A Conversation with Conference Panelist Heath Lee

The Civil War remains a topic of unquenchable interest to readers. In this, the final year of the conflict’s sesquicentennial, the BIO conference will feature a panel “Civil War Women.” Many biographers are discovering that the female figures of this time are a source of vital yet sorely under-explored stories. Justin Martin’s latest book is Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, the story of a group of notable Civil War-era artists including Adah Isaacs Menken and Ada Clare. Martin spoke to author Heath Lee, who will co-moderate the panel.

Justin Martin: Please explain the need for and value of a panel devoted specifically to Civil War women.
Heath Lee:
The majority of the scholarship and press attention on the war has focused on traditional themes of the conflict’s military, political, and economic dimensions and the male figures who were Union and Confederate leaders. However, information regarding the lives and fates of women during this period is still scarce and their portraits are often incomplete. The women we will talk about in this panel were shaped tremendously by their experiences and memories of the war, whether they were Northern or Southern, black or white. Women were more than just incidental bystanders during this tragic period in American history.

JM: Who are some of the notable women who will be discussed? And what are some of the unique issues confronting a biographer whose subject is a Civil War woman?
It would be hard to find a more fascinating list of characters. Among the figures we’re sure to discuss are Harriet Tubman, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Kate Chase Sprague, Elizabeth Van Lew, Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Julia Dent Grant, Angelina Grimke Weld, Emma Edmonds, and Belle Boyd.

One of the unique challenges for a biographer researching a woman from this period is the lack of primary source materials. In the nineteenth century, it was common for women’s letters and papers to be destroyed—often even by her own family. It was considered unseemly for information about women to appear in published form. For instance, it is likely that Varina Davis burned Winnie Davis’s private diaries and love letters to her ex-fiancé.

JM: You’ve assembled quite an impressive panel. Please provide a bit of background on yourself as co-moderator, and also on your fellow panelists.
HL:I am a biographer and freelance writer with a background working in southern history museums such as Stratford Hall and the Levine Museum of the New South. My biography of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, entitled Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, was published last April. Dr. Carol Berkin, who will be co-moderating the panel with me, is professor emerita, Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of numerous prize-winning books, and her group biography, Civil War Wives: The Lives & Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, & Julia Dent Grant, examines three fascinating women from this period.

Joining Dr. Berkin and me as panelists will be Karen Abbott, John Oller, and Dr. Catherine Clinton. Abbott is a well-known journalist and author of both fiction and nonfiction works. Her latest is Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, a portrait of four Civil War women who went undercover to participate in the conflict that is a New York Times bestseller. Oller, a lawyer and former journalist, is the author of four books, including, most recently, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague—Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. Dr. Clinton teaches American history at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and is president of the Southern Historical Association. She is the author and editor of two dozen books, most recently, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life.

JM: It’s notable that “Civil War Women” is a mixed gender panel. What’s the benefit of this?
We felt that it was really important to have at least one male voice on this panel! After all, why can’t a male biographer do an outstanding job writing about a woman and vice-versa? In my mind the empathy and passion biographers bring to their subjects is far more important than their own gender. That said, we want to explore the unique ways a man might approach a woman’s story. During our discussion, I suspect that John Oller, biographer of Kate Chase Sprague, will field some excellent questions.

JM: This is such a rich topic. What’s a surprising issue or two that you expect will be explored in this session?
One issue I think could be fun to explore is how women of the Civil War are portrayed in film. Dr. Clinton was an adviser for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Sony optioned Karen Abbott’s new book for a miniseries.

I also think historians are beginning to talk more about the losing side in the Civil War. Currently, there’s more being written, both fiction and nonfiction, about the experience of Southern women, particularly post-war when their lives often became very challenging. I think this is a fresh and fascinating topic for biographers to explore.

