Born: July 27, 1916
Died: December 2, 2007
New York, New York
The Lexington Herald’s school notes page of Sept. 29, 1929 reported that the Live Wire Club of Miss Skinner’s homeroom at Lexington Junior High School had decided to create a class newspaper, the Live Wire Gazette. Named as “literary editor” was Elizabeth Hardwick. That 13-year-old girl would grow up to become one of America’s leading literary critics and essayists, a founder of The New York Review of Books and a novelist and short-story writer.
Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children of plumbing contractor Eugene Allen and Mary Ramsey Hardwick. They lived at 264 Rand Ave. in Lexington, near Duncan Park, where as a girl Hardwick acted in plays and played competitive tennis. After graduating from Henry Clay High School, Hardwick earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Kentucky in 1938 and 1939.
Hardwick turned down a fellowship in a doctoral program at Louisiana State University, home of the Southern Review and a hotbed of Southern literature, to seek the Bohemian lifestyle associated with Columbia University in New York City while pursuing a doctoral degree in 17th century English Literature. But she abandoned that program in 1941 to write short stories and her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, published in 1945.
“My aim was to be a New York Jewish Intellectual,” Hardwick told The New York Timesin 1979. “I say ‘Jewish’ because of their tradition of rational skepticism; and also a certain deracination appeals to me — and their openness to European culture.”
Hardwick met poet Robert Lowell in 1949 during a retreat at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Despite Lowell’s reputation as a philanderer, she married him in July 1949. Their daughter, Harriet, was born in 1957 and they divorced in 1972.
In a 1998 New Yorkermagazine profile, Hilton Als described Hardwick as “. . . a beautiful, ambitious girl from a large Protestant family in Lexington, Kentucky… [who] made a career of exploring the margins: furtive trips to evangelical tent meetings when she was a teenager, a stint as a Communist at the University of Kentucky, a mariage blanc to a gay man in New York, forays into the world of Negro jazz music, and marriage to a manic-depressive poet.”
Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Robert Lowell founded the New York Review of Books in 1963. Over the years, Hardwick contributed more than 100 reviews, articles, reflections, and letters to the magazine.
Author Diane Johnson described Hardwick as “part of the first generation of women intellectuals to make a mark in New York’s literary circle.” Joan Didion wrote of Hardwick, “Perhaps no one has written more poignantly about the ways in which women compensate for their relative physiological inferiority.”
Hardwick was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947 and a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996. Perhaps the most poignant compliment was offered by acclaimed novelist and essayist Susan Sontag, who said of Hardwick’s talent, “Her sentences are burned in my brain. I think she writes the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.”
Hardwick helped Gayl Jones, a promising African American girl from Lexington, get into Connecticut College. Jones would go on to become an acclaimed writer; she was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2017.
The Ghostly Lover. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1945.
The Simple Truth.London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955.
Sleepless Nights.New York: Random House, 1979.
The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick.New York: The New York Review of Books, Inc., 2010.
A View of My Own.New York: Farr, Straus and Cudahy, 1962.
Seduction and Betrayal.New York: Random House, 1974.
Bartleby in Manhattan. New York: Random House, 1983.
Sight-Readings: American Fictions.New York: Random House, 1998.
The Selected Letters of William James.Ed. Elizabeth Hardwick. New York: Doubleday, 1961.
Best American Essays.Ed. Elizabeth Hardwick. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Herman Melville. New York: Penguin, 2000.
Topics with Targets (With Barbara Moore). Harmor Books, 1991.
Elizabeth Hardwick oral history interview, Oct. 9, 1977, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
The Paris Review’s 1985 interview with Elizabeth Hardwick.
“The Hard Choices of Elizabeth Hardwick” by Maggie Doherty, The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2021.