Weaving a Literary Life

Now settled on the Vineyard, Rose Styron pursues lifelong passions and shepherds the legacy of her late husband, the author William Styron.

rose styron
Vibrant at 84, Rose Styron’s work as a human rights activist and writer has spanned the continents, but she now calls Vineyard Haven home.

Poet, human rights activist, writer, fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics: These labels only begin to capture Rose Styron’s intense connection to the world. Now in her second year of full-time Vineyard residence after more than fifty summers here, she has turned her gracious home overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor into command central for a range of cultural and political activities that would exhaust an individual half her eighty-four years.

Friends and family matter greatly in her life, and she is more apt to talk about them than herself. “I love an active life,” she says, “and I’m lucky to have a lot of energy.” So when Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday last summer with a cruise to the Greek islands and Turkey, she was on board. When longtime friend Mary Yates Wallace, wife of late television journalist Mike Wallace, died last fall, Rose helped with arrangements and put up some family members. When James Taylor sang for an Obama fundraiser at the Santa Barbara home of writer/producer David Rintels and his wife, Vicky, former summer Vineyarders, Rose went along too.

She also traveled with her friend Geoffrey Cowan when he took his award-winning play, “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” to China in December 2011. “It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me since I’ve been on my own,” she says. “For me it was like being in a unique seminar. Kay Graham [the late publisher of The Washington Post and longtime Vineyard summer resident] was a main character, and Kay’s is where I met Geoff.”

Despite being married for fifty-three years to Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning novelist William Styron, who died of pneumonia in 2006, Rose has always been her own person with her own projects. Poetry and human rights are highest on her list. Yet not long after her husband’s death, she made her priority the collection and publication of Selected Letters of William Styron (Random House, 2012), deferring a new volume of her poems and a memoir. In recent interviews, she talked about this major literary undertaking, along with her poetry and her embrace of the Vineyard as her main home.

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Young love: Rose and Bill as newlyweds in Rome, where they married.

Bill’s legacy

Interest in William Styron by no means ended with his death. Letters to My Father, edited by Styron biographer James W. L. West III, was published in 2009 with a foreword by Rose, as a part of the Southern Literary Studies series at Louisiana State University.

Then the Styrons’ youngest daughter, Alexandra, published the memoir Reading My Father, which hit the best-seller list in 2011 (Scribner). It revealed a painfully complicated side of the late author, and some less-than-flattering things about her mother, but Rose is gracious and accommodating about her daughter’s book.

“Al showed me the manuscript at the very end,” she says. “It was difficult when I read the first few chapters. I had to put it down. It was so completely different than what I knew. It wasn’t that I wasn’t proud of her. With my first three children, I was at home. Al was alone with her father for twelve years. [Rose was traveling for Amnesty International.] After I read it through, I thought she did a terrific job.”

Now has come Selected Letters, a far more extensive collection than the hundred-letter LSU book. “It was a lot of work,” Rose says. “It took two years plus. Bill never kept copies of anything he wrote. He did save the letters and post cards he received from people he particularly valued.” She gave them to Duke University for the archive Bill had started at his alma mater.

But Random House wanted only letters Bill himself had written, ordered chronologically. Gathering letters he’d sent to others proved a challenge. “I put an ad in The New York Review of Books,” she says, “and I called everyone I could think of.” Archives for other writers and friends at a number of libraries provided sources. In the end, fifteen hundred letters went to Random House.

“They were horrified,” Rose says. “They only wanted five or six hundred pages, and they said I had to edit down [the manuscript]. I cooked down the list.” Since this was the last project for Bill’s Random House editor, Bob Loomis, before he retired, Rose felt the book was in good hands.

The letters were full of surprises for Rose. “First of all, that he wrote thousands of letters. He was not just writing his novels. They surprised me because he was so detailed and revealing. There are literary analyses, exchanges with writers who have an eye to eternity. He didn’t; he lived in the moment.”

One revelation was a record of places the couple had traveled, whether to Paris or the Caribbean with friends. Bill took his work with him everywhere. During those years, Rose was busy with their children, extended seasons of tennis and beach walks, and year-round friendships. “And it was always a pleasure to entertain our friends in this [Vineyard Haven] house every summer,” she says. “I was also writing poetry, especially when I was away from my home duties. So I was busy. I had no sense of the chronology that the letters gave me.”

Luckily Rose had some help with the book project, from R. Blakeslee Gilpin, then a Yale University graduate student who had spent summers as the postmaster at the West Chop Post Office and knew Bill from those days. Blake transcribed the handwritten letters, put them in order, and wrote the footnotes. Rose thought her work was done once the book was published in December 2012, but that did not turn out to be the case.

“I’ve never done anything like it before,” she says. Rose found herself calling up writers for blurbs and taking on the book’s promotion, which is continuing through this year. She has been traveling all over the country. The New York Review of Books ran some of the letters to Norman Mailer with commentary by Rose. Not one to be left behind by new technology, she entered the blogging world. After planned publication of a piece she wrote for The New York Times fell through, she sent it to The Huffington Post, including a lively bit of sarcasm from a letter her husband sent to novelist Philip Roth: “Yours in the slime we sometimes find ourselves up to our asses in – Bill.”

“The reviews have been really, really excellent. Beautifully written,” Rose says. “I’m interested in how carefully they [reviewers] read the letters. I’ve been to fifteen or twenty places so far [for book signings]. I was surprised at how many had read the book in chronological order, instead of dipping in the way I did.”

