terça-feira, 27 de outubro de 2009
TED HUGHES, MY SECRET LOVER
Jill Barber reveals the intimate story of the intense four-year affair she shared with the late Poet Laureate.
The Mail on Sunday (London, England); 13-5-2001
Ted Hughes, who died in 1998, was as famous for his torrid private life as for his writing. Although he was accused of driving his first wife and fellow poet Sylvia Plath to suicide, his fame as a relentless - and faithless - lover drew women to him. Writer Emma Tennant recently told of a brief affair with him, and a biography by Elaine Feinstein will say he had an illegitimate child. But here for the first time, Jill Barber, an artists' agent in London in the Seventies, sheds light on Hughes the man and philanderer. She tells of her four-year affair with him, challenges Tennant's story and solves the 'lovechild' mystery. And she recalls the astonishing moment when Hughes told her it was he who wrote Plath's feminist classic The Bell Jar...
My love affair with Ted Hughes began as a bet in London in 1975. I had just been hired as Press officer for Writers' Week, an event hosted by my Australian home town, Adelaide, and had convinced them to sign one of my clients, singer Bettina Jonic, whose one-woman show I had promoted at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Over a cup of tea in her kitchen, we studied the Writers' Week brochure. We were both single: I was younger, but she had the advantage of having had love affairs with famous writers. Our bet was who could get hold of the best-looking guy.
Bettina's finger jabbed at the picture of Ted Hughes.
He looked like Heathcliff (a common description), an amazingly handsome man, his leonine head dominated by a jutting jaw.
It was February 1976 and late summer in Australia.
Adelaide was hot. I had been given a white limousine, all air-conditioning and green-tinted windows, with which to greet and impress the writers.
The poet Adrian Mitchell was off the plane first. His news was a short message from Ted. He was staying with his brother in Melbourne and would not arrive until the next day.
'Very cheeky of him,' I thought. 'Well, I won't be at the airport tomorrow to pick him up; that should make him sit up and take notice.' We met the next day at a barbecue hosted by the Writers' Week committee. Adrian introduced us. Unsmiling, Ted asked me why I was not at the airport. He was standing in a long queue of writers waiting for a glass of wine.
I dodged the question by asking him if I could make up for it by bringing him wine. Without waiting for an answer, I went to the head of the queue. To impress and distract him, I asked for a tasting of each of four wines in separate glasses. Stylish, I thought.
He stood very tall and uncomfortable in a dark maroon leather jacket, too heavy for the hot day. He finally smiled as I moved slowly towards him, four glasses in front of me. I motioned for him to sit on the grass, as he could not drink from four glasses at once. I was wearing a starched, antique white dress and did not think about grass stains as I lowered myself to the ground.
He asked me how I knew he was a wine buff, and I told him I was psychic.
Just to get him going.
I had not read his famous poem Crow at school, and I knew virtually nothing about him - only that he had been married to Sylvia Plath, who had killed herself. With typical optimism, I assumed he was a single widower.
We talked easily about Australia and focused on one another right from the beginning. I did not care that the other writers around us noticed. In person, he was as handsome as his photograph, more open and soft than dark and brooding. His perfection was slightly marred by a gap at the back of his mouth where teeth should have been, and beads of sweat on his top lip.
He was a Yorkshire boy still, with a faint aura of international sophistication. He stared at the Moroccan amber necklace around my neck - I was glad my dress was demure. We had already connected and would be lovers by the next evening - but first we had to face a painful experience together.
The next day was to be Ted's first appearance in front of the Press in many years. As the Press officer, I accompanied him. There was a crowd of about 200 waiting for us as we stepped out of the Hotel Australia. As soon as they spotted Ted, the mob, mostly women, held up placards and started chanting: 'You killed Sylvia.' We fled back into the hotel. We did not talk about what had happened. He only looked at me in a concerned way.
He told me I looked tired and would I like to have a nap in his bed? This was a new approach, but an attractive one. I agreed it was a good idea as I had to look good at the gala opening that evening. He let me into his room but did not step inside. I slipped into sleep thinking he was a gentleman, considerate and kind, and not a wolf.
