By Gregory Crofton
Rose Styron has a natural elegance about her. While she describes herself as maybe a little “pollyannaish,” others just call it being “In the Company of Rose.”
That’s the name of a new documentary on her life and more than 50-year marriage to the writer William Styron (Lie Down in Darkness, Sophie’s Choice).
Though Rose has seemingly “had it all” over the years — married to a famous author and traveling the world — she remains thoughtful and grounded. And at 92, she still radiates beauty, and plays a lot of tennis.
Filmmaker James Lapine (a long-time collaborator with Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim) has made a bright, informative documentary about Ms. Styron. It is based on a series of lunches they had together over six years.
They first met at the theater on Martha’s Vineyard where she and her husband owned a house, as did Mr. Lapine. After bumping into each a few times, Rose asked James to come over for lunch. He asked if he could bring his camera because he thought she might have some pretty interesting stories to tell. And she did.
Rose Styron has written four poetry books, translated Russian prose, and was part of a founding group of Amnesty International USA in 1970. She has served on the board of many nonprofits and has functioned inadvertently as a connector of people, many of them powerful ones.
Her marriage to William became strained like many do. They had their first date at the American Academy in Rome. They fell in love quickly, walking the streets of the city that summer with a third wheel named Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood).
Rose’s mother, a wealthy woman known for her high fashion, traveled to Europe that summer and had a chance to meet Styron. She was not pleased. The couple married anyway, but her mother did not attend the wedding.
They were happy together, especially that first year in Rome. They settled in Connecticut where his writing took precedence in their home, and it required solitude. He also drank quite a bit and had a fierce temper, and was far from being an attentive parent.
There was infidelity too. Rose and Bill held on to each other despite that, raising four children before things when he sank into a deep depression around the age of 60, around when he stopped drinking. He recovered from it, and took an anti-depressant for a while but eventually stopped taking it.
Sytron wrote about his illness in the 65-page book “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” published in 1990. It started out as an editorial response to the suicide of Primo Levi, a survivor of the Holocaust.
Styron stated: ‘The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.”
His depression returned years later. Rose had the terrible job of bringing him to shock treatments, which he quit before having the prescribed amount. Rose said he believed the shock therapy took away his “narrative,” and he couldn’t write after that.
Gloomy stuff. Still Rose seems to fill any room with light, something she surely did for her husband in those days.
The documentary takes us through key stages of her life, injecting pace and movement by featuring old family photos, newspaper clippings, and even a clip from “Sophie’s Choice. It has a good soundtrack and neat graphic flourishes that splash color on the screen.
So glad you followed your instincts Mr. Lapine and had so many lunches with Rose. And thanks to DOC NYC for including this film in their 2022 festival.