She opened her door and mind to others

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She opened her door and mind to others
Rose Styron in Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 7, 2023. The poet and activist had to be talked into writing about herself and the many luminaries she has known. (Cole Barash/The New York Times)

by Celia McGee

VINEYARD HAVEN, MASS.- Rose Styron used to start her daily swim of the season in May, when the waters off the long dock at her house in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, still barely reach 50 degrees. “Now that I’m 95, though,” she said one day in April, “I may wait until June.”

The first of Styron’s four books of poetry, “From Summer to Summer,” a collection for children, was published in 1965. Her most recent, “Fierce Day,” a coming to terms with the death of her husband, author William Styron, in 2006, was published in 2015. In the decades in between, her activism and journalism in the service of human rights, and her dedication as a celebrated host, have otherwise occupied her, as have her four children.

Now, Styron has written a memoir, “Beyond This Harbor: Adventurous Tales of the Heart.” It includes lots of sightings from that same dock, and from the deep porch of her low-slung white house on Vineyard Sound. Presidents and human-rights crusaders, playwrights and movie stars, Nobel laureates and refugees, Sinn Fein members and Ulster Unionists, Hyannis Port Kennedys, newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis from her Red Gate Farm tromped across the Styrons’ lawn to their famous dinner parties. As long as guests are interesting, they are summoned there still.

The Styrons were the first people singer-songwriter Carly Simon wanted to meet when she arrived on the Vineyard in 1970. “They were legends,” Simon said recently.

They came up from Litchfield County, Connecticut, where artists and writers had started to settle when the Styrons bought their first home, a rambling property in Roxbury, in 1954. There, Rose embarked on motherhood and entertaining, and typed her husband’s manuscripts. In the guest cottage, author James Baldwin wrote “The Fire Next Time.” In 1963, they found the summer house on the Vineyard, and Connecticut neighbors including director Mike Nichols and, eventually, journalist Diane Sawyer, writer Philip Roth, playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath, composer Leonard Bernstein and his family were soon on hand. Styron always rose early to write her poetry. In 1973, she published “Thieves’ Afternoon,” and in 1995, “By Vineyard Light.”

Since 2013, she has lived on the Vineyard year-round. Until recently, she played tennis every day. Her ferocious Scrabble game comes with a set of Rose’s Rules.

Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. will arrive on the island in July; Styron plans to host a dinner for him the next day. “Rose’s dinners are like the great belletristic salons of Paris,” he said. Styron said that the only person ever denied an invitation was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and that she would never backtrack on that.

At a dinner just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Victoria Wilson, a senior editor at Knopf, approached Styron about writing a memoir. Styron resisted. “I don’t like looking backward,” she said.

That changed during the long months of lockdown. She filled yellow legal pads with memories, opinions and stories: the protest marches, the White House dinners, the pro-democracy intelligence missions, the remote wildlife trips, the rock concerts for human rights.

“It’s a very large life,” Wilson said. “She was obviously a golden girl.”

Also recorded were the dark years of William Styron’s two mental breakdowns and his “Darkness Visible,” a bestselling book about the first that helped countless readers but, ultimately, couldn’t stave off the depression that returned at his life’s end.

“Beyond This Harbor” dips in and out of Rose Styron’s regrets for not better understanding the illness afflicting her husband, the world-renowned author of “Lie Down in Darkness,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” and for not having acted sooner when signs pointed to its magnitude.

She now grasps, she writes, that his drunken rages, his jealousy of her widening commitments and attachments and his often surly distance from his children were fueled by early insecurities and loss.

Coming out shortly after “Beyond This Harbor” is a documentary about Styron, “In the Company of Rose,” by director and playwright James Lapine, another Vineyard friend, who filmed her over six summers. “She’s been a witness to so many passages of time and memorable events, but she kept herself in the background, the way she still does as a hostess,” he said.

“Rose likes to be the one listening,” said her friend Mia Farrow, who met Styron at 19, when she and Frank Sinatra dinghyed over from his chartered yacht.

