Rose Styron: The Truth About Life With Her Husband, Literary Legend William Styron
The Daily Beast
April 3, 2016
The little boy’s cries pierced the early-morning peace of the Styron family home on Martha’s Vineyard. Outside it was a summer’s day. Inside, John F. Kennedy Jr.—“John-John,” then about 5 years old and staying there with his mother, Jackie Kennedy, and sister, Caroline—had realized his pet rabbit had gone missing.
Today, sitting at the downstairs dining table overlooking the choppy ocean on a gray, chilly, spring day, Rose Styron, the 87-year-old widow of author William Styron, recalls the pandemonium that unfolded next.
“It was the summer or second summer after Jack had been killed,” she says. “I’m not good with dates. John was in a room upstairs with his pet rabbit. I hadn’t noticed the hole in the floorboards between the beds. The rabbit went down the hole.
Afterwards, all the Secret Servicemen were stationed around the house trying to figure out where the rabbit would come out.”
The rabbit eventually materialized near a hydrangea bush; the Secret Servicemen were “triumphant,” recalls Rose. “Then Jackie said, ‘Where’s John-John?’”
A fresh panic unfolded as it became clear John Jr. was now missing. He had, it turned out, walked all the way down the beach looking for the rabbit, sat and picnicked with some people eating barbecue food on the beach, and was eventually found by Terry, the Styrons’ caretaker.
“The Secret Service guys got a black eye from Jackie after that,” Rose says, laughing softly.
The Styrons certainly knew the great and the good, as not only Rose’s memories testify to, but also William Styron’s Collected Letters, which Rose edited, and their daughter Alexandra’s memoir, Reading My Father.
In a New Yorker article, Alexandra recalled watching Frank Sinatra, a frequent summer visitor, naked in the Styrons’ outside shower. Other guests at the home included James Baldwin and John Belushi.
Philip Roth was a close friend, Norman Mailer was feuded with—and later re-friended. The Styrons knew Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer from their non-summer home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
A picture of “some girlfriends” features Sawyer, Hillary Clinton, and Carly Simon, among others, in sun-hats and shades. On Bill and Rose’s first date, they were accompanied by Truman Capote. Lillian Hellman and Ladybird Johnson were friends and neighbors.
In her book, Alexandra recalled Leonard Bernstein playing on the family piano at Christmas, and boasting to a schoolteacher that Joan Baez had been at the house the night before.
The couple were great socializers, and Rose was an adept, graceful hostess—as she is with me, generously inviting me for supper the night before we are due to meet.
Rose has lived in this house for 51 years, “the first 48 of those summers.” Now she lives here full-time.
“Bill” Styron, who died aged 81 in 2006, was most famous for writing Sophie’s Choice (1979), which went on to become a movie starring Meryl Streep, who won the Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe for her role. (She and Rose are good friends, there’s a lovely photo of them on the fridge.)
Styron is also known for his memoir of suffering a debilitating depression in 1985 (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, 1990).
Rose met Bill just after the publication of his acclaimed first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), and was with him as charges of racism were made against him after the publication of the Pulitzer-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).
The criticism over Styron’s portrayal of Turner, who led a slave rebellion in the 19th century—and his sketching of benevolent slave owners—grew so rancorous that he’d worried for the physical safety of their family, Rose tells me.
Rose lives in their Martha’s Vineyard home alone now, with friends always around to help her. Her four children and eight grandchildren visit: There’s a house for the children behind the main house, and Styron’s writing shed is now piled with mattresses for the grandchildren. Rose sold their Connecticut home three years ago; it was too expensive to maintain.
Age has definitely not slowed her—having first become an advocate around human rights with Amnesty International in the late 1960s, she still fizzes with life and enquiry.
She is newly interested in neuroscience, and the work of Tim Phillips, co-founder of Beyond Conflict, “who applies neuroscience to conflict resolution.” She pauses, smiled. “Yes, I’m interested in the brain having lived with Bill Styron for 50-odd years.”
In Darkness Visible, Styron wrote explicitly about his experience of crippling depression. He recovered from it, and Styron went on to have “15 good years,” as Rose puts it, until another, more severe bout caused his whole body to go into a frightening lockdown.
This led to Styron to ask a friend to help make a suicide “cocktail.”
He became, in the words of Alexandra, in her frank and also tender memoir, “totally unhinged…helpless and infantile” and—after electro-shock treatment—was sprung from a medical facility by his eldest daughter, Susanna.