Biographer Turns Detective in Quest for Complete Picture

In 2007, Robert Marshall, seeking to promote his debut novel A Separate Reality, wrote a lengthy piece about the New Age guru Carlos Castaneda for Salon. Among Castaneda’s books that claimed to impart the teachings of a Yaqui Indian shaman called don Juan was one also titled A Separate Reality. Marshall’s book tells the story of a ’70s teen who falls under don Juan and Castaneda’s sway—just as many real teens, and considerably older people, did during the height of Castaneda’s popularity, when he sold millions of copies of his books.

Researching and writing that Salon article, Marshall didn’t know that his quest to understand Castaneda’s life would lead to his writing the first biography of a person Marshall called “the twentieth century’s most successful literary trickster.” And Marshall certainly couldn’t have known that he would move beyond being a literary detective and become something of a real one, as he tried to find clues about the disappearance of five women who had been part of Castaneda’s inner circle.

Uncovering a Manufactured Past
Marshall began expanding on his original research and preparing to turn it into a book after everything he had collected didn’t make it into his 2007 article. He said, “I thought it would take two or three years.” Now, eight years later, Marshall thinks it may take several more years to complete the biography of a man who won praise from a wide range of admirers, from John Lennon to Federico Fellini. But even when Castaneda’s books were riding high on the best-seller lists, people began to publicly doubt Castaneda’s claim that his work reflected factual anthropological research.

Traveling to Peru, meeting with relatives there and in the United States, talking to true believers and former true believers, Marshall came away with this impression: “Everything that [Castaneda] does from the moment he arrives in the United States is a performance. He discovers he can say pretty much anything about South America, or Mexico… and ‘gringo’ just buys [it].” Castaneda had some exposure to anthropological research standards while studying at UCLA, and he managed to get his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, published by the University of California Press. Its success earned Castaneda a contract with Simon & Schuster, which published A Separate Reality in 1971.

Marshall said that in Castaneda’s travels he did meet real shamans, but what he took from them and put in his books was incidental to the fictions Castaneda spun, with don Juan being the mouthpiece of the author. “Castaneda’s don Juan is Carlos Castaneda talking to Carlos,” Marshall said, with liberal borrowing, without attribution, from a host of other writers.

In 1973, Marshall wrote in his Salon piece, Castaneda went into semi-seclusion; he avoided the media but still attended Hollywood parties. In the years that followed, the writer created what can only be called a cult. Select true believers, some of them women who had been or would become his lovers, gathered around him, after first changing their names and renouncing all their ties to friends and family.

At one point, Castaneda thought of creating a religion, as L. Ron Hubbard had done with Scientology. And while Castaneda never achieved the wealth and influence Hubbard did, the parallels in their experiences are hard to miss—from almost completely fabricating their back stories to trying to rein in former followers who strayed. Marshall said true believers also have been known to send less-than-friendly letters to outsiders who pry or impugn Castaneda. He called the former true believers who talked to him “very brave people.”

The Mysterious Disappearances
The true believers who followed Castaneda until his death in 1998 included the five women who vanished after he died. One of them, Amalia Marquez, was the president of Cleargreen, the corporation Castaneda had established to promote his teachings. Another, Patricia Partin, was considered a magical being known as “the blue Scout.” She was also Castaneda’s adopted daughter and lover. Marshall and many former group members speculate that the five women committed suicide. In 2003, Partin’s remains were found in Death Valley’s Panamint dunes, though they would not be identified until three years later.

Since 1999, Amalia Marquez’s brother Luis had been trying to get the Los Angeles Police Department to open a missing-persons case on her. Although required to do so by California law, they refused until Partin’s remains were identified. Another family member, Dave Marin, contacted Marshall in 2012 after reading his Salon article. Marshall told Marin about a theory he had developed several years before. Two sources had told him that Castaneda had tasked Partin with finding abandoned mineshafts that might be suitable places for a group suicide. Marshall learned that Partin’s abandoned car had been found in the parking lot of one such mine near the Panamint dunes.

