Cathy Curtis, A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick (NY: Norton).
More than Nora Joyce or Vera Nabokov, even more than Proust ’ s mother, Robert Lowell’s wife Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007, pictured above) deserves a book of her own. Cathy Curtis overrates what she calls Hardwick ’ s splendid intelligence, formidable character, sharp wit and brilliant work to justify her subject. But assertions are not evidence, and she does not substantiate these exalted claims.
Hardwick ’ s closest friends were all educated at prestigious colleges. Elizabeth Bishop and Mary McCarthy went to Vassar, Adrienne Rich and Barbara Epstein to Radcliffe, Susan Sontag to Chicago. Hardwick, daughter of a plumber, went disadvantageously to the University of Kentucky in her Bourbon-drinking, horse-racing town of Lexington. Though she could hold her own with all of them, McCarthy, her main rival, was more glamorous, had a greater intellect, perception and style, and ranged more widely with travel and political books.
Since Hardwick ’ s letters have not been published, Curtis uses them as her main source and chronological guide. She often repeats, “ she wrote . . . Cal [Lowell] had written” and “ Cal wrote to Elizabeth Bishop that Harriet and Elizabeth. . .” Hardwick ’ s dutiful, sanitised letters to Lowell ’ s mother and to his wealthy Cousin Harriet are particularly dull. But they paid off after the Lowells gave Harriet ’ s name to their daughter (born when Hardwick was forty) and she left her grand summer house in Castine, Maine to Hardwick.
She adopted a Southern belle persona, became an iron-willed Blanche Dubois, and one observer said that of all the women in their crowd she was “ the prettiest and sexiest and easiest to have a love affair with.” But in this book Hardwick never quite comes alive. Curtis treats her sex life in the most cursory and tantalising fashion, and dismisses each lover in a sentence. While a student in Lexington and at Columbia University, Hardwick had a six-year on-and-off relationship with a medical student. In New York she had “ two affairs that resulted in abortions.” Later on, her husband Robert Lowell was jealous when she invited men from her past to their party.
Hardwick slept with older influential lovers — Allen Tate (editor of the Sewanee Review ) and Philip Rahv (editor of the Partisan Review) — to advance her literary career, though Rahv said he didn ’ t like sex with her and she confirmed his judgment. After Lowell left her, she had a “ gratifying relationship with an extraordinary [unidentified] friend.” Her brief romance with a tax lawyer fizzled out and she dropped a penny-pinching philanthropist. Curtis doesn ’ t even mention Arthur Koestler ’ s liaison with Hardwick, who could not sustain a love affair.
When Hardwick and Lowell married in 1949 they were surprisingly poor, constantly worried about money, and traveled third-class on trains and ships while frantically racing around Europe and teaching all over America. Hardwick was emotionally battered and crushed by her horrible mother-in-law, as well as by the manic and repeatedly unfaithful Lowell. (She was even bullied by Harriet ’ s nursemaid who allowed her to play with her baby for only half an hour each day.) The snobbish, luxury-loving and hysterical Charlotte Lowell had sex with Cal ’ s psychiatrist and discussed her son in bed. Her visits were predictably disastrous and her “ horrid reality” spoiled Hardwick ’ s life in Boston. She could hardly believe that death could overcome the formidable Charlotte, but her serendipitous extinction in 1954 released her long-awaited trust fund and paid for their more lavish way of life.
Lowell described Hardwick as “ slipshod, good humoured, malicious (harmless) and humorous — full of high spirits, rattling a lot of sense, very good company.” They frequently had violent fights, fuelled by too much gin, even when he was sane. When she misbehaved he threatened “ to put her in a crate with a glass of water and a copy of Partisan Review,” and send her back to Kentucky. When he was manic, she compared him to Dostoyevsky ’ s deranged characters and lamented that his “ brutality knows no bounds where his own wishes were concerned.”
Always guilt-ridden and regretful when he recovered, Lowell wondered how she could stand him. He could say, like Othello, “ she loved me for the dangers I had passed / and I loved her that she did pity them.” She could say, like Miranda in The Tempest, “ I have suffered with those I saw suffer.” She even exclaimed, “ I would kill myself if it would cure you.” Hardwick, the tragic heroine of his life, was both admired for her masochistic self-sacrifice and scorned for her slavish subservience to the genius she loved. Lowell left her in 1970, and three years later he publicly humiliated her by cruelly exploiting her anguished letters in The Dolphin. Lowell thought his poems were worth her pain.
