Biography

Current and Upcoming Biographies on Film Tackle a Wide Range of Subjects

Whether doing their own research, using the perspective of those close to their subjects, relying on existing print biographies, or combining elements of all three, biographical filmmakers can take a variety of tacks as they craft cinematic portraits of a person’s life. Their biggest decision, of course, is whether to go the documentary route or create a biopic, with the potential interest in the subject—and available funding—influencing the choice. While the Hollywood treatment of a subject’s life can mean huge box office sales and perhaps a trip down the red carpet at the Academy Awards—think last year’s Hidden Figures—the increasing number of streaming video outlets and their demand for content has opened up new outlets for biographical films.

TBC’s annual—but far from exhaustive—look at biography on film shows that both cable networks and the streaming giants have recently or will offer soon a number of documentaries. In addition, documentaries will appear on the big screen, along with the more high-profile biopics. Here are some of the biographical offerings of the past few months, ones slated for release soon, and films that are still being shot or are in the planning stages. Go here to learn more about these films.

Ruth Franklin Wins 2017 Plutarch Award

Ruth Franklin received the 2017 Plutarch Award from Plutarch Award Committee chair John A. Farrell.

Ruth Franklin won the 2017 Plutarch Award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Members of Biographers International Organization selected the winning book, which was announced at the Eighth Annual BIO Conference on May 20 at Emerson College in Boston. The Shirley Jackson bio had previously won several other honors, most notably the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

Offering her thanks for the award, Franklin said, “It’s really humbling to receive an award named after Plutarch.” She said that before this year’s event in Boston, she looked back at her notes from past conferences and realized how much she had learned from so many of the people with her in the room. Being part of BIO and a women’s biographers group in New York has shown her, “We aren’t in any way alone in what we do.”

At her first BIO Conference in 2014, Franklin said, she was too shy and intimidated to introduce herself to the big-name biographers she found herself surrounded by; she just “gazed adoringly” at Stacy Schiff, that year’s BIO Award winner, which Franklin joked might have led Schiff to believe she was a stalker. Now, Franklin is preparing an interview with Schiff for the Paris Review. She said she and Schiff discussed how there’s no instruction manual for biographers, everyone approaches the craft a little differently, and that biographers “all have to learn from each other.”

The Plutarch Award Committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting four finalists for the 2017 prize. The other finalists were:

  • Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson
  • Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 by Volker Ullrich, translated by Jefferson Chase
  • Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas

You can see the complete list of this year’s semi-finalists and past winners here

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Pulitzer Stirs Controversy by Awarding the Biography/ Autobiography Prize to Memoirs

By James McGrath Morris

This year the Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author” was awarded to an author who wrote neither a biography nor an autobiography. In fact, neither did the two finalists in this category. The prizewinner and the finalists all wrote memoirs.

The prize was awarded to The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The two finalists were In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi and When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi.

Further muddying the water was that in 2016 the prize for Biography/Autobiography went to William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and one of the two finalists was also a memoir. The other finalist, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles, was moved by the board to the History category and given that prize.

The Pulitzer Prize board’s selection of memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category has sparked a debate among biographers. Most believe that memoir is a fundamentally different form of writing about a life in that it does not require any form of documentation, especially the kind of research that often distinguishes biographies.

BIO’s board is requesting to meet with the Pulitzer Prize administrator to discuss the continued commingling of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Currently, the Pulitzer Prize organization is seeking a new administrator, since Mike Pride announced his retirement.

To help sort out this this issue, TBC turned to David Nasaw, the distinguished historian, accomplished biographer, and chairman of the advisory board of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. Nasaw is the author of three biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst; Andrew Carnegie; and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The latter two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography/Autobiography category.

James McGrath Morris: You were invited to chair the Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015 for the prize awarded in April 2016, isn’t that right?
David Nasaw: I was sort of surprised that they gave it to me, if only because I had been a finalist twice but never a winner. Of my three biographies, The Chief was never submitted to the Pulitzer committee, which was a bit of a scandal with Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times wrote about it. Houghton Mifflin just forgot to give them the book. My next two books were finalists. So, everything I say about the Pulitzers should be taken with a grain of salt, because I have a particular history with the prizes.
JMM: Nonetheless, you were chosen as the chairperson for the 2015 awards and you began work by studying the guidelines.
DN: We, the three of us who were on the committee, read the guidelines that we were given very, very, very carefully. And, we interpreted the guidelines as ruling out of competition any memoirs that were not documented. The guidelines that we were given said that for the nonfiction awards it was very important that the materials in these books be appropriately documented. And, they said that there should be some references, footnotes, endnotes, or in the text itself, which gave the reader the confidence that what was being said, or what was being reported, had actually taken place. The Pulitzer guidelines made that abundantly clear.
JMM: Did you have other things by which to guide your deliberations?
DN: In addition to those guidelines, I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.