Marshall tried—perhaps not as hard he could have, he admitted—to push for a search of this mine. Becoming a full-time detective, he said, would have been far too time consuming. But with Marin’s urging, the Marquez family and Marshall arranged for a real search of one mine, recruiting a private investigator and specially trained dogs to help. After initially receiving approval to explore the mines, Marshall and the others were turned away in April 2014 when a park ranger claimed they had not followed proper procedures. Amidst the threat of arrest and facing the park’s SWAT team, the searchers turned back. Marshall said his theory could have been all wrong, but not having the chance to pursue it was frustrating.

Marshall does not have a background as a detective, or even a journalist, though his parents were journalists. And since what he’s delving into now goes so far beyond the chronology of Castaneda’s life, he’s not even sure how much of the story of the hunt for the remains will make it into the biography. “But at this point,” he said, “I’m so involved… that it’s very difficult for me to separate myself from it, because I’m the person people come to for information on this group.” While his research makes him a useful resource for others, Marshall is quick to acknowledge the many people who have helped him learn the truth about Castaneda and his cult. “In my experience, [biography] is an absolute group effort.”

For the biography, Marshall said, it would be fine for him to end with a mystery, rather than having the disappearances resolved. But he feels a personal responsibility to promote the families’ cause of finding answers. In December 2014, he sent out an email to friends and family, asking them to contribute to a legal fund started by the missing women’s families so they can pursue leads they have gotten about the disappearances.

While helping the families, Marshall continues working on the book. He doesn’t think he needs to do too much more research, but he’ll follow up on any information that comes to him. He also wants to continue his extensive fact checking, given the serious allegations he makes throughout the book and the topics he writes about, such as anthropology, in which he is not an expert. Above all, Marshall said, he “wants to be honest when there’s doubt.”

You can find out more about Marshall and his work at his website.

Thanks to BIO member Carol Sklenicka for bringing this story to our attention.

Taylor Branch Wins 2015 BIO Award

Branch’s most recent book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013) presents eighteen key episodes across the full span of the Civil Rights era.

Branch’s most recent book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013) presents eighteen key episodes across the full span of the Civil Rights era.

Taylor Branch is the recipient of the 2015 BIO Award, given each year by BIO members to a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of the genre.

Branch is best known for his best-selling, magisterial trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement and America in the 1950s and 1960s. In these three volumes, Branch showed, as he wrote in his introduction, that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” His vivid portrait of King’s rise to greatness humanizes the man and allows the reader to understand his era by portraying what it was like to live through it. His three-volume work has been compared to Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln and Robert Caro’s multivolume life of Lyndon Johnson.

For his first volume, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988), Taylor Branch won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award. The volumes Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965(1998) and Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 (2006)winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist—completed his monumental fusion of biography and history. Branch is also the author of a novel, The Empire Blues (1981), and was the ghostwriter of John Dean’s memoir Blind Ambition (1976). He also is well known for his innovative eight-year oral history project with a sitting president—The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009).

Branch will receive the honor during the 2015 Biographer International Organization Conference on June 6 at the National Press Club, where he will deliver the keynote address. The BIO Award was established in 2010 and its first five recipients were Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow and Stacy Schiff.

Registration for Sixth Annual BIO Conference Now Open!

BIO welcomes biographers, editors, agents, publishers, and publicity professionals from across the nation and around the world to the Sixth Annual Biographers International Conference, June 5–6 in Washington, DC. During this two-day event, biographers have the opportunity to network, interact, and deepen their knowledge of and commitment to the craft of life writing. For more information on the conference, go here.


Biographers Navigate the Often Challenging Process of Researching, Obtaining Photos

Morris's publisher was able to get the rights for this cover photo of Ethel Payne.

Morris’s publisher was able to get the rights for this cover photo of Ethel Payne.

