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Biographies of Creative Women

I wrote in my previous post about one of the main things I’ve been focused on during the pandemic. But since the pandemic started, I also have been listening to biographies of creative women. I’m on my 10th one now. I started by reading a biography of May Sarton after having listened to her memoir Journal of a Solitude and then switched to listening to the biographies on my daily walks and during long drives. Here’s the list with a brief summary of the facts of each of their lives followed by some of the (superficial) connections that I have started to see.

May Sarton: a biography by Margot Peters 

May Sarton was born in 1912 in Belgium. She moved to Boston in 1915 when her father started as a faculty member at Harvard. As a young woman, she pursued a career in the theater but always wrote poetry as well. She had relationships with men and women but her most enduring romantic relationships were with women. She wrote poetry, novels, and, in her later years, memoirs. Although her work doesn’t shy away from the depiction of lesbian relationships, Sarton did not want to be considered a lesbian writer. She died of breast cancer in 1995.

James Tiptree, Jr. : The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

Alice Sheldon was born in Chicago in 1915, the daughter of Mary Hastings Bradley, one of the most famous authors of her time. Young Alice was the subject of several of her mother’s travel books in which she recounted their adventures in the Belgian Congo. As a young woman, she pursued a career as a painter, graphic artist, and art critic. After divorcing her first husband, Sheldon joined the US Army and, during World War II, served as a photographic intelligence officer. After the war, she joined the CIA  but resigned her position in 1946. She received a bachelor’s degree when she was in her 40s and went on to complete a doctorate. It was during this time that she began writing science fiction stories and novels as James Tiptree, Jr. Her identity was a secret for years but as her reputation grew, it became more and more difficult to maintain the secret. Although she likely never had a serious sexual relationship with a woman, she said, “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.” She remained married to her second husband until they died in 1987 in a murder-suicide by her hand.

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow

Diane Arbus was born in New York City in 1923. Her parents, immigrants from Russia, owned an upscale department store called Russeks. The wealth accumulated from owning Russeks allowed the family to be relatively unaffected by the Great Depression. Diane married Allan Arbus when she was 18 and together, they opened a successful commercial photography business with Russeks as a major client. She did not enjoy this work but began to use her camera to document the lives of people on the margins of society. Diane and Allan had two daughters. They separated in 1959 and later divorced but remained friends for the rest of her life. Arbus also had a long-term relationship with art director and painter Marvin Israel. Both men championed her work and she did achieve some renown during her lifetime. She had numerous affairs with men and women. Her portraits of people at the margins of society continue to be controversial today. She died by suicide in 1971.

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon

Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, NJ in 1895. Her parents were second generation German immigrants. She contracted polio when she was seven which resulted in a weakened right left and lifelong limp. Her father left the family when she was twelve which caused significant financial hardship. She decided she would become a photographer before she ever owned a camera and at age 23, she went embarked on a world tour with a friend but they were robbed in San Francisco and so they both got jobs. Eventually, she opened a successful portrait studio. She married muralist Maynard Dixon, 21 years her senior, when she was 25 and was the primary financial provider in the family for much of their marriage. They had two sons together but divorced in 1935. She then married Paul Taylor, an economist with whom she worked during the Great Depression. Together, they traveled around the country, documenting the lives of migrant workers and sharecroppers, often putting her two children and his three children in foster care. During World War II, she was hired by the US government to photograph life at Manzanar, the infamous Japanese internment camp. In the last decade of her life, she was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome but still managed to travel around the world with her husband. She died of esophageal cancer in 1965.

The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography by Hilary Holladay

Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929. Her father was a medical school professor and administrator and her mother was a concert pianist and composer. Rich was raised from infancy to be a prodigy. And she lived up to that expectation. As an undergraduate student at Radcliffe, she submitted her first book of poetry to the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition and it was chosen the winner by W.H. Auden. She was diagnosed with rheumaoid arthritis as an undergraduate and suffered significant pain for the rest of her life. After her college graduation, she married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard professor she met when she was an undergraduate student. and together, they had three sons. They were involved in the anti-war movement during the 1960s and 1970s. They separated in 1970 and Conrad killed himself later that year, leaving her to raise their sons on her own. In the mid-1970s, Rich came out as a lesbian. Her first relationship with a woman was with her therapist, Lilliian Engler, beginning in 1974. From 1976 until her death, she was partnered with the writer Michele Cliff. Rich became involved in the feminist movement, writing essays and giving readings and lectures Rich died in 2012 of complications from long-term rheumatoid arthritis.

