Ted Hughes - The Life of a Poet, by Elaine Feinstein

Extract from Chapter 8 - Devon (pages 120-124)


Copyright Elaine Feinstein 2001.

Assia was born Assia Gutman in Germany to a Jewish physician of Russian origin and a German Protestant mother. Her family had left Germany on the eve of the Second World War for Palestine, then a British colony, where her father was able to practise medicine and where she and her sister, Celia, were brought up. The sisters went to school in a German enclave, only mixing with Jewish children and speaking the Hebrew language after school hours.

In 1945, when she was barely sixteen, Assia already had a remarkablesophistication. Mira Hamermesh, a Polish-born film-maker and a close friend, who had reached the safety of Palestine in 1941, remembers seeing her from a bus in 1945:

To me she came across as a beautifully-attired teenager ... the most urbanised representative of the fashionably dressed young girl that I would have liked to become ... She was tanned, with brownish hair, beautiful violet-blue eyes. But it was her poise that struck me - I'd never seen anyone so poised, except from what I remembered of Hollywood films. Only from that world did I know people like her ... She was wearing a choker; an open-shouldered blouse in crisp white. Everything about her was crisp.
A year later, while travelling to London to take up a British Council scholarship to study Art at the Slade in London, Mira met Assia again. They became friends, and although there was a brief separation at the time of the Israeli War of Independence - when Mira went back to Israel to fight - the two young women kept in touch. Mira - incidentally a remarkably pretty woman herself- recognized a very similar vulnerability to her own beneath the charming surface. 'We were driftwood, [my italics] post-war driftwood. Living in an English country where people don't ask - it's good manners not to question. So they would never know about me or her, the real core of our being, what is ticking behind that beautiful, poised exterior. The truth is we didn't even dare to know it ourselves - we were vulnerable, desperately vulnerable.'

After the war, the Gutman family had left Palestine for Canada, with Assia already married for the first time, although that marriage soon ended in divorce. David Wevill was Assia's third husband. Her second had been Dr Richard G. Lipsey a LSE Professor of Economics. Assia had not taken the breakdown of her second marriage calmly, and had exacted a stylish revenge. Suzette Macedo, who found Assia's stories as 'compelling as Scheherazade', was much taken with her arranging for a male friend to send her ex-husband's new partner a rose every day, without any note. According to Assia, this drove Lipsey so mad with jealousy that he telephoned the shop to find out where the roses came from.

Suzette's involvement with Assia amounted for some years to an obsession. She had met her with David at a party given by Jean and Malcolm Hart, recognizing her at once from Sylvia's description of their new tenant at Chalcot Square: 'And I fell in love with Assia ... her huge beautiful eyes, the way her hair fell, her husky voice, the way she could tell a story ... I once said to her: you must be a hundred years old to have lived the life you have. She had been a hat-check girl for a time, among other exotic employment.' Assia had met her present husband on board ship, crossing from Canada to England in 1956, where David, who already had a degree, was at Cambridge reading English. She was still married to Lipsey at the time, but David fell in love with her and offered to remain available if she ever needed him. In October 1958, he began a two-year teaching stint at the University of Mandalay in Burma. When her marriage to Lipsey broke down, Assia joined David there in 1959, where she enjoyed learning Balinese dancing and acquiring a cut-glass Kensington accent. Assia was seen as a scarlet woman, according to Suzette Macedo. After David left the University ofMandalay, he and Assia got married.

By 1962, Assia was earning a high salary from advertising and could afford luxuries. She loved expensive clothes and shops, and had her own dressmaker. She introduced her friend Suzette Macedo to Fortnum & Mason's and other similar emporia, and her generosity was overwhelming: 'You couldn't say you liked something, or she would instantly give it to you.' She tried to buy Suzette a little fur hat and muff, which Suzette refused, accepting instead a charming Burmese sculpture.

Over that weekend in May, Ted fell overwhelmingly in love with this beautiful stranger, although friends differ a great deal on the extent of Assia's calculation in the matter. Suzette Macedo insists that, even before their invitation to Court Green, Assia had already whispered of Ted: ' "He's gorgeous." I didn't really believe her. Because she adored David ... She spoiled David. Buying him little delicacies.' Al Alvarez spoke of Assia as quite simply 'predatory' and said she made a pass at every man she met.