James McGrath Morris’s publisher thought the cover for his upcoming biography of Ethel Payne was all set. It showed the pioneering African American journalist with her head resting on her hand, a slight smile spread across her lips. Everyone who saw it loved it. The only problem, the publisher learned just two months before the book’s publication, was that it could not secure the rights to the picture from the major newspaper that first ran it.

“As publication neared, we contacted the newspaper and the company that represented the licensing of its photographs,” Morris said. “It turned out that while they owned the work and could use the photograph in their publication, they could not license it for others to use because they could not identify which staff member had taken the photograph. Without being able to compensate the original photographer, they could not license it to be used by my publisher. It was back to the drawing board to find a replacement photograph.

The publisher was able to secure another photo, but the ordeal raised a key concern for biographers and other non-fiction writers. The reality today is that photo researching and getting permissions is an important—and some writers say tortuous—part of preparing their books for publication. The problem is amplified when they can’t track down the copyright owner or have to deal with the laws in other countries.

TBC reached out to members to get their views on the photo research process and tips gleaned from their own experiences. Some responded via email, others on the BIO Facebook page. Here’s a distillation of what they had to say.

Several writers agreed that photo researching should be an integral part of the overall research done for the book. Catherine Reef has done extensive photo research for her YA biographies. She said that while doing initial research, “I stash photocopies and printouts into a folder of potential images, always noting the source. Then, once my manuscript is taking shape, I match the images to my chapters, deciding which ones I can use and where they will work best.”

Reef offered these other tips to consider when deciding on what photos to use and how to get them:

  • Try to feature something new about your subject, while remembering that finding previously unpublished images will likely require searching onsite, by hand.
  • A photograph of a person doing something conveys more information than a head and shoulders portrait, but “active” photographs may be difficult to find for years prior to the early twentieth century.
  • To help with costs, deal with stock agencies only if you can’t get comparable images from other sources (government, libraries, archives, museums, private collections, etc.). The Library of Congress now makes many high-resolution images available for download at no charge, so it is worth searching on their website

Along with finding the best images, writers often have the additional onus of tracking down the owners of the picture and getting permission—and usually, paying a fee. For Sue Rubenstein DeMasi, the task seemed daunting for a recent book: “I found a photograph in an archive in Amsterdam, taken circa 1926 by a photographer from Russia who later became a Mexican citizen. He had no children, but how do I find out if he passed on ownership to someone? The archive is happy to give it to me but has this blanket statement that it is up to me to determine who owns the copyright.”

Dona Munker had a similar issue when she considered using a photo donated to the University of Oregon. Its library could grant permission to reproduce the picture but didn’t know if it had the right to grant permission aside from that. Munker said, “I know who the executors were after the donor died, but haven’t been able to trace who controls the intellectual property rights now. (The executors are deceased.)”
From her experience with photo research and permissions, Munker offered these tips:
  • The National Archives in Washington, DC, is an excellent source for both American and foreign subjects. “In most cases, you pay only for the print, not permissions fees. The exception is if a print you find was taken by a private photographer or magazine, and then, of course, you have to get permission from the owner.”
  • If you make a genuine effort to trace a photo’s owner/executor without success, rather than omit an essential photo you can always put a disclaimer on the copyright page or in the acknowledgments saying you made “every effort” to trace the owners. Keep a paper trail of your efforts.
  • When drafting a permissions letter—or a release form of any kind—keep it as vague as possible. “If the owner or executor wants to restrict your use, they’ll let you know. A commercial archive will definitely let you know—in fact, they’ll probably send you their boilerplate. Don’t be afraid to negotiate if the owner doesn’t accept your original (sweeping) request—although if they do, great. By the same token, if you get back a boilerplate or the equivalent, don’t be afraid to send back an unsigned amended version as a way of suggesting changes.”

