Undergrad Conquers Biography World

Here is the complete interview with Holly Van Leuven from the April 2013 issue.

TBC: What made you choose Ray Bolger as a subject? Do you have a particular affinity to The Wizard of Oz or another of his works? Or was it more the Boston connection?

Van Leuven: For me, Oz has always been inescapable. My first job at the age of four was with The Wizard of Oz on Ice, charming spectators into buying programs I peddled. I’ve been so exposed to the film and the culture surrounding it that I’ve long been numb to the nostalgia, the sentiment, while at the same time internalizing it. It has become just like gravity or oxygen—something that has always been there. But Oz opened up areas of interest—classic cinema, the studio system, and a purportedly halcyon era of American history. When I first saw Bolger as Bolger on talk shows, I was intrigued by his charm and mannerisms—he was like a dignified Peter Pan. The more I looked for information about him, the more I realized there wasn’t much available, and a lot of it contradicted. As a college freshman, I met one of Ray’s dance partners and choreographers over the Internet, and we struck up a great correspondence. I still didn’t know that I’d write the biography. But I look too closely at coincidences, and living in Boston to attend Emerson College, there were plenty around me. With a start I realized I was working down the street from Ray’s childhood home in Dorchester. I also knew I had a BFA thesis awaiting me my final year. The idea of writing the first Bolger biography intrigued me, but of course as a nineteen- or twenty-year-old kid, I dismissed that nagging urge to embark on the project as just one more thing beyond my scope.

TBC: What propelled you to take a class assignment and turn it into a book?

Van Leuven: One of the main things that encouraged me to really commit the time and money and travel to writing the biography was this: I have long been intrigued by people with that extra spark in them or that follow some essence that seems somehow not a true part of them—Socrates called it the daimon, and in terms of my project it is referred to as “star power.” It’s so difficult to quantify, to describe, but when people are exposed to it they know it. It is my goal to be close to this quality as often as I can, and hopefully to gain some proficiency in writing about it.

After preliminary research, I realized that there was substance to Bolger’s existence that extended beyond a twee biography of the Scarecrow. He had strange convictions for his time and place—he was a bit of a Catholic fanatic, and so staunchly Republican that America became for him a sort of religion. It was interesting for me to see evidence that he had strength enough to live his convictions despite great opposition from popular opinion. But more than that, in interviewing the people who knew him and worked with him—even those that despised all that he stood for and professed by way of morality—everyone told me that they were struck by a very certain magnetism he brought to his performances. It extended beyond just skill or timing. His range was actually very narrow, and his formal training limited. He succeeded on stage because people would pay ticket prices just to get near him. I think it is telling that he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical (1948), while having limited success on film. It’s amazing to me that he is immortalized for a role that—although he loved it dearly and had a great respect for it—did not come close to being his greatest accomplishment technically or financially. For as compelling as the history of Oz is, for the technical innovations it brought to film, the Scarecrow’s ubiquity has mummified Bolger—it has kept him intact in the cultural memory while smothering so much of what made him interesting.

But the thing that literally made me take a class assignment and turn it into a book was the fact that my professor had that spark of greatness, too. As a very accomplished editor in a variety of places, he has seen so many types of people and has himself internalized the ability to help others reach their potential without giving it much thought. One of the things he told my class was, “Never feel that you are too young to do anything.” What an intoxicating thought! That was what I needed. I jumped head first into a world I never knew existed—setting up appointments with archives, trying to find interview subjects, booking a ticket to spend the summer in Los Angeles (which I had never visited). And whenever I needed good advice from him, I sought it out and got it.

TBC: Had you read many biographies, for school or pleasure, before undertaking this? Did any one established biographer serve as a model/inspiration?

Van Leuven: The two biographies that I read pre-college and that really resonated with me – Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (the first book to make me cry—with its very last line) and David McCullough’s John Adams—definitely came back into play as both models and inspirations. For as different as they are, they both deal with almost-mythic American cultural figures who have become one-dimensional to the public, and yet their biographers brought them to life in such thrilling, dynamic ways. They were the first books I went to after sloughing through three months of continuous research, to see how research becomes narrative. I remember thinking, “Oh! Look how McCullough expanded this one detail into a scene, look how Hillenbrand chose this phrase to engage the reader.” To me, both works are masterful—well-researched, and written in a way that captivates a broad audience meaningfully.

TBC: Describe some of the challenges you faced and satisfaction you got (if any) out of the research process.

Van Leuven: The most basic challenge that I think a lot of potential biographers face, and that I certainly had to stare down, is the feasibility of investing your life—many years, paychecks, and hard decisions—into a subject and a project that requires a sturdy helmsman and yet can be capsized by one quick gust. I come from a working class family, am the first generation in college, and have no affiliations behind my research, so the thought of not working for three months to move to Los Angeles was terrifying. But I had just one summer before I graduated college and I knew this was my window.

The most direct challenge to research was the fact that Ray Bolger’s personal papers, despite being donated to UCLA in 1997, had never been processed. A librarian called me in response to a general email query, and told me that while they held the collection, I could not see it until they processed it, and no one knew when that would be. I was told it might be ready by the summer, but there was no guarantee. That was in November. By January, I was assured that I should not count on seeing it. As a Writing, Literature and Publishing major, I had been versed in the difficulties of cash-strapped and time-strapped libraries, and while I was not unsympathetic to the plight, I knew I had to get in there. No one I sought out from my school or elsewhere put much effort into helping a young nobody from the East gain access to the collection—and I learned quickly the phrase, “Motivate yourself or be miserable.” But the professor who inspired me to write the book mentored me when I really needed smart guidance, and I just kept making phone calls and getting rejections. By the end of April, through the efforts and faith of a few great people I found through a trail of phone numbers, I was told that I could see the collection that June.

