"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 126: The Lowells, Part 2

Bishop’s final extant 1962 letter to her aunt is dated 22 September, from Rio. Nearly two months had passed since the previous epistle and she acknowledged right at the top that “it is ages since I wrote to you.” It was so long that Elizabeth Naudin “even telephoned this week saying that [Aunt] Mary said that you said you hadn’t heard from me!”  The family kept tabs, of a sort, on each other. Bishop confessed the silence had been caused by “lots of reasons.” The principle one, however, was the most complex, the visit of “my friend Robert Lowell his wife (also named Elizabeth), his 5½ year old daughter, Harriet, & a Radcliffe girl named Tony, to look after Harriet.” She couldn’t remember what she had already told her aunt about them, but noted that they had come “for one month, supposedly.” In the end, “they stayed on for two months,” because “apparently [they] had a good time.”

Bishop quickly observed that she was “awfully fond” of Lowell “of course,” but she had to “be frank with you!”: “it was pretty much of a strain.” She declared that she and Lota were “worn out.” Lota managed to get “off to work every afternoon” (the job with the park), “but I was right here.” Bishop took the brunt of their need to be entertained.

The Lowells had “stayed at Copacabana Palace,” where they “had a big apartment.” She and Lota had hosted them at Samambaia, “but only one week-end in all that time” (in addition to three trips to Cabo Frio, where they went “out on a boat”). This outline of accommodation and itinerary was not, however, what mattered to Bishop, as tiring as it was. She described her friends as “very bright, and ‘intellectual’,” positive enough attributes; but not sufficient qualities for parenting: “they have no more idea how to manage a small child, how to treat a small child, than a couple of fish.” 
(Copacabana Palace, circa 1960s)
“Poor little girl!” was Bishop’s take, because she was “about the worst child anyone has ever seen.” Bishop felt she and Lota were “pretty tough, and used to having children around,” but even these two seasoned babysitters “could only take one week-end.” Bishop quickly added that “no one blames the little girl,” describing her as “miserably unhappy.” But even conceding these assessments, “no one can stay in the room with her for more than ten minutes at a stretch.” Poor Harriet indeed! 
(Robert and Harriett Lowell)
When the one-month stay stretched into two, Bishop reported that they “sort of ran out of entertainment.” Bishop knew Lowell better than she knew Hardwick, but she “knew” enough to anticipate that this wife “wouldn’t like things here very much,” and that she was a “nagger.” Makes one wonder why the Lowells extended their stay.

If all of this was not difficult enough to navigate, Bishop paused briefly with “Well —” and then declared she would tell Grace “the worst,” adding immediately, “but please don’t repeat it to Mary because it would get back here, probably.” That eventuality was real enough from the opening of this very letter. Word got around, even across vast stretches of space-time. Bishop told Grace that she was trying to keep this “worst” as “quiet as I can,” even though it was really “no secret.” She just didn’t “want to talk about it here.” Upon reflection, she conceded that “everyone in N.Y. probably knows already!”

This worst involved “Lowell — Cal that is,” who Bishop declared “is my dearest friend, just about.” She assured Grace that she regarded Lowell as “a magnificent poet — but alas, he is schizophrenic,* and has breakdowns — every two or three years.” Bishop explained to her aunt that the “one reason why I only wanted them to stay for a month” was her knowledge of Lowell’s mental illness. And not too far into their visit, Bishop “could tell he was working up to one [a breakdown].” She noted with some incredulity that if she could see such a thing happening, “surely his wife must have realized it.” Even Lota could see it.

Perhaps Hardwick did realize it because after a quick ellipsis, Bishop noted that she and Harriett “went off by boat to N.Y. the 1st of the month,” leaving Lowell to go “off to Argentina for four days, supposedly — on the verge of a breakdown.” As one might expect, in such a state, Lowell “wouldn’t listen to anyone at that point.” Barely arrived in Argentina, the inevitable happened: “Of course he went to pieces.”

It was left to Bishop “to call in the U S embassy, etc — his doctor in N.Y. (fortunately we remembered the name).” Those who did the hands-on, managed to get him “locked up in a sanatarium [sic] in Buenos Aires” Bishop reported that “the latest idea is to send him back to NY on a U S Army plane — the airlines won’t take anyone in that condition, of course.” As Bishop was typing her letter, she noted that she was “expecting to hear from the Embassy here at any minute.”

Bishop’s summary terms for this situation were “an awful mess and an awful strain.” She told her aunt that she wouldn’t “feel much better until I know he’s back in N.Y. in a hospital there and with his own doctor.” As problematic as Lowell was, Bishop, perhaps unkindly, though perhaps understandably given the circumstances, observed: “I really think his wife is as crazy as he is” — or worse, in her view. Lowell was “perfectly sane most of the time and behaves sensibly, etc.” Elizabeth Hardwick, on the other hand, in Bishop’s opinion, was “just sort of crazy all the time!” She had to ask again, incredulity bursting forth, “How could she go off and leave him here?”

One of Bishop’s main aims was “to keep it out of the papers here if I can.” Scribbled in the margin with an “→” was, “they love gossip so.” Just like “poor little girl,” Bishop declared “Poor guy.” She averred that he “is a darling when he’s himself.”

Sounding weary, Bishop ended this saga with another “Well —” and the reiteration, “all this is why I haven’t written any letters, or done anything much, for the last six weeks, at least.”

This letter was only just getting started. Bishop had other things to update. The next post shifts focus to other stressful matters.


*Note: Lowell was bipolar, something quite different than schizophrenia. In a 14 June 1970 letter to Dorothee Bowie, Bishop applied this term not only Lowell, but also to her mother and Lota! Neither of these women suffered with this mental illness. Nor were they bipolar. Why someone as intelligent as Bishop used such a specific term incorrectly is odd. Perhaps she was using it in a common parlance way, like saying someone is “insane,” a kind of general label. Kay Redfield Jamison’s study Robert Lowell: Settingthe River on Fire: A study of Genius, Mania, and Character explores his mental illness in great depth and with deep compassion. I have tried to explore Gertrude’s illness in a similar way in my book Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. Carmen Oliveira writes about Lota’s illness in Rare and Common Place Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, translated by Neil Besner. 

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