Throughout Elizabeth Bishop’s many travels, New York remained a natural hub for her to return to. The city became her temporary “home” at various times throughout her life. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bishop had a complicated relationship with the city that both inspired and tormented her in equal measure. After graduating from Vassar, Bishop saw New York as a threatening yet thriving literary scene; for an aspiring writer, it was the place to be. Her relationship with mentor poet, Marianne Moore, drew her to the city in the 1930s, and Moore’s influence on the young Bishop in the city was considerable. New York became the setting for many of Bishop’s poems, and her life in the city inspired many others. The ambitious poet was ultimately able to fully break onto the literary scene with the help of The New Yorker, which published her work from 1940 through the end of her life . However, Bishop often viewed New York as a dark, threatening environment, and she was rarely healthy living in the city. She suffered from severe asthma, chronic depression, and alcoholism, all exacerbated by the stresses of living in this urban environment. In the end, Bishop’s relationship with the city was paradoxical: her time in New York both made her and marred her. The city nurtured her as a poet but destroyed her mentally and emotionally. In the following pages, you can explore the many sides of Bishop’s relationship with the city.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

New York: A Residential and Emotional Chronology

“I think that it is in the city alone, maybe New York alone, that one gets in this country these sudden intuitions into the whole of contemporaneity. You go for days reading the newspapers every morning, feeling a certain responsibility about all over, everyone’s, predicaments, making use of all inventions, ideas, etc., looking at modern pieces of art, buildings, scenery—and the sense of the present, the actual sensation of it like riding a surf board, never afflicts you. But then there are flashes, when you see all in a minute, what it is to be ‘modern’; when you catch it coming toward you like a ball, more compressed and acute than in any work of ‘modern art’; when you taste it concentrated, like a drop of acid” (quoted in Millier 82).

Bishop was drawn back to New York many times in her life, and she resided in several different apartments and hotels in the city. Although the city remained her magnetic North throughout her life, it was never a healthy setting for her. New York was the location of the deaths of several loved ones, and city life fueled Bishop’s depression and alcoholism throughout her life. Although it was the city where any aspiring writer would need a foothold, Bishop soon realized that the city was destructive as well.


In the fall of 1934, Bishop found her first apartment on the edge of Greenwich Village with the help of Mary McCarthy and her husband, Harold Johnsrud. Bishop was fresh out of Vassar when she rented this one-bedroom apartment at 16 Charles Street. Bishop saw New York as a city of opportunity where she could begin to make a name for herself as a young writer. Nevertheless, she approached the literary world of New York with some anxiety and trepidation. In 1934, she wrote to her long-time friend, Frani Blough: “Every day I start out firmly to ask someone to let me review poems for them. I get so scared that I have to stay home with diarrhea” (quoted in Millier 74). Bishop tried to spend Christmas Day with her close friend, Margaret Miller, and her mother, but Bishop suffered an extreme asthma attack (She was prone to asthma her entire life) and had to go back to her Charles Street apartment to spend the rest of the holiday alone. Brett Millier, an important biographer and critic of Bishop wrote about Bishop’s asthma: “It fed her sense of homelessness and sent her away from places she would rather have stayed. A self-proclaimed poet of geography, she often traveled specifically in search of air she could breathe. And so for Elizabeth—who had the means to travel—asthma was intimately tied up with the idea of ‘place’” (75). Bishop spent a depressing New Year alone subsisting on “adrenalin and cough syrup” (quoted in Millier 75), but it was on this lonely, bleak New Year that Bishop composed her first major New York poem, “The Map,” which would open her first collection, North and South.


After arriving home from Europe with Louise Crane in summer of 1936, Bishop returned to New York but had no concrete plans. She stayed with Louise and her family at their mansion at 820 Fifth Avenue; she then went to stay with Margaret Miller (another close friend) and her mother at 10 Monroe Street in Greenwich Village. Afterwards, she spent a few days at the Hotel Brevoort. Bishop passed the summer in Falmouth, MA, but she moved back to New York at the end of September, staying with the Cranes again. She then moved to the Hotel Chelsea until December 18th when she left for Florida with Louise and saw Key West for the first time. It was during this last stay in New York that Bishop received word that Bob Seaver, a boyfriend during her Vassar years, had committed suicide. Seaver was in love with Bishop and proposed marriage to her, but she turned him down, avowing that she would never marry (she was clearly more in love with Louise Crane and Margaret Miller at this point in her life). On November 21, 1936, Seaver shot himself, but before killing himself, he sent off his only “suicide note,” a postcard to Bishop that said: “Go to hell, Elizabeth” (quoted in Millier 112). The horrific news and the guilt Bishop felt began to take a toll on her, and a trip away from the cold environment of the city to the warm Florida sun must have been a relief for her.


