Biography

Biographers Grapple with the Many Facets of Nixon

In a preview of the BIO Conference panel “Three Ways of Looking at a Subject: Richard Nixon, moderator John A. Farrell explores the presidential subject with two of the panelists.

Lincoln, we know. The Roosevelts, we get. Of Kennedy, we probably know too much. But the roster of American presidents still presents a few white whales for biographers to chase—chief executives whose lives don’t yield characterization easily. Jefferson has been called a sphinx. Reagan opaque. And then there is Richard Nixon.

The challenge in writing a life of Nixon is not a shortage of material; it’s partly that there is so much: millions of documents and thousands of hours of tape recordings; archives chock-full of videotape from the Vietnam War and Watergate; countless newspaper articles and columns and books about the Tricky Dick of the 1950s, the various New Nixons that ran for president, and the tragic chief executive who went to China, signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, won a landslide re-election, and resigned in disgrace. The vast sea of material makes fishing for Nixon an arduous task. So does his personality, which aide H. R. Haldeman compared to a piece of quartz, with its many, many facets.

Compounding the difficulty is the polarizing nature of the man, and of his times. For most of his political career, often deliberately, he divided the citizenry into those that loved Nixon, and them that hated him with unyielding passion. He came on the scene as an ally of Joe McCarthy. He implied that Harry Truman was a traitor, and was throughout an unforgiving partisan hatchet man. “If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, let’s call for a hatchet,” he said, campaigning, in 1952.

And his enemies—the liberals, academics, Democrats and journalists who Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked as impudent snobs and effete intellectuals—gave as good as they got.

“The American lower middle class in the person of this man moved to engrave into the history of the United States, as the voice of America, its own faltering spirit, its self-pity and its envy…its whole peevish, resentful whine,” the liberal New York columnist Murray Kempton wrote.

For the upcoming BIO conference in Richmond, three recent Nixon biographers—Evan Thomas, Being Nixon; Jeffrey Frank, Ike and Dick; and Irwin Gellman, The Contender and The President and the Apprentice—will join me on a Saturday afternoon panel, and talk about our turns as Captain Ahab. I quizzed two of them about the hunt last month.

Q: What special challenge does a polarizing figure like Nixon present? Is the historic record accurate, or does it reflect the political bias about Nixon from his era? How do you navigate these shoals?
Jeffrey Frank: The challenge is not to start off regarding him as a ‘polarizing’ figure, but rather to try to see him plainly—to let his life and times guide.
Evan Thomas: I worked for The Washington Post for 24 years, and…Nixon was the devil—an evil figure, corrupter of the Constitution, Tricky Dick. That is pretty much the view that has taken hold in the public generally, certainly in the so-called liberal establishment.
The Watergate era record makes Nixon look like a madman. The fuller record is more complex.
His reputation and standing will never escape Watergate, nor should it. But I wanted to humanize him. I tried to look at Nixon from the inside out. To understand his own sense of outsider-ness. To see what it was like, literally, to be Nixon.
“I can’t pretend to know with anything approaching certainty what Nixon was really feeling and thinking. I’m not sure Nixon himself did. He was, as far as I could tell from the record he left, remarkably un-self aware. He brooded constantly—about his enemies—and he felt deep insecurity. But he did not know his own weaknesses, not in a way he could control.
I once asked (Nixon aide) Brent Scowcroft if Nixon could see himself. No, answered Scowcroft, “but sometimes, I think, he took a peek.” That sounds about right to me.

Q: Is there a difference in how the generations of Americans view Nixon?
Jeffrey Frank: I’ve found that the Boomers still pretty much loathe him, although some try to see his better side. The Millennials see him as a cartoon —the Evil President, a little comic, too.

Q: After publication, did you find critics and readers open to your interpretation, or were they bound by their own political viewpoint?
Jeffrey Frank: I wondered whether some would see me as too sympathetic to Nixon, but in fact I think most were pretty open to what I was doing—not to sound pompous but trying to be, ahem, fair and balanced.
Evan Thomas: A mixed or somewhat forgiving picture of Nixon is not going to satisfy the large population of Nixon haters, especially those whose careers have been wrapped up in the view of Nixon as Monster. Since those same people were likely to review my book, I feared I would take my lumps, and I did. But I never had so much fun writing a book.”

