(Re)Visiting the Styrons
A new memoir and film takes this writer back to memorable times spent with the poet and human rights advocate Rose Styron and her husband, literary icon William Styron
In fall 2001, I spent an entire day interviewing poet and human rights activist Rose Styron, then 73, and a late afternoon and evening interviewing her husband, literary icon William Styron, then 75, at their home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
For this book-and-author geek, it was amazing enough just being able to talk to the Styrons. But my time with them held some additional pleasures: a sighting of William Styron's Pulitzer-Prize and a clipping of the newspaper story he wrote after attending the funeral of William Faulkner, both on display in the guest bathroom; a glimpse of a framed invitation from Jack and Jackie Kennedy to the White House hanging near the kitchen.
Then this surprise: In Rose's car on our way to continue our conversation at her favorite place to walk at sunset, we drove by the house where Arthur Miller had lived with Marilyn Monroe. (The playwright was still living nearby in a different house with his current wife, photographer Inge Morath.) As we passed a driveway, Rose spied a friend and pulled in to ask her if she wanted to meet for tennis the next morning. The friend's husband stepped out of a small barn to say hi.
It was the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt.
The friend's husband stepped out of a small barn to say hi. It was the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt.
I've been remembering my times with the Styrons, and especially with Rose, now 95, after reading her new memoir, "Beyond This Harbor: Adventurous Tales of the Heart," and watching "In the Company of Rose," a recently released documentary by James Lapine.
The film is based on interviews conducted with Rose Styron over six years, starting when she was 86, at the Styrons' summer house on Martha's Vineyard, where Rose, now 95 and a widow, lives year-round.
In "Beyond This Harbor," Rose writes about her life before and during what she calls her good but "not uncomplicated" 53-year marriage to William Styron; about life with four children (and now eight grandchildren); about social lives intertwined with a veritable Who's Who of the literary world (thus my story above); about her (surprising) travels around the world; and about her life since since her husband's death seventeen years ago at age 81.
Rose starts her memoir with a harrowing tale about a little-known part of her life: her undercover work for Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations. Her job was to gather information in autocratic countries where the most horrendous atrocities were being fostered on writers and other citizens. This work could have cost her her life. It saved others. Rose told me in 2001 that she was banned for years from talking about these missions. But now she can.
In film and book, we learn of Rose's childhood in 1930s Baltimore where she was initially closely monitored at all hours because the Lindbergh kidnapping happened when she was a toddler.
In film and book, we learn of Rose's childhood in 1930s Baltimore where she was initially closely monitored at all hours because the Lindbergh kidnapping happened when she was a toddler. Some years later, however, freedom opened up: At ages 5, 6 and 7, during summers at her maternal grandmother's house, she happily roamed the boardwalks of Atlantic City alone, "which was very safe in those days," Rose told me.
Friends and Neighbors
Throughout "Beyond This Harbor" there are stories involving an astonishing number of authors and famous others who have been part of the Styrons' lives through the years. Many, such as the aforementioned McCourts and Millers (and their daughter Rebecca and her husband Daniel Day-Lewis) were neighbor/friends in the hills above the Styrons' house, or alternately on Martha's Vineyard where the Styron family summered.
This list of friends includes Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton (cofounders with William Styron of The Paris Review); Truman Capote and Lillian Hellman (both present at Rose and William's 1953 wedding in Rome); James Baldwin (who spent time living and writing in a converted barn/study on the Styrons' Roxbury property); John Barth; James Jones; Ralph Ellison; Dylan Thomas; Kurt Vonnegut; Philip Roth; Norman Mailer (a fraught relationship); Gabriel García Márquez; Carlos Fuentes; Alexander Calder; many Kennedys; Bill and Hillary Clinton; Leonard Bernstein; Katherine Graham; Mike Nichols; Diane Sawyer; Art Buchwald; Mike Wallace; Frank Sinatra; Mia Farrow; Carly Simon; Jorie Graham; Václav Havel; and Nelson Mandela.
My opportunity to talk to the Styrons in 2001 came about from my asking them for an interview after attending a talk and reading both gave at UMass Dartmouth in April 2000. The talk centered on William's book, "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness," an account of his 1985 depression and recovery. It was a book which had helped many people, and made him known to those unacquainted with his fiction.
I found out later, as Rose tells us in her book, that in May 2000 William Styron spiraled into a second depression — something many readers may not know about.
It took over a year for the interviews to happen. I found out later, as Rose tells us in her book, that in May 2000 William Styron spiraled into a second depression — something many readers may not know about. By June 2000, he was in the hospital. The rest of that year through the summer of 2001 was a nightmare for the Styrons.
By October 2001, when I interviewed him, he had mostly recovered. He told me that with this last depression, unlike his first, he had undergone electro-shock therapy (now known as electroconvulsive therapy). Whether it actually helped him or not, he was not sure.
In her memoir Rose writes that William anguished about letting his readers down by being sick again. He had promised them and had believed himself that "the beast had been conquered" permanently.
Rose emphasizes that her husband had fifteen good years after the first depression before the second one felled him. But then other illnesses, including jaw cancer, caused a different kind of decline. He died of pneumonia in 2006.
Lapine's film includes a moving visit by Rose to her husband's grave on Martha Vineyard, where he rests near many close friends of both of theirs.
Staying in the Light
"How do you deal with losing people?" James Lapine asks Rose Styron.
Her reply: Keeping a sense of humor, and always looking forward to the next good thing — a trip, or new child in the family; gathering with the old friends who remain while making new, younger friends.
Rose has notably been a very physically active person, playing tennis and swimming almost daily (the Roxbury house had an outside lap pool; Martha's Vineyard, of course, has the sea) well into her eighties — and possibly still.
At the 2000 UMass Dartmouth event where I first heard the Styrons talk, I discovered a fellow reporter also there had independently written down the same word I had to describe Rose: luminous.
We were not alone in our assessment.
In his documentary, Lapine says: "It was 2014 … that I first laid eyes on Rose. We had ventured out to the local theater and minutes before the curtain was to go up, Rose appeared. She glowed [emphasis mine] as she made her way up the aisle and the audience literally perked up when they saw her…"
I am happy to see that the same shining quality of hers which I first saw over 20 years ago —some mysterious combination of optimism, grace, confidence, strength, humor and energy —what Lapine calls "an animated cheerfulness and life force — is still with Rose Styron in her nineties, and visible in Lapine's film for others to encounter.