For Brian Jay Jones’s biography of JiHenson, the Henson family gave Jones their own photos to use “free and clear,” but dealing with two corporate entities that controlled the rights to Henson’s creations led to “procedural headaches.” His advice: “I can’t stress enough the importance of making sure (as others have said) that you have all your ducks in a row. Copyright attorneys do NOT have a sense of humor.”

Those lawyers’ stern nature is worth considering when coming across an image on the Internet. Pat McNees said, “The images you find through Yahoo and Google have rarely been posted there by the copyright owners…. Remember,royalty-free does not mean free.” 

The Internet, though, can be an ideal place to start searching for photos. McNees has assembled a long list of online stock houses and institutions that provide photos. You can see them at her website. Another source is PacaSearch, offered by the Digital Media Licensing Association, which brings together more than 100 organizations involved in digital content licensing. PacaSearch is a meta search engine with access to more than 132 million images.

To help others understand copyright and other rights issues, McNees also offered a link to her website Writers and Editors, which features resources for clearing rights in the visual arts. Another online source for similar information comes from Stanford University, which offers an “Introduction to the Permissions Process” at its libraries’ copyright and fair use page.  The University of Chicago Press has its own overview of permissions, available here. One interesting note from the site: A still or frame capture taken from a movie does not require permission when used in a scholarly work. As the website explains, “Essentially, a frame capture represents 1/24th of one second of a film, which hardly represents the whole heart of the work, and cannot be said to infringe upon the market for the film.”

Cost, of course, is something writers have to keep paramount, since the budget for photos usually comes out of their advance. One exception comes when authors are skillful negotiators. Cathy Curtis recounted her experience with her upcoming book on painter Grace Hartigan: “During contract negotiations with my publisher, I asked for, and received, a sum of money specifically for this purpose, so that I wouldn’t have to dip into my advance.”

But for most writers, counting photo-related expenses is a reality. Based on her experience, Carol Sklenicka suggested writers not pay for a photo until they’re sure their publisher will want to use it. She also said it’s wise to secure permission to use a photo in all formats, editions, and translations of a book right from the beginning, But she added, “Some professional photographers will not give you that, of course. They would prefer to get a new fee each time, but this complicates the paperwork for years to come.”

For the lucky writers who can afford it, or simply can’t afford the time to research photos and secure permissions, they can turn to a professional. The American Society of Picture Professionals has a search function on its website to locate photo researchers and rights/permission specialists.  

Images of a subject’s life enhance a writer’s words and help the readers connect with the subject. As Carol Sklenicka put it, photos “are a wonderful source of information because they carry a different sort of emotional content than letters and of course convey visual information that is not usually available in written sources.” Keeping in mind the benefits of finding and then using the right photos might temper some of the frustrations of the photo research-and-rights process.

Media Outlet and Critics Select Best Bios of 2014

The end of the year always sparks a flurry of best-of lists for books of all genres, and as in past years, TBC is offering an overview of some of the biographies that earned recognition in the United States and beyond. (Names in bold represent BIO members.)

Making the task somewhat easier each year is the Publishers Marketplace (PM) survey of some of the top best-of selections. Culling its information from more than 50 newspapers, trade journals, individual critics, contest winners, and online sources, PM provides a list of the top ten fiction and nonfiction books. For 2014, just one biography made the nonfiction list: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. As we reported last month, the book was also Amazon’s pick for the best biography or memoir of the year, and it turned up on a total of ten best-of lists.

