Page 1. " It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. "

The opening line of The Bell Jar gives a clear indication of the period in which the novel is set: the Rosenbergs were executed by electrocution on 19 June 1953. It is also the first indication that the novel is to be highly autobiographical: Sylvia Plath spent June 1953 in New York as guest editor on Mademoiselle, a monthly magazine for young women.

 

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, 1951
Public DomainJulius and Ethel Rosenberg, 1951 - Credit: Roger Higgins

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists convicted in March 1951 of espionage – specifically, of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Russians. They were sentenced to death on 5 April 1951, although it was over two years before the sentence was carried out. In the intervening period, legal appeals were made against the conviction, as well as pleas for clemency from high-profile figures including Pope Pius XII and Pablo Picasso.

The electric chair at Sing Sing prison, N.Y. state c. 1900
Public DomainThe electric chair at Sing Sing prison, N.Y. state c. 1900 - Credit: George Eastman House

Death by electrocution, or 'the electric chair', is one of the most barbaric forms of state-sponsored execution. It has now been outlawed in most American states. Execution is now generally by lethal injection, although there are still some states where electrocution remains an option should the condemned person request it.

 

Page 2. " outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue "
Asprey's, Madison Avenue, New York City
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeAsprey's, Madison Avenue, New York City - Credit: Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons

 

Madison Avenue is a long stretch of road, running north to south, situated in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

Between its 57th Street and 85th Street is one of the most fashionable shopping areas in New York, where a whole range of up-market jewellers and boutiques are to be found, including Armani, Cartier, Dior, Givenchy and Gucci.

Page 2. " those same size seven patent leather shoes I'd bought in Bloomingdale's one lunch hour "

BLOOMINGDALE'S  is an iconic New York department store situated at 1000 Third Avenue.

Bloomingdale's, New York City
Creative Commons AttributionBloomingdale's, New York City - Credit: Ellie, Flickr

 

Page 2. " on some Starlight Roof "
Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, New York City
Creative Commons AttributionWaldorf=Astoria Hotel, New York City - Credit: hmerinomx, Flickr

The 'Starlight Roof' was a night-club and dining area in the prestigious Art Deco style Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York, and was  a fasionable venue for New York Society between 1931 (when the hotel opened) and the 1950's. Its most notable feature was the retractable roof from which its name derives.

In The Bell Jar, the reference is to 'some Starlight Roof', and it may be that the experience described in The Bell Jar is based on a dance and dinner which Sylvia Plath and her fellow guest editors on Mademoiselle attended at 'St. Regis Roof'  in June 1953*.

St. Regis Hotel is a smart New York City hotel which opened in 1904.

*referred to in: Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (Pocket Books, New York, 1977) p.115.

  

Take of tour of St. Regis Hotel and its upper-floor ballroom:

Page 3. " There were twelve of us at the hotel. We had all won a fashion magazine contest "

Here, the experience of the narrator of The Bell Jar reflects Sylvia Plath's own experience of winning a guest editorship with Mademoiselle magazine from June 1 - June 26, 1953 (although Plath was one of twenty guest-editors, not one of twelve)

Tennessee Williams
Public DomainTennessee Williams - Credit: Orland Fernandez
Truman Capote, 1959
Public DomainTruman Capote, 1959 - Credit: Roger Higgins

Mademoiselle magazine was a fashion and beauty magazine for women, which was also renowned for publishing short stories by well known writers such as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It was first published in 1935 and ceased publication in 2001, at which point some of its staff, and some of its features, transferred to Glamour magazine.

Page 3. " and chances to meet famous people in the field of our desire "
J.D. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye'
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJ.D. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' - Credit: Laura Crossett, Flickr

In a letter to her mother* (dated May 13, 1953) Sylvia Plath lists those writers whom she would like to 'interview and be photographed with' during the period of her guest editorship. In her own words, they  are 'J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye and tremendous stories); Shirley "The Lottery" Jackson; E.B. White of New Yorker fame; and Irwin Shaw.' After listing them, she goes on to say that she hopes 'one of those luminaries' would consent to be seen with her.

In the event, her hopes to meet these particular authors were not realised. However, she was able to meet the authors Santha Rama Rau and  Vance Bourjaily. She was also able to interview the novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen.

*Sylvia Plath Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-63, Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber, 1977) p.114.

Page 4. " This hotel - the Amazon - was for women only "
Barbizon Hotel for Women, NYC
GNU Free Documentation LicenseBarbizon Hotel for Women, NYC - Credit: Dmadeo, Wikimedia Commons

The Amazon is the fictionalised version of the women-only Barbizon Hotel, situated on Lexington Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where Sylvia Plath and her fellow guest editors stayed in June 1953.

