Rose Burgunder Styron ’50 has led a glamorous and adventurous life as a poet, activist, mother, and wife. Her delightful memoir, Beyond This Harbor, opens like a political thriller, with her operating undercover in Pinochet’s Chile, gathering information about the disappeared while playing with a beach ball in a hotel pool. From here, her story steps back to proceed chronologically, from her childhood in Baltimore, to Wellesley, graduate school in creative writing, and Rome, where she met William Styron.
The widow of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Sophie’s Choice, Darkness Visible), she came to politics only after becoming a parent. Her life in Connecticut and on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., has been jaw-droppingly connected, and she shares anecdotes about what feels like everyone. Truman Capote was the third wheel on her first date with Bill. There are stories about the time James Baldwin lived in their guesthouse, writing The Fire Next Time; or how Philip Roth thinks she forgave him, but she didn’t; about Nelson Mandela, Richard Widmark, John F. Kennedy, Gabriel García Márquez, Sting, Arthur Miller, and Mia Farrow.
Styron has a wonderful way of sharing and then quickly dismissing unpleasant memories. She tells us that her husband broke a promise and then writes, “A regret,” and moves on to a new paragraph. This ability to move on from disappointment keeps bitterness at bay and is rare in a memoir. We learn how much she loved Bill and that both had affairs (though hers were never more than one or two nights), but nothing of her reactions to his affairs nor the identity of any of her lovers. (Peter Matthiessen, tempting as he was, was not among them.) This restraint makes her animation even more delightful. She, understandably, harbors special hatred for Henry Kissinger, who was instrumental in destabilizing the Allende government in Chile. And she expresses a special love for Teddy Kennedy, even as you feel the pain in her memory of asking her children’s babysitter to help identify the body of Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned when Kennedy’s car plunged off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass.
This tact made her a skilled diplomat on behalf of Amnesty International, in which she was an early and active member. She facilitated and was present at some key moments of Cold War peacemaking, with Fidel Castro, Gerry Adams, and others.
Equally interesting as the human rights work and dishy gossip are her reflections on how she navigated a rather traditional marriage to an artist. He stayed up, drinking and writing, and she got up, shepherded their four children off to school, and typed what he had written. Bill Styron sounds like a familiar type of bad husband: He forbade her from attending the 1968 Democratic Convention because he would worry too much about her. Another “regret.”
For centuries, women like Styron have hidden their writing in desk drawers, putting husband and children first. But only Rose Styron had novelist Jerzy Kosiński discover her poems while borrowing her desk and send them off to New York to be published. What a life!
Fernald, a professor of English at Fordham University, is the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.