One of those lists was from Kirkus Reviews, which selected 16 books for its Best Biographies of 2014. Some of these included:

  • The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish
  • Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch
  • Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey
  • The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by Nigel Hamilton
  • The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America by Edward White
  • Hope: Entertainer of the Century by Robert Zoglin
The Peace biography also made the New York Times’s list of notable nonfiction for the year. Some of the other biographies on that list included:
  • Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha
  • Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
  • Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson
  • Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
  • American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon
  • Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth, translated by Ruth Martin
  • Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill
Among a selection of major U.S dailies, these were some of the biographies garnering year-end honors:
  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr was a top-ten book for both USA Today and the Washington Post; biographies making the latter paper’s 50 notable nonfiction books for the year included The Good Spy by Kai Bird, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan, and Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.
  • Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin had one biography on his Top Ten list of all books for 2014—The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein.
  • The Christian Science Monitor chose several biographies for its top ten nonfiction titles of the year, including The Good Spy and Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford.
  • Booklist had a number of biographies on its Best Books list. Among those not already mentioned were:
    •  Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work by Susan L. Mizruchi
    • Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd
    • The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel
    • The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
    • Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger
    •  A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III by Janice Hadlow
    • Victoria: A Life by A. N. Wilson
At National Public Radio, a seemingly endless list of top books (actually only about 250), included such biographies as the Ames, Hobbs, and Swafford titles already mentioned, as well as:
  • Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth
  • Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
  • The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
  • Bolaño, A Biography In Conversations by Monica Maristain
  • Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright
In the virtual world, Brain Picking’s choices for best biographies, memoirs, and history books included:
  • Updike by Adam Begley
  • E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever
  • Susan Sontag: A Biography by David Schreiber, translated by David Dollenmayer

Internationally, various UK publications offered their selections of some of the best biographies. The Financial Times had a long list of best books in many different categories. Biographical works that made the cut included:

  • Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell
  • Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin
  • Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work by Susan L Mizruchi
Robert McCrum of the Guardian called Michael Zantovsky’s Havel the year’s best biography. Others that won his favor included:
  • Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison
  • The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson
  • Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson
Fellow Guardian critic Paul Laity had his own list of top memoirs and biographies. He also included the Jenkins and Queen Victoria biographies, along with those about Tennessee Williams, Updike, and Larkin. Others on his list were:
  • Joan of Arc by Helen Castor
  • Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes
  • Constant Lambert by Stephen Lloyd
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
The Independent also listed best biographies in at least two separate articles. In a piece on best bios and memoirs, the only biography that made the list was Holmes’s book on Eleanor Marx. Another round-up of best biographies included ones already highlighted here (Napoleon, Victoria, Behind the Mask, Williams, Larkin). In a separate list for paperbacks, Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life was the only biography to make the paper’s best-of list.


The Economist’s list of top books had a category for biographies and memoirs. Along with the Cummings and Napoleon books already cited here, it included Faisal I of Iraq by Ali A. Allawi.


The Times Literary Supplement asked its contributors to recount their favorite books of the year. Only several of these lists were available online to non-subscribers, with no biographies making the cut.

Back in North America, the Vancouver Sun and Toronto’s The Globe and Mail had several biographies on their best-of lists. Out of 100 notable books, The Globe and Mail included Boy on Ice, and in a highlight of top books it did not review, it included Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story by Robyn Doolittle and Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia, by Emmanuel Carrère. The Sun’s list of top books in “arts and life” had these biographies:
  • De Niro: A Life by Shawn Levy
  • Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz
  • Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest

BIO Honors Gottlieb with Editorial Excellence Award

(Photo courtesy of Calvin Reid)

(Photo courtesy of Calvin Reid)

On December 3, more than 70 BIO members, editors, agents, and writers gathered at the New York Society Library to hear Robert Caro (left) pay tribute to Robert Gottlieb, the first winner of BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award.

Board member Will Swift introduced Caro, and after his tribute Gottlieb spoke for 35 minutes on biography and his decades-long collaboration with Caro.

Former BIO president James McGrath Morris said, “The evening was riveting and represented the kind of vital energy that attracts us to biography.” John Farrell added, “There is a sense one sometimes feels that, no matter what scene we are in at the moment, someone is having a better time somewhere else. But on Wednesday night, watching Robert Caro give the award to Robert Gottlieb, it was pretty clear to everyone there that no writers on the planet were having a finer time than we were.

Scott Saul Goes “Deep” with Richard Pryor

Saul dug deep into  Pryor's early years in Peoria, Illinois.