Opened in 1927, it was designed as a 'safe haven' for well-to-do women working in New York.

The Barbizon was converted into the Melrose Hotel in 2002, and to condominium appartments in 2005. It is now known as Barbizon/63

Readers may, of course, read what they will into Plath's choice of fictional name for the hotel: the Amazons feature in Greek and Classical mythology as a nation of all-female warriors!

 

 

 

Page 4. " posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs "
'Ethel Merman still has the touch' (1953) (the actress Ethel Merman began her working life as a shorthand typist)
Public Domain'Ethel Merman still has the touch' (1953) (the actress Ethel Merman began her working life as a shorthand typist) - Credit: Walter Albertin

The Katharine Gibbs secretarial school in New York was one of a chain of secretarial schools in North East America. The first of these was founded on Rhode Island in 1911, under the title 'The Providence School for Secretaries'.

In the 1980's the schools expanded their programs to include many aspects of business administration and computing, and began admitting men to their courses. However, during recent years the organisation has faced difficulties which have led to restructuring and closures.

Page 4. " I hadn't been out of New England except for this trip to New York "
Town Hall, Wellesley, Massachusetts
Public DomainTown Hall, Wellesley, Massachusetts - Credit: Joshdboz

The narrator's lack of experience outside her native New England matches that of Sylvia Plath at the time of her stay in New York in 1953.

 

Winthrop Beach, Massachusetts
Creative Commons AttributionWinthrop Beach, Massachusetts - Credit: John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and brought up in Winthrop and Wellesley, two small towns in the same state.

 

 

Google Map
Page 5. " 'You know old Jay Cee won't give a damn if that story's in tomorrow or Monday.' "

Whilst working for Mademoiselle, Sylvia Plath had dealings with both Betsy Blackwell, the Editor-in-chief, and Cyrilly Abels, the Managing Editor, and there is some evidence that she amalgamated these experiences in the fictional account of her involvement with 'Jay Cee'.  

Page 6. " Sweetheart-of-Sigma-Chi smile "
Crest of Delta Psi Sigma sorority
Public DomainCrest of Delta Psi Sigma sorority - Credit: Delta Psi Sigma Inc.
Logo of the Kappa Gamma fraternity
Creative Commons AttributionLogo of the Kappa Gamma fraternity - Credit: Deafsoldier, Wikimedia Commons

'Sigma-Chi' is the name of a fraternity in the North American college system.

Fraternities are all-male organisations found on university campuses in the U.S.A.,which provide social activities, and may have their own premises known as 'chapter houses'. Membership generally involves some sort of ritual 'initiation ceremony'.

The female equivalents of such societies are known as sororities.

Fraternities and Sororities are generally given names which include either two or three letters of the Greek alphabet. They are, therefore, sometimes known as Greek letter organisations or Greek societies.

These organisations may also exist within the high school system. A short story by Sylvia Plath entitled 'Initiation' (published in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams) is based on her own high school experience of joining a sorority.

    

Page 6. " I still see her face now and then, smiling out of those 'P.Q's wife wears B.H. Wragge' ads' "
The actress, Audrey Hepburn, wearing 'separates' in 1953
Public DomainThe actress, Audrey Hepburn, wearing 'separates' in 1953 - Credit: Trailer screenshot
The advert referred to encapsulates one of the themes of The Bell Jar, namely the fact that young women in 1950's America were expected to define themselves in relation to the men in their lives. 

B.H. Wragge was an American clothing company, established in 1920. Between 1930 and 1950, it specialised in a style of 'separates' which was particularly popular with college students.

The significance of the initials 'P.Q' is not clear. 

Any ideas?

 

Page 6. " In private, Doreen called her Pollyanna Cowgirl "

This is the nickname given by Doreen to Betsy from Kansas to convey both her bubbly personality and rural background. 

Pollyanna is a popular children's novel by Eleanor H. Porter, first published in 1913, after which the term Pollyanna became a byword for any bright, cheery, optimistic, person.

A cowgirl is the female equivalent of a cowboy.

 

Page 7. " Why do they always round up Yalies? They're so stoo-pit! "
Connecticut Hall at Yale University's Old Campus
Public DomainConnecticut Hall at Yale University's Old Campus - Credit: Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons

'Yalies' are students from Yale University.

