Former schoolmates and lifelong besties Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey traded more than 500 letters during their friendship. In 1839, nearly a decade before Brontë’s Jane Eyre was published, Nussey’s brother Henry proposed marriage to the author. She rejected him in a letter, which the website Brain Pickings perfectly describes as “a bold defiance of oppressive gender ideals, packaged as the ultimate it’s-not-you-it’s-me gentle letdown.” Leave it to the wildly creative literary types to pen the best breakup letters. This got us wondering about the most dramatic breakups authors have faced, so we explored the juicy, and sometimes tragic, love lives of writers throughout history.
Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway
It wouldn’t be a list of botched relationships without mentioning the brutish antics of Ernest Hemingway. A four-time husband who courted affairs throughout most of his marriages, Hemingway’s daunting ego was crushed when third wife Martha Gellhorn, who proved to be the author’s most compelling and challenging partner, refused to shun her successful career as a journalist and war correspondent to play the role of traditional wife. Gellhorn ended their contentious relationship when Hemingway’s resentment became too much to bear. Reportedly, he also tried to block her from traveling at one point, which forced her to sail through dangerous, war-torn waters to her destination.
David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr
When a celebrated memoirist and an intimidatingly talented author get together, sparks are bound to fly. The stormy romance between David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr started in the 1990s after Karr divorced her husband, the poet Michael Milburn. Wallace tattooed Karr’s name on his arm before they’d even had the chance to share their first kiss, but the passion quickly turned ugly — as explained in a New York Magazine account of the relationship:
He proposed marriage and wrote her ardent letters from blocks away that barely fit in the envelopes. They rented videos like RoboCop from Blockbuster because they both ‘loved movies where shit blew up,’ Karr says. ‘We laughed our asses off.’
But Wallace was volatile, Karr says, and she was sharp-tongued; their fights became frequent and virulent. Karr is a charismatic raconteur, and the portrait of Wallace that she painted in speaking with me was striking. In one fight, he threw her coffee table at her; in another, he stopped the car in a bad neighborhood and pushed her out, leaving her to walk home. Then he would try to win her back. He once climbed up on her balcony, she says, to ‘beat on the door like in the fucking Graduate.’ This is not the familiar Wallace, wounded and ever sweet. Years later he wrote Karr a letter of apology, she says, for ‘being such a dick.’
Karr offered further hints about the relationship in a 2012 poem titled “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.” She writes: “So far apart we’d grown / between love transmogrifying into hate and those sad letters.”
Jacqueline Susann and Irving Mansfield
Consummate party girl, social climber, and Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann enjoyed being spoiled by devoted husband (and eventual manager) Irving Mansfield. But when the free press and gifts started to dwindle during his Army stint in 1943, Susann composed a scathing breakup letter to express her dissatisfaction — while already in the midst of her affair with comedian Joe E. Lewis:
Irving, when we were at the Essex House and I had room service and I could buy all my Florence Lustig dresses, I found that I loved you very much, but now that you’re in the Army and getting $56 a month, I feel that my love has waned.
Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White
“Caldwell treated his own children with alternating neglect and brutality. He was married four times… had a number of extramarital affairs, drank heavily, and was prone to violent mood swings,” writes biographer Dan B. Miller of the Tobacco Road author. Caldwell’s turmoil created the perfect storm, and wife Margaret Bourke-White, the pioneering documentary photographer for Life magazine, was at the epicenter. The couple collaborated on three photo-documentaries (You Have Seen Their Faces, North of the Danube, and Say, Is This The USA) during their three years together, but accounts of the relationship indicate that Caldwell possibly took advantage of his talented wife’s contributions by persuading her to edit his writings. Last year, it was reported that Barbra Streisand would direct a film about their tumultuous marriage.
