Diane Middlebrook, professor emeritus and legendary biographer, dies at 68
Subjects included Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; a cross-dressing jazz musician; an ancient Roman poet
Middlebrook was honored twice by the university for excellent teaching, first in 1977 with a Dean’s Award and then, a decade later, with a Walter J. Gores Award. She also won the Richard W. Lyman service award.
BY CYNTHIA HAVEN
Acclaimed, iconoclastic biographer Diane Middlebrook died of Saturday, Dec. 15, in San Francisco of cancer. Middlebrook, a celebrated biographer who became a bit of a legend herself, was 68.
Middlebrook, who joined Stanford’s English faculty four decades ago, became a leading feminist scholar and one of the founders of feminist studies at Stanford. She is best known, however, for her distinguished biographies. Her Husband, a 2003 biography of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, maintained that the poets’ explosive marriage was vital to making them the eminent poets they became. Her best-selling 1998 biography, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, studied a cross-dressing female jazz musician who lived as a man from age 19. Her 1991 biography of poet Anne Sexton created controversy by using more than 300 hours of tape-recorded psychiatric sessions as part of her research.
“I think her legacy as a biographer is her incredible humanity. She never sacrificed humanity in maintaining an acute critical recognition of her subject,” said San Francisco author Kate Moses, one of a younger generation of writers Middlebrook encouraged.
Kathryn Court, president of Penguin Books and Middlebrook’s editor, praised Middlebrook’s “enormous intellect and great perspicacity,” and added, “Diane has always been a person of determination—extraordinary determination. She’s never been fazed by things, including her illness. She’s an incredibly brave person.”
Middlebrook leaves behind a manuscript that is groundbreaking in a different way—a biography of Ovid, a work that will be indelibly linked with her life’s end. Viking had planned to publish the work in 2008—the 2000th anniversary of Ovid’s banishment from Rome and of his completion of Metamorphoses. Middlebrook frequently reminded us that Ovid was one of the few writers whose work has been continually in circulation since then, a feat that eludes even Homer.
When asked several years ago why she picked Ovid as her subject, she responded with characteristic breeziness, “No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up.” She frequently pointed out that there is no historical record of Ovid’s life; all we know is in his poetry. In other words, the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself. Can literature be primary source? Her answer was always a resounding yes—especially evident in her biography of Hughes and Plath, a book that was called the “gold standard” on a contentious theme.
But later, Middlebrook would add that she was also attracted to “the remarkable confidence that Ovid had in his own survival.” At a Stanford address last January, Middlebrook noted, “The evidence inside his poetry is the key to this longevity. His voice comes to us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millennia…”
Middlebrook’s battle with cancer had been long. She underwent cancer surgery in July 2001, and her prospects were good. Asked about her cancer in a 2003 interview, her only comment was, “I’m happy to say the remedy was surgery.” If the response sounds nonchalant, her sister Michole Nicholson said in the same article that part of the explanation was that “this cancer is not something she has a place for. She’s managed it, and moved on.” Her reaction to life’s difficulties was sassily defiant: “She just bellies up to the bar and says, ‘So what?’”
However, by February 2004 she was back in surgery again, and the news was worse.
Biographies of Sexton, Tipton, Hughes, Plath
Middlebrook was born in 1939 as Diane Wood in Pocatello, Idaho, the eldest of three sisters, the daughter of teenage parents. The family moved to Spokane, Wash., when she was 5—a tiny postwar house on a busy street.
“My mother named me very fancifully—my middle name is Helen, my first name is Diane. She was thinking of the moon goddess,” she said in a 1998 interview with the e-zine Ellavon. Wonderwoman was her first hero. “I used to have this fantasy that I was actually a goddess. Wonderwoman came about as close as they got.”
Her sister recalled Middlebrook taking a “hip” surrogate mother role, due to her mother’s ill health. “I used to think of Diane as a changeling—from those naughty mischievous fairies who would sometimes switch babies. She just came out of nowhere. Nobody in our family even read poetry, let alone studied poetry.”
