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Assia Esther Gutmann
15 May 1927
|Died||23 March 1969 (aged 41)|
|Cause of death||Suicide|
|Alma mater||University of British Columbia, Vancouver|
|Spouse(s)||Sgt. John Steele|
Assia Esther Wevill (15 May 1927 – 23 March 1969) was a German woman who escaped the Nazis at the beginning of World War II and emigrated to Mandate Palestine, then later the United Kingdom, where she had a relationship with the English poet Ted Hughes. She killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura using a gas oven, similar to Hughes's first wife Sylvia Plath six years earlier.
Assia Gutmann was the daughter of a Jewish physician of Latvian origin, Dr. Lonya Gutmann, and a German Lutheran mother, Elisabeth "Lisa" (née Gaedeke). Her sister Celia was born 22 September, 1929. She spent most of her youth in Tel Aviv. Cited by friends and family as a free-spirited young woman, she would go out to dance at the British soldiers' club, where she met Sergeant John Steele, who became her first husband and with whom she moved to London in 1946. According to her biographers, Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, "she had entered an essentially loveless marriage with an Englishman at the age of 20 – largely to enable her family to emigrate to England." The couple later emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where Assia enrolled in the University of British Columbia and met her second husband, Canadian economist Richard Lipsey.
Assia was a refugee from Nazi Germany and was linguistically gifted. She had a successful career in advertising and was an aspiring poet who published, under her maiden name Assia Gutmann, an English translation of the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
In 1961, poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath rented their flat in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, London, to Assia and David Wevill, and took up residence at North Tawton, Devon. Hughes was immediately struck with Assia, as she was with him. He later wrote:
- We didn't find her - she found us.
- She sniffed us out...
- She sat there...
- Slightly filthy with erotic mystery...
- I saw the dreamer in her
- Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
- That moment the dreamer in me
- Fell in love with her, and I knew it.
Plath noted their chemistry. Soon afterward, Ted and Assia began an affair. At the time of Plath's suicide, Assia was pregnant with Hughes's child, but she had an abortion soon after Plath's death. The actual relationship, who instigated it, and its circumstances have been hotly debated for many years.
After Plath's suicide, Hughes moved Assia into Court Green (the North Tawton, Devon home he had bought with Plath), where Assia helped care for Hughes's and Plath's two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Assia was reportedly haunted by Plath's memory; she even began using things that had once belonged to Plath. In their biography of Wevill, Lover of Unreason, Koren and Negev maintain that she used Plath's items not from obsession, but for the sake of practicality since she was maintaining a household for Hughes and his children. On 3 March 1965, at age 37, Wevill gave birth to Alexandra Tatiana Elise, nicknamed Shura, while still married to David Wevill.
Ostracized by her lover's friends and family, and eclipsed by the figure of Plath in public life, Assia became anxious and suspicious of Hughes's infidelity, which was real enough. Hughes began affairs with Brenda Hedden, a married acquaintance who frequented their home, and Carol Orchard, a nurse 20 years his junior, whom he would later marry in 1970. Assia's relationship with Hughes was also fraught with complexities, as shown by a collection of his letters to her that have been acquired by Emory University. She was continually distraught by his reluctance to marry her and establish a home together, while treating her as a "housekeeper". Most of Hughes's friends indicate that while he never publicly claimed Shura as his daughter, his sister Olwyn said that she believed the child was his.
On 23 March 1969, Assia gassed herself and four-year-old Shura in their London home on 3 Okeover Manor, Clapham Common. She had first sealed the kitchen door and window, then dissolved sleeping pills in a glass of water, chased with whiskey, and then turned on the gas stove. She and Shura were found by the family's German au-pair, Else Ludwig, lying together on a mattress in the kitchen.
Assia composed the 90-second "Sea Witches" advertisement for a ladies' hair-dye product for both television and cinemas, called a "breakthrough in type" and a "huge success" by her biographers, Koren and Negev, that was "applauded in theaters." The advert can be viewed in some classic ad compilations or sometimes as an online posting.
- Ted Hughes's volume of poetry Crow (1970) was dedicated to the memory of Assia and Shura.
- His poem "Folktale" deals with his relationship with Assia:
- She wanted the silent heraldry
- Of the purple beach by the noble wall.
- He wanted Cabala the ghetto demon
- With its polythene bag full of ashes.
- Hughes published half a dozen poems he had written for Assia, which were hidden among the total of 240 in New Selected Poems (1989).
- In "The Error." he wrote:
- When her grave opened its ugly mouth
- why didn't you just fly,
- Why did you kneel down at the grave's edge
- to be identified
- accused and convicted?
- In "The Descent", he wrote:
- your own hands, stronger than your choked outcry,
- Took your daughter from you. She was stripped from you,
- The last raiment
- Clinging round your neck, the sole remnant
- Between you and the bed
- In the underworld
- Assia appears as "Helen" in Fay Weldon's novel Down Among the Women (1971).
In film and television
- In the feature film Sylvia (2003), Assia is portrayed by Amira Casar.
- In October 2015, the BBC Two major documentary Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death examined Hughes's life and work, and included an examination of the part played by Assia.
- O'Connor, Anahad (23 March 2009). "Son of Sylvia Plath commits suicide". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 25, 2014. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
- Koren, Yehuda & Negev, Eilat (September 9, 2006). "I'm going to seduce Ted Hughes". The Telegraph.
- Lipsey, Richard (1997). Microeconomics, growth and political economy. Elgar. p. xiv and footnote 4, page xxxv.
- "Haunted by the ghosts of love". The Guardian. London. 10 April 1999. Retrieved 9 January 2007.
- Koren, Yehuda (2006). A Lover of Unreason. London: Robson Books. p. 151. ISBN 1861059744.
- Amichai, Yehuds (1968). Selected Poems. Translated by Assia Gutmann. London: Cape Goliard Press.
- Amichai, Yehuds (1971). Selected Poems. Translated by Assia Gutmann and Harold Schimmel, with collaboration of Ted Hughes. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
- Hughes, Ted (1998). "Dreamers". Birthday Letters. Faber & Faber.
- Sigmund, Elizabeth (23 April 1999). "'I realised Sylvia knew about Assia's pregnancy - it might have offered a further explanation of her suicide'". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- Morris, Tim. "The People in Sylvia's Life". University of Texas, Arlington. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- Koren, Yehuda; Negev, Eilat (19 October 2006). "Written out of history". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- Bosman, Julie (10 January 2007). "Ted Hughes Letters Go to Emory University". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- Smith, David (10 September 2006). "Ted Hughes, the domestic tyrant". The Observer. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- Gifford, Terry (30 June 2011). "The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 30 May 2018 – via Google Books.
- Scott, A. O. (17 October 2003). "FILM REVIEW; A Poet's Death, A Death's Poetry". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 20 July 2018.
- "BBC Two - Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death". Bbc.co.uk. 10 October 2015. Retrieved 10 October 2015.