If Lowell had lived after his return to Hardwick in 1977, which coincided with his fatal heart attack, she would have suffered even more torturous years with him. Their life would have been complicated by his still passionate bond with Hardwick ’ s successor, the dazzling beauty, aristocrat and heiress Caroline Blackwood, who was fifteen years younger. After his sudden death, Hardwick treasured the prestige and power of remaining Mrs. Robert Lowell and became an influential player in the American literary scene. She served on many committees, bountifully handing out prizes and money while securing quite a few rewards of her own, along with lucrative lectures and honorary degrees.
When Cathy Curtis loses the well known template of Lowell ’ s life seen from Hardwick ’ s point of view, she treats her last unfamiliar thirty years in only sixty pages. Strangely, Curtis does not discuss Hardwick ’ s close friendship with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, who paid as much as $4,000 for an article in 1997. Curtis does not explain Silvers ’ rare lung disease, his sad parting from a lover and why Hardwick went to an unnamed Cleveland museum with him.
Curtis doesn ’ t mention the older Hardwick ’ s desperate attempt to look young with dyed red hair, theatrical makeup and flashy clothes. Instead, she offers brief references to the declining health — the hearing aid, vague tooth and foot problems, cataract, pacemaker, cane and wheelchair — of the woman who lived to 91. She gives a rather plodding run-through of Hardwick ’ s writing, mainly in the Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books, with no extended discussion of her best novel Sleepless Nights (1979).
She merely quotes, but does not analyse, Lowell ’ s major poems about Hardwick. “ Man and Wife”, set in their marriage bed, with neither sex nor sleep, reveals the horrid gulf between their past love and present torments. In “ To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage” the wife complains that her drunken husband is unfaithful and stays out all night with whores, but is impotent when he attempts clumsy sex with her and “ stalls above me like an elephant.”
Curtis also fails to explain or even comment on several of Hardwick ’ s bizarre statements. How is Rio de Janeiro ’ s tropical climate “ much . like Maine”? How was the liberal presidential candidate Senator Hubert Humphrey “ similar to” his political opposite Richard Nixon? Why couldn ’ t “ modern-day Russians pursue space exploration in their cold climate”? How could Hardwick, after thirty years with Lowell, possibly believe that the mad satyr feared women and wanted to repress his sexuality? Nor does Curtis discuss how Hardwick ’ s “ lack of feminist consciousness” and description of the Movement as “ bad writing, bald simplicity and simple-mindedness” seriously hurt her reputation.
Curtis thanks her editors, but they did a terrible job on this deeply flawed book, which does not do justice to Hardwick and contains more than ten serious errors. Asheville is misspelled (p 6), Giroux ’ s first name is Robert (not Roger, p153), Stephen Spender is a poet (not a novelist, p17), Jean Stafford was born in Colorado (p57), Ian Hamilton did not write a life of Arthur Koestler (p369), Lowell ’ s play The Old Glory is not experimental (p176), Hardwick ’ s “ Back Issues” is a story (p267), she edited William James (not Henry, p141), Baldpate Hospital is in Massachusetts (p327), there ’ s no motel on Harvard Square (p135) and Madrid fell to the fascists in March 1939, not 1938, (p9). Even the publication date on the verso of the title page is incorrect.
Curtis can ’ t decide whether to use “coloured”, “Negro”, “Black” or “ African-American ” and wavers between them. She repeats, four times, that Hardwick had no way of knowing what would happen, though she couldn ’ t possibly foresee the future. Curtis contradicts herself by stating that Hardwick ’ s father was amiable and that her parents quarrelled endlessly; that it was too late for Harriet ’ s school interview and (on the next page) that Hardwick took Harriet to an interview.
