When I discovered Elizabeth Winder’s first book, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, I felt as if I had discovered a soul mate. Here is a woman who not only cares to know her literary heroine’s preferred shade of lipstick and favorite shoe, but writes a book on the subject! Of course, the dialogue in Pain, Parties, Work is more than skin deep. The summer of 1953, during which Sylvia interned for the glamourous Mademoiselle Magazine, preluded her mental breakdown and laid the groundwork for The Bell Jar.
Dear readers, Pain, Parties, Work will remain front and center on my bookshelf for the rest of my life. Elizabeth’s beautiful way with words and meticulous attention to detail renders this biography an absolute delight; I’m set to read it once more before summer ends. Despite her busy schedule, Elizabeth kindly agreed to a short interview with me where we discussed red lipstick and what Sylvia might wear today, among other things. I hope you enjoy!
What was the most interesting and/or surprising thing you learned about Sylvia in your research?
I was surprised that Sylvia was so impulsive, even a bit of a risk-taker! Like hopping into cabs with strange men—and in college she hitchhiked quite a bit—of course hitchhiking was pretty normal back then. Basically all of my research confirmed what electrical energy she had—staying up all night dancing in the Village or stalking Dylan Thomas, then staggering to work and doing it all over again.
Is it safe to assume that you have a strong interest in fashion and beauty?
Yes! And over the past few years I’ve been especially interested in beauty—the history of it, the artistry behind it—everything! I have a gorgeous book on the history of makeup in the 20th century [Face of the Century] by Kate de Castelbajac. It might be out of print. I also collect books about perfume—my grand passion is perfume!
You speak often of Sylvia’s signature splashes of red. Has this sparked an urge to develop a signature shade of your own? Do you wear red lipstick more often? I have to admit that I purchased Revlon’s "Cherries in the Snow" after reading that Sylvia wore it! Did you try it?
Oh that’s great, I should have tried it! Red lipstick gives me anxiety—I end up feeling like Dracula. I can’t think of anyone who looks worse in red lipstick than me. Mid sixties makeup tends to look better on me—heavy lashes strong liner and paler lips. So I use this clear balm by Maybelline called Baby Lips. Then I go all over it with lipliner—filling in the lips and everything—usually Rimmel's East End Snob.
In your opinion, what would Sylvia wear today if she were 20 and interning? Which brands would she admire? Where would she shop? Who would make her lipstick? Do you think about her when you are out shopping, I.E. “Oh, Sylvia would totally wear this”?
I LOVE this question. Sylvia would wear Lolita Lempicka perfume. I just know she would— it’s hysterically feminine—something sweet and resinous with leaves and licorice underneath. Plus she’d go crazy over the bottle. And since lipstick was her signature look in terms of beauty, I think she’d splurge in that department—definitely YSL Rouge Volupte in Red Muse (she’d also love the name!) I think she’d buy her clothes at Zara, and her shoes at Bloomingdale's. I actually think about Sylvia all the time when I shop—like so many of us, she was a stress shopper! Oh, and for the summer, she would switch to a beachy, suntan-oil sort of perfume, like Estee Lauder’s Bronze Goddess.
What was it like discussing Sylvia with those who knew her? I read that you corresponded through writing and phone conversations. I’m so curious… Did you snail mail or email?
I started by writing them letters—and I was so excited when I began to get responses! I met a few of them in person, but mostly it was a mix of written letters, email, and long talks on the telephone.
I know you took a bit of a risk with the magazine-like format of the book. What prompted this leap of faith?
You know, it didn’t even seem like a choice. The pastiche/magazine format was obviously the best way to present the information! I didn’t want to force all of those lovely little facts into a straight narrative when they so obviously wanted to shine on their own!
If Sylvia were alive today, where would she be interning this summer?
I’d like to think she’d be at French Vogue!
I read that you’re interested in fashion history. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to learn more about this subject?
I never took a class on fashion history—I’m completely self taught on that subject. And luckily there are so many fabulous books out there! All of Valerie Steele’s books. Taschen’s fabulous fat volume called Fashion. Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible is a visual gem and so much fun to read—he takes each garment and talks about the history of it. Assouline has stunning visual fashion books. Oh, and Caroline Weber’s wonderful book on Marie Antoinette, The Queen of Fashion. I’d also recommend watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette on repeat for days. I think it’s fun to watch movies and pretend that you’re the costume director. I always think things like “Why does Woody Allen put his women in button down shirts?” Women’s costume in Woody Allen films is endlessly fascinating. Someone should teach a class on it.
The language you use in the book is gorgeous. Do you have a favorite word or words?
Thank you! My favorite words might be fawn, glossy, milk, stalk, Bakelite, beast, and fable.
What are your favorite books? Which writers, in your opinion, have influenced you the most?
My favorite book of all time is Anna Karenina. I read it every September, as a birthday present for myself! Unfortunately, I think that one has influenced the way I live, not the way I write. In terms of influences: Gertrude Stein, Anne Carson, Susan Howe, and of course, Sylvia Plath.
Finally… could you recommend a few summer reads to my readers?
Yes! Cory MacLauchlin’s Butterfly in the Typewriter. The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich. And (though this one isn’t new) Dangerous Muse by Nancy Schoenberger. It’s about Lady Caroline Blackwood—and my favorite biography of all time!