Q: What are you hoping to learn from the other members of our panel?
Jeffrey Frank: I’m interested in hearing how the picture of Nixon began to change as other biographers drew closer to him—learning more about him, good and bad. Did he become more a “rounded” figure, and therefore more interesting, or did he simply seem to remain an unwavering partisan, and therefore increasingly tedious? Or a little of both?

John A. Farrell’s single-volume biography of Nixon will be published early next year.

Conference Panel Offers Look at How to Choose Subjects

In the first of several previews of panels offered at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, moderator James Atlas takes a look at some of his panelists’ views on their topic, “Choosing a Subject.”

 

Maybe another way to look at this question is to ask: Do biographers actually choose their subjects at all? Do they have agency over the process of determining how they will spend the next five or ten or—in the famous case of Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ—forty years of their lives as they immerse themselves in a life that will inevitably remain unknown once their labors are done? Or do our subjects choose us? I pose this possibility not in some mystical spirit, but in a practical sense. The subject is there, signaling to the prospective biographer that he is available, if only, as in the case of the dead, in a subliminal sense—the biographer in collusion with his own unconscious.

For Dan Max, the biographer of David Foster Wallace, the chosen subject wasn’t chosen by him, but by his editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, who suggested he write a piece on Wallace for the magazine. “Pretty soon I found myself in the presence of the most amazing, not just writer but mind, that I had ever met,” Max recalls. “Wallace’s speed-of-thought take on the world had me hooked. I fell in love. And one of the first things I learned was that his despair was tightly linked to his wish to be a great writer. Who, as a writer, isn’t drawn to that particular accident site?”

Two words leap out here: I learned. It’s that invigorating experience that motivates us—no, inspires us—to go deeper into our subjects, to unlock their secrets and give a narrative order to their lives. But we have to be open, to recognize opportunity when it’s there. Blake Bailey is now at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth, an assignment he feels lucky to have gotten. As Bailey recounts the genesis of this arrangement, a fellow biographer [the present writer, hereafter known as “I”] happened to mention to him over breakfast at Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side of New York (I strongly recommend the challah French toast) that Roth and his appointed biographer, Ross Miller, had parted ways. Bailey suggested that I would be an ideal candidate for the job, upon which, in Bailey’s fanciful recollection, I “recoiled as if I’d tossed a cobra at his foot.”

If so, it was less out of fear than out of a sense that, as the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I had traversed the territory of the Jewish-American writer, inexhaustibly rich but by now rather familiar; Blake was more versatile, and required only a large canvas. (Among his previous subjects was John Cheever.) “Whereupon, for my part,” he wrote when I asked him about the sequence of events, “I made a mental note to write a letter to PR as soon as I returned to Virginia [he teaches at William & Mary], and the rest is history.”

For Stacy Schiff, as for Max and Bailey, the biographer is less the instigating force than a Ouija board through which the spirit dictates: “It isn’t so much that your subject chooses you as that you express some mild curiosity about her life and she retaliates by infiltrating yours.” Schiff, too, sees the biographer as a passive figure, the empty vessel for a subject—any subject—so charismatic and seductive that he demands to be written about: “A door prize to anyone who can find the connection among my subjects; I can’t, aside from a stubborn unwillingness to repeat myself.” I doubt a prize will be awarded: she has written biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupery; Nabokov’s wife Vera; Ben Franklin and Cleopatra. Her most recent book, The Witches, isn’t a biography at all, but a work of history and sociology.

Biographers face multiple choices when they set out in quest of a new subject. We can choose not to choose; we can go in search of new subjects unlike the ones we’ve written about before; or we can prepare ourselves for “choosing” by going through life in a state of receptivity, until we find the subject that is uniquely ours. This is how writers of all kinds, not just biographers, have always worked. The success rate has been high.

James Atlas is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet and Bellow: A Biography.

Biographers Explore Points of View

By Deirdre David

Whether strolling down St. Marks Place, wrestling with the many lives of Orson Welles, or wondering where Virginia Woolf got her clothes, the biographer must inevitably confront the vexing question of perspective: Where do you stand in relation to your subject, whether it’s a street, a cinematic genius, a brilliant novelist, or indeed yourself? At the Leon Levy Biography Conference, held on March 8 and organized around the theme of “Point of View,” an impressive roster of speakers engaged this question as they discussed their perspective on particular places and particular people.