He woke me up an hour later with a soft knock on the door. How clever he was.
I whirled the ten miles back into town saying to myself: 'And you are being paid for this!' My evening gown - Yves St Laurent chiffon - was borrowed from a London friend, and I wore it with red, peep-toe shoes topped off by the amber necklace.
That night, I became 'Gipsy', Ted's pet name for me - well, at least for the next four years.
Then I arrived at the gala opening, Ted was standing in a corner by a pergola - out of the shine of the floodlights but surrounded by women. The champagne was flowing and I revived my role as waitress. I slowly walked over to him, my high heels catching in the long grass, and leaned against the far pole of the pergola. I held the champagne glasses in the light so he could see them. He was head and shoulders above everybody else, and our eyes met.
The crowd parted as he walked towards me. He took the glass and growled: 'Let's leave.' My champagne level was high as I tried to get my limo out of the parking lot. We flew over a cement stanchion and he really laughed for the first time.
In my seven years working with writers, I had, on principle, never bedded one of them. My only thought as we drove into the hotel entrance was: 'If I go in there with him, how do I get out of there in the morning in my evening dress?' In fact, just going in through the foyer was risky.
However, it was deserted - everybody was still at the party.
His first act of love was to hold me tenderly, mopping my brow with a wet flannel as I threw up the cheap champagne into his sink. He was careful not to let me heave all over my couture. I was not embarrassed, just frightfully ill. Did he lend me his toothbrush? I do not remember. He lay me on the bed and tenderly unbuttoned and unzipped me and gazed admiringly at me.
Undressed in front of me, he looked more vulnerable (that leather jacket had given him mammoth shoulders). He talked as he made love to me and told me I reminded him of a woman he loved very much. 'Well, that's a good start,' I thought and did not interrupt him by saying: 'Who?' As far as I knew, we were two single people. He was rough, passionate and forceful, and we finally slept. I was soon unconscious with fatigue and the champagne.
He woke me by asking me if the maid could take a look at me because she was dying to see who he had in his bed. I brought the sheet up to my nose as she wheeled in her trolley. I already felt famous just by being there.
I drove the ten miles to my parents' house. I was 31 years old and it was the first time I had been out all night when staying with them. Ted was 45.
We were invited to a lunch hosted by an Australian painter, Charles Blackman. I could not look at the fish and fowl and was content to sit with Ted opposite, his legs wrapped around mine underneath the table.
We did not care who knew, and our eyes never left each other.
When Ted flew out the following day, I vowed to forget him and do my job.
But that evening I was ironing when the telephone rang and Ted's voice crackled on the line: 'Jilly, it's Ted. I'm in love with you.' I burned myself with the iron and sat down, I felt weak and trembly. How did I get so lucky? The L-word four days after meeting. He told me he wanted to see me when I got back to London in three weeks.
In fact, it was longer than that before we met again. It was difficult for him to leave his farm in Devon because he had been away so long and there were animals to look after.
I still didn't know he was living there with his wife, Carol.
I was dossing down with friends in Putney while buying a flat on the Fulham Road. The other lodger in my temporary home was actor Timothy Dalton - he hadn't been cast as James Bond yet - who liked me to see him in just a towel.
But I was in love. Ted finally arrived at the front gate and I fell into his arms like a woman in a cheap novel.
The first thing we did was to drive across London to Tufnell Park in his hideous yellow Volvo to meet his sister, Olwyn. He introduced me to her on the pretext of me selling her manuscripts to the Japanese, but later she told me there was no doubt Ted was introducing his latest girlfriend to her.
During that visit, Ted broke the news that he was married to Carol, who had been the nanny to his children by Sylvia - Frieda and Nicholas.
He produced a photograph of her from his wallet. I did not look at it.
'Why would I want to look at her?' I asked him. I did not know what she looked like until I saw her overseeing his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 1999. She looked tall, prim and very ladylike.
I liked and respected Olwyn. She was his fierce protector and remains so.
They were very close and she was his guardian at the London gate, as Carol was at the Devon gate. As for me, I was his ray of sunshine. He would carve up his life, half for me, maybe more than half in the beginning.
