Lee’s Biography of Penelope Fitzgerald Wins Plutarch Award

Among Lee's other books is Biography: A Very Short Introduction.

Among Lee’s other books is Biography: A Very Short Introduction.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee won the Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014, as selected by members of Biographers International Organization. The winning book was announced at the Sixth Annual BIO Conference in Washington, DC.

I am absolutely delighted to have been awarded this prize, especially when I look at the competition! said Dame Hermione Lee when she heard the news. President of Wolfson College, Oxford, England, Lee was not present at the announcement of the winner.
The three Plutarch finalists were:
  • The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria by Helen Rappaport
  • The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by Nigel Hamilton
  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr

Named after the ancient Greek biographer, the prize is the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, in that BIO members chose the winner by secret ballot from nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft. This year marked the third time BIO bestowed the award. Previous winners were Linda Leavell for Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore and Robert Caro for The Passage of Power.

Branch Keynote Talk and Biographers in Conversation Highlight BIO Conference

Almost 200 established and aspiring biographers immersed themselves in their craft at the Sixth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held June 6 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Amidst the various panel sessions, attendees also saw Taylor Branch receive the 2015 BIO Award. Branch is best known for his trilogy about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, known collectively as America in the King Years.

BIO President Brian Jay Jones presents the 2015 BIO Award to Taylor Branch.

BIO President Brian Jay Jones presents the 2015 BIO Award to Taylor Branch.

The Accidental Biographer
In his keynote address, Branch called himself an accidental and partial biographer, as he used the life of King and others to tell the story of the civil rights movement, which he called “the last great uprising of citizens’ idealism that really changed the direction of history.” Branch wanted to better understand the movement and address what he saw as problems with the existing books on it: They were “analytical and abstract” with an emphasis on interpretation. Branch wanted to “feel its power, which for me was personal and quite deep.”

But before and while immersing himself in what would become a 24-year endeavor to better understand and then write about the movement and its makers, Branch worked as journalist, ghost wrote the memoirs of Watergate figure John Dean and basketball star Bill Russell, and spent hours recording the thoughts of an old friend who just happened to become US president: Bill Clinton. Branch recounted some of the recording sessions that would form the basis of Branch’s The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Clinton wanted to document the history of his presidency as it unfolded, and his sessions with Branch remained secret through the president’s two terms. For Branch, the sessions gave him the chance “to get the fullest record that historians will one day have” of what daily life was like for Clinton in the White House.

Clinton and Branch had worked together in Texas during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, and they often discussed political idealism. Branch thought he “had a better chance to influence [US politics] toward integrity as a writer than in politics.” With his King books, he explored the citizens’ idealism he saw in the civil rights movement, the reaction to it, and its lasting effects. He said, “The civil rights movement set things in motion that are still benefiting our country today, including same-sex marriage…. The civil rights movement forced people to break down their emotional barriers against dealing with what equal citizenship really means in everyday life.”

Branch chose to depict the movement in as personal a way as possible, to fight the urge in the United States to “reinterpret history wherever race relations are involved.” As an example, he cited the textbooks he read growing up in Atlanta, which taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Many history books, Branch believes, deal with what a culture is comfortable talking about. Telling the personal stories of the people of the civil rights movement in a narrative history, Branch hoped, would preserve some of the uncomfortable facets of race relations in the United States, thus providing a more accurate history.

brinkleythomasThomas and Brinkley in Conversation
The conference events kicked off in the morning with a plenary breakfast session called “The Art and Craft of Biography: Evan Thomas and Douglas Brinkley in Conversation.” Between them, the two have authored biographies on a wide range of figures who helped shaped the twentieth century, from presidents to Walter Cronkite. They engaged in an easy dialogue as they explored some of the challenges they’ve faced during their careers.

For Brinkley, one challenge came when writing about Rosa Parks. When she made her historic refusal to leave her bus seat, about a dozen or so people rode with her. But when Brinkley did his research, he interviewed 55 people who claimed to be on the bus that day. “Everybody in Montgomery was on Rosa Parks’s bus,” he joked. “I had no idea who to trust.” Brinkley also had personal access to his subject and saw firsthand her willingness to help others, something that made writing the Parks book “probably the most moving personal biography” he’s done.

