Segal Receives Editorial Excellence Award

Jonathan Segal received the second annual BIO Editorial Excellence Award on November 4 at an event titled How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter. Carl Bernstein presented Segal with the award, and the evening featured a panel discussion with several biographers who have worked with Segal. TBC will present highlights of that discussion and Segal and Bernstein’s remarks in the December issue. The event was co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.

A video of the evening is available here.


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Bernstein (right) presents the Editorial Excellence Award to Segal.


Bernstein and Segal are joined by panelists Eric Lax, Paul Hendrickson, T. J. Stiles, and Kate Buford.

Women Writing Women’s Lives Celebrates 25 Years

By Dona Munker
Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography? According to the attendees of an all-day conference on October 2 at the City of New York Graduate Center the answer was, “Any life has the potential to be a biography.” The event celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, an ongoing independent discussion group of about seventy women journalists, independent writers, and academic scholars.

The WWWL website says the seminar’s official mission is finding “new ways of looking at and presenting women’s stories” and, ultimately, to influence the way those stories are written. Keynote speaker and co-founder Deirdre Bair recalled that the group came into existence almost by accident. In October 1990, Bair, who had just published a landmark study of Simone de Beauvoir, and the late Carolyn Heilbrun, who was working on a biography of Gloria Steinem, invited a small number of feminist biographers to meet informally to talk about their projects. But instead of the ten or twelve friends they had invited, more than fifty people showed up. Stunned, the two organizers listened as one woman after another poured out her concerns about the obstacles involved in researching and writing the lives of women—including the need to find “the courage to think that women’s lives, on their own and without any attachment to men, were important and interesting enough to deserve being put into print.”

Changing Attitudes, Persistent Problems
Before the 1970s, publishers showed scant interest in serious biographies of women, unless the women were queens, female entertainers, or recognizable public or literary figures, such as Helen Keller or Emily Dickinson. By and large, it was felt that women who were not already well known belonged in the biographical limelight only as wives, mistresses, or muses of “great men.”

As the impact of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s made itself felt, however, that situation slowly began to change, and in the decades that followed, market-conscious publishers recognized that there was an audience for books about little-known women who overcame obstacles and achieved remarkable things in their own right.

Biographers of women nevertheless face hurdles that biographers of male subjects are less likely to encounter. Carla Peterson, a historian who has written about the men and women of her prominent nineteenth-century New York African-American family, had to contend with the fact that women, far more often than men, have left little or no trace on the historical record because of their traditional reluctance to expose themselves, either by word or by deed, to public scrutiny.

A self-imposed silence can also be produced by a sense of educational inadequacy—even when the subject has led a exceptionally public life. Sallie Bingham began looking into the life of tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke and found that Duke, who was raised to be a fin-de-siècle socialite, considered herself so ignorant that she refused to write letters, forcing Bingham to reconstruct her personality from correspondence written to her rather than by her.

Women can also vanish into the historic ether when family members or heirs, either out of embarrassment or a conviction that their grandmother’s letters are of no interest or value to posterity, lose, discard, or sell off papers left by female relatives. Betty Boyd Caroli, whose biography of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson was published last month, found herself forced to “work by hunches” about Lady Bird’s connection with her mother because of what she described as an “almost utter absence of information” about this critical relationship in her subject’s life. Still, sometimes a biographer gets lucky. Ruth Franklin, who is working on a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson, rescued a box of her subject’s letters from an old filing cabinet just before the cabinet was to be auctioned off in the estate sale.

Even when a woman’s papers end up in an archival collection that bears her name, they may remain uncatalogued, rendering them effectively useless to researchers. Furthermore, if the collection is named for a male relative, a woman subject’s documents may be subsumed to his and effectively “lost.” Franklin, for instance, discovered that many of Shirley Jackson’s letters had been catalogued under the name of her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, making them difficult to find.

Extending Biography’s Reach
The famous phrase “The personal is political” has its counterpart in feminist biography, where it is a given that the private and the public are inseparably connected. This emphasis on private lives and personal relationships has extended contemporary biographers’ ability to explore the complex interworkings of individuals, both with each other and with society. As an example, Diane Jacobs pointed out that her most recent book, Dear Abigail, a study of Abigail Adams and her two sisters, depicts “a private nation,” adding the personal to the political. “I didn’t want to write just another biography of John Adams,” she explained, noting that the psychological and social issues that emerge in the book—the nature of sisterhood, the meaning of women’s friendships in a male-dominated society—would not have emerged from a traditional biography of a man.

Do publishers still care if no one has heard of the subject? Well, yes. Even so, both Bair and Alix Kates Shulman agreed that the last twenty-five years have seen a significant shift of attitude toward women—and men—subjects who aren’t household names. “The subject,” said Shulman, a novelist as well as a biographer, “now counts less than the quality of the writing.” Bair said that by holding the biographer to a high standard of both writing and scholarship, feminist biography has succeeded in showing “that any life is an appropriate subject for exploration in the genres of biography, history, and memoir.”

It has also raised the bar for biographers as narrators. Nowadays, as Bair noted, “the biographer has to be able to write a page-turner and yet refuse to relinquish truth and authenticity.” Given the obstaclces to unearthing and depicting the complexities of women’s experience, that task can sometimes seem daunting. Nevertheless, said Bair, “We have an obligation to find the answers to our questions, and to never stop trying to find ‘the truth.’”

A video of the panel discussions will be available soon; the link will be posted on the Women Writing Women’s Lives Website and in a future issue of TBC.

Dona Munker is the writer and coauthor of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is working on a book about Sara Bard Field, a twentieth-century suffragist, poet, and “free-lover.” Her reflections, as well as an expanded version of this article, are available on her blog, “Stalking the Elephant.

