Getting the Family on Board

by Beverly Gray

At this year’s BIO conference in the friendly city of Boston, I was honored to moderate the panel entitled “Getting the Family On Board.” We’ve broached similar topics in the past, so I felt slightly anxious that there would be nothing new to say. Not to worry: The three stellar panelists came primed with great stories about how they’d successfully wooed their subjects’ kin.

Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff and seven other books, concentrated mostly on how he’d approached the relatives of early CIA founders in order to write The Very Best Men. Thomas emphasized how much family members hate surprises about their kinfolk, which is why his rule is “to not hide the ball, to tell them early on what you are up to.” He generally shares his completed manuscript with his subject’s family circle. That way errors of fact can be corrected. And even if a family member becomes furious at what he’s written (as did Frances FitzGerald, historian and daughter of the CIA’s Desmond FitzGerald), such anger can serve to clear the air, resulting in a much more three-dimensional portrait in the long run.

Will Swift, whose newest biography is Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, suggested that in approaching a powerful but private family, it’s wise to “lead with generosity.” He described how he first reached out to Edward Cox, demonstrating his good intentions by supplying a well-researched three-page account of Cox’s wedding to Tricia Nixon. Operating through Cox, and with great discretion, he was eventually able to tap Tricia’s own views. As a practicing psychotherapist, Swift also advised an audience member trying to win over the angry daughter of her subject. His idea: suggest to the daughter, who was apparently embittered by her mother’s all-absorbing career, “Let’s talk about why you don’t want to talk about this.”

Incoming BIO president Brian Jay Jones explained how he managed to connect with the ex-wife and all five children of his subject, Jim Henson. First piece of advice: “Find your gatekeeper, and take very good care of him.” Much like Thomas, Jones ended up sharing his manuscript with all the Hensons, who seemed to enjoy spotting a serious chronological error but allowed his major conclusions to stand. Jones noted that each family member might have a separate agenda, which the biographer needs to identify. Here’s Jones’s parting warning to biographers dealing with families: “When you hang around descendants of your subject, they start to feel like your own family. Remember they are not. You are an invader.”