After Bill died, Rose came across a stack of letters stuffed in her daughter Polly’s bureau, addressed to Bill from readers of Darkness Visible, “thanking him for saving them one way or other; pointing out what had happened with children or spouses or their own lives.”
The authors of these letters didn’t understand that, says Rose, their letters had been “so important in healing him from his first bout of depression. There were phone calls, too. He really saved a couple of lives in those phone calls. People still come up to me to thank Bill through me, which I love. I’m always so happy to meet those people. It’s a connection and fulfillment.”
Styron and his troubled mind, and his death, eddies in and out of my conversation with Rose.
Rose has the “theater of the seasons” to watch outside here, bounded by the trunks of two trees, and—weather depending—she sits on the patio to work overlooking lawn and sea: “the sailboats, the ferries, the Mallard ducks in the spring, and Eider ducks in the winter.” Today, she is alarmed that her squirrel-proof bird-feeder is no longer squirrel-proof: an audacious, bushy-tailed invader is feasting on nuts with rapacious vigor.
Rose’s children and grandchildren have sailed and wind-surfed here, and played football on the huge lawn. A hole in the hedge facilitated easy access to the next-door yacht club: her 14-year-old grandson Tommy is on the National Junior Sailing Team, she says proudly—and Rose herself has a luminous, outdoorsy, fresh, vigorous beauty.
“I love it all day when I’m working or walking or thinking,” she says of living alone, “but in the evening I miss company, so I go to the cinema or arrange to have dinner with friends.”
In November, Rose published Fierce Day, a book of poetry about her grieving for Bill set against the natural world and seasons all around her. In “Today,” she writes: “You would have loved today, / this twilight high in the wild-fever spring bruised field.”
“You don’t stop grieving,” Rose tells me. “I’m not Nancy Reagan. I’m not going to be that public about things, but I loved my husband. We had a long, marvelous life together and I miss him—the affection, company, conversation, and mental stimulation—as well as our family life.”
While the children were growing up, Rose took care of them, Bill rose at noon, and decamped to his outside study—with the sign “Verboten” on it to ward off interruptions—and Rose misses the long evenings of conversation that would unfold after the children were put to bed.
She would read and type up whatever he had written (later a secretary was employed to do this).
“I was doing exactly what I wanted to do,” Rose says, when asked if she saw it as an equal marriage. “I happily wrote my first book of poems in my children’s voices. I did not want to do anything else, and when I got involved in Amnesty International I had another calling.”
In her book, Alexandra said her father’s declines coincided with her mother not being around.
“I guess I wasn’t aware of that as she saw it,” Rose says, although she recalled that at the time of the 1985 breakdown she was in Budapest, and he called to her say she had to come home. “Then I began to realize he needed me around more than he had in the previous twenty years.”
While the episode seemed sudden, “I began to think about the past,” says Rose, “and realized there were symptoms that neither of us had realized. A lot of it had been in his work: from Lie Down to Nat Turner and Sophie he had written about suicide or long thoughts of suicide.
“It didn’t occur to me that was Bill working out his own thoughts in those books, but it soon became clear with the year that followed. Any possible weapon from the house and garage I kept a firm eye on as he got more and more depressed. Neither of us had ever been to a shrink so had no idea what was happening. I was very ignorant and could have been more help if I had been more knowledgeable.”
She says she never saw a sign of the darkness within her husband: “He would disappear into the studio to write and come out of himself every evening.” He would protest when she arranged dinners and travel sometimes, “but he always rose to the occasion and had a great time.”
A few times at the last minute he canceled trips to Yugoslavia, Israel, and Sicily, and today Rose thinks, “I didn’t see into them as maybe I should have done.”
In Darkness Visible, she is barely mentioned, she thinks because the book is so about his inner experience. How was his 1985 breakdown for her? “I was feeling like an inadequate but continuous advocate for him getting better.”
“Because it didn’t work. Maybe things would have been much worse if I hadn’t been his advocate but he still ended up in the hospital so often.”
Bill went to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was treated with antidepressant MAO inhibitors, and recovered within six months.
Rose wonders if the first episode wasn’t at least in part triggered by Bill turning 60, and a fear of getting old. “But between 60 and 75 he became perfect again and better, and I really think writing Darkness Visible helped to heal him. He got better and better, so it was a shock when it happened again.”
The 1985 episode Rose recalls as “a relative breeze” when contrasted against all that flowed from Bill’s second breakdown, in 2000.