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Segal Shares Thoughts on Biographies

Mentoring: A Report from Both Sides


Jonathan Segal to Receive 2015 Editorial Excellence Award on November 4

BIO_Segal_WebJonathan Segal, editor of six Pulitzer-Prize winning books, will receive BIO’s second annual Editorial Excellence Award on Wednesday, November 4, at a special event, “How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter.” Segal and five esteemed biographers who have worked with him will explore how major biographical works are conceived and crafted, and how a gifted editor can make the difference between a good biography and a great work that has a significant impact.

Presenting the award to Segal, a vice president and senior editor at Knopf, will be Carl Bernstein, journalist and author of the best-selling biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge.

The evening also includes a panel discussion with:

  • Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and two Heartland Awards
  • Eric Lax, former president of PEN USA, a BIO Advisory Council member, and the author of Woody Allen
  • T.J. Stiles, another BIO Advisory Council member and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the new Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
  • Panel moderator Kate Buford, BIO Board member and the author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe and Burt Lancaster: An American Life, both edited by Mr. Segal.

Light refreshments will be served, and the books listed here are available for purchase prior to the event at the Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue at 93rd Street. Books will not be sold at the event.

The event is at Temple Israel, 112 East 75th Street (Park/Lexington), New York, and begins at 6:30 pm. It is open to the public and tickets are $35. They can be purchased here.

This celebration of Mr. Segal’s editorial career was planned by Kate Buford, Gayle Feldman, Anne Heller, and Will Swift and is co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.


BIO Mentoring Program Gets Underway

BIO’s new mentoring program for members is now accepting requests for matching with mentors. This program is designed to be helpful for biographers at all levels of experience: a BIO member writing a first biography or a veteran biographer who would like to share pages or a writing dilemma with a colleague.

Eleven highly experienced and prize-winning authors of literary, political, artistic, historical, and popular culture biographies will offer coaching sessions to help writers in such areas as:

  • preparing pitch letters for potential agents
  • shaping a book proposal and sample chapter
  • improving interview skills
  • using libraries and archives effectively
  • dealing with subjects’ families and associates
  • creating a narrative out of your facts
  • promoting your book

You may sign up for one or more mentoring sessions. Based on your interests, the coaching committee (Will Swift, Cathy Curtis, and Linda Leavell) will select three available mentors whose expertise suits your subject area and your specific concerns, and provide you with their bios. For example, if you are writing about Mary Todd Lincoln, you might be presented with three mentors, one of whom has expertise in nineteenth-century American women, another who is a presidential biographer, and a third who has written about mental illness. You then select one of these.

The fee will be $100 per hour. Most of that fee will be paid directly to the mentor; a portion will cover BIO’s administrative costs. The mentors will be paid for time spent reading submitted materials and for the time they spend in consultation.

You can begin the process by sending an email to Will Swift with a brief summary of your project and a statement about your goals for the mentoring sessions. You will then receive instructions about payment and a list of three mentors with their bios. Once we receive your payment and choice, you will be given instructions for setting up phone, email or Skype sessions, according to your mutual preferences.

Writing a Biography about a Subject Who Left Few Records of His Own

Pamela Newkirk

Newkirk’s 2000 book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism.

At the beginning of the last century, Ota Benga, a Congolese member of the Mbuti people known for their diminutive height, was brought to the United States and exhibited to Americans including, for a while, at the Bronx Zoo. Author Pamela Newkirk has published an account of Benga’s life and his horrific ordeal. Her book is calledSpectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. “Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground,” said the New York Times Book Review. “Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”

(Editor’s note: Morris and Newkirk shared the same editor at Amistad/HarperCollins.)

How does one write a biographical work of someone who left no written records, well, actually almost no self-generated records?
When writing about marginalized people you often have to turn to the papers of powerful people in their lives. I first learned this when working on my epistolary collections. The letters of enslaved African Americans were found with the papers of their masters or government officials who they appealed to. In the case of Ota Benga, letters written by those who had captured or held him in captivity revealed what was going on daily behind the scenes. There were hundreds of letters that offered uncensored snapshots of him. In addition, dozens of newspapers provided first-person accounts of his daily exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair and the zoo, and also of his life once he was released. I then found him in census and ship passenger records, in an anthropologist’s field notes while in the Congo, unpublished and published accounts by those who knew him, institutional catalogues and bulletins, photographs, etc. I was able to use teams of documents to piece together his journey from the Congo, through Europe, and across the United States.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in reconstructing Ota Benga’s life?
The biggest challenge was overcoming the absence of his voice. His voice was captured in a handful of accounts, so that’s all I had to work with. However, I was able to highlight his actions that, at times, spoke louder than words. It was clear that he resisted his captivity at the zoo and that he suffered both there and on the fairgrounds in St. Louis where he was taunted, attacked, and displayed, while barely clad, on the frigid fairgrounds. As human beings, we can imagine his humiliation and degradation.

In a sense, he isn’t the story, rather our treatment of him is the tale. Am I right? If so, how did that guide your writing?
In a sense, he was a mirror of us—of society—at the dawn of the twentieth century. Our humanity and his were inextricably linked and as his was diminished, so too was ours. But we can also take heart in the fact that a handful of people defied the conventions of the time and protested the exhibition at the zoo. In them, we can find our humanity.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
So many distortions, half-truths, and outright deception had shrouded the truth of Ota Benga’s story. A hundred years later, the man who most exploited him was, in many accounts, depicted as his friend and savior. I wanted to correct the historical record and, in the process, reassert Ota Benga’s soaring humanity. He was so much more than “the man in the monkey house,” as he had been widely characterized. He was a sensitive, intelligent, and beloved person who had suffered a horrific injustice. But that experience alone did not define him.

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.