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody

Louise Fitzhugh was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1928. Her father was the son of a wealthy Memphis family while her mother was from a poor Mississippi. Their marriage ended in a high profile divorce when Louise was an infant and her father was awarded sole custody. She was told that her mother had died and when she later reconnected with her mother, their relationship was strained. Fitzhugh left Tennessee to go to Bard College in New York. She began her career as a painter and illustrator, studying art in Europe and New York City. In 1961, she illustrated the successful children’s book, Suzuki Bean, whose text was written by her friend Sandra Scoppotone. Louise was active in the lesbian scene in New York City, having a series of monogamous relationships with women. Her most famous book was Harriet the Spy which was part of the realism movement of young adult novels. Louise died of a brain aneurysm in 1974.

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose

Margeurite Guggenheim was born in New York City in 1898. Her mother was part of the wealthy Seligman family and her father was part of the wealthy Guggenheim family. When she was 14, her father went down with the Titanic. When she was 21, she inherited millions of dollars from her father’s estate and moved to Paris. She became part of a group of avant-garde artists, including artists Man Ray, Constantin Brancusi, and Marcel Duchamp and writers Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and Djuna Barnes. She married the writer Laurence Vail and had two children with him. Vail was openly abusive toward her and friends warned her that Vail would eventually kill her if she stayed in the marriage.They divorced after less than 10 years of marriage but stayed involved in each other lives. She began collecting art before World War II, opening a gallery in London in 1938. She left Paris a few days before the Germans invaded, although she later claimed to be unaware of the particular danger she might face as an American of Jewish descent. She helped many artists leave Europe at that time, including the painter Max Ernst, whom she would marry and divorce in the 1940s. This marriage also involved physical abuse. In her autobiography, Guggenheim claims to have slept with more than 1000 men, including affairs with John Ferrar Holms and Samuel Beckett. She moved to Venice in 1949 and bought a home in which she could display her vast art collection to the public. Eventually, she donated her home and her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation which was founded by her uncle. She died in 1979.

Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle

Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1887. Her artistic talent was recognized at a young age and she entered art school in Chicago in 1905. She then moved to New York City to continue her art education. When her family was unable to afford her art education, she took art teacher positions around the country. She also continued to draw and paint, sending her work to friends for feedback. One of her friends brought some of that work to Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer who owned an influential art gallery in New York City. Stieglitz displayed her work to critical acclaim. Although he was married when they met and was 24 years her senior, they married in 1924 and remained married until his death in 1946. During the marriage, O’Keeffe increasingly sought time away, most notably in New Mexico. In the 1930s, O’Keeffe was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown, reportedly over Stieglitz’s affair with Dorothy Norman. After Stieglitz’s death, O’Keefe moved to New Mexico permanently and produced some of her most famous works. Her paintings were critically acclaimed and popular throughout her lifetime and she became a wealthy woman. O’Keeffe continued to paint until her eyesight began to fail when she was in her 80s. She took up sculpture with the help of her assistant Juan Hamilton. She left her $76 million estate to Hamilton when she died in 1986.

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser

Susan Sontag was born in New York City in 1933. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was five. The family moved around a bit–Long Island, Tuscon, southern California–and her mother remarried when Sontag was 12. Sontag graduated from high school at 15 and started her college career at UC Berkeley but transferred to the (in her opinion) more intellectually stimulating University of Chicago from which she graduated at 18. In college, she enjoyed going to gay bars and her first significant relationship was with a woman. Despite this, when she was just 17, she married Philip Rieff, who was an instructor at the University of Chicago. When she was 20, she gave birth to her only child, her son, David. Throughout her marriage to Rieff, she worked on his only major book and by all accounts, she authored the majority of it yet received no credit for that work. In 1958, she and Rieff divorced and as part of the settlement, she agreed to renounce all claims to authorship, a decision she regretted for the rest of her life. Sontag went to Oxford on a fellowship near the end of her marriage to Rieff but left the fellowship before finishing in order to travel throughout Europe. She engaged in affairs with both men and women throughout her life but most of her significant romantic relationships were with women. She became famous in the 1960s for her essays about the culture of the time. She also wrote fiction and made movies. She was politically active, opposing the war in Viet Nam and later spending much time in Sarajevo, publicizing the atrocities committed by Milosevic and his peers. Sontag’s most famous relationship was with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Sontag died in 2004 of a rare form of leukemia, a result of the chemotherapy and other treatments she received in two earlier bouts with cancer.

