Lesser Known Lives
By Will Swift
On our Lesser Known Lives panel, the American biographers Gayle Feldman, Anne Boyd Rioux, Harriet Reisen, and Quincy Whitney and their British counterparts Max Saunders and Robert Lacey spoke about the perils and opportunities inherent in writing about non-celebrity lives.
At the age of seventeen, Harriet Reisen found her aunt’s suicide note in a wastebasket and was hooked. In telling the life journey of her aunt, who worked as an ad executive in the Mad Men era, Reisen is framing the story with a memoir of her own experience unearthing her aunt’s life. Like most authors of lesser known figures, she had to choose a strategy (including her story as a biographer in the narrative) to help fill in dark holes and work around missing information in her subject’s life.
Max Saunders explained that one of the difficulties in researching and narrating biography is that the work can turn into “a form of advocacy.” In writing lesser known lives, the biographer can become overly invested in defending why the life is being written, “something you don’t have to do if you’re writing about Jane Austen or Beethoven.” Saunders has been particularly aware of this risk when writing about family members and thinks about it frequently while working on the biography of his stepfather, the American painter Alfred Cohen.
Saunders unpacked the term “little known” for us, citing his biography of Ford Madox Ford, in which his subject “had been well known for being little known—sometimes described as a footnote to literary history, especially because of his collaboration with (the better known) Joseph Conrad.” Part of what drew Saunders to the project was his discovery of “how a life can be well known in some parts, little known in others, as in the case of the cache of love letters from Ford to Elizabeth Cheatham that surfaced in 1990, suddenly casting light on Ford’s life in 1929, which had otherwise been glossed over.”
Gayle Feldman faces the peculiar dilemma of writing the life of Bennett Cerf, a man who was a major celebrity in his time, but has been forgotten after his death. On the panel she addressed the question of how a subject’s chase for fame and celebrity while living can sometimes work against preserving their memory after death.
In American Luthier, Quincy Whitney wrote both the life story of a woman (Carleen Hutchins) and the biography of an object world (violins). Hutchins was little known in her field “because she did not belong. She was a biologist/trumpet player who ended up exploring acoustical physics and stringed instruments.” Whitney had to find a simple tag line to sell her book to publishers. Her initial summary “A pioneering female American violin maker” morphed into the succinct and sellable “A Female Stradivari.”
Anne Boyd Rioux wrote a widely reviewed biography of a lesser known novelist in Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. Rioux dealt with the challenges of working around a paucity of archival sources, and of bringing her subject “out of the shadows of more well-known friends or relatives while also convincing agent and publisher of the viability of the project…[she] had to hitch Constance Fenimore Woolson to Henry James’s star while not letting him outshine [Woolson].”
For Robert Lacey, the excitement of finding new source material drew him to write Little Man, the biography of the gambler Meyer Lansky and Model Woman,the life of model Eileen Ford. Lacey met one of the major criteria for success in writing lesser known lives. In each case he used his biographical subject to illuminate a larger issue or world: his book about Lansky aimed to re-assess “the myth-making dimensions of American organized crime,” and he used the life of Eileen Ford to depict the “twentieth-century development of the mass market beauty and fashion businesses.” Although both books garnered admiring reviews,“their sales were atrocious.”
The panelists highlighted a number of examples of commercially successful biographies of lesser known people. Rioux recounted how important the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 was in setting the stage for increased focus on writing about lesser known lives. In telling the story of a Maine housewife, Laura Thatcher Ulrich depicted the prevalence of crime, violence and premarital sex in rural eighteenth-century New England and ultimately told the story of women and the history of medicine in the early republic. Feldman mentioned Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: “Each illuminated a much larger world,” Feldman said. In one case, “Alice’s famous siblings; in the other the African-American experience, the history of prejudicial treatment of blacks, and the history of medicine. The Lacks story was also akin to a propulsive true-life mystery story.” Saunders cited British author Alexander Masters, a worker with the homeless, whose books have been nominated for prestigious prizes and have also been commercially successful. His Stuart: A Life Backwards explores the life of Stuart Shorter, a mentally unstable criminal and violent man living homeless on the streets of Cambridge. Masters has just published a new book, A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash. His books “work so well because of his inventive uses of the ‘quest’ plot, dramatizing his own search for the story and its interest,” Saunders said. “He’s also very good at ironizing his questing self: querying his own assumptions about the lives of others.”
Reisen mentioned the success of BIO’s late board member Chip Bishop, who made use of correspondence between his great grand uncle Joseph Bucklin Bishop, a journalist, and Theodore Roosevelt. His book The Lion and the Journalist was a valuable source of new information for Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others. Bishop personified the first-time biographer writing about ancestors or people they know personally, and who benefit by having access to BIO conferences, or groups like the Boston Biographers Group, where experienced and first-time biographers mix, and help new writers to understand and adopt standards that make their work stronger.
