“I had a very lucky life, all the way along,” said Rose Styron. “And I think it was because I lived in the present or looked forward.”
At 95, Styron has finally decided to look back, at her life as a poet; a founding member of Amnesty International; a mother of four; and the wife of the late writer William Styron, author of “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and “Sophie’s Choice.”
Now it’s Rose’s turn in the spotlight.
She’s written a memoir, “Beyond This Harbor: Adventurous Tales of the Heart” (Knopf), and is the subject of a documentary by James Lapine, “In the Company of Rose.” “Rose Styron is a legend on Martha’s Vineyard,” explained the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker.
Lapine met Styron in 2014 on Martha’s Vineyard, and the two became fast friends. “Rose is a social animal,” he said. “She lives for interaction with people. That is her passion, as she says, because she loves to learn and loves being engaged in conversation.”
In the film Styron states, “When the thirtieth person said to me, ‘You’re my role model,’ I think, does that mean because I’ve survived ’til I was 90, or because I’m still having a good time?”
Rose Burgunder was raised in a well-to-do Baltimore family. Meeting bold-faced names just seemed to come with the territory. At 11, she begged to meet Diego Rivera. “Not typical!” laughed Rocca.
“Oh, really?” Styron replied.
“For an eleven-year-old?”
“I don’t know!”
The 11-year-old Rose did meet the acclaimed Mexican artist, and the artwork her mother purchased that day hangs in Styron’s home. “I remember my excitement at meeting this artist who I so admired,” Rose said. “And as we were leaving, he leaned down and said to me, ‘I hope someday you will be as great an artist as I am.’ And I left, and I said to my mother, ‘He’s full of himself, isn’t he?’”
While living in Rome in her twenties, Rose went for a drink with the writer William Styron, who just happened to be joined by another young writer named Truman Capote. “Our romance started that night,” she said. “And Truman, who looked 13 years old with his blonde hair, by the end of the evening, he was saying, ‘Bill, you oughta marry that girl.’”
But when she married Styron, she said she didn’t expect it to last: “You know, we were having a wonderful romance. I hadn’t thought about the future, I was just having fun.”
The fun continued when the newlyweds settled in Roxbury, Connecticut. James Baldwin lived in their guest house for a spell. Philip Roth and Arthur Miller were frequent visitors. She was (she said in a 1982 documentary, “William Styron: A Portrait”) living the life of “a country housewife.”
During the day, Bill wrote while Rose raised the children. But Rose ended up giving Bill a critical piece of feedback after she read the first draft of “Sophie’s Choice.” Bill originally had the character of Sophie making her unimaginable choice between her children at Auschwitz at the start of the book. “I said, you know, ‘You just can’t make this the first chapter. There’s not a mother in the world who will read chapter two. Can you somehow save it?’ And so, he did. That was my only influence, I would say, into his writing.”
Like so many couples, the Styrons were a study in contrasts. “The novels were all in his head, the adventure was in his head, it was on paper,” she said. “He was scared of adventure.”
“But you were not scared of adventure?” Rocca asked.
“I couldn’t wait! And I resented being denied it. But marriage and Bill were more important, so I got over it each time.”
“But you and Bill had very different upbringings. Do you think that accounts for maybe him being scared of adventure, and you craving adventure?”
“Oh, yeah, yes, because he had to take care of his mother, because she had developed a cancer. And he was always aware that she might die. And she did when he was 13. So, I think that’s what set him on his pattern of being afraid of what was coming next.”
Though she said in 1982 they had a lot in common, she also believed, “After all these years, we’re still a mystery to each other.”
Rose Styron is candid about the challenges they faced in their marriage, including their respective infidelities. “It didn’t matter if we felt affection for other people,” she said. “The fact is, the main thing was our marriage, and we weren’t going to mess it up by going too far.”
She’s equally forthright about the depression that afflicted her husband. William Styron wrote about it in 1989, in “Darkness Visible,” an essay that was later published as a book. The disease returned in 2000, and he died with it in 2006.
Rose said, “Not having ever been depressed myself, I realized that I had a huge lapse of understanding, and I flunked often.”
“It doesn’t sound like you did.”
“Well, I did.”
“How do you think you flunked?”
“In the last, you know, year, say, when he wanted to apologize to me for all the things he knew he had done wrong, and instead of letting him talk about it and going over it with him, I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was a big lack. And I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, you’re wrong. Everything was fine. Don’t worry about that. Oh, that was nothing.’ But it reminded me of the bad times. And I couldn’t handle it.”
Rocca asked, “Was it also, though, because you were never really a backward-looking person?”
“I never thought of that. Maybe, maybe.”
Lapine said of Rose, “Her mind doesn’t go to the places that most people’s minds go. And it’s not that she doesn’t wanna think about it or won’t think about it. But she won’t. She doesn’t fester. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Rose took Rocca to see where William is buried on Martha’s Vineyard. She pointed out friends nearby, like former “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace and humorist Art Buchwald. “I guess I’ll be right there sometime,” she said, next to William.
“Not for a while!” said Rocca.
“I hope not! But I like that there are flowers coming up, which is where I’d be buried. Maybe some roses will come up next.”
When asked why he thinks she keeps going, Lapine replied, “I think Rose has a thirst for life. I don’t have that thirst for life, I’ll tell you that. But I wish I did.”
For Rose Styron, that thirst hasn’t yet been quenched.
Rocca said, “Not a lot of people make new friends in their late 80s and 90s.”
“True. I never thought of that.”
“What do you think that says about you?”
“I think it says that friendship and family are the two most important things to me,” she said.
“Are you still looking for new friends, or is your dance card filled?”
“My dance card will never be filled!” Rose laughed.
To watch a trailer for “In the Company of Rose” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: George Pozderec.