Salonnière Diane (Photo: Amanda Lane)
“You felt smarter and more talented and more capable in her presence.”
Such was Kate Moses’s summary of the late biographer Diane Middlebrook’s “genius for friendship” – or at least, that was part of it.
Salonnière Kate read from her “Chocolate Cake for Diane” — featured right now, here, at the online Narrative Magazine — to a roomful of women assembled in her memory last August. Diane organized several literary salons for women: first in London and San Francisco, and later in New York. According to Moses, “she admitted without apology that she wouldn’t schedule a salon event in one city while she was in the other because she didn’t want to miss anything.” The Middlebrook salons continue – a place for women to gather, celebrate their achievements, discuss their work, and network.
In Irv and Marilyn Yalom‘s Palo Alto home tucked away in wooded seclusion off the main streets, one wondered if perhaps the spirit of Diane is contagious. We were all feeling smarter and more capable in the Bay Area writer’s salon – and boy, there are times we need to.
Kate’s “fertile creative partnership” with Diane flourished as Kate was writing her fictional story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Wintering, while Middlebrook was working on her biographical account, Her Husband. “By sharing all of our research, we made twice as much progress in half the time.”
I wrote Diane Middlebrook’s obituary here. At the time, I found the most arresting part of Diane’s story to be her absolute determination to finish her biography of Ovid, even in the face of a rare and ultimately deadly liposarcoma.
Diane had been reading and studying Ovid since graduate school, and later taught him and lectured on him.
“‘I am not ready to die,’ she said again and again, her voice brisk and emphatic, that elegant index finger aloft,” Kate recalled. “From the last days of January 2004, when Diane learned that her tumor had returned with a vengeance, she never took her eyes off Ovid. Through those surreal years her book was her anchor, as the life of her elegant mind had always been. She was single-minded in her concentration, hoarding away time from successive chemotherapies and monthly dendritic cell treatments and surgeries and the repetitive struggle to recover from every onslaught her body had to withstand.”
She returned to San Francisco to dazzle the salon with a reading from her Ovid manuscript “and an animated talk on the challenge of writing a biography without primary sources.”
Moses recalled the last visit in London: “We left the Athenaeum arm in arm, descending into the Tube together and kissing goodbye at Leicester Square, Diane calling ’till December!’ as her train pulled away.”
“Nothing, after that, happened the way any of us had planned or hoped or thought possible.” By September, she could no longer keep down solid food. The doctors turned to palliative care, and she could no longer continue the book on her own.
Salonnière Kate Moses (Photo: Ramona Pedersen)
“She was so weak and in such constant pain she was sometimes not able to hold a pencil, and her pain medications were disorienting: timed-release doses that periodically submerged her mind like a carnival dunking machine. But she might, with great concentration and will, be able to talk about Ovid, to dictate the blueprint for her book’s final form, and she wanted to try…”
The experiment involved Kate making digital recordings of Middlebrook’s ideas for the books, interviewing her, teasing out ideas and taking notes, with hopes of assembling the book later.
To that end, “Diane asked her doctor to adjust her medications, so that she would have more control over her thoughts and her ability to articulate them. This meant, in practice, that she would have to withstand more pain in order to work on Ovid, a price she was willing to pay for as long as she could stand it. … it was downright superhuman most of the time, a heroic and determined effort on her part to stay focused and acute when her body was impatiently tugging her in the other direction. It was often like watching a great, dignified actor remain in character and deliver his staggering final soliloquy as the theater is being dismantled board by board all around him.”
Eventually, Kate was joined by a few other insiders, including Diane’s daughter Leah Middlebrook, to work as a team to shape the manuscript with the notes, recordings, outlines, and Diane’s help. “Diane was in noticeable pain, but when [we] would ask if she wanted to stop, Diane would grimace, shaking her head no. ‘Let’s keep going,’ she’d say. Eventually, they covered it all. “‘Good,” Middlebrook said, holding her daughter’s hand. “Because the rest is unthought.” Kate meant to come back for more sorting out, but that was the last time she was able to speak to Diane, who died a week later.
Listening to Kate read in front of a large picture window glowing with the late-afternoon, late-summer sun, its remarkable how many women (and, for the annual August event, men were invited too) were touched by Diane’s life – enough so that a memorial residence for writers is planned by the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.
Salonnière Kate described a more personal goodbye had happened a week earlier, at the hospital, when Kate suddenly felt Diane’s hand on her wrist:
“Every minute has been delicious,” she said dreamily, not knowing if she was truly dreaming or tumbling in the surf of her mind, her focus turned inward. “Every minute with you, Kate,” she said then, holding my gaze, squeezing my wrist. “It’s all been delicious. Every minute. How many relationships can we say that about?”