Rose thought Bill would “come back” after both depressive episodes, although the second was “a long, complicated journey.”
During the second episode, Rose regretted leaving him briefly in Martha Vineyard’s hospital to attend to some business in Connecticut, only to be called and told an admitting doctor had transferred Bill to the psychiatric ward of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston without letting anyone know.
“Bill was so frightened that he seized up in the ambulance by himself. He was like a marionette. I asked myself, ‘Why did I go to Connecticut at that moment?’ I felt totally inadequate.”
Rose Burgunder and Bill Styron first met in 1951 at Johns Hopkins University, when Bill had been invited to speak to graduate students there, which included Rose. He was a former Marine from a middle-class family; she from Baltimore, and born “of wealthy, assimilated Jewish stock,” as Alexandra put it in her book.
“I was doing a class in creative writing, and I was interested in poetry and criticism,” recalls Rose. “I sure wasn’t impressed by Bill at all.” She laughs. “He was cute but so nervous, and didn’t have anything intellectual to say. I can’t remember even shaking hands afterwards. I wasn’t thinking about him at all.”
A year or so later Styron had received the Prix de Rome for Lie Down… and the same professor who invited him to Johns Hopkins told Rose to go to the American Academy in Rome to look him up.
Rose left Bill a note in his cubbyhole, introducing herself. He called her the next day, and asked if she would join him for a drink.
At the appointed hour, Rose went to the venue, and found Bill sitting with a male painter with dark curly hair, and Truman Capote, “looking like he was 12 years old, with white bangs, a sailor suit, and totally recognizable. I had a fantastic evening. I thought Bill was very cute. It was one of those romantic, electric moments people write about.
“At the end of the evening, like five in the morning, Truman looked up and said, ‘Bill, you ought to marry that girl.’ Bill, Truman, and I had a wonderful winter together walking all over Rome, Truman with his mynah bird named Lola on his shoulder.”
In letters to friends, Bill said he had met an amazing girl whom he wanted to be with. However, the couple broke up temporarily after discovering Rose’s mother had hired a private detective to dig up dirt on Bill.
Reunited, they married in Rome in 1953, with Rose expecting to continue her career as a writer. “I had two contracts, one for a book of poetry and one for a book about Wallace Stevens, and I didn’t fulfill either. When Bill and I decided to get married, it never occurred to me that I would put my ‘budding career’ on the side. But it never occurred to me we’d be married more than a couple of years. I didn’t think it would be forever.”
Part of the ceremony included wording that she would follow her husband everywhere, and that he was the lead in the marriage.
That wasn’t only the way “they did it in Rome,” as Rose puts it; she herself had been bought up similarly.
Rose’s mother had told her not to be first in her school classes, and to let men lead her. “It was a Southern upbringing of my generation which I don’t think would wash anywhere now. I’m not proud of it, but in certain ways it stood me in good stead when talking to dictators and their minions.” (She won’t say whom.)
“Glamour was nothing that came into my head, our heads. It was fun and games. We were lucky enough to have friends who did wonderful things—though we were sure people were angry or envying us. There was a lot of both.”
She had first met Jack Kennedy as a student at Wellesley, though didn’t meet him again until she and Bill were invited to the White House. “Jack consulted Bill on race issues, and the last time we saw him—two weeks before Jack died—he had talked to Bill about those issues.”
After JFK’s death, Jackie Kennedy stayed with the Styrons. On one occasion, as related by Bill in a letter, Rose noticed while applying suntan lotion to the children that John Jr.’s “schlong,” as Bill put it, was double the size of her own son’s. Bill’s letters contain many great anecdotes, including being out on the town with Jackie till 5 a.m., and conversations with Jack before his assassination.
Jackie and Rose fell out of touch, and became “summer friends” again later on, when Jackie bought her own house on Martha’s Vineyard, and their daughters (Caroline and Alexandra) became friends.
Just before her death, Jackie asked Rose to write a memoir that would fold in her adventures as an Amnesty ambassador. She wanted Rose to put more of herself into the book, which Rose felt she could not. A plan was in place to keep the conversation going, and revisit and develop the idea, when Jackie died. The book is still a work in progress.
