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Flashbacks

Reconsidering JFK and Sylvia Plath

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One day when Dana Calvo was 6, she heard something on TV about "Camelot" and a man called President Kennedy. When she asked about those things, her mother recalled the afternoon the president was shot, 40 years ago this month. Then 22, her mother had been shopping at Klein's Department Store in Lower Manhattan. She took a break to get a hot dog and an Orange Crush at Nedick's food stand. The woman serving her was listening to the radio. Suddenly, she burst into tears and said, "Oh my God, the president's been shot."

"For me," says Calvo, "the Orange Crush made the story."

Calvo, now 33, harvested lots of telling details interviewing people for our story ("Senator Alan K. Simpson recalled just the way the sky looked when a friend told him the news as he walked toward a Rotary Club meeting in Cody, Wyoming. Novelist Reynolds Price remembered a radio commentator signing off to the funeral march from Beethoven's Third Symphony just as another commentator did after the death of FDR. When Calvo finished her reporting, she again asked her mother about the day Kennedy was shot. "She told me the same story I remembered from the mid-1970s—with the cold Orange Crush as vivid as ever."

Rob Howe recalls that when he was an English major at the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1970s, Sylvia Plath "seemed to come up about every other quarter," he says. "I can't imagine how many times I read The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems—I still have my copies, heavily annotated with insights that escape me now." But because of the "new criticism" then in vogue in English departments across the country, which dictated that scholars focus only on the words on the page and ignore the author's biography, Howe, 51, had only scant knowledge of the woman herself or of her dashing poet husband Ted Hughes.

Researching ("Lucas Myers, who went to CambridgeUniversity with Hughes. Myers told Howe about the night in 1956 when a young American woman in red shoes approached him at a party and seemed to flirt with him. It was Plath, and that night she appeared anything but a troubled soul. "In fact," says Howe, "as I read passages from her journals and letters, I felt I was in the presence of a lusty wench who might have written bodice-rippers." In the end, Howe says he came to feel that Plath was far more than a pioneer championing the literary voice of the contemporary woman: "She was a vulnerable, tender and at times daring individual whose personal tale stands for me as one of the great tragic love stories of the latter half of the 20th century."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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