Originally published in the March 2020 issue of First Things magazine.
The Dolphin Letters 1970–1979:
Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle
ed. Saskia Hamilton
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 560 pages, $50
In the summer of 1970, Elizabeth Hardwick may have been the best nonfiction prose writer in America, just as Jim Hines was the fastest man alive and Joe Frazier was the heavyweight champion of the world. She was the queen mother of the New York Review of Books, one of its four cofounders and the reviewer feared even by Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. “I think she writes the most beautiful sentences,” Susan Sontag said reverently, “more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.” Isaiah Berlin called her “the cleverest woman I have ever met.”
The trouble with global superlatives is that they rarely mean anything in the real world. Breaking the 100-meter record by milliseconds could not have been of much practical use to Hines, except possibly if his wife had had her purse snatched. If someone had gotten the jump on Frazier in a dark alley, his heavyweight title would not have made him invulnerable.
For Hardwick, the test of her skill came when, after more than twenty years of marriage, Robert Lowell abandoned her for Caroline Blackwood, a flighty Irish aristocrat obviously too shallow to hold his attention. If being the best writer in the world is good for anything, it ought to be good for persuading the man you love to renounce an unworthy rival and come back to you.
She must have been the best, because it worked. It took seven years, but she persuaded Lowell to return. On September 12, 1977, he flew into JFK from Dublin after breaking things off with Caroline. He took a taxi from the airport to Hardwick’s apartment. The doorman called Hardwick downstairs, and she went outside, opened the door of the taxi—and found Lowell dead of a heart attack in the back seat.
It would be quite a story even if the people involved were ordinary. They happened to be geniuses. They wrote everything down, not afterward but as it was happening. In many ways, what they wrote down was what was happening. Saskia Hamilton has now collected it all: Hardwick and Lowell’s letters to each other as well as to friends like Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop, and even letters between third parties about the two of them. The result is a masterpiece.