Hence, Middlebrook’s determination to be a poet and writer caused familial uproar. Her father demanded that she pay her own way through college, and she did. “Diane, of course, totally vindicated her decision,” Nicholson said. “She had a strong mind, a strong will, as if she had an inner compass that pushed her wherever she wanted to go.”
Middlebrook first attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, then transferred to the University of Washington-Seattle, receiving her B.A. in 1961. She arrived at Stanford as an assistant professor of English in 1966 and got her Ph.D. from Yale in 1968. She was dismissive of her doctoral dissertation on Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman, under the guidance of litcrit giant Harold Bloom and published by Cornell University Press, and dismissive also of her 1983 volume of poems Gin Considered as a Demon. Her true vocation, she said, was as a biographer.
“One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she said. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”
Middlebrook married three times—the second gave her the name under which she established her reputation—“Middlebrook”—as well as a daughter, Leah Middlebrook, now an assistant professor of comparative literature and romance languages at the University of Oregon.
In 1977, she began a relationship with Carl Djerassi, the scientist known as the “Father of the Pill,” now a professor of chemistry emeritus at Stanford. They were married in 1985.
Middlebrook had no pre-established interest in feminist studies when she was tapped for Stanford’s new Center for Research on Women (eventually to become the Clayman Institute for Gender Research), one of the first such centers in the nation in the 1970s. Her chief qualification, she said, is that she was one of the few female professors at Stanford available. She was its director from 1977 to 1979; she remains a seminal, tutelary spirit. Current Clayman Director Londa Schiebinger recalled her as “elegant, graceful, well-spoken, and generous.”
“She rippled out into other people’s lives,” said Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar of the Clayman Institute and co-editor with Middlebrook of 1985’s Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. “She cared about so many people, and many, many people cared about her. She had a luminous quality that radiated out into other people’s lives—not only her own cohort, but generations of students that she taught. Diane was very close to up-and-coming writers, whether she taught them at Stanford or not.”
One of those students, New York author and friend Kamy Wicoff, still has Middlebrook’s class syllabus, which included Ovid and Queen Latifah. “She very rigorous and demanding as a teacher. You felt inspired to rise to her standards. It was formative for me. It helped me feel of the thrill of intellectual life. She had such a great passion for it – it was catching.”
Middlebrook’s debut as a biographer was somewhat serendipitous: on her 41st birthday, she received an invitation from the Sexton estate to write a biography of confessional poet Anne Sexton.
Anne Sexton: A Biography spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list—an unexpected twist for a biography of a minor poet. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award and for the National Book Critics Circle Award; it was awarded a gold medal in nonfiction from the Commonwealth Club of California. Joyce Carol Oates, writing in the Washington Post, called the book “sympathetic but resolutely unsentimental ... intelligent, sensitive, at times harrowing.”
Although Middlebrook used the psychiatrist's tapes with permission from Sexton’s daughter as well as the psychiatrist, she said she didn’t realize that the world of psychoanalysis and the information age were poised for confrontation. Who owns patient records—client or doctor? Can they be inherited? The psychiatrist battled his own professional organizations for two years before being exonerated.
Suits Me, a finalist for a Lambda Foundation Literary Award and a bestseller on amazon.com, was the offbeat story of Billy Tipton, a female jazz musician who, as a man, married five times and adopted children. The wives, and everyone else, were unaware of the disguise. (Said one of his sons, “He’ll always be Dad to me.”) London’s Financial Times wrote, “Tipton may have spent his life fearing exposure, but he/she could not have wished for a more perceptive or sympathetic biographer than Middlebrook.”
Her Husband was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a 2004 finalist for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award in non-fiction. Last year, the French translation won the Prix Du Meilleur Livre Etranger (previous winners were Colm Toibin and Salman Rushdie). The New York Times called the book “inspiring,” “attentive and clear-eyed.”
“The dead cannot be shamed”
Middlebrook’s view of the rights of her dead subjects was unsentimental. “The dead cannot be shamed,” she said.