Following that observation, Evan Thomas said he had just finished a biography of Richard Nixon, and the president “was not a Rosa Parks.” But Thomas did come to appreciate how hard it was to be Richard Nixon, who was socially awkward and “a powerfully lonely guy.” Nixon’s experiences intersected with the life of another of Brinkley’s subjects, Walter Cronkite. CBS News played a big part in bringing Watergate to the public’s attention, and Nixon wanted to “get” Cronkite, who personally liked Nixon. Cronkite also interacted with another of Thomas’s subjects, Robert F. Kennedy. The newsman, Brinkley said, crossed the line of journalistic ethics when he urged Kennedy to run for president in 1968 because of the morass in Vietnam.

Another topic Brinkley and Thomas covered was how to get the biography subject’s family on board, which can be hard when relatives, especially children, want to preserve their loved one’s image, and their truthfulness might be suspect. Thomas also mentioned the difficulty at times of sorting out key details from extraneous facts—“I wish I had a magic formula to help you figure out what’s important and what isn’t.” Another concern for biographers today: plagiarism, or the accusation of it. One strategy, Thomas said, is to footnote extensively and acknowledge the work of experts in the foreword. Brinkley cited a slightly different problem, of anecdotes that get passed along as truth but without sources to back them up. He relies on double sources when possible to verify information.

After discussing some of the nuts and bolts of the craft, Brinkley ended the session on a loftier and inspiring note. He called biography “the most indispensable art form because in America, we live by individuals… that’s how we process history, through people.”

 

Enjoying the preconference reception, from left to right, are Kate Buford, Barbara Burkhardt, Robin Rausch, Abigail Santamaria, and Sarah Dorsey.

Enjoying the preconference reception, from left to right, are Kate Buford, Barbara Burkhardt, Robin Rausch, Abigail Santamaria, and Sarah Dorsey.

Preconference Events
While Saturday, June 6, saw most of the conference’s events and festivities, on Friday some attendees explored the Library of Congress on private tours. In the evening, BIO members gathered at the Georgetown home of board member Kitty Kelley, where Thomas Mann, formerly of the Library of Congress, received BIO’s Biblio Award. Established in 2012, the award recognizes a librarian or archivist who has made an exceptional contribution to the craft of biography. Mann retired from the Library in January 2015 after 33 years of service.

Also at the reception, board member Will Swift announced that Jonathan Segal will receive BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award this November. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Carl Bernstein will present the award and the evening’s events will also include a panel discussion. Look for more details on this event in upcoming issues of TBC.

Taylor Branch: 2015 BIO Award Winner

By James McGrath Morris

 Branch's most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.


Branch’s most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.

Had it not been for the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch would have become a surgeon and the movement would have been deprived of one of its most important chroniclers.

For his work in producing a three-volume biographically based narrative history of the civil rights movement, Branch received the BIO Award on June 6 at the Biographers International Conference. He was the sixth writer to be so honored since the first gathering, originally called the Compleat Biographer Conference. Previous winners are Jean Strouse, Arnold Rampersad, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, and Stacy Schiff.

Growing up white in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, Branch aspired to become a surgeon. But his father’s close relationship with an African American and the inescapable presence of the civil rights movement in the hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., resonating in Branch’s words in “spiritual values,” replaced that life plan with another. “I wrote the civil rights triology because I wanted to know myself where the movement came from that changed the direction of my life’s interest against my will.”

To do his trilogy of books, collectively called America in the King Years, Branch told readers in the first volume that he had chosen to structure his work as “narrative biographical history.”

While he was working on it, Branch came to the conclusion that most people approach race abstractly. “Everything I learned was very personal,” he said. “I resolved to write in a narrative style if I could, without using analytical labels because where people are so skittish, defensive, and assertive on the race topic, analytical tools and labels conceal more than they reveal.”

In short, Branch said, “I chose to base it in the people because ‘the people’ is what broke down my own emotional resistance as a white southerner.”

Aside from earning Branch a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2,912-page trilogy has become one of the standard works on the civil rights movement. Unlike biographies of the movement’s figures and histories of the movement, however, Branch’s America in the King Years employs the tools of biography to tell the larger story.

This achievement was the motivation behind Branch’s selection by the BIO Award Committee. When considering who would be honored at this year’s gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, the committee was guided, as in past years, by the goal of selecting a writer who had advanced the art and craft of biography.

When Branch learned he had been selected for the 2015 BIO Award, he said he felt a bit uncomfortable because he didn’t define his work as biographical. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was fraudulently trespassing on their turf,” he said. “I think we are certainly kinsmen trying to put people at the center of historical interpretation, whether you do that through one person or a collection of characters.

“The tools of a biographer are very, very important. That’s why I am happy and honored to bring myself as a semi-biographer down there,” said the Baltimore-based author.

(In July, the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft will feature highlights of Branch’s keynote speech at the sixth annual BIO conference.)