It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.
JMM: What did you do then?
DN: So, we made our determinations clear to the administrator, who was in contact with us. And, we let it be known that after studying and applying the guidelines, we were not considering 30 percent or 40 percent of the books (I don’t know the exact number) that had been submitted under this category. When we finished our deliberations, we were asked to write a report. In it, we explained how we had made our decisions.

Twice afterwards I wrote to the administrator of the prize and I said, “We consider this very important, that the Pulitzer board has to make a decision as to what it’s going to do.”
JMM: What can it do?
DN: We recommended a number of changes to the Pulitzer board to remedy the situation we had encountered. It could establish memoir as a separate category; it could add memoir to the Biography/Autobiography category, so it’s Autobiography/Memoir/Biography; or, it could let publishers know that memoirs should be submitted in the general Nonfiction category. Whatever it decided to do, we argued against it continuing to accept “memoir” nominations in the Autobiography/Biography category because we thought that other jurors would do as we had done, would read the guidelines as we had read them, and not consider the memoir submissions for the prize.
JMM: Then the subsequent selections in 2016 and 2017 must have been a shock?
DN: You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs.

So, I, having been a judge, I’m not saying the jurors were wrong to do this, I would never say that. But I will say that the guidelines are so written that one committee could read them in a way that appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the way the other committees read them. There’s got to be something wrong there.
JMM: If you were made emperor of the Pulitzer Prize, what would you do to fix this?
DN: I’d simply make a category for memoir. When these categories were first designed, there were very few memoirs. The committee has adjusted all the other awards, certainly all the journalism awards.
JMM: Very often they have.
DN: On a regular basis. Why can’t it pay the same attention to the arts and letters awards?
JMM: And you would be okay with keeping autobiography and biography together as one?
DN: Sure. Sure. And, if the Pulitzer board doesn’t want to do that, then it should add memoir to that list. The fact that Amazon puts memoir into the same category as autobiography and biography doesn’t mean that we should do the same. There has historically been a difference between autobiography and memoir. And a memoir, as we know, is not in the same genre, I don’t think, as biography.
JMM: I was a judge recently on the Western Writers of American prize for best biography. I took out a memoir from the pile of books I was to judge because I didn’t see how you could compare it to biography.
DN: That’s exactly what we did for the 2015 awards. And, I assume from looking at the judging, that’s what had happened earlier.
JMM: When you think of presidential autobiographies, they have a staff who uses all these memoirs and calendars to get the dates right. Their autobiographies may be self-serving, but still, they are biographies of their lives.
DN: Yeah. So, I don’t know what’s going on. I think it is an extraordinary disservice to memoir and to biography. Because these are separate literary genres. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award.

Upcoming Biographies Offer Great Variety

From slices of famous lives to cradle-to-grave studies and explorations of linked lives, the spring and summer biographies already generating interest in the publishing world run the gamut. As is often the case, political and literary figures dominate these books and contemporary musicians are also well represented. To see our preview of upcoming biographies, go here.

Biography Beyond Borders Brings Together US and European Biographers

On November 4-5, BIO and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing co-sponsored Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography. The weekend in Oxford and London featured 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and Europe examining their craft in lectures and panel discussions. Look for more news on the weekend next month.

 Carla Kaplan opened the weekend on November 4 with a talk on the life of Jessica Mitford, the famous American muckraking journalist who grew up in a British aristocratic family.

Carla Kaplan opened the weekend on November 4 with a talk on the life of Jessica Mitford, the famous American muckraking journalist who grew up in a British aristocratic family.

Hermione Lee spoke during lunch on November 5. Lee, who is president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, where the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is located, won BIO’s Plutarch Award in 2015.

Hermione Lee spoke during lunch on November 5. Lee, who is president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, where the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is located, won BIO’s Plutarch Award in 2015.

Left to right are British professor and biographer Iwan Morgan, French doctoral student Maryam Thirriard, American professor and biographer Sonja Williams, Dutch professor Dennis Kersten, and American biographer Gayle Feldman, who moderated the panel discussing history and biography. The panel was one of four looking at American and European biography during the day-long conference.

Left to right are British professor and biographer Iwan Morgan, French doctoral student Maryam Thirriard, American professor and biographer Sonja Williams, Dutch professor Dennis Kersten, and American biographer Gayle Feldman, who moderated the panel discussing history and biography. The panel was one of four looking at American and European biography during the day-long conference.

Talese Reflects on a Long, Passionate Publishing Career

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

We learn by stories,” Nan A. Talese said, and when it comes to biography, “the story of the person’s life should be interesting and carry the reader along.” That was just one of the insights Talese imparted from a 50-year career in publishing, many of those years spent helping dozens of biographers bring their subjects’ stories to life.

Talese spoke just before accepting BIO’s third annual Editorial Excellence Award, which recognizes the contributions of outstanding editors—as nominated by BIO members—to the publishing of biographies.

