Sylvia and Marty

Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections at Smith, reflects on the relationship between Sylvia Plath ’55 and the late Marcia Brown Stern ’54—her classmate, inspiration, and lifelong friend

Sylvia and Marty

Sylvia Plath ’55 and Marcia Brown Stern ’54 try cross-country skiing.

Three weeks before she died on July 25, 2012, Marcia (Marty) Brown Stern ’54 sent me a registered letter, which began, “What is enclosed may astonish you.” Indeed it did. The envelope included a draft of “marcia,” an unpublished poem that Sylvia Plath ’55 wrote about their sophomore year together at Smith College in 1951. In the poem, Sylvia described her cherished friend’s cheeks as “appleshining.”

Ten years later, when she was married and living in England, she wrote “The Babysitters” about her 1951 summer together with Marty, babysitting for two families in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Next to this poem in Crossing the Water (Faber, 1971), Marty pasted a photograph of Sylvia with the children in her care. Sylvia wonders at the end of the poem: “What keyhole have we slipped through, what door has shut? / The shadows of the grasses inched round like hands of a clock, / And from our opposite continents we wave and call. / Everything has happened.”

Marty was also the model for Jody in Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963).This time, in prose, Sylvia described Jody with cheeks that “bloomed like good apples.” Marty wrote “No—” next to this description in her copy of the American edition,which is now part of the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College along with an inscribed copy of The Colossus (Heinemann,1960), Plath’s first book of poems, and 21 original letters. The letters, written between 1951 and 1963 (the year Plath died) celebrate the most important events in her life, including the birth of her daughter, Frieda, on April 1, 1960. When Marty finally met Frieda in London in 2002 she wrote to me that Frieda “is a lively, talented, and unique woman—Sylvia would be proud!”

Sylvia’s journals are filled with references to Marty. Apparently, rooming together at Haven House was one of the most vital experiences of Sylvia’s life. She particularly admired Marty’s exuberance. She also clearly associated New England fall days and crisp apples with her clear-eyed friend.

In October 2007, Oxford University hosted a Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium. Marty happened to be traveling in England at the time. At the end of my talk, “Sylvia Plath’s Women and Poetry,” I invited Marty to join me on stage and share some of her personal reminiscences of Sylvia. Needless to say, she was the highlight of the conference. Shortly afterward, Marty emailed me and said, “It is quite amazing to have my few minutes of fame at age 75!” She also stole the show at Smith’s version of the 75th anniversary conference the following April when she read excerpts from Sylvia’s letters and reminisced about her obnoxious smelling Noxzema and hair curlers. Marty also demonstrated Sylvia’s zippy dance movements to jazzy music.

I like to think of Marty and Sylvia sharing the same shore once again, cooking their favorite inventions over an open fire, and laughing in the sunlight.

Click here to view a panel discussion held at the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium held at Smith College in 2008.

Karen Kukil is the Associate Curator, Special Collections, and Associate Curator of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History Archives at Smith College. For the past twenty years, she has supervised the scholarly use of the Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf collections in the Mortimer Rare Book, and she on the faculty of the Archives Concentration Program. She is the editor of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Anchor Books, 2000) and co-editor of the award-winning exhibition catalog No Other Appetite: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry (Grolier, 2005). She will be a featured speaker at the Sylvia Plath Symposium 2012 at Indiana University in October 2012.