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W IL L IA M G . L E A R Y La Selva, California Checkmate: Jean Stafford’s “A Slight Maneuver” During the waning days of 1946, Jean Stafford’s life must have appeared to her to be waning, too. Her six-year marriage to Robert Lowell lay in ruins. Her self-esteem was dangerously diminished, her psyche badly disordered, and her body ravaged by the drink and drugs she had turned to as anodynes for her pain. At this critical moment she sequestered herself in the Payne Whitney Clinic of New York City Hospital where she con­ sented to undergo a “psycho-alcoholic cure.” She could not have made a wiser move. The combined medical and psychiatric help she received there produced in good time a pleasant trans­ formation in both her attitude and her appearance. She learned how to eat and sleep normally again. She took a renewed interest in her grooming and dress. She began to knit up the raveled sleeve of all those cares that had made her grow desperate shortly before. With Jean Stafford it is not neces­ sary to add that she also recovered her sense of humor because she had never lost it. From her unhappy childhood to her stricken last days Staf­ ford’s comic gift seems never to have failed her. If her body was confined behind the locked doors of the Payne Whitney Clinic, her waggish tongue still had free play. Her friend, Eileen Simpson (then Berryman), recalls Jean’s referring to the courtyard used by the inmates for exercise as “Luna Park.” Another time she acknowledged Eileen’s compliment on her improved appearance by quipping, “For dinner I put on pearls—like a Smith College girl.”1 During this rather desperate period, when she was struggling to regain her equilibrium, Stafford had an even more important lifeline to hold on to —her talent. Like her comic sense, this seems never to have failed her. Throughout her tempestuous life, whenever she seemed to be foundering, she sought and found refuge in her art. Interestingly, she appears to have developed this strategy as early as her childhood, which she later remem­ bered as a period “when I was unhappy and afraid.” It was then she dis­ covered how to allay her unhappiness and fear: she became, as she says, 100 Western American Literature “a secret writer.” Later on, when the secret was out, when all the world knew that she was a writer, and a good one, Stafford continued this pattern, finding relief from the pain of her life in the pleasure of her art. But in the fall of 1946 it was not just her fractured psyche and her abused body that needed restoring. Her purse, she feared, was nearly as empty as her life. Worse yet, she could expect no help from what should have been the most likely source. It seemed to her that her husband, whom perversely she still loved, had walked away not only from his marriage but from his responsibilities as well. At this time Robert Lowell still received money from a family-established trust fund, but the income from it was not very large at best and his mother had always taken a cold-eyed view of his bestowing any of it on Jean even during earlier, happier years. Compound­ ing her sense of injury was Stafford’s awareness that she had been the breadwinner since late in 1944 when her first novel, Boston Adventure, had proved to be a surprising best seller. But that source of money, too, had its limits. Much of it had gone to purchase and refurbish a handsome old house in Damariscotta Mills, Maine, at first Stafford’s heart’s delight, but now, alas, as derelict as her marriage. She could not even raise a mortgage on it to pay her medical expenses since she had put the house in their joint names and now Lowell refused to sign a quit claim. This from the hus­ band who had taken his leave exclaiming, “I don’t want a wife. I want a playmate.”2 To grant Lowell the divorce he was seeking and that she was reluctant to give...


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