Elizabeth Hardwick: Writer, co-founder of 'The New York Review of Books' and long-suffering wife of Robert Lowell


Elizabeth Bruce Hardwick, writer and critic: born Lexington, Kentucky 27 July 1916; married 1949 Robert Lowell (died 1977; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1972); died New York 2 December 2007.

Elizabeth Hardwick secured an enduring place in American letters as a literary and social critic of formidable intelligence and casually brilliant stylishness. She never espoused the ideology of feminism, yet she wrote illuminating essays on such diverse women writers as Christina Stead (whose novels she helped rescue from neglect in the 1960s), Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Welsh Carlyle and her close friend Mary McCarthy. In "The Subjection of Women", from the collection A View of My Own (1963), she observes: "Women live longer, safer lives than men and a man may, if he wishes, choose that life; it is hard to believe a woman could choose, like Rimbaud, to sleep in the streets of Paris at 17."

Hardwick certainly lived a long life, but in no measure can it be accounted safe. Her 23-year marriage to the poet Robert Lowell ensured that misery would have a place on the domestic agenda. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, the eighth in a family of 11 children. Her father ran a plumbing and heating business, and he and his wife held left-leaning views, which Elizabeth inherited. Her sympathy for the poor, which remained constant, and her genuine understanding of the menial and thankless jobs they have to take in order to survive, stemmed from childhood.

She was educated at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, and at the University of Kentucky. Then, in 1939, she moved to New York to undertake graduate work at Columbia. She dropped out after two years and became a freelance writer, reviewing books for highbrow journals like Partisan Review, edited by the influential Philip Rahv, with whom she had a brief affair. As she recounts in her one truly successful novel, Sleepless Nights (1979), her life in Manhattan was composed of "love and alcohol and clothes on the floor".

She shared an apartment in the Hotel Schuyler on West 45th Street with a gay friend from Kentucky and cast off the strict Protestantism in which she had been raised in favour of a bohemian existence of uncomplicated love affairs and visits to the many night-clubs where jazz was regularly performed. The pages devoted to Billie Holiday in Sleepless Nights are among the most starkly beautiful she ever wrote. She talks of Billie's "luminous self-destruction", her "glittering, sombre and solitary" presence, of her "creamy lips, oily eyelids, violent perfume":

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it, only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps even she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

Elizabeth Hardwick first met Robert Lowell at a party given by Rahv and his wife at their Greenwich Village apartment in 1946. Lowell was in the typically messy process of divorcing Jean Stafford, a talented short-story writer who abandoned her gift to spend more time with the bottle. They met again at Yaddo, the famous writers' retreat in upstate New York, and married in 1949.

Before their honeymoon was over, Lowell had to be confined in hospital following a particularly severe bout of manic depression. Shock treatment was applied to the hapless patient. After he was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour a period, Hardwick was to recall, of "gorgeous absorption and infinite passion". While teaching in Salzburg, Lowell imagined himself in love with one of his students, thus precipitating another serious breakdown.

This pattern persisted throughout their time together, although there were intervals of great happiness. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter whom they called Harriet. Lowell, constantly prone to infatuations, was serially unfaithful to his wife, who exhibited limitless patience and fortitude in extremely trying circumstances. She kept their marriage intact, despite several partings, and, in Boston in 1961, the reunited pair had their "best summer of all".

In 1963, Elizabeth Hardwick, along with Jason and Barbara Epstein, was involved in the founding of The New York Review of Books. In her role as "editorial adviser", she exerted considerable influence on the paper's style and content, and contributed many memorable essays to it, the last appearing in 2003 on the quirky Nathanael West, the author of Miss Lonelyhearts.

Hardwick's long-suffering patience with the disturbed man she loved finally ran out in 1970, when Lowell fell for a serious contender, in the form of Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty and a witty and talented novelist who, in common with Stafford, was an alcoholic. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972, and Lowell's third wife gave him a son, Sheridan.

In his collection of poems The Dolphin (1972), Lowell made use of Hardwick's anguished letters and phone calls to him, sometimes misquoting from them for dramatic effect, against the considered advice of their mutual friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop. When he died of a heart attack in 1977, he was in a taxi in New York on his way back to Lizzie, who had afforded him support during the years in which he produced his best poetry.

Besides the semi-autobiographical Sleepless Nights, Hardwick produced two other novels The Ghostly Lover (1945), an evocation of her southern youth, and The Simple Truth (1955), which is concerned with a murder trial in Iowa City, where she and Lowell lived and taught. These pale in comparison to her collections of essays: A View of My Own; Seduction and Betrayal (1974); Bartleby in Manhattan (1983) and Sight Readings: American fiction (1998). Her last book was an acclaimed short biography of Herman Melville, a novelist she revered, published in 2000.

I interviewed Elizabeth Hardwick for a radio documentary on the subject of southern American fiction I was presenting and writing in the late 1970s. She lamented William Faulkner's stylistic lapses while acknowledging his genius, and she declared that she was fed up with the "spaced-out virgins" in the plays of Tennessee Williams. She was very gracious and charming.

In her wonderfully acute essay on Jane Carlyle in Seduction and Betrayal, Hardwick notes:

The domestic torment the Carlyles endured in their long marriage is of a particular opacity due to the naturalness of so much of it, to its origin in the mere strain of living. The conflicts were not of a remarkable kind and domestic discontent was always complicated by other problems of temperament and by the unnerving immensity of Carlyle's literary undertakings.

Thomas Carlyle, who is virtually unread today, was the monumental figure, but Jane survives in her endlessly observant letters, stuffed with everyday trivia.

"They were, first of all, persons who drifted in and out of unhappiness, within the course of a single day," Hardwick writes. There can be no doubt that she held her own marriage to Lowell in mind as she penned that unforgettable sentence.

Paul Bailey

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British author Howard Jacobson has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
books
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer - Permanent - London - Up to £50k

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum 23 days holiday plus Pension scheme: Clearwater Peop...

IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn