Diane Helen Wood Middlebrook was born on April 16, 1939 in Pocatello, Idaho. She attended public elementary and high schools in Spokane, Washington, where she lived with her parents and two sisters. She attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington and later transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle, receiving her B.A. in 1961. She continued on to earn her M.A. (1962) and PhD (1968) from Yale University.
Middlebrook began her teaching career in 1966 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California in the English department and remained there until her retirement in 2002. In addition to teaching, Middlebrook also held positions as Director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Women (1977-1979), and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education (1979-1981). For three years she held the Howard H. and Jessie T. Watkins University Professorship, a chair endowed to promote innovative education at Stanford. She was also chair of Stanford’s Feminist Studies Program from 1985-88. Additionally, Middlebrook was a founding trustee of the Djerassi Resident Artists Foundation, which supports an interdisciplinary arts center in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.
Middlebrook married three times. Her first two marriages, to Michael Shough and Jonathan Middlebrook, respectively, were annulled. She and Jonathan Middlebrook had one daughter together, Leah Middlebrook. In 1977, she started seeing Carl Djerassi and they wed in 1985. Djerassi and Middlebrook spent the last 28 years of her life together.
Aside from her teaching, Middlebrook is best known for her biographies. In 1991, she published her biography on poet Anne Sexton. This biography generated great controversy over her use of more than 300 hours of tape-recorded psychiatric sessions as part of her research. In 1998, Middlebrook’s biography, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, became a best seller. The book studied the life of Tipton, a cross-dressing female jazz musician, who lived as a man from age 19. Middlebrook’s most recent biography, Her Husband, was published in 2003 and analyzes the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. The book discusses how the poets’ volatile marriage was vital to making them the distinguished poets they became.
During the course of her lifetime, Middlebrook received numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the Stanford Humanities Center, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Study Center of Bellagio.
Middlebrook leaves behind a manuscript that is groundbreaking in a different way—a biography of Ovid, a work that will be indelibly linked with her life’s end. In 2008, which would have been the 2000th anniversary of Ovid’s banishment from Rome and of his completion of Metamorphoses, Middlebrook and Viking Press had planned to publish the biography.
During the last years of her life, Middlebrook and her husband Carl divided their time between their San Francisco and London homes. Middlebrook was diagnosed with cancer. Middlebrook kept writing until November 15, 2007, and on December 15, 2007, after a long and hard-fought battle, she succumbed to the disease.