Rose fought against playing second string as the marriage matured and her own self-confidence and desire for independence grew. When she attended Capote’s famous ‘Black and White Ball’ in 1966, she did so alone—Bill hated balls and cocktail parties, events he called “Philadelphia Ratfucks.” She had such a good time, it helped her realize she could go out on her own; her good friend Maria Matthiessen (the wife of writer Peter Matthiessen, a close friend of Bill’s) also told her she should travel on her own after Bill had pulled out of one trip.
As their marriage progressed, Rose became more immersed in poetry and her human-rights work, beginning with her going to the Soviet Union in 1968 and meeting writers persecuted by the authorities, and later meeting artists and writers from all over world in conflict with their governments.
If in the beginning of their marriage she felt in Bill’s shadow, it didn’t bother her: “I thought he was brilliant and a wonderful writer and great companion.” The minute she felt she needed to assert her own professional identity, she went out to do so.
Rose never felt this work was about “having my own life,” as Bill supported all she did. “When Al [Alexandra, their daughter] said he would miss me and wanted me home, I think that may have been true too, but he never said, ‘Don’t go.’”
After he died, and Rose was “very lonely and sad and when I didn’t want to see anybody or do anything,” it was her connections with her Amnesty work and other boards and activities that galvanized her and “gave me a life after Bill.”
Rose and Bill were “pretty different,” Rose says, but had the same “moral upbringing”: both were against the death penalty, liked the same friends, and had the same attitudes towards life in general.
At first she was bothered that he didn’t want her to read her poetry to him but “when I began to have children I didn’t care any more. It was just wonderful to have children and a husband I loved, and to have a life in the country. It didn’t stop me writing poetry. I just put it in a drawer.”
There were long gaps between Styron’s works. Alexandra wondered if her father’s creative frustrations—particularly his unfinished book, The Way of the Warrior—were a cause of his depression. His editor, Bob Loomis, disagreed with her: “His illness made it impossible for him to finish anything. Not the other way round.”
Bill himself never talked about or even sought the fame he found, Rose says.
“He wasn’t competitive at all. In fact, he shunned facing people in any position of conflict and retreated from anything like that.
He was terribly hurt when he got really bad reviews, or when people misunderstood what he was trying to do.”
This surfaced after Styron wrote Nat Turner, and the book 10 Black Writers Respond was published.
“In retrospect that sparked a depression,” says Rose. “That was the first time I saw him not only really down—which I didn’t see as depression at the time—but also with enormous melancholy, sadness, and fear, which he hadn’t had before.”
Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for it, and black writers like Cornel West and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. later supported him, Rose recalls that the fractious social atmosphere of the time—the tumult around civil rights that ultimately was a wonderful time of change—made Bill scared for his family.
“He would not let the children play out on the lawn in Roxbury if I was not with him,” says Rose. “He was so worried something was going to happen to the children or to me. If I took our kids somewhere and said I’d be home by 5, and came back at a quarter to 6, he would be the door fretting, saying, ‘Where were you? I was afraid something had happened to you.’ That was the first time I saw real fear and melancholy in him which he got over, but not over completely.”
Sophie’s Choice—inspired by a dream Styron had of an upstairs neighbor in a boardinghouse he had once lived in, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz—took seven years to write, “a journey for the whole family as Bill was so preoccupied,” Rose says. “If I really wanted to get his attention on some domestic issue I would approach him in the voice of Sophie to get his attention.”
The first chapter Bill showed Rose was of Sophie’s “choice” itself, between her children. “I said to him, ‘If you start the book with this there isn’t a mother in the world who will read to chapter two. It’s too painful. Couldn’t you possibly save it till the end?” She smiles. “He saved it till the almost end, and wrote the rest of a very fine novel.”
In her memoir, Alexandra writes candidly of her father as an irascible, very frightening presence to grow up around. (She writes very tenderly about him too.)
“I think he was,” says Rose. “I was always trying to break that, or laugh about it, or say to the kids, ‘Don’t pay any attention to this. It’s just dad and his work.’ I often had to be the go-between, particularly between him and his son Tom.”
Alexandra was seven years younger than her nearest sibling, so Rose thinks she had a very different childhood to the other three, who had each other.
In Styron’s letters, we read how close he is to his first daughter, Susanna (whom he called “Number One”), and Rose thinks he wasn’t close to Tom for years because Tom was close to her and her husband was jealous of this.
That mother-son closeness had come from her looking after him so carefully because of an early illness he’d suffered. Bill’s mother had died of cancer when he was 13, and seeing Rose and Tommy perhaps reminded him of the closeness he and his mother never had. “They became friends later when Tommy had a breakdown similar to his father in his late 20s,” Rose said. “Tom reached out to Bill, and Bill responded.”