Saul dug deep into Pryor’s early years in Peoria, Illinois.

Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor appeared as the biography of another iconic African American comedian was stirring controversy, as TBC explores below. Saul’s book has been praised for its thorough examination of Pryor’s life, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “the place to start” for anyone curious about the comedian’s life.

Saul is a professor of English at Berkeley. His first book, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, came out in 2003 and won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. TBC contacted Saul before his new book’s release; we were especially curious about the companion website he created for the book and how other biographers might learn from his experience with it.

What drew you to Pryor?
I can’t think of a deeper subject. How deep you are—that’s how deep Pryor will go with you.

When I was ten and growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I saw Silver Streak and identified with the Gene Wilder character, who needs Richard Pryor to jolt him out of his nebbishhood; I sensed that Pryor was taking me to another universe of knowledge and experience, giving me a new world view. Then, as a teenager, I listened to his comedy and was captivated by how he handled, without kid gloves, sensitive subjects like sex and race. In my twenties, I returned to his stand-up comedy and his Hollywood films from the 1970s—and was struck by his virtuosity as a performer and actor, the mix of subtlety and audacity. This was a comedian who had better chops than anyone, but who also was incredibly experimental—not unlike the jazz musicians who were at the center of my first book.

Then, in my thirties I was living and teaching in Berkeley, and noticed that Pryor’s “Berkeley interlude” was a big hole in the story his previous biographers had told. So, as a sort of pilot project for a larger biography, I decided to research the time he’d spent in Berkeley. And what I found blew my mind: There was a much more complex and fascinating story buried within the conventional wisdom about his life.

Did you face any special challenges dealing with his family?
Pryor led a fascinating but messy life, and he didn’t tie up all the loose ends when he died. His will made his last wife Jennifer the executor of his estate—a fact that rankled several of his children, who felt that they’d lost ownership of their father’s legacy. They took legal action against Jennifer, arguing that as his caretaker she had unfairly manipulated a dying man into marriage. Jennifer prevailed in court.

What this meant for me as a biographer looking to tell Pryor’s full story is that I needed to talk to people who basically refuse to talk with one another. Fortunately, I found that my approach to Pryor—which is more historical than journalistic—was well-received. Jennifer is, among other things, a descendant of the fiery abolitionist John Brown, and she liked the fact that I was bringing a historical depth to her husband’s story. Likewise his daughter Elizabeth is actually a professor of history at Smith College. She appreciated how I was delving through archives and setting her family’s story in the context of WWII, black life in the 1950s and so on.

What was it like writing about a person who touched on so many taboo topics and led such a sensational life?
I think every biographer has to struggle with questions of voice and tone. There were some earlier writers on Pryor who had adopted a sort of hopped-up tone that, I think, was their attempt to approximate the energy of Pryor’s stand-up. “Check out this wild and crazy guy!” they seemed to shout. I thought that such an approach wouldn’t work over the span of a 600-page book: readers would feel like I was getting in the way of the story. So I tried to make my tone as narrator more measured. I let Pryor, and the people around him, speak for themselves—and what they say, in their own words, stands out more clearly against the backdrop of the steadier tone of the narrator. I’m reminded of the advice I heard from a historian I admire: “You write not to shout, but to get your reader to shout.”

You’ve built a big digital companion to the book that curates over 200 documents related to Pryor’s formative years in Peoria, Illinois. What inspired you to create the website and what do you hope to accomplish with it? What led you to include primary sources?
There was no historical monograph on the history of Peoria, so I had to do a lot of spade work myself to reconstruct what it was like for a black boy, born in 1940, to grow up in the red light district of Peoria. It was research that was sometimes oriented around the story of his family (which ran a set of brothels and a tavern in that district) but also stretched out to encompass a larger set of issues, like the history of segregation and urban reform in the city.