Curtis misses some important allusions that illuminate Hardwick ’ s meaning. Maximilian was the French Emperor of Mexico, executed by revolutionaries in 1867; “ childish things” comes from 1 Corinthians 13:11; the title of her story “ On the Eve” is from a novel by Ivan Turgenev; “ Domestic Manners” from a travel book by Frances Trollope; her view that biography explains why “ it doesn ’ t pay to die” echoes Oscar Wilde ’ s “ biography adds a new terror to death.” “Sad friend, you cannot change” in “ North Haven,” Elizabeth Bishop ’ s elegy to Lowell, reverses Rilke ’ s “ you must change your life.”
Curtis pads her book with many trivial details — shops in Lexington and small towns in Kentucky, concerts attended and grass cut — but doesn ’ t explain many important things. Why did Hardwick ’ s Presbyterian parents have eleven children? How was Hardwick both malicious and charming? What sharp-tongued remarks did she later regret? How was she “ transported by Spinoza ’ s Ethics”? Why did she “ not care to enjoy sex, only to have it”? (She may have liked attracting men more than the physical act.)
Why did Edna Millay have a “ hopeless, killing bitterness about her place in literature”? How did Hardwick hang a painting from her balcony? Which two Vermeer-like pictures did she buy? Why did the Lowells, living in New York, spend New Year ’ s Eve with Peter Taylor in Columbus — and was he in Georgia or Ohio? Why did she dislike the recordings of Van Cliburn and the plays of Arthur Miller? Why — absurdly — did she say there were no contemporary playwrights “ better than Aeschylus”? Why should Robert Gottlieb, who replaced William Shawn, “ step down” as editor of the New Yorker? What did Hardwick and David Heymann discuss when he interviewed her but “ asked her no questions about Cal ’ s life” ?
I can supply some of her missing information. Swimming isn ’ t good in Castine, Maine because the water is very cold in summer; the Renoir painting of a dancing couple is Dance at Bougival (1883); Philip Rahv ’ s journal was Modern Occasions ; Nabokov ’ s “ odd translation” of Pushkin ’ s Eugene Onegin was awkwardly literal; Mary McCarthy translated Simone Weil ’ s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (1945); McCarthy “ inexplicably changed” the executrix of her will because Hannah Arendt was her closest friend; the Italian radical gunned down in Manhattan in 1943 was Carlo Tresca; the most famous Kentucky authors, left out of Curtis ’s list, are Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I. A. Richards and William Alfred taught at Harvard; Hardwick and Lowell lectured in Greensboro, North Carolina because their friend Randall Jarrell taught there; Jarrell congratulated Lowell on his separation from Hardwick because he thought she was insincere and dishonest; Harriet did marry the chemical engineer she was dating.
The best part of Curtis ’s book — based on interviews with many of Hardwick ’ s talented and successful students: Susan Minot, Anna Quindlen and Daphne Merkin — is her account of Hardwick ’ s popular writing course at Barnard College in Columbia University. Hardwick admired the offbeat stories of Renata Adler, Guy Davenport and Kurt Vonnegut. Her essential principle was “ you have to have something to say and then you do have to have a gift of language. You have to be interesting.” But she could be severe and insisted, “ I don ’ t want to encourage someone when it ’ s not good work.” She never criticised Lowell, but displaced her malice onto friends. She horrified the novelist Mary Gordon, who disagreed with her about a writer, by exclaiming, “ What would you know about it? You ’ ve never written an interesting sentence in your life.”
Mary McCarthy said: “ Lizzie ’ s tongue rattles like a child ’ s toy, sometimes making amusing sounds.” But Hardwick was known for her wit and should have the last word. Her grim winter in Amsterdam gave her “ the kind of anxiety usually felt only for the Last Judgment.” Financiers were “ trim from the rigours of the conference call.” Meeting Bernard Berenson was like “ seeing the matinée of a play that had been running for eight decades.” She did not describe sex in her own work, and zeroed in on the faults of Ana ï s Nin, who was “ mercilessly pretentious,” with a “ penchant for using vague, mystical phrases to create a spurious aura of sexual revelation.”
Jeffrey Meyers, author of three books on Lowell, received four letters from Hardwick, one of which praised his “ fine work on Hemingway”. She reviewed his life of Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker, May 8, 1995
Due to a technical problem, earlier today this article was incorrectly attributed. It was written by Jeffrey Meyers and is his work alone. We are happy to make this clear.