Alexandra’s book must have made painful reading, I say. Of her father, she writes: “At times, querulous and taciturn, cutting and remote, melancholy when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels confortable to admit.”
“He was not an engaged parent: he didn’t eat dinner with us or attend school plays,” Alexandra wrote. “He never threw a ball, built a tree house, or tucked us into bed. I can’t remember him teaching me how to do anything except open a wine bottle, a job that I did on my tiptoes and with great dedication each night before I went to bed.”
In her book, Alexandra also recalls her parents being in “eternal battle mode,” and her father shouting, “I want a divorce.” In his later life, mellowed and drinking less, Alexandra says, he “showed some patience, was mild and expressed flashes of great tenderness,” especially for Rose.
“It wasn’t easy,” Rose says of reading Alexandra’s book. “When I picked up the first chapter I found it so painful I had to put it down.” Was it fair? “It was totally her point of view and she is a very good writer and expressed it beautifully. Who’s to say what is fair? We all have our own opinions of our lives with children and parents.”
Alexandra’s siblings are seven to 12 years older than her, and while their relationships with their parents may have been different, Alexandra’s book upset her—although she is proud her daughter wrote it. Like Alexandra, Rose was the youngest child, too, and she says now she had “over-associated” herself with her daughter.
But the two were very different. “I knew she resented my absences on trips, but I made as few as possible, knowing I had been there all time for her siblings. Reading her book, I felt guilty, not for what I’d done but what I didn’t understand. If I had really understood how she felt I would have done things differently, and I’m sorry about it.”
Does Rose wish Bill had been a different kind of father?
“I often wish that, sure, and I hadn’t realized how deeply it had affected Al, ’cause he loved Al. He thought she was wonderful.”
I ask if Rose had ever asked Bill to be a more present, active parent.
“Sure, but it didn’t work. We lived our lives as they were. Most of the family lived a pretty good life, and the kids became very close, partly because I was such a laissez-faire mother, especially in the summer.”
Alexandra called Rose, affectionately, profligate in her book, and it’s true Rose says—she took each of the kids to New York on their own, and, she laughs, she wanted to be part of their scenes much more than they wanted their mom to be. “Later on I learned, with horror and amusement, what I had missed,” she says.
After Alexandra’s book was published, Rose learned of the drinking, marijuana-puffing, and gambling that went on in the children’s house. “It was apparently a famous gathering place for their generation,” Rose says, smiling.
Styron himself gave up drinking just before his 1985 depression. “He drank, but he wasn’t an alcoholic,” insists Rose. “He never drank during the day when he was working. He sometimes drank too much at night, but there was never a time when he couldn’t drive home.”
He didn’t, she says, fall down flat on his face at parties, yet she has seen him described as an alcoholic. “It’s not true at all,” she says.
One woman who insisted Bill was an alcoholic encouraged Rose to attend a meeting of Al-Anon (the support group for family and friends of problem drinkers). “She said I would understand after hearing people talk, and I did understand completely that Bill wasn’t an alcoholic.”
Styron had given up liquor, in his words, as “it was no longer his friend,” says Rose. He still had the occasional glass of wine, but never a stiff drink. “But I think drink helped him stave off depression,” Rose says. “The depression really followed on after he stopped drinking—an ex-alcoholic friend of ours said that would happen because of withdrawal. Who knows whether there was that connection or not?”
When we had dined together the night before, Rose had described her marriage as made up of two independent people within a tight, loving unit.
“We respected each other’s privacy,” she says. “As long as we loved each other and had our family life together and each other, what we did when we weren’t together was our own business, not to be questioned or judged.”
Does she mean they gave each other space to have relationships with other people?
“I think Bill got more space than I did,” Rose sys. “We both had space. I think it was OK. There was once I thought it wasn’t OK, and once Bill thought it wasn’t OK, but we got over it.”
You’d fallen for those people more seriously? I ask.
“No. It was very brief outside alliances for me, with no thought of pursuing, and maybe little longer ones for Bill, but not serious enough to interfere with our marriage.”
They don’t sound as if they were jealous of each other.
“No, that wouldn’t be the right word, or maybe it would have been. I didn’t like it, but I felt different ways about it. But, whatever it was, I didn’t feel it hurt our marriage. I may have wished it didn’t exist, but I was away a lot. Whatever it was, was brief and never interfered with us.”
