by James McGrath Morris
On the weekend of April 13-14, biographer Tom Reiss was suffering from a terrible toothache. To his good fortune his dentist had an opening in the afternoon of Monday, April 15. As he took his seat in the dentist chair around 3 PM, the only thing Reiss anticipated was relief from the pain.
But his phone began to ring. At first, he told the dentist to ignore it, but the insistent ringing finally prompted Reiss to check his messages. What he heard were the screaming voices of his agent and publisher congratulating him but without leaving him any clue as to why. The dental hygienist turned to the computer displaying Reiss’s X-rays and Googled his name. His book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
“The first autograph I signed as a Pulitzer Prize winner was for my dentist,” said Reiss. “He later sent me an email saying that that day’s work was on the house.”
Reiss, who makes his home in New York City with his wife and daughters, is the author of The Orientalist, the biography of a Jewish man who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Reiss’s new book, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer, is also an unusual tale, but with a long gestation.
When Reiss was a boy he loved the novels of Alexandre Dumas. One day he came across the novelist’s memoirs. It was a peculiar book. Its first 200 pages barely mentioned its author and instead told the story of his father, a forgotten revolutionary hero. “And his father’s life read like a pastiche of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo,” said Reiss. “Was this real person the basis of all my favorite fictional characters? Or had the novelist given fictional adventures to his father in the memoir?”
The story became even more intriguing when Reiss discovered that the forgotten hero had been born black and the son of a slave. “The history of racism had a powerful pull on me since I was boy because my grandparents had been deported from France and murdered because of their race,” Reiss said. Equally captivating was a bit of coinciding family history. When his mother came to the United States as an orphan, she carried with her a single book in her suitcase—a 1938 Hachette edition of The Count of Monte Cristo. “My interest in adventure stories, France, racism, war, and family history all came together when I discovered that memoir,” he said.
Getting to the story, however, was not easy. “Well,” he admitted, “I had to drill into a locked safe to get hold of some of the most important documents. That was a challenge. Otherwise, it was a matter of polishing up my 18th-century French, because the research consisted mainly of reading thousands of handwritten documents very carefully.”
In addition he explored fortresses where General Dumas had been held captive and searched for traces of the French expedition in contemporary Egypt.
Readers who have flocked to The Black Count have encountered an unusual opening for a biography. Reiss begins with a two-part prologue. In his interview with TBC, Reiss explained his thinking.
The first pages of the book are the scenes from Alexandre Dumas’ memoir in which he recounts the night of his father’s death. It was what inspired Reiss to begin researching the life of General Dumas. “It’s what made me care enough about the story of this forgotten hero to want to become his biographer. I first met my subject through the eyes, as he recalled this fateful night,” Reiss said, remembering reading of the memoir when he was a young boy. “I felt that by sharing this reading experience with my readers, at the beginning of the biography, I would transmit to them some of what had made me passionate about my subject.”
Trying to accomplish this became unwieldy. At first, Reiss had tried to combine everything into one massive prologue but he got stuck on the clash of the two vastly different perspectives—that of the novelist and the biographer. “Then I realized there was a nice parallel: We had both had a surprising encounter with death in this gray village, nearly exactly 200 years apart, so I titled each prologue with the date of that encounter—February 26, 1806, and January 25, 2007.” Thus, said Reiss, behind his quest as a biographer for General Dumas’ life lay “the emotional quest of his son, the novelist, who spent his life dreaming of the hero he’d lost too young.”