Rich Variety of Biographies Highlight Fall Season

By James McGrath Morris
From the twerks of Miley Cyrus to the typography of Giambattista Bodoni, from the humor of Bill Cosby to the antics of Charlie Chaplin, from the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower to the rule of Joseph Stalin, the more than 100 biographies coming to bookstores this fall run the gamut of possibilities. While biography, like other segments of publishing, is navigating rough waters, writers keep producing a remarkably rich selection of works.

As TBC does twice a year, here is a discursive look at what is coming. A complete list is available here.

The first books to resonate with readers this fall are two September titles: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott (Harper) and Tennessee Williams: Made Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton). Also getting some notice is The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus). One of the cast members of this prosopography is Mary Shelley, who will be the subject of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon, coming out in February (Random House).

As usual, as the fall gets underway, political figures will be featured in a large share of the biographies. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns have put together The Roosevelts: An Intimate History as a tie-in to the seven-part documentary airing on PBS this fall, which follows the Roosevelts for more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. Continue Reading…

Sex, Lies, and (No) Audiotape


It’s rare when biographies and biographers make the front page of a national magazine — in this case it’s the September 5, 2014 issue of Newsweek. But don’t rush to celebrate just yet.  In a lengthy piece for the magazine, reporter David Cay Johnson  debunks the work of celebrity biographer C. David Heymann — author of juicy tell-alls on Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Liz Taylor, to name a few — finding that much of Heymann’s research turned out to be vapor trails.  It’s a cautionary tale of a “serial fabulist” and definitely worth a read.


Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft

Philip Short

As a newspaper journalist and BBC correspondent, Short reported from Moscow, China, and Washington D.C.

More than four decades ago, while working as a freelance journalist in Malawi, Philip Short received a letter from Penguin: Would he be interested in writing a biography of Malawian president Hastings Banda, for the publisher’s series Political Giants of the 20th Century? Short readily agreed, adding now, “I suspect they had no idea that I was then 23 years old!”

Since that auspicious start, Short has a made his mark writing biographies of world leaders. His most recent book, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity, was published in the UK last fall and in April in the United States. With all his biographies, and with his next project on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Short has chosen to focus on figures outside the Anglo-American sphere. TBC interviewed Short to get his perspective on what challenges that poses, and his general views of the craft of biography.
For Short, researching and writing the life story of foreign figures came out of his experience working as a reporter for the BBC. He said of his time as a journalist, “What fired me was getting to grips with another culture, with other ways of thinking, and of conveying to people at home what I thought of as ‘a particle of truth’ about a different society, which was not the same as the truth that most of my compatriots understood. That experience… has certainly influenced my approach to biography.”
Short added that he admires biographers who can write about their own country’s leaders, such as Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. “I wouldn’t do it myself,” he said. “When writer, subject, and readers are all from the same country, it’s a totally different exercise. The dimension of foreignness—of otherness—is missing.”
With two of his books—Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare—Short not only dealt with foreign leaders, but also ones vilified for their atrocious acts. Does dealing with such horrific subjects require any special distancing or raise other concerns? First, for Short, “writing about terrible things…is never fun.” But he also feels biographers and others need to closely examine the terms used to describe such men as Mao and Pol Pot and their actions. For instance, he backs away from the expression mass murderer, because “the term ‘murder’ is reserved for deliberate voluntary killing. In both China and Cambodia, most of those who died perished from starvation (the Great Leap Forward in China: upwards of 30 million dead) or starvation, overwork, and illness (Cambodia).

Continue Reading…

The Best Book May Not Win: Winner and Losers at Awards Time

By Steve Weinberg
We biographers covet awards for our books, as do novelists and poets and essayists and journalists from all media. After all, writers tend to receive little recognition and less cash.
My advice is not exactly to forget about awards, but something similar—relax, because most of us will never win and many of the “best” biographies, however that is measured, will not receive the prize recognition they deserve.
Michael Burgan asked me to write about awards partly because I have judged so many book, newspaper, magazine, and broadcast competitions. I have even received a few awards amidst my publication of eight books, although no awards that receive the most publicity—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle medal.
I am here to say that choosing the winner from hundreds or thousands of candidates in a given year is a crapshoot, an exercise in “It all depends….” It depends on which other books have been entered, the political log rolling (not always, but sometimes), and the reading preferences of the judges who happen to have been chosen that year. (I concede that although I enter judging with an open mind, I’d much rather read Robert Caro’s next volume on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson than a biography of a long-ago member of the Belgian royal family.)

Continue Reading…

Leavell’s Marianne Moore Wins Second Annual Plutarch

Linda Leavell’s Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) won the Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2013. The winner and the three finalists were revealed at a ceremony held at the closing of the fifth annual Compleat Biographer conference at UMass Boston on May 17.


Plutarch Award winner Linda Leavell poses with Barbara Lehman Smith, who served on the Plutarch Nomination Committee.

Plutarch Award winner Linda Leavell poses with Barbara Lehman Smith, who served on the Plutarch Nomination Committee.

“I’m truly humbled by this award, and I’m also humbled by my company here, the fellow nominees,” Leavell said after Plutarch Nominating Committee member Vanda Krefft opened the sealed envelope that contained the name of the winner. Leavell was a charter member of BIO and attended the first conference, which was also held at UMass Boston five years ago. “It was amazing to me, as I was writing a biography in Oklahoma and Arkansas, to have the opportunity to be with other biographers and meet people and talk about the things that I was doing and the things that they were doing, so I’m very grateful to this organization.”

