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OBITUARIES / Diane Wood Middlebrook, 1939 - 2007

Scholar wrote provocative biographies of complex artists

December 18, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Diane Wood Middlebrook, a feminist scholar and biographer who wrote provocative books on complex artists, including confessional poet Anne Sexton, the husband-wife duo of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and jazz musician Billy Tipton, died in San Francisco of cancer Saturday. She was 68.

The former longtime Stanford University professor, who helped found feminist studies at the Palo Alto campus, was best known for her 1991 book "Anne Sexton: A Biography," which caused a stir in the psychiatric community for its use of audiotapes from Sexton's private therapy sessions.

Although the book offered a number of titillating disclosures, including allegations that Sexton had an affair with a psychotherapist who was treating her, the use of the tapes riled psychiatrists, who said such material should remain confidential even after a patient's death. Sexton committed suicide in 1974 at the age of 45.

Middlebrook also wrote "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage" (2003), which examined the couple's literary output and troubled union, and "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton" (1998), about the curious life of the jazz artist who was born a woman but lived as a man for more than 50 years until his death in 1989.

Roman poet Ovid is the subject of Middlebrook's last book, which will be published by Viking Press in 2009.

Middlebrook was born in 1939 in Pocatello, Idaho, the eldest of three daughters of a pharmacist and a nurse. By the time she was in her teens, she knew she wanted to be a poet and a writer, but her father was disinclined to support those pursuits and insisted that she pay her own way through college, which she did.

She studied briefly at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., before transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1961. She earned a master's degree in 1962 from Yale and became an assistant professor of English at Stanford in 1966. In 1968, she earned a doctorate at Yale with a dissertation on Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman. It was published as a book in 1974, the same year she earned tenure.

In 1977, as one of the first tenured women in Stanford's English department, she was tapped to direct Stanford's new Center for Research on Women (now the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research). She said that job, which she filled for two years, changed her life.

She began to write feminist criticism, including articles on Sexton that impressed Sexton's daughter and literary executor, Linda Gray Sexton. In 1981, Linda Sexton invited Middlebrook to write her mother's biography.

She worked on the book for 10 years, during which she interviewed 90 of Sexton's friends and colleagues.

Middlebrook struggled over whether to use the information from the tape recordings, even though she had permission from the psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne, and Sexton's estate. It took her two years just to listen to the tapes, which covered more than 300 sessions over eight years.

Although she wound up including few direct quotes from the tapes, Middlebrook said listening to them made the poet more real to her.

An alcoholic who was chronically unfaithful to her husband and neglected her children, Sexton had been hospitalized two dozen times over 18 years for psychiatric problems. Linda Sexton told Middlebrook that her mother had sexually abused her for years.

After a stretch of several days talking with Sexton's daughters, Middlebrook "started getting invaded by Anne Sexton's bad dreams," she told the London Observer in 1991. One morning she found herself weeping hysterically in the shower, only realizing later that she had begun to internalize Sexton's demons. For a time she feared that it had been a mistake to take on Sexton's life.

Critics, however, found much to praise in the book. Katha Pollitt in the New York Times called it "a wonderful book: just, balanced, insightful, complex in its sympathies and in its judgment of Sexton both as a person and as a writer." Nancy Mairs of the Los Angeles Times found it a "well-written, thorough, sober biography."

After the Sexton book, Middlebrook decided that biography, more than poetry, was her metier.

"One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time," she told Stanford magazine some years later. "You don't have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead."

She spent six years on her next project, the biography of Tipton. It came to her when a woman left a rather cryptic letter for Middleton after a speaking date in Spokane, Wash. The woman said she had some papers she wanted Middlebrook to see and gave a phone number to call.

When Middlebrook called the number, she was "dumbfounded" to learn that the woman was Kitty Tipton Oakes, Tipton's last wife. Tipton's death in 1989 had made national headlines when paramedics trying to save the musician's life discovered that he was a woman.

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