Our first real time together was in the spring of 1976 in London. He did not tell me where we were going, only that he had keys to a friend's house. He stopped the car outside the gates, pulled out a blanket from the back of the car and told me to hide under it. I had always loved furtive sex, a product of my mother's Victorian outlook and my seething imagination.
I was very excited under the blanket and Ted seemed to be genuinely anxious about me not being seen. We pulled up next to the house and I was hustled, still under the blanket, straight upstairs where he would keep me for days. I remained prisoner on the top floor.
On our next sexual adventure, Ted met me in Devon in June. I was dressed for the London summer in a white dress and stiletto heels. Ted leant against his muddy Land Rover, all Hemingway in fly-fishing gear complete with waders. He never looked sexier.
He drove me off to Dartmoor as the clouds darkened and temperatures dropped.
I borrowed his fishing gear for warmth. We headed for a pub that was Hitchcockian, standing alone on the moor with a sign swinging in the wind.
The publican lit the fire for us, his only customers. We drank whisky and ginger ale, and toasted our love.
Our reason for being on the moor was that Ted intended for us to be married, his style. A mile from the pub were the famous Marriage Rocks - legend has it that if you make love on the rocks you will be together for ever. There were a few barriers to being married in this way - such as a triple strand of barbed wire between us and the empty road.
We managed to get over the wire, only to be confronted by enormous cowpats.
I was bitching and moaning to the wind, which was now high, and wondering how we were ever going to consummate our union on these granite rocks. Being a woman I, of course, had to lie down on the rocks, and my coccyx ground into stuff more uncomfortable than concrete.
Because of my back, the ceremony was a short one - but we were together for ever.
We saw each other whenever we could. Ted loved to be with me so much that he was content to bed-hop all over London with me. He had nicknamed me Gipsy, and every gift he gave me seemed to echo the name: beads from Egyptian crypts, gold from Roman times.
Ted was happy to doss down at friends' houses and flats, sometimes for weeks at a time. Of course, when I delivered Ted to them I only made them happy. He could even cook. I have to say that in all the years I was with him, he never burned a fish. He had a religious obsession around salmon trout and would serve them - some of which he had caught himself - with delicate, perfectly cooked baby potatoes.
Ted helped everybody who could get close to him. Thanks to his sister, his wife and his publisher, he was the most protected of poets. But to those who got through the privacy barrier, he was generous with time and talent. I asked him to co-edit a literary magazine, Mars, with me, and every great writer, poet, illustrator and photographer in the world said Yes to him.
Through him I also met the famous writer of fiction Emma Tennant.
In February 1977 we decided to invite Emma to dinner to persuade her to distribute Mars with her literary magazine Bananas. We had drunk a lot of wine and I was worried about Ted's safe return when he offered to drive Emma home. He was not the best driver, even when sober.
Emma wore a homespun dress and had large feet, and apart from her beautiful accent, a product of many generations of English aristocracy, she struck me as unremarkable. Ted was very drunk when he got home and I was tired and could not be bothered to ask him if he had slept with her. After all, it was the Seventies.
On Valentine's Day in 1977 a woodcut pasted on to a crude piece of blue cardboard was pushed under my apartment door addressed to Ted. I guessed it was from Emma and laughed as I handed it to him. I remember it not being in an envelope, as if she wanted to tell me: 'Here is some competition.' I did not imagine, arrogant as I was, that a 'sub-mistress' - as Emma described herself - had moved into our lives. Even the 'sub-mistress' tag seemed excessive after I had read Emma's published diaries: I calculated that she only had him two-anda-half times - once he couldn't make love, which was never a problem when he was with me - and the last time she even had to pay for the hotel room herself.
I went to a party at Emma's, which she documented in her book Burnt Diaries.
I was the 'bouncy Australian' with a fabricated name who embarrassed her by 'flogging my costume jewellery'. Then, she said, she was invited to my sordid Earl's Court flat where Ted burned the fish and I answered the door wrapped in a sheet. Apparently, I flung the door open to show her the rumpled bed where Ted and I had just had sex.