“It’s my 19th-century self-effacement,” Styron said. She was seated at the large, claw-footed dining table that once belonged to her mother, Selma Kann Burgunder, a rigidly proper product of moneyed Jewish Baltimore, its top scratched with decades of Styron family breakfasts, impromptu luncheons and star-studded dinners.

Because Styron grew up mostly alone and in the care of a nanny, her eldest daughter, filmmaker Susanna Styron, has wondered about her need for company. “I don’t think she got much affection,” she said.

The Styrons bought the Vineyard house with a loan from her family. The beautiful Rose Burgunder had confessed her wealthy background to William Styron only after they had taken up together, two young postwar expats in Rome encouraged in their romance by Truman Capote.

Styron credits a Quaker school education with her dedication to social justice. At Wellesley College, she switched from pre-med to English literature after “a Harvard beau at the medical school took me to an autopsy and I fainted,” she said.

Styron’s response to her strict upbringing was to rebel: She took off for Europe at a time when young women were expected to have settled down. She married “on a lark,” she said, because she would otherwise not have been welcome at the American Academy, where William Styron had a resident fellowship and being an unmarried couple living together was frowned upon (and, she said, because Irwin Shaw, a friend from “the Paris Review crowd,” “offered to throw us a party”)

The lifestyle she chose for herself and her family once back in the States was picturesquely free-spirited. “My mother thrives on chaos,” said her daughter Polly, a choreographer. Styron preferred going out more than her husband did. In 1966, without him, she attended Capote’s Black and White Ball.

If William Styron had flagrant and very public affairs, Rose stuck to “one- or two-night stands,” she writes in the memoir, but she has never named names. She does write frankly about the abortion she had after her third child, Tom, now an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University, was born. Seven years later came Alexandra, who in 2011 published “Reading My Father: A Memoir,” a bestselling chronicle of her troubled relationship with both her parents.

Styron said she was “happy just being with my husband and children” until a trip to the Soviet Union with her husband in 1968 opened her eyes to the plight of the country’s dissident writers and intellectuals, many banished to the gulag.

“Once you see people of conscience and bravery being imprisoned or killed, once you see what’s going on in the world, it changes you,” she said.

She became a founding member of Amnesty International USA and “stopped writing poetry for 20 years,” she said. Instead, she circled the globe, and a gilded social circuit, speaking and writing and lending the Styron name in support of human rights.

The couple’s celebrity was powerful, and Styron “was on the other end of the phone anytime we needed anybody to sign anything or speak out or show up,” said Larry Siems, who directed PEN’s Freedom to Write and International Programs for 17 years.

Working less conspicuously, Styron traveled to Bosnia, Cambodia, El Salvador and Nicaragua. She considers 1974 the year she “became a serious journalist,” she said, bringing opposition details out of a Chile traumatized by the death of Salvador Allende and the rule of terror under Augusto Pinochet. She helped publish much of the devastating information in The New York Review of Books.

“Rose was the indispensable person to contact in the States for my work supporting the cultural resistance against Pinochet,” said Ariel Dorfman, the author of “Death and the Maiden,” who was in exile from Chile at the time.

Now, Styron said, “I’m in distress about everything from Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan to Russia and the Ukraine, but mostly about how polarized and divided this country is. I fear for our democracy. I’m hoping young voters will save us next year.”

Styron has never lost her sense of wonder about the Vineyard’s natural world. In her poetry of mourning in “Fierce Day,” nature is a tonic. Her children just finished building her a ground-floor wing at the house, carefully angled for a view of the lawn, the dock and the water.

It also affords a view of the path leading to her front door. “Each summer, the world comes to Martha’s Vineyard,” she writes in “Beyond This Harbor,” and this spring she e-bombed her Vineyard mailing list with the message: “Dear friends, Do you know what dates you’ll be coming to MV this spring and summer? Planning ahead and looking forward to seeing you often.”

“Cheers! Rose.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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