In March of 1937, Bishop came home to New York. She rented a room at the Murray Hill Hotel at 41st Street and Park Avenue, which she would return to off and on throughout the next few years. Bishop was very anxious about her writing, and she often recorded her dreams, which revealed this unease. She had severe, painful dental work done, and she spent days recovering (Millier 121).


Bishop began the routine of summering in New York and wintering in Florida. (This travelling north and south would inspire the title of her first book, North and South, which came out in 1945.) The summer of 1939 was a difficult one for Bishop. She found an apartment on West 20th Street. There is not much information about the summer and fall of 1938, but Bishop later wrote about “troubles in New York” when her habits “changed drastically” (quoted in Millier 147). Critic Brett Millier notes that Bishop grappled with depression most of her life, and Bishop’s time in New York in 1938 was a low period (147). She was drinking heavily, and by 1939, her alcoholism was becoming an issue.


Bishop spent two months in the fall of 1940 and one month in 1941 in New York at the Murray Hill Hotel. Millier points out that Bishop’s drinking and depression was just as severe during this stay in New York, as Bishop referred again to her “New York troubles.” She was living alone at the Murray Hill hotel, which only worsened her drinking problem. She did not write any poetry in New York during this time. She was happy to return to Key West (Millier 162).


Bishop spent October and November at the Murray Hill Hotel. It was during this stay in New York that Bishop first met Lota de Macedo Soares, a wealthy Brazilian woman whom Bishop would later fall in love with and live with for years in Brazil. Marjorie Stevens, a woman Bishop lived with in Key West for a number of years, wrote to Bishop during this time, pleading with her to: “Be brave,” “Don’t get depressed,” “Don’t stay in New York,” “Don’t drink when you’re overtired” (quoted in Millier 170). Marjorie was very worried about Bishop’s mental and emotional health in New York and tried to draw her back to Key West by saying that she would get a job so Bishop could write full time. During this time, Bishop had trouble writing poetry and even wrote few letters (Millier 170).


After spending a long time in Key West, Bishop’s asthma forced her to return to New York in August of 1944. A friend, Loren MacIver, found Bishop a flat at 46 King Street. Bishop stayed in New York until February of 1945, but she remained unemployed. Bishop tried to lose weight, drink less, and remain stable, but she struggled. Bishop’s asthma continued to be a problem, and she went to see an allergist even. In conjunction with the worsening asthma, Bishop became more depressed and drank even more heavily. Marjorie Stevens implored Bishop to return to Key West after a dismal visit with Bishop in New York, but instead of heading south, Bishop stayed with a friend, Anna B. Lindsay, and searched out a psychotherapist in the city (Millier 173).

By December of 1944, Bishop had found a therapist (Dr. Jameson), who was only somewhat helpful. She left him shortly. During this time, Bishop was also unsure about her relationship with Stevens, and she was hesitant about returning to Key West. However, things began to look up when Bishop mailed her manuscript of North & South to Houghton Mifflin in January of 1945. Bishop wrote that she was: “much, much better,…almost human” (quoted in Millier 174) at this time. She left for Key West in February and got word in May that North & South had won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship. She returned to New York at the end of May (Millier 174).


In the winter of 1945-6, Bishop shuttled back and forth between New York and Key West as her relationship with Marjorie Stevens deteriorated. In the spring of 1946, Stevens’ letters suggest that Bishop’s drinking had worsened and that Bishop was seriously considering leaving Marjorie and Key West. Stevens finally ended the relationship, telling Bishop not to return south: “I don’t think you should consider it a possibility any more, for as long as you do you obviously aren’t going to adjust yourself to anything else…[We’ve been] trying to make something work that doesn’t” (quoted in Millier 179). Bishop remained in New York for a year and when she ultimately returned to Key West in the winter of 1947, she stayed with Pauline Hemingway (Millier 179).