Named after the Ancient Greek biographer, the prize is the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, in that Biographers International Organization (BIO) members chose the winner by secret ballot from nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft.

The finalists for the 2013 Plutarch Award were:
  • Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf)
  • Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine Books)
  • Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Random House)
This is the second year the Plutarch has been awarded. In 2013, the award was bestowed on Robert Caro for his The Passage of Power. 
A surprised and touched "Founding Father" receives his awards. To Morris's left is BIO president Brian Jay Jones. To his right are BIO board member Barbara Burkhardt and Will Swift.

A surprised and touched “Founding Father” receives his awards. To Morris’s left is BIO president Brian Jay Jones. To his right are BIO board member Barbara Burkhardt and Will Swift.

Prior to the Plutarch ceremonies, Board member Will Swift presented retiring President James McGrath Morris with the unique “Founding Father Award” for his role in “creating, supporting, and inspiring Biographers International Organization.” BIO’s Secretary Barbara Burkhardt followed by giving Morris a beautiful bound book of tributes from members of BIO.

The award and book were both a surprise to Morris, who gave a moist-eyed thank you to the crowd.Morris said, “I might have had the founding idea, but BIO is you and belongs to you.”  He is said to be currently hiding in Santa Fe, writing thank you notes.

Schiff Keynote Speech Highlights Fifth BIO Conference

More than 200 biographers, including ones from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, attended the fifth annual Compleat Biographer Conference, held May 17 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. As at past conferences, one of the day’s highlights was the presentation of the BIO Award at the afternoon luncheon, which this year went to Stacy Schiff, author of Saint-Exupéry: A Life,A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Cleopatra: A Life and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage.

At the day’s luncheon, outgoing BIO President James McGrath Morris presented Schiff with the award, noting that her dedication to the craft of biography went far beyond the written page to her longstanding and ongoing support of BIO.

Schiff delivers her keynote address to an appreciative audience.

Schiff delivers her keynote address to an appreciative audience.

In her keynote speech, Schiff addressed the two major problems biographers face: a paucity of information or an overabundance of it. She termed the latter “the haystack in the haystack” and said “nothing could be worse,” because “documentation is not revelation.” Writing about Franklin’s years as a diplomat in France, Schiff found voluminous material on him in various archives, though the information did not always reveal the essence of the man at the time.

Schiff recounted enduring the other extreme, the needle in the haystack, while researching Vera Nabokov and Cleopatra. Yet at times, she said, a lack of information, or what a subject leaves out of his or her own writings, can be telling. She believes that “the story lurks in the excisions, the elisions, the denials,” in information distorted or destroyed. The biographers’ challenge, Schiff said, is to find their subject’s voice, or rather, to “help their subject to find his voice, to coax him to speak, when he opts not to do so himself.”

Continue Reading…

Jones Becomes BIO’s Fourth President; Curtis Elected Vice President

BIO members selected Brian Jay Jones to serve as president and Cathy Curtis as vice president in an election that concluded on April 30.

Jones has been a BIO board member since 2009 and served as BIO’s secretary and vice president. He is the author of Jim Henson: The Biography and Washington Irving: An American Original.

Curtis, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, has been a board member since 2013 and served as chair of the Program Committee for the 2014 Compleat Biographer conference. Oxford University Press will publish her biography of Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan in 2015.

“BIO is an organization whose members are incredibly passionate about, and devoted to, the art and craft of biography,” said Jones. “It’s such a privilege to belong to an organization like that, and it’s an even greater honor to serve as its president. I appreciate our members entrusting me and Cathy Curtis with this opportunity, and we look forward to working together on behalf of BIO.”

“I am thrilled to be able to work with Brian as we enter a new era for BIO,” Curtis said. “One of my goals is to encourage all members to involve yourselves more fully in our unique organization and to discover the personal and professional rewards of collaborating with your fellow biographers.”

BIO members re-elected or elected to new terms on the board were Chip Bishop, Kate Buford, Barbara Burkhardt, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, Beverly Gray, Hans Renders, William Souder, and Will Swift.

More than 56 percent of active BIO members cast ballots.

The first order of business for the new board will be to select a new treasurer and secretary at its May 18 meeting.

Panels and Prize Presentations Highlight BIO Conference

BIO’s Program Committee is putting the final touches on the fifth annual Compleat Biographer Conference, which is returning to Boston, site of the inaugural conference. In a sign of how BIO has grown since 2010, more than 200 biographers are already signed up for this year’s event, compared to the 163 who attended the first conference. And this year, some of the panel sessions and tours are already sold out.

As always, one of the highlights of the conference will be the awarding of the BIO Award, which this year is going to Stacy Schiff. TBC will have highlights of her speech and an interview with her in the June edition. In the meantime, you can read some of Schiff’s thoughts on writing her biography of Cleopatra in an interview that ran in October 2010. (This and other past articles are normally only available in the TBC online archives, which is only open to members—another of the benefits of joining BIO if you haven’t already.)

Also during the conference, BIO will give its Biblio Award for services to biographers provided by a librarian or archivist to Heather Cole of Harvard University’s Houghton Library and Wallace Dailey of the Massachusetts Archives. BIO will also honor Holly Van Leuven, the winner of the first BIO/Hazel Rowley Prize for Best Proposal for a First Biography (see story below). Funding for the $2,000 prize comes from money raised at the opening reception of every BIO conference. Finally, the main activities of the conference conclude with the announcing of the winner of the Plutarch Prize, honoring the best biography of 2013 as chosen by BIO members. Look for a complete wrap-up of all conference events in next month’s TBC.