By Christmas 1977 (I had spent the previous Christmas at a property next to his in Devon so he could do some fence-hopping), I had finally moved into my flat in Fulham. Ted offered to help me wallpaper the front room. I was nervous because the last time he had played handyman, he had hammered a nail through a hot water pipe in my hall, sending boiling water over both of us.
Ted was at the top of the ladder and, true to our homemaking history, I was yelling up at him while I struggled with gluey strips coming down in my direction. However, we did it and it looked lovely.
The Edwardian block of flats I lived in was very solid - except for floors.
As a moving-in present, some friends gave me a magnificent bed with a headboard that soared to the ceiling and had brass cupids flying off each corner. But it was not sturdy enough to withstand Ted's lovemaking, and the noise drove the spinster who lived downstairs crazy.
Her employer happened to be a publisher I had worked with, and he would leer at me at cocktail parties and recount the noises of our sexual exploits.
Poor Ted. During our lovemaking in that noisy bed I had to use all my strength to hold him at arm's length to quiet him. Why didn't we buy another bed?
He talked about Sylvia often, more with resignation than anger because she was an ongoing force: managing her estate with Olwyn distracted him from his own work. But I do not believe he resented Sylvia's success - he had done so much to encourage her talent.
He told me in 1985 that he wrote her book The Bell Jar. I believed him. Ted did not boast or need to take credit for work he did not do.
Sylvia once recorded that she could not write prose.
I believe the amount of support he provided Sylvia made him feel that he deserved whatever he got out of her estate. Ted believed Sylvia's moods drove him into the affair with Assia Wevill that led to him leaving her. He married Assia and they had a little girl, but Assia then killed herself and their daughter.
I had believed him when he told me in 1977: 'If you f*** another man I will never see you again.'
His sex drive was unquenchable and he was definitely attracted to unstable women. He told me with glee of how he had driven a previous lover, Brenda Heddon, to near madness.
When he broke off their relationship, he would wake up in the morning to find her hair twined around the front doorknob and the doorhandle of his car.
He loved women to be obsessed with him, even if he did not love or care for them any more.
I only once caught him with a woman. I was cooking brunch for a group of friends, one a stylist with dark hair and beestung, vermilion lips. Ted thought I was in the kitchen, but I had decided to check on people's glasses.
His back to me, he was staring into her face, those lips of hers getting nearer to him and his long arm moving around her back. I stepped back into the kitchen and called him. I told him to come to the bedroom with me. I was wearing cowboy boots I had bought on my last trip to Australia. I brought back my right foot and kicked him so hard in the shins it was a wonder he did not fall to the ground in pain. I picked up his briefcase containing his Marks & Spencer underpants and threw it down the staircase. I told him: 'Not in my house.' He went off to Olwyn's where I could, of course, find him, otherwise he would have gone to that place of grimy sheets where he sort of trysted with Emma. We made love in the dawn and I apologised for hurting him.
My flat was a cosy home, but writers and photographers would call me all hours of the day and night, and my partner in our agency business had set up an office in New York. It did not please Ted that I always had to be available.
My bathroom became his refuge.
He would sit on the lavatory and write - even though I warned him he would be afflicted by the cold wind blowing up the bowl from the nearby common.
With hindsight, I think I drove Ted out with my business and by living at such close quarters. He stopped being around quite so much.
He probably told me he was working at the BBC. It was Emma who eventually told me he had a writing flat.
I would turn 34 in July 1978 and we had forged our bond on Dartmoor in 1976.
My friends had already been married, had children and divorced.
Frankly, I was broody.
Around that first Christmas spent at the flat, I announced to Ted that maybe the contraceptive Pill I took may not have worked and I might be pregnant. We were in his car parked next to the flat, and I had had enough wine to make me brave enough to voice my fears. His large head went on to his hands on the steering wheel, his whole body collapsed. Ted did not want to have another child.
I did not take it personally, knowing now the pain he had suffered from being a widower with young children - although Olwyn did most of the parenting after Sylvia's death - and the loss of Assia and her child.
It turned out I wasn't pregnant, but this was a turning point in our relationship. Perhaps, even now, that moment still echoes across the years.
Was it my suspected pregnancy which started the rumour that Ted had fathered a child by a secret lover, the story that Elaine Feinstein features in her new book? I don't know, but I do know that everything about Ted was exaggerated and magnified as it was passed with delight from mouth to gossiping mouth.