Because of the instability in her life, Bishop started seeing a new psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Foster, in the spring of 1946. Foster was incapable of curbing Bishop’s drinking, but the doctor did have a significant impact on Bishop’s mental health at the time. Foster’s death a few years later in 1950 weighed heavily on Bishop (Millier 180).


Bishop spent time in New York off and on throughout 1947. The winter of 1947 was the first one in almost ten years that she had spent up north. She continued to suffer from asthma. It was during this time in New York that Bishop composed her bleak poem, “Varick Street.” Bishop claimed that the poem came to her in a dream with the repeated lines: “And I shall sell you, sell you/sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me” (Millier 189).

In the spring of 1947, Bishop first started seeing Dr. Anny Baumann, a general practitioner, who became Bishop’s go-to doctor for all of her ailments: her asthma, depression, and alcoholism (Millier 191).


After spending time in Nova Scotia, Washington D.C., Key West, and Haiti, Bishop returned to New York in April of 1949. She had been given the post of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, which Robert Lowell had helped secure for her. Her asthma was improving, but she still battled alcoholism. Bishop stayed at the Hotel Earle because her King Street flat was being torn down. Bishop saw doctors daily as she was “trying to get myself straightened out” (quoted in Millier 212). Bishop was anxious about the Library of Congress consultant position in Washington D.C. and worried as well about Robert Lowell’s deteriorating mental health (Millier 212).

In May, Bishop went to visit a friend she had traveled with, Jinny Pfeiffer, who was so disturbed by Bishop’s state that she drove Bishop to Blythewood, an upscale psychiatric rest home. Bishop remained at Blythewood for two months, recuperating before heading off to the Yaddo artist colony and then on to Washington D.C (Millier 214).


Bishop had spent time away from New York at Yaddo and also in Washington D.C., returning to New York in the spring of 1951. She sublet an apartment on East 69th Street from May 1-September 30. She continued to see Dr. Baumann regularly to cope with her asthma and, more often, her depression. In October, Bishop knew that she did not want to remain in New York, and after a delayed start, she set off for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on November 10. She left New York with a feeling of immense relief in the escape (Millier 235).


During her visit to Brazil, Bishop met up with Lota de Macedo Soares. After experiencing a violent allergic reaction to cashew nuts around Christmas of 1951, Lota nursed Bishop back to health, and the two women fell in love. Bishop decided to start a life in Brazil with Lota. The two women returned to New York in April of 1952 to get Bishop’s possessions. Critic Brett Millier reflects on the salubrious effect of Brazil on Bishop (as opposed to the destructive effects of New York):

[Bishop] would not live alone; she would not have to get a job (the income from her father’s estate would keep her in Brazil as it could not in the United States); she would be out of reach of the dissipating influences (and opportunities to exercise her habit of self-denigrating comparison) of the New York literary ‘scene’; and in the ‘timeless’ Brazilian world she would be free at last from the pace of New York, which had seemed to her a dizzying plunge toward loss and death (246).

Bishop found significant relief over the next ten years living with Lota in Brazil. The climate and companionship were conducive to her recuperation and writing. In September of 1952, Bishop wrote to Anny Baumann:

The drinking seems to have dwindled to about one evening once or twice a month, and I stop before it gets really bad, I think…I get to worrying about the past ten years or so and I wish I could stop doing that but…the drinking and the working both seem to have improved miraculously. Well no it isn’t miraculous really—it is almost entirely due to Lota’s good sense and kindness. I still feel I must have died and gone to heaven without deserving to, but I am getting a little more used to it (quoted in Millier 251).


Bishop and Lota spent six months in New York (April to October) with the purpose of seeing The Diary of Helena Morley published. Bishop noted that five years was the right amount of time away from the New York literary world. She saw many of her acquaintances and fellow writers, but she and Lota were relieved to return to Brazil in the fall (Millier 289).


Bishop and Lota returned to New York for five weeks, staying at Loren MacIver’s 61 Perry Street apartment in Greenwich Village. Bishop had been commissioned to write a volume on Brazil for the Life World Library series through Time, Inc. Books. Bishop had accepted the “pot-boiling” job (quoted in Millier 324) because she wanted to try her hand at journalism. She did not enjoy the project, writing slowly and often at odds with the subject matter Time expected. She was interested in flora and fauna while Time was more interested in people and politics. Bishop lagged behind deadlines, and when Bishop and Lota returned to New York with the manuscript in November, the stay was exhausting. Bishop was frustrated with the book she was being “forced” to write. Working doggedly in New York, she was glad to return to Brazil with the project finished and out of her hands (Millier 325-326).