In the day’s first panel dealing with “Place and Displacement: Looking Homeward,” Ada Calhoun, the author of St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, focused on the street where she grew up and its transformation from a hippie mecca to a weekend gathering place for Asian teenagers. Daniel Menaker, who edited fiction at The New Yorker for many years before becoming editor-in-chief of Random House, discussed his early life in the West Village, a “childhood Eden” shattered by the death of his brother from a staph infection. As he explicated the title of his recently published memoir, My Mistake, Menaker spoke about the connection, as he sees it, between comedy and sadness, about how humor gives us a point of view from which to deal with tragedy. For Margo Jefferson, the place of ambiguous belonging was her Chicago home, where she parsed the line between affiliation with “our people” and her family’s belief they were the “best”. Her point of view shifted as she participated in the “delicate dancing of race,” navigating an imperative never to reveal vulnerability and a pressing responsibility to write about her experience—as she did most recently in Negroland: A Memoir, which just won the National Book Critics Circle prize for memoir.

Patrick McGilligan discussed his latest biography on a panel about Orson Welles.

In the panel “The Lives of Orson Welles,” Patrick McGilligan recalled the time spent researching his book Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane. Reading some eighteen years of the Kenosha News on microfilm rendered a feel for the place where Welles was born and, at six years old, recited Shakespeare. Observing that Welles loved literature throughout his career, writing for radio, stage, and film, McGilligan adopted a literary point of view for assessing his life. In contrast to McGilligan’s exploration of Welles’s early years, Josh Karp (author of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind) asked from what perspective should one (can one?) write about such a protean figure. Was he a closeted homosexual? How important are the boozy friendships with figures such as John Houston? What does it signify that Welles insisted all his leading ladies cut their hair short? David Nasaw, whose books include The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, asked the audience to consider Citizen Kane in terms of Welles’s complicated view of Hearst, and argued that Welles distorted Hearst’s essentially happy life in order to make a sensational biopic. All three panelists agreed that Welles is the prototypical challenging subject for the biographer. Nasaw, in particular, argued that such a massively talented actor, director, and writer can “steal your book” (as he put it): take over your life, appropriate your biographical voice, dislodge your point of view.

Painter Grace Hartigan was one of the five women discussed in “Forgotten Women’s Lives.”

The “Forgotten Women’s Lives” panel focused on five fascinating figures; moderator Annalyn Swan invited the speakers to bring them out of the shadows. Lisa Cohen discussed the three women she depicts in her book All We Know: Three Lives: Esther Murphy, a New York socialite and writer; Mercedes de Acosta, a writer and art collector; and Madge Garland, an Australian fashion editor at British Vogue. Her interest in Madge Garland began when she read Virginia Woolf’s diaries and came across the name as someone whose clothes Woolf wore; learning more about Garland led her to Murphy and Acosta, to lesbian life in Paris in the 1920s, and to the formal challenge of managing a group biography. In discussing her research for Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera evoked her experiences in Mexico, where her outsider point of view aimed to detach Kahlo from her primary identity as the wife of Diego Rivera and to place her in a larger international perspective. Cathy Curtis’s interest in the rich life of the painter Grace Hartigan, which she has traced in Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, began when she was wandering through the abstract expressionist rooms at the Museum of Modern Art and suddenly came across Hartigan’s painting of Shinnecock Canal on Long Island. Her perspective on Hartigan’s life and work began with a desire to retrieve her reputation from the male-dominated art world of the 1940s and ’50s. In contrast to speakers on the earlier panel who had explored the challenge of writing about someone almost preternaturally famous, Cohen, Herrera, and Curtis persuasively argued for writing about unknown or relatively unknown figures; the gratification in such biographical work is giving voice to the formerly unheard.

The afternoon concluded with a conversation between William P. Kelly, the New York Library’s Director of Research Libraries, chairman of the Guggenheim Foundation, and former interim chancellor of CUNY and president of the Graduate Center, and Peter Guralnick, whose most recent book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll, is a finalist for the Plutarch Award. Guralnick’s point of view in exploring Phillips’s life was one of passionate involvement and steady patience. For example, after driving many miles to conduct an interview, he found himself taking notes for almost six hours. In talking about Phillips, Guralnick assumed a voice of admiring commitment, and in one way or another, all the speakers at this year’s Leon Levy Biography Conference gave voice to their subjects: famous figures, unknown women, and, of course, their own biographical selves.

