Who Was Sylvia?

Sylvia Plath



The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, (with an entrance that looks—but isn’t—impassable due to nearby construction), has been around for one hundred and twenty five years. The Grolier celebrates books and prints and was one of the first organizations in the US to do so; it has terrific exhibitions that are free and open to the public. Check out their website: www.grolierclub.org

A current Grolier exhibits deals with the works of Sylvia Plath, (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963), sadly best known as an American poet who committed suicide. I took a tour of the exhibit with Judith G. Raymo, who assembled it from her personal collection of Plath’s work.

Plath went to Smith and then to Cambridge’s Newnham College on a Fullbright. Of her works, the best known are The Colossus, a poem, and The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death at age thirty.

Plath’s novel under an actual bell jar at the Grolier

From a young age, Plath’s writing gifts were obvious: her first work was published in the Christian Science Monitor just after she graduated from high school and she kept an elaborate diary starting at age eleven.

During Plath’s time at Smith she began exhibiting symptoms of clinical depression which was treated with multiple bouts of ETC (electroshock therapy). Much psychotherapy followed. Plath had had a troubled relationship with her parents but possibly the worst thing that happened to her was meeting and marrying British poet Ted Hughes with whom she had two children. Hughes was jealous of Plath’s success, isolated her and, after her death, burned or lost several of her journals and novels, part of the estate he inherited since when she died Plath and Hughes were married though separated. Plath described Hughes as “a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer” with “a voice like the thunder of God.” Well, yes but he was also an abuser whose beating may have cause her to miscarry her second pregnancy. Plath left Hughes in 1962 after she learned about his affair with Assia Wevill. (Wevill then spent six years with Hughes and ultimately killed herself using the same method as Plath– asphyxiation from a gas stove. Hughes does not epitomize a kindly, loving partner.)

The Grolier Club’s downstairs gallery

If Plath hadn’t left such a brilliant legacy her life story would be even more heart-wrenching (if that’s possible.) She seems like a woman bewitched by a man whose personality was such that it helped wreck her. On the plus side, Plath’s success in work outstrips her difficulties and the Grolier show is a fine tribute.

Amazingly, Plath baked a lot. This is supposedly her favorite cake recipe, a quintessentially 60s item if ever there was one.


Better than ingredients would have you believe

Classic Tomato Soup Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (courtesy Graywolf Press)

 3 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cloves

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

2 tablespoons shortening

1 can tomato soup

2 cups white flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon mace (a spice you can buy)

1 cup white sugar

1 egg (well-beaten)


1 package cream cheese (3 ounce)

1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix dry ingredients.

Wash and cut raisins and roll them in a little flour.

Cream the sugar, shortening, and egg together thoroughly.

Add dry ingredients and soup to the creamed sugar mixture in alternating batches, a third at a time, and mix until all soup and dry ingredients are incorporated.

Fold in raisins and chopped nuts.

Pour into floured cake pan.

Bake one hour; let cool before icing.

For the frosting, beat the cream cheese until soft and airy. Add sugar and vanilla. Stir until smooth. Spread on cooled cake.

You’re probably not going to recreate this but it’s said to taste pretty good. And, if you don’t tell anyone about the tomato soup they won’t guess.



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3 Responses to Who Was Sylvia?

  1. Nancy says:

    Condensed tomato soup (a la Campbell’s)? Or ready-to-eat soup? Do tell …!

    • marigold says:

      If I were making this I’d use condensed Campbell’s. That’s what we’d have had access to back in the day!

  2. Elayne Glotzer says:

    Another very interesting article by my good friend Mari Gold. Thanks for reminding
    me of this great but tragic writer. I will definitely visit the Grolier Club on my next
    trip to NY.