After years living in Brazil with Lota, fault lines began to appear in their relationship. Lota became connected to Brazilian governor of Guanabara, Carlos Lacerda, and he appointed her as supervisor of a park project on the waterfront. Lota later became a city councilor and the overseer of Flamingo Park. Close with Lacerda, Lota became increasingly more embroiled in Brazilian politics, which drew her away from Bishop. Bishop, meanwhile, was appointed Fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1964. In 1966, Bishop (without Lota’s consent) agreed to take on the post of writer in residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. Returning from the U.S. in 1966, Bishop found Lota jealous and upset. Lota had a breakdown and had to be treated with insulin shock treatment. In January of 1967, Bishop went to a clinic to stop drinking. Her relationship with Lota was deteriorating, but she stayed in Brazil (Stevenson 145-148).

In early July, Bishop flew to New York against her own will but on the recommendation of Lota’s doctors. Lota would be unable to travel until the fall. When Bishop arrived at 61 Perry Street on July 4, the apartment was “dusty and depressing” and she was “terribly lonely” (quoted in Millier 393). Bishop was still getting over a case of dysentery from a previous trip in Brazil, and she had also gotten a concussion at Lota’s doctor’s home. As a result, Bishop suffered from dizzy spells, blackouts, and headaches (Millier 393). Bishop felt out of place in the Greenwich Village of 1967, but she spent time on Long Island with friends and rested at Jane Dewey’s farm in Havre de Grace. Bishop’s social life picked up in New York that summer, but in August, Bishop heard from Lota’s doctors that she should not travel until December at the earliest even though Lota seemed healthier in letters and on the phone (Millier 394-395).

In early September, Lota cabled Bishop and asked to come to New York. Bishop was lonely and wanted to see Lota, so she agreed to the visit. Bishop tried to get in touch with Lota’s doctors but received no reply from them. Lota came to New York on September 19, not appearing entirely healthy. In a letter to Anny Baumann, Bishop noted that she and Lota had a “peaceful and affectionate” evening (quoted in Millier 395) before falling asleep. During the night, however, Lota overdosed on tranquillizers, and by the time Bishop woke up and found her, Lota was almost dead. After being admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, Lota remained in a coma for five days before dying. She was fifty-seven. Although Lota overdosed on Valium, which should not have killed her, she also suffered from arteriosclerosis and heart problems, which most likely killed her in the end (Millier 395). Bishop felt considerable guilt over Lota’s death and tortured herself for many years.


Away from New York for several years, Bishop returned in the spring of 1970 when she stopped in to see Anny Baumann in the midst of traveling to Rotterdam. Bishop was not well, and Baumann sent Bishop to a specialist. Bishop’s diagnosis was four different strains of dysentery that she had been carrying around for months. Bishop recuperated and received treatment at the Hotel Elysee before leaving for Boston to be with her new romantic attachment, Alice Methfessel (Millier 446).


Bishop spent Christmas alone at the Cosmopolitan Club in New York as Alice spent the holiday with family. Bishop was at the Cosmopolitan Club ten days, drinking, recovering, and socializing. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, she lay in bed and described as “very dismal” (quoted in Millier 456).


Bishop had acquired a part-time teaching position at NYU for the fall of 1977. While packing up her belongings, she heard from Frank Bidart (a fellow friend and poet) about Robert Lowell’s untimely death of a heart attack in a New York taxi on the way from the airport. Again, New York was the setting of the death of a loved one (Millier 531).

In September, Bishop started her teaching job at NYU, but the commuting between her job and her life with Alice in Boston became too much. The teaching job was disappointing, especially since Bishop spent Wednesday through Sunday in Boston, away from the city and her teaching life. She continued to struggle with depression and alcoholism too. By the end of the semester, Bishop was sick and hospitalized with internal bleeding from her hiatal hernia. Bishop gradually recuperated by the end of February (Millier 534). This was her final major stay in New York before her death in Boston in 1979.

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