As Quincy Whitney pointed out, writing about LKL provides all kinds of opportunities for the biographer “to deviate from the norm in terms of expectations, and research, and shaping the story—because there is no canon to confront. In this way, the biographer can use novelistic techniques, change chronology or use themes—all of which can make the biography creative and non-traditional.”
Writing About Well Known Subjects
Max Saunders, co-director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London, discussed this topic with panelists Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, whose most recent book is The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland; Rebecca Fraser, who is working on a dual biography of Mayflowersettler Edward Winslow and his son Josiah; Zachary Leader, whose books include The Life of Kingsley Amis, a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Biography; and Catherine Reef, author of several highly acclaimed YA biographies, including Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life and Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse.
History and Biography: Borderlines, Part 1
By James Atlas
An urgent midnight email from Deirdre David, organizer of the conference, informed me that Andrew Lownie, the moderator of this panel, had taken to his bed with a bad cold. Would I be willing to sub in at the last moment? I agreed, but warned that I would be winging it. The panel was on History and Biography—a dauntingly capacious topic—and we were also tasked with the subject of Crossing Borders. The participants gathered for an emergency session at lunch beforehand, and were mutinous about covering so much territory. What did any of us know about the practice of biography in other countries and cultures? We agreed to discuss what all of us had discussed a million times at such events: How do you choose your subject? How true is biography? How did we end up in this labor-intense, non-lucrative profession in the first place?
But when we all sat down to talk, it emerged that we did know a great deal about the subject at hand, and for the next hour we hewed closely to the topic. Present were Anne Heller, the biographer of Hannah Arendt; Carla Kaplan, whose elegant lecture on Jessica Mitford we’d listened to in London the night before; Joanny Moulin, a biographer who brought us up to date on new theoretical developments in France; Amanda Vaill, about to embark on a biography of the Schuyler sisters (one of whom was married to Alexander Hamilton); Anne Sebba, who had just published Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s; James McGrath Morris, author of Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press; and Natalie Dykstra, whose biography of Clover Adams was published three years ago to strong reviews.
What soon emerged was that we weren’t just talking about geographical borders, but cross-cultural borders—how did the biographer negotiate the distance between historical periods and different cultures; how did we make the leap (“cross the border”) from our own consciousness to that of our subjects; what were the differences between English and American biography? There was a lot to say, and when our time was up we all congratulated ourselves not only on having gotten through the session but on having (more or less) addressed its topic. The standard of discourse was high, and I was reminded of how, whatever its drawbacks, interesting our profession can be.
History and Biography: Borderlines, Part 2
By Gayle Feldman
Our panel considered the nexus between biography and history, but since we were last of the day, we also saw our job as continuing and expanding upon the earlier discussions of borderlines of all sorts.
We considered sales of biography vs. history, and better known vs. lesser known lives; academia’s attitude to biography vs. history in Europe vs. the United States; and expanded the discussion to consider the borderlines between biographical fiction and biography, and memoir and biography.
We did so from an especially international vantage point: We were from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. The panel consisted of Betty Boyd Caroli, whose most recent book was Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President; Anne de Courcy, who is currently working on The Husband-Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, to be published next year; Dennis Kersten, whose dissertation Travels with Fiction in the Field of Biography (2011) deals with the fictionalization of authors’ lives in contemporary biofiction; Iwan Morgan, author of a just-published biography of Ronald Reagan; Jane Ridley, who is currently working on a joint biography of King George V and Queen Mary; Carl Rollyson, who, along with having written many biographies, has published several books on the craft of biography; Maryam Thirriard, a doctoral student and assistant lecturer in English literature at Aix-Marseille University, France, whose research focuses on the New Biography movement as it developed in England in the 1920s and 1930s; and Sonja Williams, the author of Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom.
Tunbridge Wells Tour
Before the colloquium began, Will Swift led a small group to Kent to visit Rudyard Kipling’s Batemans and Scotney Castle. Batemans was built in 1634 and provided a rural retreat for the author. Scotney Castle is an estate that includes an eighteenth-century manor house and a fourteenth-century ruin of a castle with its own moat. Anne Boyd Rioux, one of the tour members, said, “You can imagine the heaven we Americans were in rummaging around such an ancient site on a beautiful fall afternoon.” The group stayed at the B&B of former royal butler Harold Brown. Its main floor is replica of the apartment he occupied at Kensington Palace, and, as tour member Betty Boyd Caroli described it, “every inch of space was filled with photographs and memorabilia of people he had met.” Caroli added, “The royal biographers in our group added to the stories Brown told, and the rest of us gained a whole new appreciation for the subject.”