After I had written the five chapters that trace Pryor from his birth to the moment, in his early twenties, when he leaves Peoria for New York City, I felt like I had, in effect, done the research for another book, too: a study of a so-called “typical” mid-sized, middle-American city (and here Peoria’s use in shorthand to stand for middle America was just too perfect) as it evolved from the 1930s to the 1960s, jolted by World War II, “cleaned up” during the 1950s, and shaken by the gathering Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

I didn’t want to write another book, but I did want to share my research—and get people to engage with the complexity of Richard Pryor’s story, and of the story of his hometown. To my mind, there’s no better way to get people to engage with complexity than to have them parse primary documents. For example: a reader might begin just by being curious about Richard Pryor’s school records. But if they look at the school records more closely, they’ll start to delve into how conventional schools, in the 1950s, handled children with unconventional talents. And they might then connect Pryor’s experience with the experience of other black kids in Peoria schools—kids who, in the 1960s, started protesting the limits of their educational environment.

With all the detail at the site, do you worry some people might go through it and feel they don’t have to buy the book? How do you establish that balance of too little/too much info? Or because the site focuses on Peoria years that is not a concern?
I’m not worried that the site “gives away the store” because it’s only a companion to the first section of the biography—which has five sections. And I think that many fans of Pryor come to the book most disposed to be interested in the other sections of the book—i.e., the story of how he became a revolutionary figure in stand-up comedy, or how he came to Hollywood and upended it.

In terms of sales, the website is a bit of an experiment, but my hunch (on the eve of my book’s publication) is that the website will give the book a longer life than it would otherwise have and will lead many more people to buy the book. Five years from now, HarperCollins will have long stopped promoting the book, but teachers in fields like US history, African American history, and urban studies might still have considerable use for it. It’s helping to keep Pryor alive in the culture.

Is the site basically done, or do you imagine that it’ll evolve over time?
Because of way the site is organized, it would be easy to upload more images and documents to it, so I imagine that it will expand in the future. If, say, one of Pryor’s relatives were to offer to share more of her family photos, I would be very happy to put them up, annotate them, and organize them on the site. Or if, say, the Peoria Public Library wanted to send me some material from their Jaycees collection (the Jaycees were a big part of the coalition fighting the city’s red light district), then I would love to curate that material on the site, too. All that said, I think that the archive is pretty extensive as it is!

The technical side: did you create the website and handle the tech issues? Did you pay for it yourself?
Creating a customized website like this one is pretty darn complicated and labor-intensive—and is necessarily collaborative because it involves so many skill sets: web design, web development and coding, the art of historical annotation and essay writing, cartography, even filmmaking (we made a four-minute film that’s mounted on the homepage and available on Youtube). I served as the “editor-publisher” and was finicky about the writing and design of the site, but the credit for the site rests with the enormously talented team that gave their all to build it.

All told, the website cost about $20,000, though that doesn’t include the time I invested in it. I started by putting up several thousand dollars from a research fund to pay a former student of mine to design a template. (Remarkably, it was the first site he ever designed; he’s insanely talented.) Then Stanford University’s Spatial History Project funded a summer of site-building and development. Then I engaged two Berkeley history PhDs, with considerable coding expertise, to bring the site to the next level.

Though $20K is a considerable amount of money, it compares very well to other, similar projects (i.e., our process of building the site was cheaper than most). And I think that now that “Richard Pryor’s Peoria” offers a model for this sort of site, other historians and biographers will have a much easier time generating a template—and perhaps getting outside funding—to do similar digital companions. I’m sure your readers would have a lot of great ideas. Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Langston Hughes’s Harlem: there’s really no end to what could be done in this line.

Anything interesting you’d like to add about the research/writing process that other biographers might find useful or entertaining?
Writing a biography is a marathon, I think. I sometimes tired of writing my book, but I never tired of Richard Pryor as a subject. He remains electrifying—the ultimate uninsulated wire.