Yale University is a private research university in New Haven, Connecticut. It is one of the eight northeastern institutions known collectively as the 'Ivy League' colleges which are renowned for their academic excellence, selectivity as regards student admissions, and their social elitism. Originally a men-only college, it began admitting women in 1969.

Yale, founded in 1701, has numerous distinguished alumni, including five presidents of the United States, which gives added bite to Doreen's remark that 'Yalies' are 'so stoo-pit'!

At the St. Regis roof dance it was, in fact, 'Yalies' who were provided by the Mademoiselle team to act as escorts to Sylvia Plath and the other guest editors.

Page 7. " Buddy Willard went to Yale "

The character Buddy Willard (who is to be mercilessly slated later on in the text) is based on Dick Norton, whom Sylvia Plath knew from her high school days.  The couple started 'dating' during her first year at college when Dick was a student at Yale, and continued to do so after he transferred to Harvard Medical School in 1951.

Page 7. " on the Cape "

Cape Cod is a peninsula on the coast of Massachusetts, which is extremely popular as a holiday destination.

Both Sylvia Plath and Dick Norton took 'vacation jobs' on the Cape during the summer of 1952.

Google Map
Page 9. " 'I think I'll have an Old-Fashioned,' Doreen said to me. "
A classic Old-Fashioned
Creative Commons AttributionA classic Old-Fashioned - Credit: rochelle hartman, Wikimedia Commons

An Old-Fashioned is a cocktail that was first served at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880s.

Its main ingredients are whiskey (preferably bourbon), sugar, and Angostura bitters. It is generally garnished with orange slices and a maraschino cherry, and traditionally served in a tumbler known as an 'Old-Fashioned glass'.

Recipe for an Old-Fashioned

Page 10. " It's amazing how many college boys don't drink or smoke. I seemed to know them all. "
Removal of liquor during Prohibition
Public DomainRemoval of liquor during Prohibition - Credit: unknown

Here we have an excellent example of the narrator's terse, witty, sarcastic style.

Whilst college life in Britain and America is rarely associated these days with abstinence from alcohol, there is a long history of temperance and teetotaler movements in American society.

The opposition to alcohol in society reached its peak during the period known as the Prohibition (1920-1933) when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol for consumption was banned at a national level throughout the U.S.A.

Page 10. " The farthest Buddy Willard ever went was buying us a bottle of Dubonnet "

 

The famous advertising slogan for Dubonnet
Public DomainThe famous advertising slogan for Dubonnet - Credit: Félix Potuit

Dubonnet is a wine-based aperitif, fortified with herbs, spices, and quinine, which originated in France.

It was created originally as a novel way of getting members of the French Foreign Legion to ingest quinine, a defence against malaria.

As the text suggests, it was considered quite a sophisticated drink in the 1950's and 60's. In later years its popularity declined, although it has recently undergone something of a retro revival.

It is a key ingredient in many cocktails.

Find some Dubonnet cocktail recipes here

Page 10. " You probably must have heard of me. The name's Lenny Shepherd. "

In her biography* of Sylvia Plath, Anne Stevenson refers to an unpublished letter of 13 June 1953, written by Plath to her mother, mentioning that the taxi in which some of the guest editors were travelling to the ballet became stuck in traffic.

According to the letter, a man approached the taxi and said, "Too many pretty girls for one taxi. I'm Art Ford, the disc jockey. Come in for a talk." Some of the guest-editors did get out and join him in a café, and spent some time with him in Greenwich Village later that evening.

We do not know, of course, to what extent (if any) the character of Lenny Shepherd is based on Art Ford!

*Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Penguin, 1990) p. 41.

An interview with Art Ford: 

Page 14. " I was born in Kansas, I was bred in Kansas "
Screenshot of Frank Sinatra (1949)
Public DomainScreenshot of Frank Sinatra (1949) - Credit: Trailer screenshot

With a few small mistakes (or deliberate modifications), these lyrics are those of a song entitled 'Sunflower', recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1949, as are the lyrics quoted a few lines later. Recordings of 'Sunflower' were also made by other artists, including  Dean Martin who sings a slightly different version of the lyrics.

Listen to Frank Sinatra sing 'Sunflower' on Spotify

Listen to Dean Martin sing 'Sunflower' on Spotify

Page 14. " they both started to jitterbug "

To 'jitterbug' is to dance certain swing dances, such as the jive, the Lindy Hop, and the East Coast Swing.

 

                                                           

                                              

Page 15. " Wye oh wye did I ever leave Wyoming "
Roy Rogers in 'The Carson City Kid' (1940)
Public DomainRoy Rogers in 'The Carson City Kid' (1940) - Credit: Joseph Kane
'Why, Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming' was a song whose music and lyrics were composed by Morey Amsterdam.

