The Mad Poets Society

McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts, was for years America's most literary mental institution, a place that Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton knew well

Because he was born into the Boston aristocracy, Lowell understood instinctively who was in McLean and why. He had grown up with "thoroughbred mental cases." No nuance of Boston snobbery could escape him—certainly not that he hailed from the line of thin-blooded, artistic Lowells, as opposed to the broad-shouldered, industrial-titan Lowells, who enriched themselves with textile mills along the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. Ralph Lowell, the downtown-banker chairman of McLean's board of trustees, was a "real" Lowell; Robert and his family, although they lived quite comfortably, were comparatively poor relations. Robert's father, Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, was a middle-ranking naval officer who had made a good match. His wife's family, the Winslows, proudly traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower. The venerable names attached to halls at McLean—Wyman, Appleton, Higginson, Bowditch—were the names of family friends. Robert had attended St. Mark's School and Harvard with the likes of them. Lowell read the hospital like an open book. In this case the book was a crazy salad of John Marquand, the Harvard faculty directory, and the Social Register. He wrote to his friend the poet Elizabeth Bishop,

I live in an interesting house now at McLean's, one in which no man had entered since perhaps 1860; suddenly it was made co-ed. It was like entering some ancient deceased sultan's seraglio. We were treated to a maze of tender fussy attentions suitable for very old ladies: chocolate scented milk at 8:30; a lounging and snoozing bed spread after meals, each announcement of an appointment gently repeated at ten minute intervals, an old crone waiting on table barking like television turned on full to pierce through deafness. On the other hand, it took three days to get a shaving glass. The man next to me is a Harvard Law professor. One day, he is all happiness, giving the plots of Trollope novels, distinguishing delicately between the philosophies of Holmes and Brandeis, reminiscing wittily about Frankfurter. But on another day, his depression blankets him. Early in the morning, I hear cooing pigeon sounds, and if I listen carefully, the words: "Oh terror. TERROR!" Our other male assembles microscopically exact models of clippers and three masted schooners.

Both men, and I too, shrink before a garrulous Mrs. Churchill, sometimes related to the statesman and sometimes to the novelist ... "How are you related to Thomas Arnold Lowell?" I assumed she meant James Russell Lowell, and was abysmally wrong and have never been to explain. Pointing to the classical moulding on a mantelpiece, she will say, "That's Cameron Forbes, the ambassador to Japan," or begin a dinner conversation with, "Speaking of Rhode Island reds ... "

Sometimes with a big paper napkin stuck like an escaping bra on her throat, she will dance a little jig and talk about being presented to Queen Victoria. She was.

Lowell visited McLean four times over the course of eight years. He left a paper trail of letters with the return address 115 Mill Street, Belmont, Massachusetts. He is probably the only patient to have exchanged letters with Jackie Kennedy from the wards; she thanked him for a book he had sent her, and congratulated him on getting away for the holidays. Lowell also corresponded with the poet Theodore Roethke, who had his own struggles with mental illness (Lowell: "I feel great kinship with you"), and he mailed a letter from Bowditch to Ezra Pound, who had been locked up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, in Washington, D.C. "Do you think a man who has been off his rocker as often as I have been could run for elective office and win?" Lowell inquired of Pound.

I have in mind the State senatorship from my districtthe South End, Back Bay Boston, and your son's Roxbury etc. The incumbent is an inconspicuous Republican. His rival is a standard losing party democrat. I'd run as a democrat, and if I could edge out in the very difficult primaries, then I'd cream the Republican. And then there'd be vistas before me as I sat in the Boston State Capitol on my little $5,000 a year job that would cost me about $10,000. What's your advice.

There is no trace of a reply.

Anne Sexton for years had a curious ambition: she wanted to be admitted to McLean. "If only I could get a scholarship to McLean," Sexton confided to her longtime friend and amanuensis Lois Ames, as if she were talking about a fellowship to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Sexton certainly had the qualifications: two suicide attempts by the age of thirty, and extended stays at the Glenside and Westwood Lodge sanatoriums. She wrote about her mania in her first poetry collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). She reveled theatrically in her madness, and was not above using her shocking mood swings to manipulate her friends and family. But her therapist, Martin Orne, wary of the cost of extended stays at McLean, refused to commit her there. By age forty Sexton had won the Pulitzer Prize and had been written about in national magazines. But she had never had her ticket punched at McLean.

From the archives:

"'Discovering' Young Poets" (June 1998)
How some of the best-known poets of this century got that way. By Peter Davison

Why McLean? Because of Plath and Lowell. "We both recognized that Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell had been there, and she wanted to be in that lineage," Ames told me some time ago, "the same way she wanted to be buried in Mount Auburn cemetery, where her family was buried." Sexton was ferociously competitive with Plath in all respects. Both had been reared in Boston's well-to-do western suburbs. Both were extremely articulate, beautiful, and sexually alert. Both had committed themselves to big poetry—publishing in the big magazines (The New Yorker and The Atlantic) and with the big publishing houses (Knopf and Houghton Mifflin), and aiming at the big awards (the Pulitzer Prize, the Yale Younger Poets Award). Each knew she was unstable and vaguely understood that psychological torment somehow produced good poetry. Each saw herself, correctly, as a future suicide. Meeting in drunken martini klatches at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel after Lowell's poetry seminars, the two even discussed killing themselves. (Sexton on Plath: "She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail.") The conversation was not hypothetical. When talking about suicide, Plath and Sexton were interested in not if or when but how. After Plath ended her life, in 1963, Sexton published an essay-poem griping that Plath had trumped her in their mortal combat: "Thief! / how did you crawl into, / crawl down alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long."

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