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Photographed on January 31, 1951



Though she wrote only one novel, one play, and a few short stories, Jane Bowles has long been admired as a “writer’s writer;” her work has never received significant popular attention, but Bowles has often been cited as a major influence by other writers, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Her work, the whole of which fills only one slender volume, is often described as strange and surprising. In Bowles’s writing there is an “extraordinary tension between the sturdy, supernormal physical world she describes and the gloriously unpredictable, fantastic movements of the eccentric personages who inhabit it.”1 Her work wasn’t always well received by critics; in a review of Two Serious Ladies, one critic complained that the novel “strains too hard to startle and to shock and that it all too often is merely silly.”2 Because her work was witty and peopled with charming characters, some critics compared it to the novels of Carl Van Vechten.

Bowles’s play, In the Summer House, was produced on Broadway in 1953, starring Judith Anderson. The play investigates the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, reflecting, many believe, Bowels’s complicated relationship with her mother. Like Two Serious Ladies, the play received mixed reviews. Though it did not appeal to audiences, some critics included it on their “best of the year” lists. Tennessee Williams is said to have called In the Summer House “one of the most original plays I have ever read.”3 In recent years, the play has been revived in several American theaters, receiving enthusiastic reviews. “Bowles uses interior monologue spoken aloud, like O’Neill and metaphoric, disoriented dialogue, like Tennessee Williams,” William A. Henry III wrote in 1993. He continued, “her lurching narrative would suit Ionesco; her shackled hysteria echoes Lorca.”4

In New York City during the 1930s, Bowles was a peculiar character; she dyed her hair bright red, dressed in men’s clothes, and walked with an obvious limp (the result of a childhood injury). A regular at the city’s lesbian bars, Bowles carried on a number of affairs; at one time she had a passionate crush on the famous torch singer, Helen Morgan. In 1938, she married Paul Bowles, an openly gay musician. The couple traveled in the city’s gay literary and artistic circles with writers Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. At one time, the couple lived in a New York boarding house where the other tenants included Carson McCullers and W.H. Auden. Though they spent time in New York, the couple lived a largely expatriate lifestyle; they traveled extensively in Europe, Central America, and Mexico. Eventually, they settled in Tangiers.

Bowles was highly dramatic (some might say melodramatic) and her love affairs were often complicated, passionate, and ultimately painful. One such affair led her to leave her husband and, when the relationship began to fail, to attempt suicide. In Tangiers, her love affair with a Moroccan servant caused her various problems, including financial difficulties, and eventually led to a permanent split with her husband. If Paul Bowles’s suspicion that her lover was feeding her exotic Moroccan poisons was true, that relationship may also have contributed to Bowles’s poor health. After a stroke in 1957, Bowles was no longer able to write. She began to drink excessively and to abuse prescription medications. She ended up living in the streets of Tangiers, harassing people and starting fights in bars. Unable to care for her himself, Paul Bowles was forced to have her admitted to a hospital, where she died in 1973.

1 Francine DuPlessix Gray “Jane Bowles Reconsidered” New York Times 19 May 1978
2 Edith H. Walton “Fantastic Duo (Review of Two Serious Ladies)” New York Times 9 May 1943
3 Michelle Pearce “Don’t Tell Mother“ American Theater 10:9 (1993) p. 11
4 William A. Henry III Review of In the Summer House Time 16 Aug. 1993 p. 61


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