In his sweet way, Ted addressed my maternal yearnings. On his next visit he was cradling in his hand a kitten he had found behind the barn in Devon. I named her Popsy after another of his nicknames for me, Jillypops, and she lived until she was 21 years old.
It is almost impossible to mark the point in any relationship when love begins to wane. Certainly, the fear that I was pregnant unnerved Ted and, as my business grew, I travelled more and our love and joy when we were together diminished with each passing year. We still hated to be apart and were supportive of each other's work. Our letters were full of passion, his full of sadness and longing and sickness. He would say things like, 'Are you leaving me?' with charts indicating his love.
Nobody had ever left Ted except via the undertaker.
But still I wanted a baby and a normal, married life. I awoke one morning thinking about a book deal I was closing with the New York Times. I had not dreamed of Ted, he was not in my thoughts, I obviously no longer loved him.
Living in New York would be the answer, I decided. I needed a big ocean between us. I packed up my beautiful flat and moved to the West Village. It may be that my sudden disappearance from the scene, plus the story that I had suspected I was pregnant, have fed a myth that led some people to believe I may have had a child by Ted.
In 1986, Ted came to New York and stayed with me and my husband, Harry, and four-year-old daughter, Rachel. Instead of talking about us, which would have been self-defeating, we talked about Ted's children Nicholas and Frieda.
The last time I saw Ted was for lunch in London in November 1995, three years before he died from liver cancer. It felt strange at first.
We were almost shy with each other, but then after the meal, as we walked away from the restaurant, I complained he was walking too slowly. He smiled.
In that moment, the years fell away.
Ted was always surrounded by women and he adored the attention.
He was able to live a double life quite easily (as he did with me) and possibly three or four lives.
While we were lovers I could only guess at what went on at the farm in Devon where he lived with his third wife, Carol. Like every deluded mistress, I could not conceive of him making love to her.
Carol, who had been the nanny of his two children by Sylvia Plath, Nicholas and Frieda, was also his bookkeeper, not one of my strengths.
Her hard work on the accounts freed him to have his other life in London and abroad with me.
Ted rewarded Carol by appointing her executor and beneficiary of his estate.
When he was with me, he always made me feel he was mine, even when surrounded by a throng of women. Ted's excuse for falling in love with me was that his marriage filled him with 'black electricity'. He had married a devoted woman, a farm girl, who was not interested in his inner life, his literary life.
I discovered his priapic nature in 1976 when we first met at the Adelaide Writers' Week and he introduced me to Claudia Wright, a journalist who had interviewed him and then become his lover.
Jennifer Rankin, an Australian poet who was also there, was so smitten that she decided to follow Ted to England immediately. She, and her husband David, a painter, moved with their two children into a rented farmhouse near Court Green, Ted's house in Devon. I spent Christmas with them in 1976 to be close to Ted.
Jennifer had cancer and Ted had enlisted the help of a famous healer who lived nearby. Ted was obsessed by the disease and I told him more than once that if he continued like that, he would contract it himself.
Ted was frequently pursued by women. Writer Emma Tennant, though she did not mention it in her book Burnt Diaries, was one of them.
On one occasion she turned up at my door, and she often sent him presents, once even pursuing him via a motorcycle messenger with a gift of a very special fountain pen.
He loved all this attention. When collecting material for Kristina Dusseldorp's literary magazine MARS, we were invited to Edna O'Brien's terrace house off the King's Road in Chelsea for tea. She opened the door resplendent in a floaty kaftan, still very beautiful. She was flirtatious with Ted and kept telling him about her erotic dreams, asking for his interpretation of them.
It was a distinct come-on and I was not sure if he had invited me along to protect him or to witness yet another woman desirous of taking him to bed. He did not make me feel uncomfortable or jealous - I expected women to be strongly attracted to him. He made me feel I was the centre of his universe when I was with him.
But the woman who continued to dominate his life was Sylvia Plath.
