Seven Female Writers Who Drank—A Lot
Alcoholism isn't just a man thing in the literary world, either.
Writers throughout history have been known to be less than shy about their love for the bottle. Some have claimed alcohol enhances their artistic abilities, while others use it to keep the “demons” at bay. But the trope of the drinking artist is more often associated with male writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. What about the many female writers who have also loved—and misused—alcohol?
In a recent piece by The Guardian, Olivia Laing takes a closer look into the lives of famous, female writers who loved the bottle—for better, or for worse. “Alcoholism is more prevalent in men than women (in 2013, the NHS calculated that 9% of men and 4% of women were alcohol-dependent). Still, there is no shortage of female drinkers; no lack of falling-down afternoons and binges that stretch sweatily into days,” explains Laing.
Here are seven well known female writers who were also famous drinkers:
1. Jean Rhys – Novelist
Jean Rhys is a mid-twentieth century novelist, most known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre. She was plagued by poverty and depression throughout her life. She once spent time in Holloway prison for assault, and was later hospitalized for attacking someone else with scissors. In her novel, Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys says, ”I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus … ‘ Drink, drink, drink … As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes. You’d think I’d get delirium tremens or something.”
2. Marguerite Duras – Novelist
Marguerite Duras was a French writer and director who was infamous for her epic binges. Though she could stop drinking for years at a time, during her binging periods she’d start drinking the moment she woke up, pausing to vomit the first two glasses, then drink as many as eight liters of Bordeaux before passing out. In her 1987 novel, Practicalities, she says that the difference between male and female drinking is that, “When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child. Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature.” And on a personal note, she adds: “I realized the scandal I was creating around me.”
3. Patricia Highsmith – Short story writer and novelist
Patricia Highsmith was an American writer of psychological thrillers most famous for her novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tortured by her her mother, who admitted to trying to abort her daughter at four months by drinking turpentine, it is no surprise that Highsmith’s narratives were often driven by themes of escapism and obliteration. Much the same affect she was looking to achieve through alcohol. Her drinking began while a student at Barnard College in New York. While at school, it wasn’t uncommon for her to go to bed at four in the afternoon after drinking seven martinis and two glasses of wine by herself. She wrote that drink was essential to her as an artist because it made her “see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more.” Meanwhile she was living off cereal and fried eggs day in and day out.
4. Elizabeth Bishop – Poet
The American Poet Laureate from 1949 to 1950 and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1956, Elizabeth Bishop was known to drink perfume when she had finished off everything else in the liquor cabinet. Like Highsmith, Bishop was also introduced to alcohol while attending an all girls college. At Smith College, Bishop found that alcohol was the only way to stifle her debilitating social anxiety. In her poem “A Drunkard,” she explains: “… and by the age / of twenty or twenty-one I had begun / to drink, & drink – I can’t get enough. / And as you must have noticed, / I am half drink now …”
5. Anne Sexton – Confessional poet
Called the first confessional poet, Anne Sexton was both hated and revered for her highly intimate and often disturbing poems of everything from menstruation to drug addiction to her suicidal tendencies. Almost all of her poetry is autobiographical and focuses on her complicated feelings and anguish. Throughout her life she was addicted to painkillers and alcohol, checking in and out of rehabs frequently. In her poem “The Addict” she describes this ongoing battle: “Yes / I try / to kill myself in small amounts, / an innocuous occupation. / Actually I’m hung up on it.”
6. Dorothy Parker – Poet, novelist, screenwriter
Dorothy Parker is frequently remembered for her witty quips and famous friends, spending hours at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan drinking, lunching and talking about culture. Legend has it that she spent most her nights, and days, drinking and cracking jokes with the likes of Robert Benchley, Irvin S. Cobb, and Ernest Hemingway. She is so famous for her imbibing that entire cocktail guides have been dedicated to her legacy.
7. Maya Angelou – Novelist
The late Maya Angelou was once a fry cook, a brothel mistress, and eventually a multi-award winning novelist and poet. Her first work of literature, Why the Caged Bird Sings, catapulted her onto the national stage as both a great artist and advocate for the civil rights of women and African Americans. And, none of this would have been possible without her beloved sherry. When describing her writing process, she revealed that there are only six things she needs: the Bible, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow notepads, an ashtray and a bottle of sherry. “I might have it at six-fifteen a.m.,” she explained, “just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.”
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