Deirdre David is the author of Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life (U. Penn Press, 2007) and Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (Oxford University Press, 2012). She is currently completing Pamela Hansford Johnson: A Writing Life (under contract to Oxford). Before becoming a biographer, she published several books dealing with Victorian literature and society.

Tomalin Wins 2016 BIO Award

Claire-Tomalin- NEW 2011 - credit Angus Muir

Claire Tomalin (photo by Angus Muir)

Claire Tomalin, winner of multiple prizes for her literary biographies, is the winner of the seventh annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, and Taylor Branch.

Tomalin will receive the honor during the 2016 BIO Conference on June 4 at the Richmond Marriott Downtown in Richmond, Virginia, where she will deliver the keynote address. Tomalin first worked in publishing and journalism before turning to writing biography. In 1974, she published The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, which won the Whitbread First Book Prize. Her subjects have included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy. Her 1991 book The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, won the NCR, Hawthornden, and James Tait Black prizes, and she also won several awards for her 2002 biography of Samuel Pepys, including the Whitbread Biography and Book of the Year prizes. Writing about her latest book,Charles Dickens: A Life (2011), the Guardian called it “flawless in its historical detail” and noted, “What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.”

Tomalin has honorary doctorates from Cambridge and many other universities, has served on the Committee of the London Library, is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and is a vice president of the Royal Literary Fund, the Royal Society of Literature, and English PEN.

 

Plutarch Award Nominees Announced

A distinguished panel of judges made up of members of Biographers International Organization (BIO) has selected ten nominees for the 2015 Plutarch Award. The Plutarch is the only international literary award presented to biography, by biographers.

Following the announcement of the ten nominees, BIO’s Plutarch Committee will next narrow the list to four finalists. BIO members around the world will vote for the winning biography from among these four distinguished books, honoring a writer who has achieved distinction in the art of biography.

This year’s ten nominees, in alphabetical order by title, are:

  • Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
  • Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
  • Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne Heller (New Harvest)
  • Irrepressible: A Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage, by Betty Boyd Caroli (Simon & Schuster)
  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961,
       by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis (Oxford)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva,
        by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

BIO first presented the Plutarch Award in 2013. Previous winners, in chronological order, are:

  • Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
  • Linda Leavell, Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

You can find more information about the award and past nominees here.

The BIO Plutarch Award Committee members for 2016 are:

James Atlas
Douglas Brinkley, Chair
Catherine Clinton
Deirdre A. David
John Aloysius Farrell
Carla Kaplan
Eve LaPlante
J.W. Renders
Will Swift    

The winning biography will be announced at the 7th Annual BIO Conference on Saturday, June 4, in Richmond, Virginia.

Writing a Biography about a Subject Who Left Few Records of His Own

Pamela Newkirk

Newkirk’s 2000 book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism.

At the beginning of the last century, Ota Benga, a Congolese member of the Mbuti people known for their diminutive height, was brought to the United States and exhibited to Americans including, for a while, at the Bronx Zoo. Author Pamela Newkirk has published an account of Benga’s life and his horrific ordeal. Her book is calledSpectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. “Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground,” said the New York Times Book Review. “Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”

(Editor’s note: Morris and Newkirk shared the same editor at Amistad/HarperCollins.)

How does one write a biographical work of someone who left no written records, well, actually almost no self-generated records?
When writing about marginalized people you often have to turn to the papers of powerful people in their lives. I first learned this when working on my epistolary collections. The letters of enslaved African Americans were found with the papers of their masters or government officials who they appealed to. In the case of Ota Benga, letters written by those who had captured or held him in captivity revealed what was going on daily behind the scenes. There were hundreds of letters that offered uncensored snapshots of him. In addition, dozens of newspapers provided first-person accounts of his daily exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair and the zoo, and also of his life once he was released. I then found him in census and ship passenger records, in an anthropologist’s field notes while in the Congo, unpublished and published accounts by those who knew him, institutional catalogues and bulletins, photographs, etc. I was able to use teams of documents to piece together his journey from the Congo, through Europe, and across the United States.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in reconstructing Ota Benga’s life?
The biggest challenge was overcoming the absence of his voice. His voice was captured in a handful of accounts, so that’s all I had to work with. However, I was able to highlight his actions that, at times, spoke louder than words. It was clear that he resisted his captivity at the zoo and that he suffered both there and on the fairgrounds in St. Louis where he was taunted, attacked, and displayed, while barely clad, on the frigid fairgrounds. As human beings, we can imagine his humiliation and degradation.

