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.

REGISTER NOW!

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.

Cosby Biographer’s Omission Sparks Controversy

Old allegations that comedian Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women have filled the news in recent weeks—and brought unflattering attention to Cosby biographer Mark Whitaker.

In Cosby: His Life and Times, Whitaker, a seasoned journalist, wrote about Cosby’s extramarital affairs and other dark moments in his life, but he left out the rape allegations and the out-of-court settlement Cosby made in 2006 with Andrea Constand, one of the alleged victims who had sued Cosby the year before. Before the settlement, twelve other women were also prepared to testify that Cosby had either molested or raped them.

Several reporters had examined the allegations years before Whitaker’s book appeared, a fact that received increasing attention as journalists and reviewers wondered why Whitaker left them out of the book. In mid-November, defending himself to CNN. Whitaker said, “Basically, I knew that I was going to have to be very careful in what I said about his private life. I felt that way as a journalist and also for legal reasons.

“In the case of these other allegations, basically because there were no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses, it didn’t meet my standard for what I was going to put in the book.”

In September, just days before Cosby was published, Whitaker wrote an article for the Washington Post explaining how he came to get Cosby’s cooperation for the book. The comedian first rebuffed him, but about a year into Whitaker’s research Cosby had a change of heart and approached him, willing to cooperate. His representatives had already made clear that Cosby would not talk about the paternity suit he had faced or the murder of his son Ennis. But as Whitaker wrote, “Cosby himself imposed no other conditions, on me or on the dozens of people he encouraged to talk to me.”

With access to the comedian and his close friends, Whitaker wrote what he called “a book that put readers there, showing them how Cosby’s life and career unfolded in real time and letting them draw their own conclusions, rather than telling them what to think.” He added, “I was under no obligation, but when the book was in galleys, I sent copies to Cosby’s publicist and lawyer so they would know what was coming. Although there were things in it they weren’t entirely happy about, they didn’t ask for any changes, because they knew I had solid sourcing for everything I had written.”

Having a subject’s lawyer and publicist review galleys might have raised the eyebrows of other journalists and biographers, as Whitaker’s leaving out the rape allegations and Cosby’s settlement with Constand later did. USA Today’s Michael Wolff, writing shortly after the book’s publication, said, “Whitaker not only seems out to protect Cosby, but, further complicating the tale, to be threatened by him. Cosby is said to have made it clear to Whitaker and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, that he would sue on the slightest provocation.”

A BIO Member Responds
Biographer, journalism professor, and BIO member Steve Weinberg addressed Whitaker’s shortcomings in handling the issue in an article for Time. Weinberg wrote, in part, “It’s hard to consider Whitaker a reliable reporter considering what he has left out; his standards are not only unrealistic, but also unwise and irresponsible for a biographer who wants to present a complete picture of his subject.

“Biographers know that circumstantial evidence is as valid—and perhaps as necessary—for inclusion as direct evidence, as long as the circumstantial evidence accumulates at a certain level. Rarely do rapists assault their victims in front of witnesses. Is Whitaker suggesting that all biographers ignore detailed rape charges issued by women—ones who identify themselves, no less—against iconic, influential, wealthy men because nobody else was in the room?

“…. At minimum, Whitaker should have decided that the multiple allegations of sexual assault affected Cosby’s own life so deeply that they needed to be included in the book. Based on his evaluation of the evidence, Whitaker could have told readers that he doubted the allegations. Or he could have told readers that the allegations existed—an objective fact. Whatever Whitaker concluded about the evidence, he needed to tell readers how Cosby reacted, and why he might have reacted as he did. Instead, Whitaker participated in a biographical cover-up—a classic lie of omission. That is never an acceptable decision for the chronicler of somebody else’s life.”

As criticism of Whitaker mounted, he made this admission via Twitter on November 24: “I was wrong to not deal with the sexual assault charges against Cosby and pursue them more aggressively. I am following new developments and will address them at the appropriate time. If true the stories are shocking and horrible.”