Were they honest with each other about these other relationships?
“We didn’t talk about them, but we were very aware of each other, and I certainly never felt seriously about anyone else, and I don’t think Bill did—but who knows? I’m not Bill.”
The traumatic cycle of physical and psychological events that Bill underwent between 2000 and his death in 2006 sound frightening and exhausting for both him and his family; Alexandra writes about them powerfully in her memoir.
Bill had electro-shock treatment “because he was just catatonic,” says Rose. “It was frightening. He had begged me not to make him go on with electric shock, which he chose—over my dead body—but he chose it.”
After the fourth session of the treatment, the doctor told Rose she would have to accompany Bill for his fifth session to make sure he did it. “I left him at door of the lab, and he turned to me and said, ‘You’re killing me,’ and I must say that was the worst day of my life. It was just awful. I was trying to do what the doctor said and I shouldn’t have.”
The family thought Bill’s condition was not improving, which led to eldest daughter Susanna springing her dad from the hospital—itself a mission fraught with complications.
At a red light, Bill bolted from the car (he hadn’t been given a sedative before leaving the hospital). After Susanna found him, the pilot on their privately chartered plane was worried Bill seemed too crazy to be a passenger. Then the plane was held up—first in New Haven, by politician Joe Lieberman’s plane; and then, when landing back in Martha’s Vineyard, it was delayed by President Clinton’s plane, taking off from his summer vacation home there.
Rose could only find five letters Bill wrote between 2000 and 2006—all written in 2002. “He never really regained the use of his hand to write,” she said. “He went into terrible catatonia for months, and he came out of it OK—and we had pretty nice last 2½ years.”
In his final stretch of illness in 2006, Rose left Bill with a nurse to attend Alexandra’s 40th birthday party in New York. He had not been well, but had rallied somewhat. She left him talking cheerfully to Peter Matthiessen.
The next morning the nurse found Bill “in terrible shape,” says Rose. He was having trouble breathing, so the nurse took him to the hospital in Martha’s Vineyard.
A few weeks prior, Bill had requested not to be revived in case of emergency, but Rose says she told medical staff: “Don’t pay attention to that. He probably wasn’t in his right mind. I am. Don’t you let him go. I’ll get there as fast as I can. Just keep him going till I get there.”
As she was saying this, her cellphone was ringing: a friend had been taking the couple’s dog to the hospital to visit Bill when the dog, Ladybird—“Bill’s best friend, a half-Irish greyhound, half-Labrador who looked like a deer, and who for some reason was terrified of the water”—had collapsed. (For two summers, Ladybird the dog also became the best buddy of Ladybird Johnson, former First Lady, who had a house next door.)
The vet wanted to put Ladybird down, but—as with her husband—Rose asked that nothing happen until she got home. “On one phone, I was saying ‘Don’t let my husband die,’ and on the other I was saying, ‘Don’t you dare put the dog down.’”
More complications came when one of the worst storms in the history of Martha’s Vineyard blew through that night. The next day, with flights grounded, an architect with his own plane flew Rose back to the island, he a more nervous pilot than she.
“I had taken lots of flying lessons,” Rose says. “I never got my hours, but I loved it, and told him not to worry. I don’t think I worried enough in my life. I’m often accused of being a Pollyanna. I don’t see myself that way, but I think I’m usually on the upside of things.”
She dates this optimism back to trips to Atlantic City with her grandmother, when—aged 5 or 6—she would be let loose alone on the boardwalk with pockets full of change to spend on candy and games. It’s where she fell in love with cinema, too: the first movie she saw was It Happened One Night, and she recalls Hedy Lamarr climbing naked out of the water in Ecstasy. “I had a great time. I just thought, ‘Life can be beautiful.’”
In Alexandra’s book, she writes that Rose asked Bill to say, “I love you” one final time to her, and that he opened his eyes.
“That was the last thing he said to me,” Rose tells me. The night before he lapsed into his final unconsciousness, she had been sitting up with him, but falling asleep as she did so. He said she should go home to rest.
At home, in bed, Rose had “the worst nightmare of my life,” featuring a former babysitter who was “crazy about Bill,” strangling Rose as she lay in bed. Alarmed when she awoke, Rose called the hospital and begged to speak to Bill.