In a sense, he isn’t the story, rather our treatment of him is the tale. Am I right? If so, how did that guide your writing?
In a sense, he was a mirror of us—of society—at the dawn of the twentieth century. Our humanity and his were inextricably linked and as his was diminished, so too was ours. But we can also take heart in the fact that a handful of people defied the conventions of the time and protested the exhibition at the zoo. In them, we can find our humanity.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
So many distortions, half-truths, and outright deception had shrouded the truth of Ota Benga’s story. A hundred years later, the man who most exploited him was, in many accounts, depicted as his friend and savior. I wanted to correct the historical record and, in the process, reassert Ota Benga’s soaring humanity. He was so much more than “the man in the monkey house,” as he had been widely characterized. He was a sensitive, intelligent, and beloved person who had suffered a horrific injustice. But that experience alone did not define him.

Lee’s Biography of Penelope Fitzgerald Wins Plutarch Award

Among Lee's other books is Biography: A Very Short Introduction.

Among Lee’s other books is Biography: A Very Short Introduction.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee won the Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014, as selected by members of Biographers International Organization. The winning book was announced at the Sixth Annual BIO Conference in Washington, DC.

I am absolutely delighted to have been awarded this prize, especially when I look at the competition! said Dame Hermione Lee when she heard the news. President of Wolfson College, Oxford, England, Lee was not present at the announcement of the winner.
The three Plutarch finalists were:
  • The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria by Helen Rappaport
  • The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by Nigel Hamilton
  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr

Named after the ancient Greek biographer, the prize is the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, in that BIO members chose the winner by secret ballot from nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft. This year marked the third time BIO bestowed the award. Previous winners were Linda Leavell for Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore and Robert Caro for The Passage of Power.

Taylor Branch: 2015 BIO Award Winner

By James McGrath Morris

 Branch's most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.


Branch’s most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.

Had it not been for the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch would have become a surgeon and the movement would have been deprived of one of its most important chroniclers.

For his work in producing a three-volume biographically based narrative history of the civil rights movement, Branch received the BIO Award on June 6 at the Biographers International Conference. He was the sixth writer to be so honored since the first gathering, originally called the Compleat Biographer Conference. Previous winners are Jean Strouse, Arnold Rampersad, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, and Stacy Schiff.

Growing up white in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, Branch aspired to become a surgeon. But his father’s close relationship with an African American and the inescapable presence of the civil rights movement in the hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., resonating in Branch’s words in “spiritual values,” replaced that life plan with another. “I wrote the civil rights triology because I wanted to know myself where the movement came from that changed the direction of my life’s interest against my will.”

To do his trilogy of books, collectively called America in the King Years, Branch told readers in the first volume that he had chosen to structure his work as “narrative biographical history.”

While he was working on it, Branch came to the conclusion that most people approach race abstractly. “Everything I learned was very personal,” he said. “I resolved to write in a narrative style if I could, without using analytical labels because where people are so skittish, defensive, and assertive on the race topic, analytical tools and labels conceal more than they reveal.”

In short, Branch said, “I chose to base it in the people because ‘the people’ is what broke down my own emotional resistance as a white southerner.”

Aside from earning Branch a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2,912-page trilogy has become one of the standard works on the civil rights movement. Unlike biographies of the movement’s figures and histories of the movement, however, Branch’s America in the King Years employs the tools of biography to tell the larger story.

This achievement was the motivation behind Branch’s selection by the BIO Award Committee. When considering who would be honored at this year’s gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, the committee was guided, as in past years, by the goal of selecting a writer who had advanced the art and craft of biography.

When Branch learned he had been selected for the 2015 BIO Award, he said he felt a bit uncomfortable because he didn’t define his work as biographical. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was fraudulently trespassing on their turf,” he said. “I think we are certainly kinsmen trying to put people at the center of historical interpretation, whether you do that through one person or a collection of characters.

“The tools of a biographer are very, very important. That’s why I am happy and honored to bring myself as a semi-biographer down there,” said the Baltimore-based author.

(In July, the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft will feature highlights of Branch’s keynote speech at the sixth annual BIO conference.)