2015 Plutarch Award Presented To Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald

5159iVKsNiLPenelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (Knopf) won the Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014, as selected by members of Biographers International Organization. The award was presented Saturday evening at the Sixth Annual BIO Conference in Washington, D.C.

The three finalists were:

  • The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria by Helen Rappaport (St. Martin’s)
  • The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by Nigel Hamilton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton)

To see the full list of nominees, click here.

David I. Kertzer on Biography and Writing

By Joseph A. Esposito

The recent selection of his dual biography of Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Biography caught David I. Kertzer of Brown University by surprise. According to a statement released by the university, Kertzer said, “I had no idea the Pulitzer Prizes were about to be announced nor any hint they were considering The Pope and Mussolini, so this is quite a shock.”

David Kertzer, 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

David Kertzer, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

But the award is an appropriate testament to the meticulous research that Kertzer had undertaken for nearly a decade. Crisply written, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe reports on a symbiotic relationship which unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book chronicles how the dictator played on the fears of modernism of the aging pope and the mindset of the Vatican, and crafted a partnership which helped him to maintain his power. The Catholic Church benefited from the support of the fascist regime by strengthening its position in Italy. Anti-Semitism figures prominently in the story.

Kertzer, who is an anthropologist and former provost at Brown, has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history and politics, including the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, about a Jewish boy seized by papal officials and who later joined the priesthood, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1997. Continue Reading…

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Kitty Kelley and Barbara Burkhardt

Bestselling biographer Kitty Kelley—a founding BIO member who serves on the board— will appear with biographers James McGrath Morris and Linda Lear at the conference in Washington, DC. Their panel, moderated by Abigail Santamaria, will address the question, Does gender matter in biography? Kitty talks to BIO Secretary and site co-chair Barbara Burkhardt about biography and gender—and her dedication to BIO.

Kitty Kelley

Kitty Kelley

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt: What generated the idea for the panel “Does Gender Matter”?
Kitty Kelley
: Linda Lear was talking to me about how she decided not to do a biography of Harold Ickes, Sr. She said that, as a woman, she just didn’t feel she could empathize with this male subject. And, on the other hand, Jamie Morris said that he leaped to do his biography of Ethel Payne. It really is interesting that empathy is the deciding factor.

BB: What is your own take on how gender affects writing biography?
KK
: A Harvard study showed that gender does make a difference. In relation to writing a life story, the study showed that women are better at getting to the hows and the whys of a life. Women are more concerned with relationships. They pay more attention to relationships.

I can’t say that women are better biographers than men. I don’t mean that at all. It’s just that male brains work differently than female brains. Men go from A to B, women go from A to R—and then back to F. As a result, women might be better at getting certain kinds of information. Men love data. Only 10 percent of the men who read, read fiction. They read history, politics, current affairs, business, and sports. Women read fiction.

And in biography, you have to give more than info and data and facts—you have to provide a human dimension: Why did they do it? How did they do it? You have to get people talking about their feelings and fears. The study showed that it is easier for women to handle ambiguity than it is for men. In essence, men want to solve the problem. Women want to understand the problem. They have been trained to take care. Men seem to take charge. Continue Reading…

Best Biography of the Year: Nominations Announced for 2015 BIO Plutarch Award

Fellow biographers to choose winner for the “Oscar” of biographies–to be presented next month at national conference in Washington, D.C.

Plutarch2014Biographers International Organization (BIO) will name the best biography published in 2014 when they present the 2015 Plutarch Award during the Sixth Annual BIO Conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 6.

Named after the famous Ancient Greek biographer, the Plutarch Award aims to be the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar. The winner will be determined by secret ballot from a list of nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft.

The ten books nominated for the 2015 Plutarch are:

  • Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner)
  • John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ( W. Norton & Company)
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf)
  • Helen Rappaport, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s)
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (Viking Adult)
  • Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House)
  • Will Swift, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions)
  • Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press)

“The Plutarch Award honors the very best in biography, and this year’s nominees are a truly remarkable group, representing a broad swath of subjects, from playwrights to politicians,” said BIO President Brian Jay Jones. “It’s this kind of variety that makes biography so compelling — and in the hands of these 10 outstanding biographers, these works are also stories told remarkably well.  BIO congratulates the nominees, and we look forward to announcing the recipient of the Plutarch on June 6.”

For a list of previous nominees and award winners, click here.

Kertzer Wins 2015 Pulitzer for Biography

popeDavid I. Kertzer is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.
We will have an interview with Kertzer, conducted by BIO member Joseph Esposito, in the May issue of The Biographer’s Craft.