NEW YORK - Elizabeth Hardwick, a Kentucky-born author and critic whose prose and steady spirit helped her fulfill her dream of becoming a New York intellectual, has died at age 91.

Hardwick, who lived for decades on Manhattan's Upper West Side, died in her sleep Sunday night at a hospital, according to Catherine Tice, associate publisher of The New York Review of Books, which Hardwick helped found in 1963.

Hardwick was among the last survivors of a promiscuous, hard-drinking circle of intellectuals that included Edmund Wilson, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv and the celebrated poet Robert Lowell, with whom she had a famously difficult marriage.

She was wed to Lowell in 1949 and suffered through his infidelities and manic-depression. He endlessly left her and then changed his mind. They divorced in 1972 but remained close and five years later were on the verge of reconciling when he collapsed and died in a taxi on the way home to her.

Lowell, the most confessional of poets, wrote about their relationship - even quoting from Hardwick's private letters - in such collections as "The Dolphin" and "For Lizzie and Harriet." Hardwick referred to their time together in the novel "Sleepless Nights" and later described him as "the most extraordinary person I have ever known, like no one else - unplaceable, unaccountable." Lowell described their marriage as one of "unending nervous strife, as though a bear had married a greyhound."

Although she started out as a fiction writer, Hardwick received her greatest acclaim as a critic. Joyce Carol Oates likened her essays - long, playful, meditative, deeply informed - to those of Virginia Woolf.

Hardwick was born in Lexington, Ky., in 1916, one of 11 children. She majored in English at the University of Kentucky, where she received undergraduate and master's degrees, and then moved north in 1939 to get a doctorate at Columbia University. There, she decided a Ph.D. wouldn't help a woman get work so she dropped out and wrote fiction instead.

Her first novel, "The Ghostly Lover," came out in 1945 and related the conflicts of a middle-class Kentucky family. Intellectuals soon responded. Diana Trilling, reviewing the book in The Nation, compared Hardwick to Eudora Welty and D.H. Lawrence. Rahv, founder of the Partisan Review, called and asked Hardwick to contribute to his magazine.

"Thus," Hardwick remembered, "a lowly critic was born." *