It appears Richard Prince, the provocative artist whose work draws on topics such as sexy nurses, Marlboro ads, and Instagram, may have in his possession a letter essential to understanding one of the most beloved poets of the last century.
Some back story: The British love their scandals, even when the people involved have both been dead for decades, and the latest involves the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who had a famously fraught marriage that collapsed after Hughes’ affair with Assia Wevill, in 1962. In early 1963, during the worst winter in London in a century, Plath killed herself in her Primrose Hill flat by sticking her head in her oven.
Many long-held ideas regarding their relationship have been called into question by the academic Jonathan Bate, who has just released a biography of Hughes that’s been discussed in great detail in the literary press. An article Bate wrote for The Guardian on the subject earlier this month quickly resulted in 177 comments before the publication’s website disabled them.
The brief dispatch was regarding a notion that Bate left out of the book because it was impossible to prove: the idea that, somewhere in existence, is Plath’s last letter, which apparently revealed the identity of a secret lover she herself had kept while Hughes was fooling around.
There is little evidence to prove the existence of such a mythical letter (though her neighbor did say she rang at some point during her last hours to ask if she could borrow some stamps). Bate tells a story of how Andrew Sinclair, a friend of Plath and Hughes, was at a book party in New York and ran into the well-respected editor Frances Lindley, and she heard from an acquaintance who confirmed the letter’s existence: this person claimed to have seen it, and said it did name a lover.
New York magazine book critic Christian Lorentzen published a story today investigating the potential identity of the paramour, and at the end, he follows a hint about the collector who supposedly owns the mystery letter, and came across a Times of London article (behind a paywall) that indicates that the collector who fits the description given by Jonathan Bate is none other than artist Richard Prince.
Prince is indeed a well-known collector of rare books and ephemera. “There’s only 34 known inscribed copies of Ulysses and only one in private hands,” Mr. Prince told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. “Mine.”
A representative from the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Prince, did not respond to a request for comment about the letter. It remains to be seen whether its contents will ever be revealed, if it even exists at all.