Diane Middlebrook

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Diane Middlebrook
BornDiane Helen Wood
16 April 1939
Pocatello, Idaho, United States
Died15 December 2007 (age 68)
San Francisco, California, United States
  • University professor
  • author
  • poet
Notable worksAnne Sexton, A Biography (1991)
Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (1998)
Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage (2003)

Diane Helen Wood Middlebrook (April 16, 1939 – December 15, 2007)[1] was an American biographer, poet, and teacher. She taught feminist studies for many years at Stanford University. She is best known for critically acclaimed biographies of poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (along with Plath's husband Ted Hughes), and jazz musician Billy Tipton. Middlebrook was preparing a biography of the Roman poet Ovid, to be published in 2008.[2][3] Her death brought that project to a close.

Middlebrook held no illusions about the difficulties facing a biographer. In an interview on her professional life, she said: "With a biography there is no straight line; all is muddled. You don't know what you know, you don't know what you don't know; if you find anything you make a note about it because some day it may find its partner. You have to have very good ways of keeping track of what you have found and where you have put it."

Early life[edit]

Middlebrook was born Diane Helen Wood, in Pocatello, Idaho, the oldest of three daughters, born to teenage parents. In 1945, the family moved to Spokane, Washington.

Education and teaching career[edit]

Middlebrook expressed her desire to become a published poet and writer, but was not encouraged by her family. She paid her own way through college. She entered Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, then transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1961. She entered Stanford University as an assistant professor of English in 1966, then obtained a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1968. Her doctoral dissertation was a combined study of American poet Wallace Stevens and American poet/philosopher/essayist Walt Whitman; her doctoral advisor was the noted American writer and literary critic Harold Bloom.[4]

Middlebrook began her teaching career at Stanford as an assistant professor in 1966 and gradually worked her way up to university professor and associate dean positions. She won a number of fellowships, grants, and awards along the way. She resigned from Stanford in 2002 to concentrate fully on her writing. By this time, she was already a professor emerita.

Middlebrook had not concentrated on feminist studies when she was tapped for Stanford's new Center for Research on Women (eventually to become the Clayman Institute for Gender Research), one of the first such centers in the nation in the 1970s. She once stated that her chief qualifications were her sex and her availability.[1] She directed the Center from 1977 to 1979. She was noted for her diversity of study subjects; one syllabus from that era lists both Ovid and Queen Latifah.

Middlebrook received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the Stanford Humanities Center, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Study Center of Bellagio. She was a founding trustee of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an interdisciplinary arts center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She was chair of Stanford's Feminist Studies Program from 1985 to 1988.

Middlebrook received two honors from Stanford for her teaching effort. In 1977 she was given The Dean's Award; in 1987 she was given the Walter J. Gores Award. She also received the Richard W. Lyman service award.[1]

Work as a biographer[edit]

Middlebrook once stated why she preferred preparing biographic work to other fields of study: "One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time, you don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead."[5] When asked why she had picked Ovid as a subject for a biography, she said: "No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up."[1] She noted that the historical record of Ovid's life is scanty, so a biographer must read the person from the person's literary output - all we know is in his poetry; the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself.

Middlebrook's debut as a biographer was almost accidental: on her 41st birthday, she received an invitation from the Sexton estate to write a biography of confessional poet Anne Sexton. The resulting effort, Anne Sexton: A Biography, spent eight weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, which is unusual for a biography of a poet. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and for the National Book Critics Circle Award; it was awarded a gold medal in nonfiction from the Commonwealth Club of California. Joyce Carol Oates called the book “sympathetic but resolutely unsentimental ... intelligent, sensitive, at times harrowing.”[6] The book was somewhat controversial, as Middlebrook was given access to (and freely used) some 300 hours of Sexton's sessions with psychiatrists.

Suits Me was a finalist for a Lambda Foundation Literary Award and a bestselling biography of Billy Tipton, a transgender male jazz musician who was assigned female at birth and who lived an entire professional and private life as a man. He married (five times) and had children (who were adopted). The wives, and everyone else, were unaware of his birth sex. (Said one of his sons, "He’ll always be Dad to me.") London's Financial Times wrote: "Tipton may have spent his life fearing exposure, but he/she [sic] could not have wished for a more perceptive or sympathetic biographer than Middlebrook."[7]

Her Husband was a bestseller. It was a 2004 finalist for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award in non-fiction. In 2006 the French translation won the Prix Du Meilleur Livre Etranger. The New York Times called the book "inspiring", "attentive and clear-eyed".

