"Eileen Simpson, 84, Memoirist Of Life With John Berryman By Dinitia Smith
Published: October 24, 2002
Eileen Simpson, a writer who probed the depths of her difficult early life and, in a well-known memoir, the tumultuous years with her husband John Berryman and their circle of poet friends, died on Monday at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 84.
''All poets' wives have rotten lives,'' Delmore Schwartz once said. Judging from ''Poets in Their Youth'' (Random House), Ms. Simpson's 1982 memoir, he was right.
Besides Berryman, Ms. Simpson also offered revelatory glimpses of Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Robert Lowell among others, all of them writers who were born in the shadow of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and who came of age in an American society that had little use for poetry. As portrayed by Ms. Simpson, the wives were often cast as mothers, nursemaids and muses to their self-absorbed, irresponsible and often abusive husbands. Ms. Simpson and Berryman stayed together for 11 years until, worn out by his infidelities, she left him; they later divorced, in 1956. He committed suicide in 1972.
Ms. Simpson's identity, however, grew far beyond that of a poet's wife. She obtained a master's degree in psychology at New York University, became a psychotherapist and, eventually, a writer.
In ''Orphans: Real and Imaginary'' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987), Ms. Simpson wrote of loss and dislocation. She was born Eileen Patricia Mulligan in New York City. Her mother died when she was 11 months old. By the time she was 2, her father, unable to care for her, sent Eileen and her younger sister, Marie, to live in a convent in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He died four years later. Relatives, fearing the girls might contract tuberculosis, later moved them to a ''preventatorium,'' in New Jersey, where children were boarded to improve their health.
In school, Ms. Simpson struggled with dyslexia that went undiagnosed. She pretended to be able to read and write, surviving by guessing words and inventing connections between them and sometimes just remaining mute, as she wrote in ''Reversals: A Personal Account of Victory Over Dyslexia,'' (Houghton Mifflin, 1979).
Ms. Simpson met Berryman at a New Year's Day party in 1941 after she graduated from Hunter College. In ''Poets in Their Youth,'' she wrote that he had ''an irresistible grin'' and kissed her under the mistletoe. Berryman was a somewhat formal figure in his three-piece suits and gold watch chain, and he was intensely ambitious. They married in 1942.
It was Berryman, she recalled in ''Reversals,'' who actually discovered that she was dyslexic, after she had written him a note: ''Deare/ Time for olny a hurried note . . . Swimming every day despite gary skies. Tomorrow we calabrent M's birthday.''
Still, madness and despondency were the principal motifs of her life with him. Eventually she grew weary of what she called ''the sight of poets disporting themselves,'' and left him. Most of the poets she wrote about ended their lives in despair. Jarrell was probably a suicide, Schwartz died a virtual derelict, Lowell suffered from depression and alcoholism.
''As Keats imagined himself sitting beside Shakespeare in a tavern in the next world,'' she wrote in her memoir, ''so they saw themselves separated from the rest of us, 'institutionalized,' surrounded by poets.''
In 1960 she married Robert Simpson, a banker and teacher, and accompanied him to Paris. Unable to practice psychotherapy overseas, she began writing her first book, ''The Maze,'' an autobiographical novel about her marriage to Berryman (Simon & Schuster, 1975). ''Her sense of bewilderment and anguish is beautifully communicated,'' Joyce Carol Oates wrote in The New York Times Book Review, ''and it is impossible to read 'The Maze' without being deeply and permanently moved.''
After Mr. Simpson's death, she married Francis X. Baine in 1989. He died in the late 1990's. Her last book, in 1994, was ''Late Love: A Celebration of Marriage After 50,'' (Peter Davison/Houghton Mifflin).
Ms. Simpson is survived by her sister, Marie Hall."