The staff woke him, and the couple chatted. Rose wanted to come back to the hospital, Bill said not to worry, and to come when it was light. “The last thing he said was, ‘I love you, goodnight.’ And then at 5 a.m. they called me: he wasn’t quite dead, but he was totally shut down and out of it and we knew that meant he was dying. He didn’t respond to conversation, but the kids all came in and Polly said something and he woke up and smiled, then went back to sleep. My friend Lucy Hackney next door came and said something, he smiled, and went back to sleep. All four kids were round the bed with him when he died later that day.”
The last nine years have been “different,” Rose says. She has “four wonderful kids who are great to me and that means a lot.” She has “amazing friends,” and attends engaging, energizing conferences, events (like “Poetry and The Creative Mind,” which she co-chairs with Meryl Streep), parties, and trips abroad. “I love life, I don’t plan to die,” she says, laughing exuberantly.
She is healthy, having beaten Lyme disease, which “knocked out” her immune system and led to shingles, which went to her eye, leading to a cornea surgery.
A few years ago, Rose slipped and fell down the stairs of her former Connecticut home, leading to severed muscles and six months of operations—all this when she was organizing and trying to sell the home itself.
The profits from the sale are helping her children, who, Rose says affectionately, “are all talented artists and academicians not making much money—very successful but not in finance in any way.”
When the packing up at Roxbury had been done, Rose sat out by the pond “and cried and cried and cried, but I haven’t looked back at that. It’s not the house that I miss. I miss the good times we had as a family and with friends. It was the people who counted, not the house itself.”
Now she does, as she put it, “one thing at a time,” including trying to knock her memoir and adventure chronicle into shape after it has already been batted around a number of different editors at HarperCollins. “I’ll give it one more try. If they don’t like what I’m doing, and if I don’t do what they want, I’ll be out of there. I’ll try to take it somewhere else, or abandon it and save it for my grandchildren.”
An Amnesty fellowship, named after her and in conjunction with Harvard, will start this summer for an undergraduate interested in human rights.
At the end of his Collected Letters, there is a note Styron stipulated only be published in future editions of Darkness Visible for readers after his death, which he intends—in the moment of that writing—to be suicide. “The illness finally won the war,” he writes in the note addressed to his friend and biographer Jim West on June 5, 2000.
Bill beseeches readers suffering depression to carry on fighting for health.
“He really believed that,” Rose says. “He had had a wonderful decade when everything was great. When he crashed again the worst thing for him was that he felt guilty for having assured everyone at the end of Darkness Visible that life would be good forever.
“He felt he had betrayed them, and it was very hard to talk him out of that. He felt terrible that he had misled people. He was so sad.”
Rose’s voice hardens. “The thing that bothered me most were things he would apologize for in the last few months. We would be in bed talking, or down here sitting on the couch, he apologizing for whatever he thought had done wrong to me and kids.
“He was very aware of who he was and what people thought of him, and how he felt keenly he had made things hard for us. I didn’t want to hear that, and I wish I had let him just get it all out of his system, but I would stop him, saying ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
If I had been a psychiatrist I would have let him talk it all through. Maybe that would have been better.”
I ask why she didn’t let Bill verbally atone in the way he wanted to.
“I didn’t want to revisit the times when I had been hurt or resentful, because of course in a marriage of 50-odd years there are times when you are hurt or resentful. I think that is true of everyone’s marriages. It’s an up-and-down affair which resolves itself, but it certainly wasn’t always smooth-going. I won’t pretend that.”
At the beginning, Rose kept the hurt and resentment to herself; later she would tell Bill or a girlfriend, “then it always went away and things were good again. I was a very happy wife and very happy mother, and very happy social instigator. I feel very, very lucky that I had 53 years with him, and mostly positive recollections—and of course I miss it.”
Since Bill’s death, Rose hasn’t met anybody new in a romantic sense: “I don’t have any strictures against it, but cannot imagine it.
And I don’t seek it, but of course I like male company and enjoy it tremendously, but I don’t think there’s a single man out there for me.”
Anyway, her bucket list is still pretty full: She has never seen the Grand Canyon, or been to Australia and New Zealand. She wants to publish “a really first-rate book of poetry.” Politically, she wants to continue campaigning against the death penalty, against incarceration, and for human rights internationally. “I’m scared to death someone like [Donald] Trump or [Ted] Cruz could be elected in this country and lead us in exactly the wrong direction.”
Ideally, Rose would like to be Bill’s protective custodian, and keeper of his literary flame. “I wish I had the money to have a great memorial for him—probably an academic one at Yale or Duke [Bill’s alma mater]—which I don’t.”