The job of caretaking her late husband’s work continues. Last fall Rose returned to the Styrons’ former house in Roxbury, Connecticut (sold once she moved to the Vineyard), to take notes on the garden – she says she misses it and the tennis court more than the house – and discovered workmen in the old studio that was the author’s writing place. They had found a stash of papers and old photographs at the bottom of a closet and behind the fireplace. It was unfinished work: The Way of the Warrior, as well as another novel and some short stories.

“This was stuff he’d abandoned,” she explains. “The photographs were of ancestors – his and mine – people I didn’t even recognize.” The work went to Duke, where Rose spent several days last winter going through the Styron archives.

“That was fascinating. Things like a note from Jackie Kennedy, and others he had already sent to Duke. I just hadn’t read them. That was a big surprise. I got from his childhood up through 1964,” she explains. “I’ll go back down again.”

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Rose, writing by the light of a window, embraced poetry at an early age. .

Her own life

In between trips to promote Selected Letters and events such as the Academy of American Poets eleventh annual Poetry & the Creative Mind gala at Lincoln Center, where she read Emily Dickinson and Jorie Graham poems in April, Rose worked on the manuscript for her newest collection of poems. She planned to send it to the publisher, Viking, this past spring, before “the summer crashes into us.”

“When Bill died, I sat up at the window for the next two months and wrote poetry,” she says. “It was very healing.” In the first go-round, both she and her publisher felt the poetry was too personal. Many of the fifty poems are about late marriage, death, and thereafter. Two new ones will appear in the July issue of the Johns Hopkins Review. Since Rose met her husband while she was an MFA graduate student at Johns Hopkins, it feels to her like coming full circle.

Poetry has been Rose’s deepest calling from an early age. She began writing poems at eight and became serious about it at nine, after her fourth-grade teacher at the Quaker Friends School of Baltimore accused her of plagiarism. It wasn’t the case. “I didn’t even know what plagiarism was,” she says. “If an adult would say that, I figured I’d better take being a poet seriously.” As the youngest in a family with two much-older siblings, Rose spent a lot of time alone, reading. She cut her teeth on works like Edna St. Vincent Millay from her mother’s library; Rudyard Kipling and Tagore from her father’s.

She began Wellesley College with medicine in mind but didn’t like her science classes and quickly switched to English literature. “I hated being stuck in the labs,” she says. “I’m an outdoor girl, always in the gardens or on the playing fields.” She became Class Poet and won Wellesley’s John Masefield Prize for the best poem written by a member of the senior class. From Summer to Summer, her first collection, written for her four children under her maiden name of Burgunder, came out in 1965 (Viking). Thieves’ Afternoon followed in 1973, the title drawn from a poem about sitting on a pier in Vineyard Haven with her friend Lucy Hackney, who lives next door (Viking).

The next, By Vineyard Light, in 1995, contains her poems about the Vineyard with photographs by Craig Dripps – then a math teacher at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, who had asked if he could include lines from her poems with an exhibit of his Vineyard photography. When Rose’s friend, author George Plimpton, saw the show, he suggested it should become a book and took the project to Rizzoli, a New York publisher known for its art and photography books.

The twenty-year hiatus between Thieves’ Afternoon and By Vineyard Light was nevertheless full, as Rose immersed herself in human rights causes. Since her Wellesley days, she had been interested in Russian poetry, leading her to co-edit Modern Russian Poetry with Connecticut neighbor Olga Andreyev Carlisle (Viking, 1972). She says, “It was because of Russia that I backed into human rights,” joining Amnesty International in 1969, becoming a board member in 1970, traveling to troubled regions in the world, especially Chile, and contributing to Amnesty International’s Report on Torture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).

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The Styron family at their Vineyard Haven home, from left: Bill, Susanna, Paola (Polly), Tom, Rose, and Sundance the dog. Not pictured: Alexandra.

Although Rose no longer heads to the world’s trouble spots, she continues her association with Amnesty International USA, chairing its recent fiftieth anniversary celebration. “My heart’s still there,” she says. And her commitment to human rights in general remains. In the spring, she attended the second meeting of the Project for Justice in Times of Transition, held at MIT’s Media Lab and attended by leaders from all over the world. Last year Rose commuted to Boston to teach at Harvard’s Kennedy Institute of Politics.

Rose’s life on the Vineyard stays just as busy as it was before she moved here full time. She wrote the foreword to Tom Dresser’s new book, Women of Martha’s Vineyard (The History Press, 2013) (see article on page 20), and she was honored last month at a party to support this summer’s Possible Dreams Auction. She will participate in the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival at the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center in August (see article on page 18).

“I love it,” she says of her new life on-Island. “There are a lot of people on the Island that I like a lot. They include me in everything.”

In many ways, she finds that living on the Vineyard has enhanced her life, because so many people who come to the Island are involved in the public policy issues that interest her. And her children – Polly, Susanna, Tom, and Al – come with their young families, particularly during the summer.

Next on deck among writing projects is what her publisher calls a memoir, but she prefers to describe as an adventure chronicle. “It’s about life with Bill, after Bill, poetry, politics. They’re all adventure chapters,” she says. The manuscript is in its second draft. And summertime will find her on the tennis courts or playing Scrabble with friends. Besides its physical beauty, what she especially cherishes about the Island is its sense of community. She says, “That’s the reason I moved to the Vineyard.”