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark

Sylvia Plath was bornin in 1932 in Boston. Her father was a German immigrant who was a faculty member at Boston University. Her father died days before she turned eight and she was raised by her single mother with help from her mother’s parents. The extended family settled in wealthy Wellesley, MA and Plath was acutely aware of the class differences between her and her classmates. She published her first poem in the local paper at the age of eight and published consistently throughout her adolescence in magazines such as Seventeen. Throughout high school and college, she struggled with depression, attempting suicide in 1953 and spending the next six months in psychiatric care at McLean Hospital.  Plath graduated from Smith College in 1955, having won numerous literary prizes and consistently publishing her work.  She met and married Ted Hughes in 1956 when she was on a Fulbright Fellowship at Cambridge University. She had two children with Hughes in the early 1960s but their marriage was troubled. During this time she published a book of poetry and wrote her most famous novel, The Bell Jar. She and Hughes separated in late 1962 after she discovered that Hughes was having an affair. After the separation, she wrote most of the poems that would be posthumously published in Ariel. In early 1963, she died by suicide.

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Of course, these brief biographical notes ignore many interesting details of these very interesting lives. I think it’s interesting to look at the similarities and differences in their lives. Some examples:

Sarton, Plath, and Rich had fathers who were university professors.

Guggenheim, Sheldon, Fitzhugh, and Arbus came from extraordinarily wealthy families.

Lange, Guggenheim, Plath, and Sontag lost their fathers when they were very young. Fitzhugh spent her childhood thinking that her mother was dead.

O’Keeffe and Lange married men who were more than 20 years their senior. Rich and Sontag married men who were faculty members while they were undergraduates.

Lange, Guggenheim, Sheldon, Arbus, and Sontag all divorced. Rich and Plath were both separated from their husbands when their relationships were ended by suicide. Sarton and Fitzhugh never married because their most significant romantic relationships were with women (although both also had relationships with men).

Sarton, Sheldon, Arbus, Fitzhugh, Rich, and Sontag all had romantic relationships with women (although all also had romantic, sexual relationships with men as well).

O’Keeffe, Lange, Guggenheim, Sarton, Arbus, Fitzhugh, Rich, and Sontag (everyone except Plath) spent a significant time in New York CIty.

O’Keeffe and Lange both spent time in New Mexico during the same years and they both knew the photographer Paul Strand. Rich and Fitzhugh both had connections to Bard College and were friends of the poet James Merrill.

O’Keeffe, Sheldon, Arbus, Rich, Plath, and Sontag were recognized as special artists and/or intellectuals from a very young age.

One of the most interesting connections/coincidences is that O’Keeffe married Alfred Stieglitz, Lange visited his gallery often as a young woman (and he was an influence on her photography), and Sylvia Plath was a patient of Stieglitz’s brother Leopold.

I have listed the books in the order that I listened to them. But I have started to think of them in terms of their birth years. I am thinking about a deeper dive into the patterns I see in the lives of these women but also in the biographies themselves. For example, the biography of Rich portrays her as a kind of narcissist in her childhood and adolescence because of her confidence that she will someday be famous and important. On the other hand, the biography of Plath doesn’t give that same sense although the amount of material saved from Plath’s childhood must be just as great as that of Rich’s because of the level of detail that the biographer was able to achieve.

  • O’Keeffe 1887
  • Lange 1895
  • Guggenheim 1898
  • Sarton 1912
  • Sheldon 1915
  • Arbus 1923
  • Fitzhugh 1928
  • Rich 1929
  • Plath 1932
  • Sontag 1933

I’m particularly interested in the connections between Fitzhugh, Rich, Plath, and Sontag. They are contemporaries and there are so many similarities in their paths but also some significant differences. I actually feel like I want to listen to all 4 of those biographies again, thinking particularly about patterns.

Image Credit: I took this photo today (April 9, 2021). I call it Connections.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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