The October 5 event at the New York Society Library began with an introduction by BIO member Anne C. Heller (who played the key role in organizing the evening and ensuring its success, in collaboration with members Kate Buford, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, and Will Swift). Talese worked with Heller on her biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and Heller noted that Talese’s books “are known both for their literary excellence and for their physical beauty.” She praised Talese for “the extraordinary judgment, taste, skill, dedication, and, in my case, patience, Nan has brought to her literary calling.”

A. E. Hotchner followed Heller and recounted working with Talese on Papa Hemingway, Hotchner’s account of the novelist’s life and Talese’s first major biography after coming to Random House from Vogue as a young editor. Hotchner described going into her tiny basement office—a broom closet that included a desk and two chairs—and her first words: “I think we should change the title.” She also advised him to put more of himself in the book, as Hotchner and Hemingway had been friends. As Talese later explained, she suggested edits while also drawing more out of Hotchner, and they ended up cutting 20 percent of the original manuscript and adding a new 20 percent. Papa Hemingway went on to become a perennial best seller.

Hotchner and Talese worked together on several other books, and Hotchner noted her eye for detail, sometimes questioning a single word choice, and her swift and careful attention to the manuscripts she receives. Most gratifying, he said, was hearing Talese describe a manuscript as “wonderful.” He said, “She says wonderful better than anybody else.”

Talese spoke next, offering her recollections of some of her experiences with Hotchner. At their first meeting, which included several other editors, she admitted, “He thought that I was going to bring them coffee or something; he certainly didn’t think that I was going to be his editor.”

Talese also discussed some of the other noteworthy books she has worked on, including Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and the challenges she faced negotiating the finances of the book with Keneally’s lawyer. Talese wanted the book badly, and she said she became a “pest” as she worked to close the deal. Talese also recalled the difficulties she and Deirdre Bair had in securing rights to Saul Steinberg’s art for Bair’s biography of the cartoonist.

Talese and Bair worked together again on Bair’s new biography, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, published last month, and Bair joined Talese to address what Bair called the “nuts and bolts” of editing and publishing biographies. Asked what she looks for in a book she publishes, Talese said she focuses on three questions: Does the writer use language well, is the writer a storyteller, and does the writer tell the subject’s story with such passion that people will want to read it.

When Bair brought up the popularity of celebrity biographies and wondered if there is still a place for deeply researched books on serious subjects, Talese said people do still want those “big” biographies. At times, though, such books are reviewed so well, “people think they’ve already read the book” after reading the reviews.

Reflecting on her career, Talese said she was not truly qualified to be an editor when she first came to Random House, and her first job was looking for typos. But she was grateful to be there, saying, “I couldn’t believe I was being paid to read….To this day I love it just as much.” With her job, “you live in another world, you learn of another world.”

Following the Q&A, BIO president Will Swift presented Talese with her award, noting the importance to biographers of skilled—and passionate—editors like herself, as they “help us become more than we dreamed we could be.”

BIO Announces Panelists for Biography Beyond Borders

unnamedBiography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography,
will feature 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and
Europe. In alphabetical order, they are: James Atlas, Betty Boyd-Caroli, Anne de
Courcy, Natalie Dykstra, Robert Douglas-Farihurst, Gayle Feldman, Rebecca
Fraser, Anne C. Heller, Carla Kaplan, Dennis Kersten, Robert Lacey, Zachary
Leader, Andrew Lownie, Jana Wohlmuth Markupova, Iwan Morgan, James
McGrath Morris, Joanny Moulin, Catherine Reef, Harriet Reisen, Jane Ridley,
Anne Boyd Rioux, Carl Rollyson, Max Saunders, Anne Sebba, Will Swift,
Maryam Thirriard, Amanda Vaill, Qunicy Whitney, and Sonja D. Williams. You
can read their biographies here.

Presented by BIO in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at
Oxford, Biography Beyond Borders will take place on Saturday, November 5. The
lunchtime keynote speaker will be the 2014 BIO Plutarch Award Best Biography
winner and director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Hermione Lee.
The $100 fee for the colloquium also includes a Friday afternoon lecture and
reception at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London,
featuring Carla Kaplan as the speaker. Her lecture is titled, “‘Something to Offend Everyone’: The Muckraking Life of Jessica Mitford.” In addition, anyone who wants to go on the BIO November 3 group tour of the Jacobean home of Rudyard Kipling and romantic Scotney Castle with royal guide Harold Brown and Will Swift should email Swift. Learn more about the tours and the entire weekend and register here.

Nan A. Talese Wins Editorial Excellence Award

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

Biographers International Organization gave Nan A. Talese its Editorial Excellence Award at the New York Society Library on October 5. Almost 100 people turned out to honor Talese, including several of the authors she has worked with over the years, such as Judy Collins, Anne Heller, and A. E. Hotchner. Other guests from the publishing world included Sonny Mehta, Louis Begley, Robert MacNeill, and Robert Caro, who called the event one of the great literary evenings in New York. Talese joins Robert Gottlieb and Jonathan Segal as winners of the Editorial Excellence Award.