It’s easy to be cynical about love these days. Divorce rates seem always on the rise and tabloid fodder makes a public mockery of marriage and commitment. But some people are still able to hold on for a lifetime, or longer.
A Friday night event at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore, billed as a book discussion, turned out to be more a testament by a loving wife to her late husband. At the event, Rose Styron offered a bittersweet glimpse into the relationship that spanned the major part of her life so far; her marriage to fellow writer William Styron.
“I was extremely lucky to have Bill for my beloved, if you will, for half a century,” she said to a crowd piled into folding chairs in the upstairs children’s section of the Vineyard Haven bookstore to hear Mrs. Styron discuss her late husband’s two new books, Suicide Run and Letters to My Father.
In the time since his death in 2006, Mrs. Styron has helped put together the two posthumously published collections. The first captures Mr. Styron’s experience in the Marine Corps, the second is a collection of letters written in his teens and twenties to his beloved father, whom both Bill and Rose Styron fondly called Pop.
Smartly dressed head to toe in black, with a pale lavender jacket and cascading pearl-colored necklace, Mrs. Styron was a picture of informal elegance at the casual event. She read only brief passages aloud from the books, instead focusing on sharing a few affectionate anecdotes from her life with Mr. Styron. “You see what a good writer he became,” she said of her young husband’s progress over more than a decade in letters to his father, “but [also] what the process was.” The story is mostly one-sided, as the letters written by her father in law in response to his son were mostly lost over time.
William and Rose Styron met as young expatriates living in Rome and began a whirlwind romance that resulted in their engagement after only two months. The two moved for a short time to Paris, where her suspicious mother and his wary father began to plant seeds of doubt in the young couple about their affair. She recalled a letter from her fiancé’s father: “Dear son; What kind of trouble are you in?”
The couple returned to Italy and called off the engagement, and Mrs. Styron moved to Florence. It wasn’t long before she accepted an invitation from a friend to come back to Rome for a visit. While there, she ran into Mr. Styron. They quickly rekindled their romance, and Mrs. Styron never returned to Florence. The couple married in Rome in the spring of 1953.
The stories Mrs. Styron shared on Friday night ranged from their courtship and early days of marriage to amusing incidents involving their children and friends. Mrs. Styron spoke of her husband’s affection for southern cooking, particularly his fondness for Smithfield hams, which he often stowed in the family bathtub before they were prepared. Once, their daughter Alexandra came running to her mother, frightened by the bundle in the bathroom, and announced, “Mommy, there’s a dead man in the bathtub!”
The Smithfield hams seemed to be responsible for all kinds of commotion in the Styron household. While entertaining guests one evening, Mr. and Mrs. Styron went into their kitchen to find that the ham they’d intended to serve had mysteriously disappeared. The search for the missing meat led them into the backyard garden where they found their dog, Aquinnah, delightedly devouring the meal. Despite his lifelong love for their different family dogs, Mrs. Styron recalled with a grin the fury her husband showed that night. Luckily, she said, a neighbor agreed to hide the pup for several days, until her husband’s anger subsided.
Modestly apologizing for what she called name-dropping, Mrs. Styron relayed another story about the infamous jokester Art Buchwald. On one visit to the Styron home, Mr. Buchwald, an inexperienced driver at the time, accidentally mowed down Mr. Styron’s row of cornstalks with his car. Once again, Mr. Styron fumed at the fellow writer. As she told the story, Mrs. Styron gently chastised her late husband. Hadn’t he, after all, been the one to plant the crop so close to the driveway?
A respected writer in his lifetime, Mr. Styron’s legacy continues. In addition to Suicide Run and Letters to My Father, the New Yorker published one of his stories earlier this year, the first piece of his fiction ever published in the magazine. One of the Styron daughters is currently writing from Brooklyn about her father, and Mrs. Styron is working on another book of correspondence. “I’m now collecting all of Bill’s letters, which will take forever because he must have written a letter every day,” she said. And as the public learns more about the personal relationships and experiences that influenced William Styron as a writer, so too does his widow. “I’ve learned a lot about his relationships with other people that I didn’t know,” she said.
All of the letters were written longhand, much like the manuscripts for his novels, which for many years his wife transcribed from yellow legal pads. Mrs. Styron said that her husband would often read his writings aloud to her at night, and she would type them up the following morning. “In the beginning, I thought everything was miraculous and perfect,” she said of her husband’s work. She rarely made suggestions until she read an early draft of what became perhaps his most famous novel, Sophie’s Choice. The book originally began with the now-infamous scene in which the title character is forced to choose between her two children at Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. Mrs. Styron felt that no parent would read further into a novel with such an agonizing opening, and encouraged her husband to write the scene deeper into the story. “That was the one piece of advice that I gave him that he took,” she said.
Early in the discussion, Mrs. Styron said, “it’s pretty surprising that Bill Styron has two new books out.” On the contrary, it should not be surprising at all that there is more to be read of a man with his talent for writing and habit of writing something — anything — daily. William Styron is gone, but the family that nurtured his legacy in life and now in death, led by his adoring wife, will make sure that we haven’t heard the last of him.