In the cramped, book-lined classroom where the Charles River can be glimpsed through arching windows, Plath and Sexton met each other at Lowell's two-hour writing seminar each Tuesday afternoon in the spring of 1959. Classes for the university's writing program are still held in the space.
Plath, 26, and Sexton, 30, had both grown up in Wellesley, but never knew each other until entering Lowell's seminar. The flamboyant, glamorous Sexton and circumspect, intensely intellectual Plath shared enormous ambitions as poets rebelling against the male-dominated American literary establishment.
Along with fellow seminar member George Starbuck, Plath and Sexton would head after class to the Ritz-Carlton near Boston's Public Square for martinis and discussions of poetry and their suicide attempts.
Author Gail Crowther looks back on their alcohol-fueled friendship in her new book, "3 Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton." Literary Hub published an excerpt Wednesday.
Sexton came late to class, wearing ostentatious print dresses and making a drama-queen entrance, dropping papers and waiting for a male to rise and offer her his chair. In contrast, Plath wore conservative suits and arrived early.
The demanding Lowell terrorized his 18 students, relentlessly probing their poems' weaknesses. He recognized the talent of Sexton, Plath and Starbuck. Plath stood out for being able to match Lowell's intellectual knowledge.
The class's drama was heightened by Lowell's frequent manic attacks, in which he would begin to obsess over certain points. One afternoon, the class feared he would leap out of one of the classroom windows. Meetings were derailed when Lowell was at last admitted to Boston's famed McLean Mental Hospital. Plath and Sexton were also alums.
Married to salesman Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton II, Sexton battled to overcome the restrictions placed on American women, who were expected to be uncomplaining housewives. As Sexton's fame as a poet grew, she increasingly engaged in extramarital affairs. Starbuck was one of her lovers.
Unlike Plath, Sexton lacked a college education, but began writing at the suggestion of her therapist. As her poetic mastery grew, Sexton also studied at a special Radcliffe College program for women, explored in Maggie Doherty's recent book, "The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship and Liberation in the 1960s."
After receiving recognition as a major American poet, Sexton's mental turmoil overwhelmed her, and she took her own life.
Plath, already married to the successful English poet Ted Hughes, took Lowell's seminar seeking to overcome writers' block and a loss of confidence in her work. After the workshop, she moved back to London with Hughes, killing herself during the bitter English winter of 1963 after discovering that Hughes was involved in an affair.
The poet achieved posthumous fame with the publication of the groundbreaking collection "Ariel," two years after her death.
The sad young women found brief hours of happiness at the Ritz. I imagine their laughter as they raised their glasses against the repressive American culture of the time. Alas, they were not able to escape in the end.