That victory was a testament to those very few people, particularly my mentor, who believed in me before they (or I) had any real idea of how far I was willing to take this project or what I could do with it. I consider it a great victory to future researchers that I was able to do something to bring the Bolger collection into public access. But the greatest reward for me came on my final day of research at UCLA, when the librarian I had worked with so closely told me, “I am so glad you were tenacious enough to pursue this. I was being stubborn, and I hadn’t realized what a rich collection this is.”

My stay in Los Angeles was not all sunshine. To cut costs and to accommodate a freak eye injury, I commuted solely by bus from my studio near USC to UCLA six days out of seven. I spent most days alone in a reading room. I kept my food budget to twenty dollars a week. I was living among summer session USC-ers that shook my ceilings with bass music at three A.M. I came home tired and I woke up tired, but for the first time in my life, I was so drawn to something I was willing to really fight for that I kept waking up and walking to the bus stop. By chasing Bolger’s life, I became a person.

TBC: Did any biographers mentor you or offer useful advice?

Van Leuven: Yes. The semester I decided to trek to Los Angeles, I was taking a memoir-writing class with Megan Marshall, author of the Pulitzer-nominated The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism and the forthcoming Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. She gave me many great resources about the art of writing biography, suggested biographies to read and be inspired by, and fielded many queries. I also took a course called Literature and Psychology with Murray Schwartz, who had recently published The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus with his wife, Peggy. Murray was incredibly helpful in giving me ideas to find information on dancers and that era, and was very generous with his contacts and advice.

TBC: How did you end up at the BIO conference last year? What were the best things you learned/your best experience?

Van Leuven: Late in April, Megan Marshall sent me an email saying, “I know you are headed to Los Angeles; will you be in town for this?” She had given me a link to the BIO conference, and sure enough it coincided with my first weekend in Los Angeles, and was just down the street from my apartment at USC’s Davidson Center.

Thank goodness I went! It was the perfect boot camp for a completely green biographer about to hit the archives. The panelists were invested and insightful, and everyone’s energy buoyed me and helped replace some anxiety with good, productive excitement. I took copious notes and found myself referring to that tablet as I planned research at other archives, sought contacts, and generally navigated Los Angeles throughout the summer.

I met BIO members that I will always respect and admire for a number of reasons. Maria Alexander, who is working on a biography of Robert Preston, pulled me aside on the first day of conference, when I was still feeling out of place and intimidated. She told me that she, too, pursues her project in addition to her full-time work, and she said such wonderfully supportive things about my project and her admiration for my efforts. BIO is so lucky to have her, and I would still say that even if she hadn’t told me, “Within ten years, you will be on one of these panels talking about your book.”

I also met Emily Legutko, a very smart Brooklynite with an extensive background in archival research. I completed my summer with some time in the Lincoln Center Archives, where we reconnected. She is now helping me with some New York-based projects.

On the very last day of conference, I met Heather Robinson Long, biographer of Claire Adams, and her husband, John. They will always be my dear friends. I came to meet many colorful characters in L.A., but the brightest memories I have are of research dates with Heather at the Margaret Herrick Library and many excursions we undertook together outside the archives. Heather and John are incredibly gifted, fun, and driven people that inspired me just by my being in their presence. Heather’s manuscript was finished, and John has written something like 15 books and 71 papers in his chosen field (paleontology). They helped me realize that there need not be so much drama in the writerly life: it’s work that you sit down and do and then finish. In fact, John told me that his book for HarperCollins Australia, Hung Like an Argentine Duck: A Journey Back to the Origins of Sexual Intimacy, was written on a series of Sundays while working full-time at other ventures!

TBC: Do you think you have another biography (or more) in you? Who intrigues you as a possible subject and why?

I have been told that it is healthy to say “for my next biography…” while still completely enmeshed in this one, so yes. I think about it in off moments, and there are other people of that period that have caught my attention, that I think have wonderful stories. Since I’ve been able to write words, I’ve written poems. I love being a channel for other voices. Biography is a variation of that, for sure, albeit a very different one, but one that has captivated me and that I want to build up the stamina for.

TBC: What would you say to other young writers?

Van Leuven: First, I offer an anecdote, because aphorisms often lack empathy. On my final Saturday in L.A., before hitting the archives one last time, I had breakfast with Heather and John in Santa Monica. At one point the realization hit me and I said it out loud: “I know more about Ray Bolger than anyone in the world.” “I know more about Claire Adams than anyone in the world,” mused Heather. Then John said, “And I know more about Devonian-Era fish sex than anyone in the world!” If you think there was any hubris in that exchange, then I betray the moment. But my drive toward biography is encapsulated in that one instance. I view my work as a means of continuance and distillation. When the physical realities of being a young biographer are unbearable, there is comforting solace in turning cerebral, of viewing your peculiarities and niche interests as an almost-apostolic flame that allows you to speak and be understood by a wide array of people. Hunt that down. I will spend a lifetime pursuing it myself, in at least one biography, but that is the daimon, the star power, the something else that has mystified many throughout time.

I also offer the piece of advice given me by my mentor—a toughened, life-long New Yorker who is not one to mollycoddle—that ultimately sent me to California when I came very close to backing out: Follow your madness.