'" said guest editor Laurie Levy, a Chicago columnist.
His eyes lit. 'I'd heard there really was a guy like that!"
"There was a real one of everybody in that book," murmured another guest editor.
"He was well known at that time," said Levy, "and the girl after whom Sylvia patterned her 'Doreen' character did continue to date him after the original pickup described in the book. I had theatrical ambitions and she arranged an audition. I arrived at his apartment to find him wrapped in a towel, period. He told me to start singing, and preceeded to ignore me as he went off to shave."
She shrugged. "After a bit I walked out. My performing ambitions died soon after. But you were good, very good in the part," she assured Klein.
Being a Mademoiselle guet editor has been a beginning for a lot of people: writers Joan Didion, Sue Daufman, Gael Greene among scores of others; designers Jeanne Campbell and Betsy Johnson; TV anchorwoman Lynn Sherr, artists galore' It's a tough nationwide contest, to begin with, "a very serious contest," says Edith Locke. Since 1937 nearly 700 women 'See PLATH, N7, Col. 1 > 'PLATH, From N6 > (and recently a few equal opportunity males) have, through a variety of literary and artistic projects, won the travel-expense-plus-salary month of apprenticeship.
The deportment has changed, however. Where last year's guest editors had a group portrait taken wearing shirts and sneakers in the middle of Madison Avenue at dawn, the 1953 pre-feminist-awakening winners were basically as buttoned-down as their ladylike picture indicated.
"We were solemnly informed before we came it was to be a hat, hose, heels and white gloves performance," one recalled, "and it was." As well as being apprenticed to an editor, they were very much on display as they made the rounds of advertising agencies, wholesale fashion houses, presentations and theaters.
"And the privacy of those cell-like white rooms at the Barbizon..."
"... with the pink and green curtains and matching spreads..."
"Luxury -- after dormitories and sorority houses!"
The guest editors had been quick to spot where their assigned editors sat on the totem pole. "At that particular time," said Edith Locke, "fashion and beauty were one thing, the literary and cultural part of the magazine quite another." This was reflected in assignments given the guest editors in the literary departments; these were important, urgent, and those girls could not participate in the "optional" activities on the mimeographed schedule until their copy was accepted.
As guest managing editor, Sylvia Plath was under this deadline pressure, writing the introduction to the issue and interviewing five poets by mail, and she was working under the thumb of an editor who demanded a great deal from her. It made for wonderful dialogue later in "The Bell Jar" -- at the personal expense of the editor (now deceased), who as "Jay Cee" was caricatured ruthlessly and, as played by Barbara Barrie, gets it again even more so in the film.
On the other hand, "I was assigned a piece on how to stage a fund-raising fashion show on campus," said the guest merchandise editor. "After that my co-guest editor and I were expected to clip the last dozen issues and paste coats in the coat scrapbook, dresses in the dress scrapbook, shoes in the shoe scrapbook. Busy work no staff person wanted to do, and which we found difficult to take seriously."
They also recalled the fun. A formal dinner dance on the Starlight Roof "in the company of several anonymous young men with all-American bone structures hired or loaned for the occasion," as the fictional Esther described it. A visit to the brand new United Nations building. Jacques d'Amboise in a Balanchine ballet. Interviews with the celebrities of their choice, and they chose Richard Rogers, Hubert de Givenchy, Imogene Coca and William Inge.
And although the serious Sylvia was agonizing over the execution of the Rosenbergs and McCarthyism, others were delighted to dream over trouseau lingerie at Vanity Fair's showroom. In the magazine's "Jobiographies" feature, the group's stated ambition was "to combine marriage (at least three children) with a career." As it happens all 20 did marry (some twice), the group has 56 children, and today 14 are what they then called career women. Several are writers who collectively have produced hundreds of articles and at least eight books including Diane Johnson's five novels.
Much of the talk at this reunion was about how the juggling of families and careers had not been easy. But perhaps only Plath knew at such a young age that she would be "flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days," a strain that, while it has cost the others much, cost her everything.
This and other ongoing conflicts apparently had much to do with the total breakdown Plath suffered the month immediately following the Mademoiselle job, her nearly successful attempt at suicide that made nationwide news, her institutionalization and psychiatric treatment.
The consensus at the p arty was that the story of Esther's six months of madness made the transition from book to screen more effectively than did the Mademoiselle experience. And if certain guest editors had found themselves unflatteringly fictionalized as "Pollyanna Cowgirl" from the Midwest, "Slavic Hilda" who make herself a new hat every day, and sexy southern belle "Doreen with her halo of white hair," they came off less harshly in the movie. So did Plath's boyfriend and her generous benefactor Olive Higgins Prouty, creator of Stella Dallas.
But the mother, played by Julie Harris, was still very much a villain.
"I think the mistake we're all making is that we keep confusing the fictional girl called Esther Greenwood with Sylvia Plath," said Edith Locke.
"We're all guessing into realities behind some things that are uncheckable."
As for the film's version of the guest editors' experience, "never in all my years in publishing have I seen an accurate version on film of what it's like to work on a magazine," said Locke.
"You know what this was like?" said one guest editor to another, as the caterers began cleaning up. "Those reunions where servicemen return to the scene of the battle to drink and reminisce and practice one-upmanship on what they've done in the meantime..."
"... and are surprised when other people don't remember things exactly the way they do."
A waiter passed by carraying out a huge vase of roses.
The women each plucked one to take home. CAPTION: Picture 1, Sylvia Plath, from the 1953 Mademoiselle. Courtesy of Mademoiselle magazine; Picture 2, The night of the party, from left: Ann Burnside Love, Neva Sachar, Mary Beth Weston, actress Marilyn Hassett, Anne Stolly, Laurie Levy and Edith Raymond Locke. By Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post.; Picture 3, Edith Raymond Locke, by Anne Burnside Love