Recordings of it were made by Jerry Colonna, Merle Travis and Roy Rogers.

Page 16. " I was exactly forty three blocks by five blocks away from my hotel "

The streets of New York City are arranged as a grid system, where streets run at right angles to each other.

The plan was devised by a commission set up in 1811 who proposed that New York be divided into 12 avenues running north to south, and 155 streets running east to west, thus creating almost 2,000 blocks. It was further decided that streets and blocks should be given numbers not names. 

The location of the 'Amazon' (Barbizon) in the New York grid system:

Google Map
Page 17. " I could see downtown to where the UN balanced itself in the dark, like a weird, green, Martian honeycomb. "

This is a reference to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. It is a group of four buildings, the largest of which, the Secretariat, was built between 1949 and 1950. The complex as a whole was completed in 1952.

The narrator's description of the building is very imaginative and very apt! 

United Nations Secretariat Building, New York
Creative Commons AttributionUnited Nations Secretariat Building, New York - Credit: Matthias Ott, Wikimedia Commons
Page 18. " Buddy, who was taking the cure for TB somewhere in upper New York State "

Dick Norton, the character on whom Buddy Willard was based, became ill with tuberculosis during his 2nd year as a medical student at Harvard.

The Harvard authorities paid for him to be treated at the Ray Brook sanatorium at Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.

Google Map
Page 18. " the antique griffin-legged tubs "
Griffin statue, Temple Bar, London
Creative Commons AttributionGriffin statue, Temple Bar, London - Credit: Elliott Brown, Flickr

A griffin is a mythical beast with the body and hind legs of a lion, and the head, wings and claws of an eagle.

Some old-fashioned cast iron bathtubs stand on four ornate legs of different designs (such as griffin legs). One of the most common designs for cast iron bathtub legs is the 'clawfoot' design.

Clawfoot bathtub
Creative Commons AttributionClawfoot bathtub - Credit: Wendy, Flickr
Page 20. " with its ancient Singer sewing-machine "

An 'ancient Singer sewing-machine'
GNU Free Documentation LicenseAn 'ancient Singer sewing-machine' - Credit: Vincent de Groot, Wikimedia Commons

Page 20. " because she looked stern and hard-working and moral as an old-style European immigrant and reminded me of my Austrian grandmother "
Immigrants landing at Ellis Island, New York Harbour (c.1900)
Public DomainImmigrants landing at Ellis Island, New York Harbour (c.1900) - Credit: Brown Brothers

Although most of the real-life individuals fictionalised in The Bell Jar are somewhat modified, the narrator's close family are very accurate replicas of Plath's own relatives.

Plath's maternal grandmother, whose married name was Aurelia Schober, was an Austrian immigrant to the United States. (Aurelia was also the name of Sylvia Plath's mother).

Page 22. " Arrayed on the Ladies' Day banquet table "
Picture from 'Popular Mechanics' (1937)
Creative Commons AttributionPicture from 'Popular Mechanics' (1937) - Credit: uploader, Todd Ehlers, Flickr

The magazine Ladies' Day is probably a  fictionalisation of the American magazine Woman's Day which was first published in 1931, and is still published today. During the period in which The Bell Jar was set, it specialised in food and cookery articles, and other domestic issues.

Woman's Day was one of a group of seven American magazines, known collectively as the 'Seven Sisters', which were aimed at married women with children. Six of the 'Seven Sisters' group are still in existence.

Sylvia Plath's choice of name may also be influenced by the Ladies' Home Journal, the title of another magazine in the group. 

Page 22. " I don't count Howard Johnson's where I only had French fries and cheeseburgers and vanilla frappes. "
Howard Johnson's Times Square branch (closed 2005)
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHoward Johnson's Times Square branch (closed 2005) - Credit: alex.lines, Flickr

In the 1950's 'Howard Johnson's' was a chain of restaurants throughout the United States.

The company was founded by Howard Deering Johnson who in 1925 opened a small drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he began serving ice cream.

A 'frappe' (derived from frappé) is the name given (mainly in the New England states) to a milkshake made with ice cream.

Page 24. " My grandfather and I had a standing joke. He was the head waiter at a country club near my home town "

Sylvia Plath's maternal grandfather, Frank Schober (an Austrian immigrant, like his wife), obtained work in the Summer of 1942 as the maitre d'hôtel at the Brookline Country Club in an affluent suburb of Boston.