Read highlights of the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, held in Richmond, Virginia, on June 3-5, here.
In collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Oxford, housed at Wolfson College and directed by Professor Dame Hermione Lee, Biography International Organization (BIO) is hosting Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography. The colloquium is 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 5. Lee will deliver the afternoon’s keynote address, and distinguished American biographer Carla Kaplan will give lecture the previous evening at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London.
Click here for more information and to register.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Detailed conference information is available here.
BIO’s Conference Site Committee and Conference Planning Committee are happy to report that the 2016 BIO Conference will be held in Richmond, Virginia, on June 3–5. “We’re thrilled to be coming to downtown Richmond, one of the most historic, vibrant, and culturally happening cities in the nation.” BIO President Brian Jay Jones said. “And the folks in Richmond are even more thrilled to have us.”
Working closely with Richmond Region Tourism’s Convention Services Department, the Site Committee chose the first-class business hotel, the Richmond Marriott, for Saturday’s conference events. The conference begins on Saturday morning with the plenary session and breakfast, followed by the conference panels and other events, and ends with the reception and the announcement of the Plutarch Award winner.. The day includes a luncheon featuring the keynote address by the 2016 BIO Award winner (stay tuned).
The Friday evening reception will take place at the Library of Virginia on Broad Street, just three blocks from the Marriott—and a stone’s throw from the Thomas Jefferson-designed (and recently renovated) Virginia State Capitol. The Library of Virginia is a state-of-the-art facility built in 1997 that houses 400 years of Virginia history—a combination of Virginia’s Library of Congress and National Archives. The LVA Special Collections Department is planning to display some of the library’s treasures at the Friday night reception.
On Friday afternoon, conference attendees may take part in three specially designed archival tours: at the Library of Virginia; at the historic and beautiful Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of two American presidents, six Virginia governors, two Supreme Court justices, and twenty-two Confederate generals; and the newly renovated and expanded Virginia Historical Society, the fourth-oldest state historical society with an extensive collection of materials of interest to biographers.
New this year: A Sunday late-morning Biography Fest brunch at Richmond’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery not far from downtown. On tap—aside from award-winning craft beers—will be short presentations by BIO members with books in print and a book-signing hosted by a Richmond independent bookseller. The Biography Fest will be free and open to the public.
Richmond, which is about a two-hour drive south of Washington, DC, and within a day’s drive of half the US population, is easy to get to by plane, train, bus, or car. Richmond International Airport, only fifteen minutes from downtown, offers nearly two dozen non-stop domestic flights from seven major airlines. Richmond’s Amtrak station and the Greyhound/Trailways station are both located downtown.
Excellent and eclectic restaurants abound in and around downtown Richmond. For a rundown on some of the newest, go to this recent article in Bon Appetit. In addition, BIO’s Dean King, who lives in Richmond, wrote an informative article on the city.
BIO members will find two terrific independent bookstores close to downtown:Fountain Bookstore in the Shockoe Slip Historic District, and Chop Suey Books (which will co-host the Sunday Biography Fest) in Carytown adjacent to Richmond’s Museum District, which features the world-class Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“I would strongly suggest that folks take advantage of the great conference room rate at the Marriott, just $139 a night for a single or double, and come to town early to take in the history and culture in Richmond, as well as the Friday BIO tours and reception,” Jones said. He added that the Site Committee is working with several other top Richmond hotels on special rates for BIO conference attendees.
After the Planning Committee nails down the panels, panelists, speakers, and special guests, we’ll provide a run down in coming months’ The Biographer’s Craft.
Marc Leepson is BIO’s treasurer. His most recent book was What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life.
By Dona Munker
Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography? According to the attendees of an all-day conference on October 2 at the City of New York Graduate Center the answer was, “Any life has the potential to be a biography.” The event celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, an ongoing independent discussion group of about seventy women journalists, independent writers, and academic scholars.
The WWWL website says the seminar’s official mission is finding “new ways of looking at and presenting women’s stories” and, ultimately, to influence the way those stories are written. Keynote speaker and co-founder Deirdre Bair recalled that the group came into existence almost by accident. In October 1990, Bair, who had just published a landmark study of Simone de Beauvoir, and the late Carolyn Heilbrun, who was working on a biography of Gloria Steinem, invited a small number of feminist biographers to meet informally to talk about their projects. But instead of the ten or twelve friends they had invited, more than fifty people showed up. Stunned, the two organizers listened as one woman after another poured out her concerns about the obstacles involved in researching and writing the lives of women—including the need to find “the courage to think that women’s lives, on their own and without any attachment to men, were important and interesting enough to deserve being put into print.”