Middlebrook was noted for her openness and honest, sometimes "brutal" biographical writing. "The more that each of us knows about each of the other human beings in the world, the better off [we] are. It’s true that it is very painful to be exposed to people’s curiosity. But it’s painful in a way that can only lead to self-knowledge, because it’s really not a big deal. In the scope of human endeavor, it’s not a big deal."[1]


After the book on Stevens and Whitman, Middlebrook wrote or edited three books on poetry: Worlds Into Words: Understanding Modern Poems (1980), Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the 20th Century (1985), and Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988). She also wrote her own book of poetry, Gin Considered as a Demon (1983). The edition of Anne Sexton's poetry helped lead to what can be described as Middlebrook's big break: her book Anne Sexton, A Biography published in 1991.

The Sexton biography became a The New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. An intriguing blend of traditional biography, psychiatric study, and literary criticism, the book was written in an infectious, non-pedantic style that attracted a wide range of readers.

Middlebrook then took an interesting detour from her study of poetry and poets in her next book, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (1998). The story of a jazz musician who was born a woman but lived for more than 50 years as a man, the book also sold well and showed that Middlebrook could range outside the traditional purview of the English Department.

The Sexton biography might have led inevitably to Middlebrook's book about Anne Sexton's friend and fellow-suicide, Sylvia Plath. Published as Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage in 2003, the biography steered a sensible and convincing course between partisan views of the two poets. Publishers Weekly called it the "gold standard" of the many books published about the couple, and it became a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

Besides her books, Middlebrook published many articles on Sexton, Plath, Hughes, and other writers, such as Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin. She also reviewed a wide variety of books on subjects ranging from Helen Keller to the development of modern clothing. She said that her planned book on Ovid was an attempt to get inside a subject who "exists only in his texts."

Personal life and death[edit]

Middlebrook was married three times. Her first two marriages, to Michael Shough and Jonathan Middlebrook, were annulled, though she continued to use the surname of "Middlebrook" professionally. She had one daughter, Leah Middlebrook, who also became a university professor and taught Comparative Literature and Romance Languages at the University of Oregon.[1]

In 1977, Middlebrook began a relationship with noted scientist Carl Djerassi, who helped invent the first contraceptive pill. They were married in 1985.

Middlebrook retired in 2002,[8] and persuaded Djerassi to retire from chemistry that year. (He continued to write fiction and drama.) She then concentrated more fully on her research, and she and Djerassi divided their time between their residences in San Francisco and London.

Middlebrook underwent surgery for cancer in July 2001 and again in February 2004. Her death on 15 December 2007 was attributed to retroperitoneal liposarcoma.[1] Djerassi stated that she continued working until the month before her death.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Cynthia Haven, "Diane Middlebrook, professor emeritus and legendary biographer, dies at 68", Stanford Report, December 15, 2007.
  2. ^ Viking Press had planned to publish the work in 2008 because that would be the two-millennium anniversary of Ovid’s banishment from Rome and of his completion of Metamorphoses.
  3. ^ Middlebrook often referred to Ovid's feat of having work continually in circulation since his death some two thousand years ago, a feat that eludes even Homer.
  4. ^ She claimed the dissertation wasn't very good, and that "you can’t find my book in the library, because it isn't in the Whitman place, it isn't in the Stevens place, it's in some American literature place."
  5. ^ Cynthia Haven, "Telling Tales Out of School", Stanford Magazine, November/December 2003.
  6. ^ From a review in The Washington Post newspaper, Haven, "Diane Middlebrook, professor emeritus and legendary biographer, dies at 68", Stanford Report, December 15, 2007.
  7. ^ Quoted in obituary, Stanford Report.
  8. ^ She was already Professor Emerita by that time.


  • Diane Middlebrook, Anne Sexton: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991, ISBN 0-395-35362-9
  • Diane Middlebrook, Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage, Viking Adult, 2003, ISBN 0-670-03187-9
  • Margalit Fox, "Diane Wood Middlebrook, Biographer, Dies at 68", The New York Times, December 17, 2007

External links[edit]