Members React to Whitaker’s Book
After Steve Weinberg published his piece in Time, he shared it on the BIO Facebook page. Here are some member responses to the article and issues it raised.

Jeffrey Marks: I had to write about an abuse issue in my biography of Craig Rice. It’s not pretty or fun, but in order to have a full picture of the subject, you have to include the good with the bad….The fact that Cosby settled with one of the women could be presented as a fact by both a biographer and a journalist. That fact could have opened the door to a mention that other women have made similar complaints
Oline Eaton: How can you write the life without at least acknowledging that these allegations were a part of it?! Shocking…. I wondered about the difference between biographical ethics and journalistic ethics as well, but figured that the allegations would have an effect on the life so they’d need to be at least mentioned, even if Whitaker only listed them and said he couldn’t verify them…. There’s also a question of access to the subject here, no? Whitaker got 11 hours with Cosby. The video footage of Cosby’s strong-arming of the AP seems illuminating.
Carl Rollyson: I think he left it out because he wanted access to Cosby. I would not make such a deal.
Barbara Lehman Smith: Watching how Cosby tried to intimidate that AP reporter (which temporarily worked by the way) gives me an idea of how Cosby influenced Whitaker. But facts are facts (minimum: allegations made, suits settled) and Whitaker was a coward.

(TBC contacted Mark Whitaker’s publicist, who passed on our request to Whitaker for a comment, but never heard back before press time.)

“Bill Cosby Avoided Me for Years. Here’s What Finally Got Him to Call Me.”
“Missing Allegations in Cosby Biography Fuel a Lie of Omission”
“Saving Bill Crosby”

Gottlieb to Receive Inaugural BIO Editorial Excellence Award

Robert Gottlieb will receive the BIO Editorial Excellence Award...

Robert Gottlieb will receive the BIO Editorial Excellence Award…

…from his long-time associate Robert Caro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On December 3, BIO will present its first Editorial Excellence Award to Robert Gottlieb. The award honors an editor who has made outstanding contributions to the field of biography. A former editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and Knopf, Gottlieb has edited countless best-selling novels as well as modern classics of the biographer’s craft.

Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the many writers who has benefited from Gottlieb’s skills, will present the award and offer a tribute. The two men first worked together on Caro’s The Power Broker, about New York City’s “master builder,” Robert Moses. The book earned Caro his first Pulitzer, and 40 years after its publication, it is a staple of college reading lists for courses on city planning and journalism.

Editing that classic work was not always easy for the two men. Caro told TBC, “I have a bad temper, and although Bob denies it, so does he. While we were editing The Power Broker, one or the other of us was always jumping up and stalking out of the room to cool off. Now he, of course, had the tactical advantage over me because when we were working at Knopf, he, as president of the company, could leave and go to somebody’s else office and transact some business, but I had no place to go except the bathroom. I went to the bathroom a lot, as I recall.”

Despite that sometimes-contentious start, Caro and Gottlieb have continued their relationship as Caro chronicles the life of Lyndon Johnson in a multi-volume biography (he is currently working on the fifth and concluding book). Gottlieb told BIO member Kate Buford that before he got a first draft of The Power Broker, “I had no interest whatsoever in Robert Moses—until I started reading. By the time I’d read the first chapter, I had a consuming interest—in him and in Caro.” (You can read the complete interview, first published in TBC in April 2014, here).

For his part, Caro praises Gottlieb for going beyond considering only what might be newsworthy, as many editors do. Caro said, “I have always believed that for a biography—for any non-fiction work—to endure, the level of its prose has to be just as high as the level of the prose in a novel that endures. The writing is what matters. And with Gottlieb, I found an editor who was interested in that, too. When we’re working together, what matters—and it is all that matters—is what is on the page in front of us.”

Gottlieb, in an interview with The Paris Review, offered a humble of appraisal of what he does: “Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader.”

Attendees of the December 3 award ceremony can expect to hear many more insights on both the editor’s and the biographer’s craft from these two respected figures. The event will be 6-8 p.m. at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10075. Tickets are $45 and include drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Space is limited, so reserve early here.