Changing Attitudes, Persistent Problems
Before the 1970s, publishers showed scant interest in serious biographies of women, unless the women were queens, female entertainers, or recognizable public or literary figures, such as Helen Keller or Emily Dickinson. By and large, it was felt that women who were not already well known belonged in the biographical limelight only as wives, mistresses, or muses of “great men.”
As the impact of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s made itself felt, however, that situation slowly began to change, and in the decades that followed, market-conscious publishers recognized that there was an audience for books about little-known women who overcame obstacles and achieved remarkable things in their own right.
Biographers of women nevertheless face hurdles that biographers of male subjects are less likely to encounter. Carla Peterson, a historian who has written about the men and women of her prominent nineteenth-century New York African-American family, had to contend with the fact that women, far more often than men, have left little or no trace on the historical record because of their traditional reluctance to expose themselves, either by word or by deed, to public scrutiny.
A self-imposed silence can also be produced by a sense of educational inadequacy—even when the subject has led a exceptionally public life. Sallie Bingham began looking into the life of tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke and found that Duke, who was raised to be a fin-de-siècle socialite, considered herself so ignorant that she refused to write letters, forcing Bingham to reconstruct her personality from correspondence written to her rather than by her.
Women can also vanish into the historic ether when family members or heirs, either out of embarrassment or a conviction that their grandmother’s letters are of no interest or value to posterity, lose, discard, or sell off papers left by female relatives. Betty Boyd Caroli, whose biography of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson was published last month, found herself forced to “work by hunches” about Lady Bird’s connection with her mother because of what she described as an “almost utter absence of information” about this critical relationship in her subject’s life. Still, sometimes a biographer gets lucky. Ruth Franklin, who is working on a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson, rescued a box of her subject’s letters from an old filing cabinet just before the cabinet was to be auctioned off in the estate sale.
Even when a woman’s papers end up in an archival collection that bears her name, they may remain uncatalogued, rendering them effectively useless to researchers. Furthermore, if the collection is named for a male relative, a woman subject’s documents may be subsumed to his and effectively “lost.” Franklin, for instance, discovered that many of Shirley Jackson’s letters had been catalogued under the name of her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, making them difficult to find.
Extending Biography’s Reach
The famous phrase “The personal is political” has its counterpart in feminist biography, where it is a given that the private and the public are inseparably connected. This emphasis on private lives and personal relationships has extended contemporary biographers’ ability to explore the complex interworkings of individuals, both with each other and with society. As an example, Diane Jacobs pointed out that her most recent book, Dear Abigail, a study of Abigail Adams and her two sisters, depicts “a private nation,” adding the personal to the political. “I didn’t want to write just another biography of John Adams,” she explained, noting that the psychological and social issues that emerge in the book—the nature of sisterhood, the meaning of women’s friendships in a male-dominated society—would not have emerged from a traditional biography of a man.
Do publishers still care if no one has heard of the subject? Well, yes. Even so, both Bair and Alix Kates Shulman agreed that the last twenty-five years have seen a significant shift of attitude toward women—and men—subjects who aren’t household names. “The subject,” said Shulman, a novelist as well as a biographer, “now counts less than the quality of the writing.” Bair said that by holding the biographer to a high standard of both writing and scholarship, feminist biography has succeeded in showing “that any life is an appropriate subject for exploration in the genres of biography, history, and memoir.”
It has also raised the bar for biographers as narrators. Nowadays, as Bair noted, “the biographer has to be able to write a page-turner and yet refuse to relinquish truth and authenticity.” Given the obstaclces to unearthing and depicting the complexities of women’s experience, that task can sometimes seem daunting. Nevertheless, said Bair, “We have an obligation to find the answers to our questions, and to never stop trying to find ‘the truth.’”
A video of the panel discussions will be available soon; the link will be posted on the Women Writing Women’s Lives Website and in a future issue of TBC.
Dona Munker is the writer and coauthor of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is working on a book about Sara Bard Field, a twentieth-century suffragist, poet, and “free-lover.” Her reflections, as well as an expanded version of this article, are available on her blog, “Stalking the Elephant.”