When asked about the discretion of revealing “secrets,” especially of a sexual nature, Middlebrook replied, “You’re not the first person in the world who had sex—anything said about it is not too surprising. Maybe your attitude should be, ‘So what?’
Nor was she terribly sympathetic to the notion that telling about one life intruded on lives of others: “The territoriality that people express about each other’s lives requires some scrutiny.” She added, however, “I feel that way because I am a biographer.”
“The more that each of us knows about each of the other human beings in the world, the better off [we] are,” she concluded. “It’s true that it is very painful to be exposed to people’s curiosity. But it’s painful in a way that can only lead to self-knowledge, because it’s really not a big deal. In the scope of human endeavor, it’s not a big deal.”
Middlebrook received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the Stanford Humanities Center, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Study Center of Bellagio. She was a founding trustee of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an interdisciplinary arts center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She was chair of Stanford’s Feminist Studies Program from 1985-88.
In 2002, Middlebrook stepped down from her Stanford position to become a full-time biographer—she persuaded Djerassi, by then a writer as well, to retire the same year. In 2004, she was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was appointed an honorary member of Christ’s College, Cambridge.
In recent years, Middlebrook and Djerassi divided their time between San Francisco and London homes.
Her lifelong passion: Ovid
The biographies of Tipton and Sexton, may have been examples of life’s serendipity, but Ovid was her lifelong passion. Middlebrook became fascinated with “how we defeat our biological destiny through a uniquely human power,” as she explained in her January address. “That is the power of transferring our inner lives into external forms: I’ll call that the power of inscription.
“By ‘inner lives’ I mean the life of the mind, the silence in which our thoughts and feelings form and take on meanings.” She described inscription as “any of the symbolic codes we have evolved that can communicate our thoughts and feelings even when we are absent: Chemical formulas. Statistical tables. Photographs. Blueprints. Specialized languages of every kind, including, of course, song.” She returned to a passage from Ovid, who “is saying that the gods may or may not help him, but he intends to make what he knows into a work of art.”
Middlebrook continued writing, according to Djerassi, until Nov. 15. After that, until a week before her death from retroperitoneal liposarcoma, she conveyed to a circle of insiders—including Moses, Court, and close friend and literary executor Professor Nancy K. Miller of City University of New York—her plans and intentions for the Ovid book, “a blueprint to follow for anything that wasn’t evident,” said Moses. “She was absolutely heroic and superhuman in making it possible to give as much as she could to this book.”
During a 2004 talk at Stanford entitled “What Matters to Me and Why”—a mysterious light failure in the chapel of Memorial Church left her, according to one onlooker, in an “ethereal glow created by a single spotlight”—her talk steered clear of the personal, and focused on reflections on death in poems.
“If I haven’t turned you on; if I haven’t made you cry; if I haven’t made you laugh by reading to you, then I have failed today. I have failed, I’m sure, because these things are so good and so smart.”
Although she had written so much about others, she eschewed herself as a topic: “I don’t like first-person witness. I don’t do it well. I usually find it ethically questionable and narcissistic. I started thinking about what I really care about and texts came to mind. What matters to me? Texts.”
Certainly one of the texts that “mattered” was Ovid, who ends his Metamorphoses with these words:
- Now I have done my work. It will endure,
I trust, beyond Jove’s anger, fire and sword,
Beyond Time’s hunger…
Middlebrook is survived by: her daughter, Leah Middlebrook of Eugene; her husband, Carl Djerassi; sisters Michole Nicholson of Arroyo Grande and Colleen Dea of Spokane, Wash.; a stepson Dale Djerassi of Woodside and a step-grandson Alexander Djerassi of Washington, D.C.
The family plans to hold the memorial for Middlebrook’s friends and colleagues at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27, at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside. The family requests no flowers or gifts. Donations may be made to the building fund for the Diane Middlebrook -Residence for Writers at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (http://www.djerassi.org).