Bad Romance: History’s Ill-Fated Literary Couples


Writers who marry or woo other writers — it’s a bold move, considering the egos involved and the social isolation necessary to get a decent amount of good work done. And yet the authors below tried to make it work; some stayed together for months and some were even able to make it last years. Many of the following authors even acted as mentors to their younger paramours, giving their careers a boost by introducing them to editors and other important members of literary circles. If you’re interested in learning more about writers’ affairs of the heart, Katie Roiphe details some of the following relationships in her book, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages. So read on, dear readers, and tell us which couples we missed in the comments section below.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell

“The most desolating fact is that Cal and I have, by some strange miracle, a good marriage and great love for each other, except in these manic months and just before they come on,” Hardwick once wrote to her friend, Mary McCarthy, using the nickname for Lowell. Lisa Levy writes about the pair in a 2008 essay in the Believer, saying, “Elizabeth Hardwick, who died in December 2007, is emblematic of a long-suffering housewife, albeit one married to an extraordinary man, and one who lived among extraordinary people in extraordinary times.”

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn

Gellhorn, a war reporter, and Hemingway, a novelist with a manly, laconic style, were seemingly a great match when they first met at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West. Although Hemingway was still married to Pauline Pfeiffer at the time, it didn’t stop the pair from going to Spain together, where Gellhorn reported on the Spanish Civil war for Collier’s Magazine. But after moving to Cuba, it was apparent that Hemingway didn’t want a literary rival, and that Gellhorn had no plans to settle down. Years later, she wrote, “I weep for the eight years I spent…worshipping his image with him, and I weep for whatever else I was cheated of due to that time-serving.” After the end of the Second World War, Gellhorn met Tom Matthews, a former editor at TIME, and they settled down together in London. She then wrote, “All is well. No purdah, no chains, no scenes, no one shooting out the living room windows. Times are different now.”

Sylvia Plath and Edward James “Ted” Hughes

Sylvia and Ted met at the issue launch party for St. Botolph’s Review; she was studying on a Fulbright at Cambridge and he was writing poems for the short-lived publication. The pair were married on Bloomsday in 1956, at an Anglican church in Camden. Seven years later, the very unstable Sylvia killed herself, after discovering that Ted was having an affair with Assia Wevill (who also killed herself via oven fumes, in a copycat suicide a few years later). In a poem about Sylvia that was published in the late 1990s, Ted writes, “I did not know/I had made and fitted a door/ Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave.”

Norman Mailer and Lady Jeanne Campbell

Six years into his second marriage, Mailer famously stabbed his wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife in their apartment on the Upper West Side; she later wrote a memoir about the event, titled, The Last Party. After that, he married Jeanne Campbell, a wealthy English journalist and daughter of the 11th Duke of Argyll. The pair married in 1962 and divorced a year later, after he cheated on her. He later wrote her as a highly unpleasant female character in An American Dream. However, Lady Campbell had the last laugh, supposedly sleeping with Nikita Khrushchev, JFK, and Fidel Castro in the course of twelve months, then marrying John Sergeant Cram, who was made of money.

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson

We mentioned the famous Vita in our “Writers Who Moonlighted as Dandies” post; Sackville-West had a brief affair with Virginia Woolf and an enduring one with Violet Trefusis, née Keppel, though Sackville-West remained married to her husband, the diplomat and biographer Harold Nicolson, the whole time. Both were having same-sex affairs, so the relationship arguably worked well for a time, though Harold put his foot down when Vita ran off with Violet in January 1921, and he forbid his wife to see her lover after that point. In Harold’s opinion, it was fine to have covert affairs, but anything in the open would be scandalous and thus improper. (To read more about Bloomsbury’s saphhic triangles, try the Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd.)

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud

Image courtesy of fotopedia

Two poets, one older and one younger, both alive in the mid-19th century, fall in love through the post. Rimbaud wrote to Verlaine, an established Symbolist poet at the time, and after trading letters, Rimbaud traveled to meet Verlaine at his Parisian pied-a-terre. Absinthe was drunk like water, and terrific fights ensued, both public and private, though the two stayed together, eventually moving to London, where Rimbaud wrote A Season In Hell and Verlaine wrote Spleen. After shooting Rimbaud in the arm after an argument, Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison. Rimbaud then spent time as a fat capitalist in Africa, only to return to Marseilles for treatment on a bad leg, which turned out to be cancerous. He died at 37, on November 10, 1891. Verlaine died at 51, five years later.

Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet

Another May-December romance for the archives: Radiguet was known as Monsieur Bébé” (“Mister Baby”) by a Modernist circle that included Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Coco Chanel; Hemingway once even said Radiguet was a writer “who knew how to make his career not only with his pen but with his pencil,” though Cocteau didn’t get off any easier — Chanel once called him “a snobbish little pederast.” Cocteau and Radiguet met in 1918, and the elder playwright urged his friends at Grasset to publish his younger friend’s work. Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh) was Radiguet’s first novel, a semi-autobiographical affair concerning an older woman who falls for a teenage boy. After taking a vacation together in 1923, Radiguet contracted typhoid and died, and Cocteau took up a serious opium habit. Six years later, he publishes Les Enfants Terribles , arguably his most famous work, as he attempts to wean himself off the drug.

Rebecca West and H.G. Wells

Wells with Rebecca West and friends. Photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library

This letter says it all:

“Dear H.G.,

During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene. I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. […] On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house. I always knew that you would hurt me to death someday, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else. I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. But people like me who swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yousrelf that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature and so it doesn’t matter. […] But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unecessary heart-attack.”

–Rebecca West to H.G. Wells, 1913

Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey

Yezierska was a Polish Jewish intellectual whose family immigrated to the US in the late 1800s. She met Dewey, a heady WASP with an interest in social justice, in 1917, when he was 58 and married, and she was in her thirties. Their courtship ended when he supposedly made a crude pass at her and she then refused to have sex with him. She became famous when her novel Hungry Hearts was made into a silent film by Samuel Goldwyn in 1922, although she then refused to accept the $100,000 contract, choosing to return to New York and work for the WPA Writer’s Project instead. The job: cataloging trees in Central Park. That’s called scruples, you know. Yezierska’s subsequent novels had WASPy male characters who objectified the female Other through a mentor / lover relationship. And that’s how writers get their demons out, kids.

Jessie Fauset and W.E.B. Du Bois

Langston Hughes called Jessie Fauset one of “three people who midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being.” In W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, David Levering Lewis writes that Fauset was Du Bois’s protegé, collaborator, and lover. The both worked together at the Crisis, the NAACP’s literary magazine, which Du Bois helped found. Fauset, who was light-skinned and highly educated, wrote Plum Bun: A Novel Without A Moral in 1929–a novel about an ambitious black girl from Philadelphia who is able to pass as white when she moves to New York. However, Du Bois soon moved on to other women, which complicated matters. Fauset quietly got married and moved to New Jersey, then back to Philadelphia, where she died of heart disease in 1961.