He spoke of Sylvia often, especially when I was bad. I was thrilled when he told me after one argument: 'You're a bigger bitch than Sylvia.' She was important enough in his life in 1976 for him to take me on a pilgrimage to her grave. It was touted as a tour of Yorkshire, where he was born and brought up, but, when we got to Heptonstall, the trip suddenly felt different. The graveyard was unremarkable but across the lane the church had been burned.
The rooks were out. I was silent, not knowing the correct words. He was angry because her grave had been vandalised again - somebody had tried to erase the name Hughes.
On grey winter days when I was missing Ted, I would head for the library and read the steamy passages from Sylvia's published journals about how she and Ted met. I remember he pulled something out of her hair, bit her on the neck and kissed her 'smash on the mouth'.
Ted had calmed down a little in 20 years, but not much. He would walk through my front door after four-and-a-half hours in the car and want to have me on the floor of the hallway there and then. In the beginning I loved it but over the years, with his promises of marriage and being together evaporating, I became more of a bitch and would make him wait, take a bath and talk to me first.
However, his sex drive was unquenchable.
Although I read a lot of books I had not gone to university, but Ted never made me feel ignorant. He never made anybody feel that way, for that matter.
The thing about Ted that none of his biographers or 'sub-mistresses' has pinned down, because they were not with him for very long, was one simple, exceptional talent: with his feline eyes, deft hands and fabulous laugh, he could make people feel as if they had never lived before they met him. He listened and heard everything.
When we met, Ted had writer's block and was depressed. It had been going on a long time because he had published Crow in 1968 and this was 1976. In the years we were together he called me his muse and introduced me to fellow poet Robert Graves as such. He was able to concentrate on his newfound creative surge and published Season Songs 1976 (the inscription in my copy is: For Jill's Child From Ted), Gaudete, Cave Birds, Remains Of Elmet, Selected Poems (with Thom Gunn) and children's books.
His editors in England and America were pleased to know me because of his many years of not being published. Playing the role I did in his new productivity intensified the hurt when he dedicated the books between 1976 and 1980 to Carol and her father. It burned me up.
Later, I rationalised that he had his eye on the prize of Poet Laureate and any more scandal and wives would offend the Queen. He was taken to meet the Queen by Sir John Betjeman, the retiring Poet Laureate, who amused Ted by rolling drunk on to the gravel in front of the Palace.
He howled with laughter when telling the story (he really did do a lot of howling and growling) and was surprised that the Queen was able to quote much of his poetry.
When he was with me he wrote all the time in his distinctive italic style with a fountain pen.
With hindsight, I should have scrabbled through my wastepaper basket and kept his rough drafts. But I would not have dreamt of doing that, being so aware of his paranoia about the value of his work and his privacy.
He lay on the bed while I read Gaudete, to hear my opinion. I was confused and dazzled by it and could not be much help as a critic. He worked easily and did not talk about problems with the work; he enjoyed it. His problems were with Sylvia's estate and protecting their children, whom he adored. He did not want them to read any of her writing that would hurt them or other people.
When we met he asked me if I kept a journal. I told him No, and he was pleased. I was earning money as a journalist, but I had no desire to write novels or poems. I was interested in his literary life, but I posed no threat.
Just before I left him, he asked again if I'd kept a journal and I said No. 'You fool,' he replied.
What we had in common is that we both were sensual creatures and we loved to dine with friends, drink an excellent bottle of wine and talk, Ted mostly.
And as a lover of life, I was clearly not suicidal.
Helping to manage the Plath estate, while lucrative, was a nuisance to him, I believe, because it reminded him of when they lived and worked together.
He felt a great guilt and sadness about Assia (his second wife, who also killed herself together with their daughter). He felt he could have saved her, more than he could have saved Sylvia.
All that seems such a long time ago now. There are no framed photographs of Ted in my New York apartment or my country house. I have a section of my bookshelf devoted to the signed copies of the books he wrote while we were together, all dedicated to Carol.
He annoyed me often by telling me not to display his books in my flat, that they would be stolen.
I was angry because the books, although illustrated with sensual creatures like snakes and full of pronouncements of love, did not reflect by their dedications the role I had played in his emergence from his black Devon hole.
But my years with him were unforgettable and I have no regrets.