STARRED REVIEW
May 2021

Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz

Gail Crowther

In an engrossing new study, Crowther reveals the parallels between Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—two disparate, talented and troubled poetic geniuses.
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Though their poetry, personalities and lives were vastly different, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are inextricably bound in the public imagination. Just a few years apart in age and hailing from the same Massachusetts town, these two poets pushed boundaries in their highly confessional work. Additionally, the fact that both women died by suicide fuels their legacies.

Plath and Sexton did know each other, though not well. In 1959, shortly before Plath moved to England, the two women attended a Boston writing workshop led by Robert Lowell. After class, they would convene at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton to talk poetry and, one presumes, share some intimate details from their lives. These undocumented, informal gabfests provide the thin thread with which Plath scholar Gail Crowther connects the pair in Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, her thoroughly engrossing examination of these two disparate, talented and troubled poetic geniuses.

The casual acquaintance of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton takes on a greater significance in an engrossing new study.

Crowther synthesizes Plath’s and Sexton’s individual stories into a seamless narrative. Many details will be familiar to die-hard acolytes of either or both poets—the bouts of mental illness and failure of psychiatric treatments, the turbulent marriages and sexual indiscretions, the unyielding resistance they encountered when they dared to play by their own rules—but Crowther’s clever integration of these two lives reveals the strong connections between them in new and surprising ways. For example, she rightly identifies both women as rebels who fearlessly pushed against social constraints before second-wave feminism made it more acceptable for women to bare the truth about their inner conflicts, contradictions and sexuality.

Crowther also searches for the differences between how Plath and Sexton conducted their lives—as daughters, wives, mothers and poets. Although the contrast between the orderly Plath and the wild-spirited Sexton could at times be dramatic (a difference that plays out in their poetic voices as well), there is a shared poignancy in the personal struggles these women experienced.

Since there was no fly on the wall during those martini-soaked afternoons at the Ritz, we, like Crowther, can only surmise what was said. And with little evidence to draw on beyond a few passing comments in diaries and letters, and one poem Sexton wrote after Plath’s death, Crowther perhaps speculates a bit too much about what each of these women may or may not have thought of the other. Despite this leap, she makes a convincing case that the ripple effects of Plath’s and Sexton’s not-so-quiet rebellions are still being felt. “Plath and Sexton are still with us,” she writes near the end of this passionate and affecting study, “agitating with their voices, exposing all those wrongs that still exist, and all those universal themes that will never go away: love, death, sex, pain, joy.”

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