Suzette, who is an extraordinarily good mimic, described Assia's mood as she set off for that weekend in Devon: 'When Assia heard that she and David had been invited to visit the Hughes at Court Green, she said, "Well, shall I wear my warpaint?" ' Suzette, who was, after all, also a friend of Sylvia, was horrified: 'It was a bad time in the marriage ... Ted must have been sexually frustrated ... in the last months there had been little sex ... and Sylvia, who had been breastfeeding, and looking after two children, was a complete Schlumke" ... Assia was perfumed and mani- cured.'

As Suzette tells the story, there was an unmistakable sexual electricity between Ted and Assia all through the weekend. The first afternoon, Ted and David had spent talking about poetry, especially Robert Lowell, since Ted had a record of him reading that they all listened to. Ted had been his usual generous and attentive self. Suzette, who tells stories in compulsive detail, related what Assia told her had happened the following day:
The next morning Sylvia was going to do a roast, ordered Assia to peel the potatoes and left the room. So Assia began to peel the potatoes and then Ted came into the kitchen. Suddenly she felt the 'spear' of his gaze at her back, and he said to her, 'You know what's happened to us, don't you?' and she said, 'Yes.' Then Sylvia appeared in the doorway, saying, 'What are you talking about?' And Ted said they were talking astrology and Assia reported that he made up some mumbo jumbo ... Sylvia's eyes were sharp and black and she said, 'I'd like you to leave after lunch. I'm exhausted,' and then she drove them to the station to catch a train. Assia said, 'She knew,' I joked, 'What did she know?' And Assia said, 'It's very serious, darling.'
Ted's own analysis of the meeting, in 'Dreamers', suggested an encounter at once calmer and more fated, and includes the fascination Sylvia herself felt for 'the ancestral Black Forest whisper' which was all that remained of Assia's accent. He saw the marvellous, black-ringed grey iris of Assia's almost unnaturally huge eyes as resembling a 'Black Forest wolf, or a 'witch's daughter'. It is a strange poem, and many of Assia's
friends have objected to the lines where Ted writes of Assia sitting

              in her soot-wet mascara,
In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery -

Nevertheless, the poem insists that Assia was as helpless as Ted and Sylvia:

That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her, and I knew it.

'The affair began in June; David knew nothing of it until October,' wrote Olwyn in a letter to Anne Stevenson at the time she was writing Bitter Fame. Olwyn was, however, in France at the time of this drama. A letter from David Wevill dated 20 January 1989 points out that Sylvia didn't 'throw them out' of Court Green, as legend has it, since they were due to leave in the afternoon anyway, and in fact Ted came in the car with them to the station. He also pointed out that Sylvia probably meant exactly what she said about being exhausted, since she could only take a certain amount of company at any one time. He ridiculed the idea, voiced in Stevenson's Bitter Fame, that the attraction between Assia and Ted might not have turned into an affair if Sylvia had not behaved so badly.

David's is a sane and loving voice, well aware of Assia as a woman who needed protection. However, the rest of the story unfolded inexorably. Suzette Macedo, who met up with Assia some time after this weekend, saw Assia pull out other bag a note in handwriting that Suzette recognized as Ted's. Ted had called on Assia at her place of work, sending up a message to say that a 'Mr Hughes' was there to see her. Alarmed, Assia had sent back a message to say she was in a meeting, so he had left the note, which Assia showed Suzette. It read: 'I have come to see you, despite all marriages.'
   Suzette said, 'For God's sake, don't answer it.'
   Assia replied, 'Too late. I haven't answered it exactly. I sent a red rose pressed between two sheets of paper.'
   Suzette retorted, 'He won't know who that's from.'
   Assia shrugged: 'It's up too him.'

Suzette's memory of a rose sent in an envelope does not accord with Hughes' own recollection. In Capriccio, a book of poems that were all one way or another concerned with Assia, which was published by Leonard Baskin's Gehenna Press in 1990 in an edition of only fifty copies, one of the most beautiful opens with:
She sent him a blade of grass, but no word
Inside it.