When Rose was researching her husband’s letters at Duke, a librarian handed her a box marked with the instruction not to be opened for “40 or 50 years” after Bill’s death. She chose not to open it.
“I totally believe in people’s rights to privacy, mine and his. It’s his legacy and his life and I want to preserve it as I knew it. I don’t want to open a can of worse-than-worms or whatever is in there.
“Maybe they’re love letters, who knows, but they are not part of the life I led with Bill, and why should I open another chapter I had nothing to do with?
“I don’t think anyone should read them for 50 years or however long it is, and the library should not have given them to me. I was not about to read them.”
She laughed. “Maybe my grandchildren will find out whatever it is, and write a different biography.”
Was Rose perhaps worried she would discover something she didn’t want to?
“I probably had that thought when looking at whatever is in that box, and yes I didn’t want that. So, I am either in denial or my head is in the sand, or I just want my life with him to be my memory, not his life without me or mine without him. I just want my memories to be of our life together…” She smiled. “They were pretty good.”
Rose does not think about her own mortality. “Not any more than I have to, no, and I haven’t made plans or left any details. I have a will but I have to make it better and more detailed, which I have not.”
“My mother was such an atheist and believed in nothing above past this life. She didn’t want us to believe in Santa Claus, much less God. She turned me into a little Buddhist as a girl.
“The night she decided to die, on her 102nd birthday, she was in full possession of her senses. She was in bed, sitting up, talking. She reached for my hand and said, ‘I think it’s time to go to sleep. Will you come with me?’ And I said yes.”
Rose’s mother looked past the window to the birds flying in the sky. “Do you think those birds are going to Heaven?” she asked her daughter. Maybe, Rose said. “I wish I were going with them,” her mother said. It was the first time she had ever mentioned Heaven.
After that, Rose’s mother looked to the ceiling and said, “Just wait a minute, darling, I’m coming.” Rose said she was talking to her husband who had died 50 years earlier. She died later that day.
Today Rose wonders how much her mother had thought about Heaven—and not spoken about it—in all her years of proudly proclaimed atheism.
Rose dreams about Bill all the time. “He was such a dreamer and I wasn’t, and now I am a very vivid dreamer. An awful lot of the times we’re traveling in strange places having strange adventures or looking for him in strange, Kasbah-like streets I’ve never been in.”
We walk around the house. Shelves jostle with books. There’s a kitschy figurine of a couple, inscribed “Bill and Rose,” given to the couple by Arthur Miller. Rose laughs looking at her wedding picture, on the day of which—no longer a virgin—she felt she couldn’t wear white, opting for a blue dress.
Lillian Hellman, “a wild woman,” is in another photograph. “She was our neighbor down along the harbor here. She was a terror, great fun and awful and a wonderful hostess. A great fishing woman.”
Hellman was the first person the Styrons saw when they landed in Martha’s Vineyard in 1957. Susanna was 2, Bill’s editor failed to meet them, and Hellman zoomed past chasing her huge black poodle, whom she had named for her psychiatrist. “She was screaming, ‘Gregory Zilboorg, come back here!’”
The Styrons went to Hellman’s house, alighting upon Dashiell Hammett on her porch. Susanna climbed into his lap. Hellman told them they had to stop going on holiday to “awful Nantucket” and come to the Vineyard instead.
More photographs, more stories: Teddy Kennedy, George Plimpton, Art Buchwald, the time the sons of Max Kennedy (Ethel and Bobby’s son) came ashore from a boat asking Rose if it was OK if they used the famous outdoor shower—their dad had told them to ask permission.
“Teddy used to use it all the time,” Rose says, as we stand outside and she recalls happily boisterous afternoons of Kennedys and kids playing football.
Rose smiles as she summons up these anecdotal ghosts.
Then there was the time she saw Ladybird Johnson striding across the grass with pots and pans in her hands. Rose asked what she was doing. Mrs. Johnson was taking them to a neighbor’s house for safekeeping till the next summer.
Why aren’t the Secret Servicemen doing this, said Rose, aghast a former First Lady was laden down with pots and pans.
“And they said, ‘Oh, no, we need to have hands free in case we need to take our guns out.’”
Rose laughs merrily at this memory, and the past suddenly feels so present that I—looking at a nearby bush—half expect a little boy’s lost rabbit to burst into view.