Emily Dickinson and Otis Phillips Lord
Dickinson’s reputation as a recluse precedes her, but a romance with her father’s close friend, a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, revealed another side to the author. Otis Phillips Lord traded a series of passionate letters with the author after his wife died in 1877. Dickinson was 47 at the time. “I will not wash my arm, twill take your touch away,” she penned at one point. “I confess that I love him — I rejoice that I love him. . . .“ When the devoted Lord proposed they marry and live together in Salem, she neglected to answer definitively one way or the other. There is speculation that her epilepsy prevented her from taking the next step in the relationship, as marriage for epileptics was discouraged at the time. She would have wanted it to remain a secret. Lord died months later, closing the chapter of their relationship most dramatically.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
The tempestuous marriage between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath ended in tragedy. Their story has inspired more ire from the literary community than perhaps any other couple. The relationship is the subject of persistent speculation, particularly surrounding Hughes’ treatment of the Bell Jar author during her lifetime and of her writings following her suicide in 1963. The marriage rapidly crumbled after the poets moved to the idyllic Court Green in Devon with their daughter Frieda (son Nicholas arrived soon after). Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill, who rented their Chalcot Square home in London with her husband. Heartbroken, Plath left Hughes — but her lifelong battle with mental illness caught up with her in 1963. Controversy continued to stir after Wevill committed suicide in a similar fashion in 1969.
Anaïs Nin and C. L. (Lanny) Baldwin
The Delta of Venus author gives good bitch in this breakup letter to former lover C.L. Baldwin. Nin was married to engraver and filmmaker Hugh Parker Guiler at the time. Baldwin was unhappy in his own marriage. Nin helped Baldwin publish a book of poetry, Quinquivara, for which she wrote the introduction. Nin’s husband even contributed six engravings to the work. After an intense fling, the duo parted ways in 1945 after Baldwin returned to his wife and children. The sharp-tongued Nin had a lot to say about his decision:
My poor Lanny, how blind you are! A woman is jealous only when she has nothing, but I who am the most loved of all women, what can I be jealous of? I gave you up long ago, as you well know, also I refused you the night you wept-I only extended the friendship as I told you then until you found what you wanted-When you did I withdrew it merely because I have no time for dead relationships. The day I discovered your deadness-long ago-my illusion about you died and I knew you could never enter my world, which you wanted so much. Because my world is based on passion, and because you know that it is only with passion that one creates, and you know that my world which you now deride because you couldn’t enter it, made Henry [Miller] a great writer, because you know the other young men you are so jealous of enter a whole world by love and are writing books, producing movies, poems, paintings, composing music.
I am in no need of “insisting” upon being loved. I’m immersed and flooded in this. That is why I am happy and full of power and find friendship pale by comparison. But in the middle of this fiery and marvellous give and take, going out with you was like going out with a priest. The contrast in temperature was too great. So I waited for my first chance to break-not wanting to leave you alone.
You ought to know my value better than to think I can be jealous of the poor American woman who has lost her man to me continually since I am here.
In response, Baldwin told Nin he felt that she was “a kind of dog in the manger with men. You want them all to sit at your feet and be yours, all yours and only yours.” His temper grew hotter in a second letter: “Is there to be no way of settling things without going to blows and insults? Can you kick me off your planet? Can I pull a switch and consign you to the proper section of hell?”
Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb
Best known as the woman who described the Romantic poet “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Lady Caroline began a very public affair with Byron while they were in their mid-20s. The torrid relationship sparked a severe quarterlife crisis in Caroline, who went off the deep end after Byron essentially ignored her, ending the relationship. Her obsession could not be quelled. She engaged in a series of private and public acts (sometimes through poetry) for his attention — including nearly stabbing him, herself, and mailing Byron a lock her pubic hair covered in blood. Byron cruelly toyed with Caroline. He had his new lover, one Jane Elizabeth, countess of Oxford, respond to her insistent letters. He also mailed Caroline a lock of the countess’ hair instead of his as she so desperately requested. Meanwhile, Caroline started rumors about Byron’s inappropriate relationship with half-sister, Augusta, and forged letters to Byron’s publisher in order to obtain a painted miniature of the poet.
T. S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood
Unassuming heartbreaker T. S. Eliot drove several women to the edge, but his relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the neurotic muse who many believe inspired Eliot’s The Waste Land, was the stormiest. “I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her,” Eliot would later recall of the marriage. He felt Vivienne’s attentions obliged him to pursue a serious commitment. Her increasing mental and physical instability, and her affair with philosopher Bertrand Russell, left Eliot disinterested. He separated from Vivienne in 1933, cutting her out of his life completely, but she refused to accept it was the end. Vivienne was institutionalized in 1938 after she was found wandering the streets of London muttering about Eliot and asking if he had been beheaded. She remained there until her death.