Remembering Cynthia Macdonald

Poet, teacher, opera singer, psychoanalyst, and friend

University of Houston Photographs Collection
University of Houston Photographs Collection


I first encountered Cynthia Macdonald, the distinguished poet and my future colleague, when we were booked to give a joint reading in some godforsaken venue on remotest Long Island. We decided to take the train out together, and by the time we had listened to each other read and ridden back to Penn Station, we were friends. She, being a witty conversationalist and a writer who employed humor—her poems characterized by the grotesque and a sardonic self-mockery—suited me well. On my end, I’ve always been drawn to elders (I was in my late 30s at the time, and she in her early 60s), feeling perhaps more rapport with my parents’ than with my own generation’s cultural sensibility.

Cynthia had just become the co-founder, with poet Stanley Plumly, of a new creative-writing program at in the University of Houston, and was assembling a faculty. She invited me to apply as the program’s first prose writer. Before that, I had mostly taught children, but I interviewed and was hired for a tenure-track professorship (my first), and will forever be grateful for her confidence in me.

Eager to please, and to embrace this new Southwest metropolis, I gadded about Houston, making friends—to such an extent that one night Cynthia took me aside and complained that I was getting invited to far more dinner parties and social occasions than she was; it therefore behooved me, as someone initially taken under her wing, to share the wealth and the invites.

Cynthia was not unpopular herself, but she intimidated some people with her imperious manner, and she could be bossy, even bullying at times, especially to underlings. (I once heard her bawling out the kitchen staff at a literary luncheon she had sponsored, because she thought the chicken underdone or overdone—I forget which.) I was not intimidated by her, having grown up with a mother who was similarly theatrical, domineering, and overweight. Cynthia was very fat, if one can still use that word (if not, please substitute corpulent, hefty, avoirdupois-challenged, or any term of your choice); but as is often said about plump women, to the point of cliché, she had a pretty face. So pretty, in fact, that she looked 20 years younger than she was. From her jacket photos, always headshots, you would never have imagined the girth that billowed under her fetching features—the clear, sparkling eyes and smooth unwrinkled skin. She had been an opera singer, and was built like those classic stocky Wagnerian heroines that used to be permitted at the Met before the new crop were told to go on diets, as younger audiences would no longer accept such a burly conception of a young maiden. She still had a lovely dramatic soprano, and I remember once, before leaving for a party, we sang a duet to each other, “Make Believe,” just for fun. We both loved the American Songbook, and there was something piquant about the choice of that particular song from Showboat (“Might as well make believe I love you, / For to tell the truth I do”), which allowed us to camp up our quite real, though non-amorous, affection for each other.

Ambitious for the University of Houston creative-writing program, she would preside over the writing faculty’s once-a-week meetings, alerting us to possible machinations against our staffing, curriculum, or budget requests. Our program was nestled in the English department, and some of the regular English professors resented our lower course loads and the fuss made over us in the press. Whenever an administrative logjam arose, Cynthia would immediately go over the heads of the department, straight to the dean or the provost.  She would, to use an unfortunate figure of speech, throw her weight around, which made the English faculty more resentful. I sometimes took it upon myself to soothe their feelings by bridging the two sides—playing the regular guy to offset her queenly airs. But I too could be dazzled by her access to the higher reaches of university administration. One time, Cynthia took me along to a meeting with the provost: it was understood that she was to do the talking and I was there to second her. Some rebellious spark got into me, and at the end of the meeting I said that maybe he and I could have a chat sometime, just the two of us. I had thought that he could profit by hearing another point of view about the program, but Cynthia was understandably furious at me when we left, and chewed me out good and proper.

Over the years, she recruited a stellar group of writer-teachers, which included Donald Barthelme, Edward Hirsch, Richard Howard, Rosellen Brown, Adam Zagajewski, and Ntozake Shange. In addition to Cynthia’s teaching and administrating, she also produced one poetry collection after another: her poems, often in the voice of invented personae like Browning’s dramatic monologues, allowed her to be lightly playful and performative while slipping personal emotions of loss, loneliness, and unfulfilled desire into the voices of others. In conversation, I came to learn the broad outlines of her life: her difficult childhood in the home of well-off New Yorkers who divorced, her adoration of her successful screenwriter father, her glamorous mother’s neglect of her, her discovery of food, which led to her being ostracized as the chubby girl by her snotty private school classmates, her winning competitions as an opera singer, her marriage to a Shell Oil executive with whom she had two children and who moved the family around a lot (putting an end to her singing career), their divorce, her returning to school and launching herself as a poet.

Cynthia was an enthusiastic booster of Houston, especially its institutions of high culture, and would sometimes invite me to that city’s opera, symphony orchestra, or ballet. It was a treat to go to the opera with her, because she knew the repertory so well. Something like Puccini’s Turandot, which I would have rejected out of hand on my own as mere fluff, acquired a charm when seen through her eyes. For my part, I would invite her to esoteric revival films at the Houston Museum of Art, which I co-programmed as a hobby. Always game, she had an average moviegoer’s taste: she could not understand my reverence for Rossellini’s Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman, which she thought ridiculous and its turn to God at the end hilariously improbable. (Interesting, in retrospect, that she could accept the most preposterous plots in opera but scoffed at the first sign of melodrama in a movie.) I however was a true cinephile, and the essence of cinephilia is being able to love slow, boring, awkward pictures like Stromboli and find in them a profound spirituality.

To my surprise, given her thorny personality, she embarked on a third career as a Freudian psychoanalyst, earning her degree at the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute and setting up in private practice, while continuing to teach and run the writing program. She had always generously supported her writing students—well, most of them, anyway—and that maternal concern, compassion, and wisdom must have needed another outlet. Her specialty was handling clients with writer’s block.

It seemed she could do anything she put her mind to, though occasionally she spoke wistfully of her desire to write a long prose work, perhaps a novel or a memoir, and would ask me for advice about how to proceed. I had no idea what to tell her: keep a diary? If and when she was ready, she would do it, simple as that.

After eight years at the University of Houston, I got homesick for New York City and moved back. We stayed in touch, and every few years I would see Cynthia in the city, usually during the summer or Christmas holidays, when she would reoccupy her large prewar apartment on the Upper West Side, overlooking the Museum of Natural History. It seemed to me she got sweeter as she aged. Or maybe it was that I was no longer her junior colleague, so she could relate to me with warmth as an old friend, without tightening the reins.

Eventually, as happens too often with ex-colleagues who try to maintain a friendship, we drifted out of each other’s sight. One day I heard from a mutual friend, Sally, that she was senile. The onus had fallen on her lovely, resourceful daughter Jennifer, an installation artist, to take care of her mother, and she was obliged in the end to put her in a nursing home uptown. Every few months, Sally and I would say to each other, “We really should go visit Cynthia,” and then do nothing. Was it the thought of how depressing it would be, the chance that she might not even recognize us, or simply a selfish unwillingness to make the effort and “waste” an afternoon? It was wrong: we should have gone. By the time I had worked up the will to do so, I learned that she was in a nursing home out west somewhere. She died nearly two years ago, at the age of 87. According to her New York Times obituary, she was living in Logan, Utah. Why Utah? Well, 87 is a full life, I tell myself, and she had accomplished so much, but still—that such a force of nature as Cynthia Macdonald could die was disturbing and appalling in itself.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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