...That same year, Sylvia met a very different sort of man, one who would help her free herself of her conventional morality, liberate her sexually and expand her intellectual horizons.
Richard Sassoon, a senior at Yale, did not match her physical ideal: he was the same height as her, wiry and, with his black eyes ringed with purple shadows, seemed possessed of a haunted quality. Yet, from the moment they met, Sylvia felt challenged and stimulated. Born in Paris, Richard was a British citizen and a distant relative of poet Siegfried Sassoon.
At the beginning of May, Richard invited her to New York City. While ruminating on the delights of the forthcoming liaison, he wrote to her: ‘I am talking myself into thinking it will be rather fun to play daddy to a naughty girl if you are naughty.’
The couple checked into a hotel on 44th Street, where they spent the majority of their time in bed.
Sylvia confessed in a letter to a friend that she had slept for only two hours that Saturday night. On Sunday they went to Steuben’s, where they enjoyed a lunch of onion soup, herrings in sour cream, and ice-cream éclairs with plenty of white wine.
They were in New York again in early December. The couple went to see the gigantic Christmas tree and the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center and ate oysters for breakfast and snails for dinner. On Sunday, December 12, they discovered that Richard’s car had been broken into and that Sylvia’s suitcase, containing some of her best clothes, some poetry books, theatre programmes and her Chanel No. 5 perfume, had been taken.
On her return to Smith, Plath wrote the poem Item: Stolen, One Suitcase [unavailable], which detailed her furious reaction. If the poem is anything to go by, it seems Richard became so frustrated by Sylvia’s hysterics that he slapped her across the mouth.
During that first term at Cambridge, Sylvia did everything in her power to notch up as many potential suitors as possible. But, as was often Sylvia’s style, once she had secured the attentions of a man she felt she had no choice but to let him go.
Although equal in age, the boys at Cambridge just could not measure up to Richard Sassoon. When term ended in December, she set off on what was supposed to be a perfect holiday: a trip to Paris, where he was studying, to see him.
He not only showed her the tourist sights of the city but also its hidden underbelly: she relished the sight of the prostitutes who clustered around the Place Pigalle. Evenings were taken up with theatre, eating delicious food and drinking wine.
On New Year’s Eve, the couple boarded the night train to Nice. Plath was a self-confessed sun worshipper. In her journal she described the joy she felt after leaving the biting winds and leaden skies of Cambridge behind. Finally, by the time the train reached the Côte d’Azur, she saw what she had been waiting for: ‘the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea’.
In Sassoon’s eyes, Sylvia was ‘as various as the sea’. He remembered the occasion when he returned to their hotel room to find her standing naked at the window. She told him that she had pretended to herself that the hotel was full of ‘false wooers, all after me and swearing that you were dead, and only I knew that you were alive’. They also rowed furiously.
Before leaving France, Sassoon told her it would be best if they didn’t see each other for a while. He said that after his spell at the Sorbonne he would have to return to America to serve in the army for two years and then he wanted to set himself up in business. He would always love her, he told her, but until they met again it was only right that she should be free to have affairs with other men.
Sassoon was, Sylvia told her mother, ‘the only boy I have ever loved so far’. He was not only the most intuitive person she had ever met, but also the cleverest.
Her husband's lover was Jewish as well, and a former resident of Mandate Palestine.