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.
Biographers International Organization will present its third annual Editorial Excellence Award to the legendary editor Nan A. Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of her own imprint, Nan A. Talese Books at Doubleday, at an evening reception on October 5 in New York City.
In the course of fifty years, Nan Talese has edited and published some of the most distinguished biographiess and nonfiction works of our time, including A. Alvarez’s enduring classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide; Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List; Phyllis Rose’s Josephine Baker in Her Time; François Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso; Benita Eisler’s O’Keeffe and Stieglitz; Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette; many books by Peter Ackroyd, including The Life of Thomas More, Shakespeare, Chaucer, J. M. W. Turner, Newton, Poe, Chaplin, and London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets; and Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg and the forthcoming Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, among many others. We spoke with Nan briefly about the experience of editing biography and what she looks for when considering the acquisition of a book.
TBC: Can you provide us with a telling example of how working actively with an author improved one of the biographies you published?
Talese: The best example may be the first biography I edited, A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966). The author and I sat together with the manuscript. I pointed out scenes that seemed less interesting than other scenes or that did not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character of Hemingway. I asked him questions: “What is going on there? What do you want to convey?” and he answered and I would say, “Put that in!” We ended by cutting one fifth of the manuscript and adding another one fifth in.
TBC: What do you look for in a proposal or a manuscript?
Talese: The first thing I consider is whether the subject is well known and well respected, and what the crucial scenes were in his or her life. What caused a subject to change his mind or direction? Then I look for whether the author has a gift for storytelling and whether the writer’s voice transfers his or her passion to the reader and the page. I look for the ability to tell a powerful story while being very careful to stay within the facts.
TBC: What are editors looking for today?
Talese: Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in pop stars and in celebrities of all kinds. This is cyclical, and—if fifty years of editing is any guide—this interest will go and come again.
If you will be in or near New York on October 5, do consider joining Nan and a number of the biographers she has published for an evening of lively conversation. The event takes place at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.
Buy tickets here.
As is often the case, biographies of literary figures and political leaders fill the list of titles most likely to receive media attention in the coming months, and several BIO members have books coming out that critics have already reviewed positively or are awaiting with anticipation.
We’re highlighting here some of the biographies already generating a buzz—because of their subject, their author, or both—as featured in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Amazon. You can see a longer list of upcoming biographies here.
TBC does its best to learn about new books, and our monthly In Stores feature will include even more fall and winter titles. Should we have missed any members’ upcoming releases, please let us know so we can add them to the list on the website. And keep in mind that publishing dates change, so some books may come out earlier or later than indicated here.
The list of eagerly waited literary biographies is bookended with works from two members: Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life in September and Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, out in February. During the rest of the fall season, other notable literary biographies include Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade, an October release; Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship, due out in December; and two January titles, In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary and Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs. Also out in February will be Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.
Turning to subjects known for other artistic endeavors, BIO member Brian Jay Jones tops the list with his George Lucas: A Life, which will be released in December. The other biographies of musicians, filmmakers, and artists drawing attention include Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff, and Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap by Ben Westhoff, both out this month; Peter Ackroyd’s Alfred Hitchcock and Franny Moyle’s Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner, both October releases; Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand in December; and Molly Haskell’s Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, which is slated for January.
Political and military figures featured in upcoming biographies include several U.S. presidents, British leaders, and at least one spy. The Roosevelts once again seem to dominate the political listings, with these titles among the many coming out over the next few months: His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt by Joseph Lelyveld and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, both out in September; Blanche Wiesen Cook’s third volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, The War Years and After, 1939–1962, out in October; and The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann, scheduled for January.
Addressing British politics and government, Julia Baird has Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire out in November, while the next month Penguin’s Monarch series will release William I: England’s Conqueror by Marc Morris.
Other notable biographies in the politics and military category include Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press by Richard Kluger and the first volume of a new biography of Adolf Hitler by Volker Ullrich, both out in September. Also coming this month is Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton by Joe Conason, and former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Charles Gates Dawes gets his first major biography, courtesy of member Annette B. Dunlap. In October, the struggles of a president and a general fill H.W. Brands’s new book, The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. That month, two members have releases with military or espionage themes: Andrew Lownie with the U.S. publication of Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring; and William C. Davis with Inventing Loreta Velasquez, the story of a woman who claimed to have fought as a male Confederate soldier but was actually a con artist.
Biographical subjects from the worlds of business and academia appear in several of the season’s books. The September titles include A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success by Tracy Kidder, and BIO member Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacob. Lisa Napoli, another member, will publish Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away in November.
Finally, turning away from the tumult of politics, war, and business, several subjects with a more spiritual bent will also be part of the coming season. In February comes Albert Schweitzer: A Biography by Nils Ole Oermann, and Yale University Press adds to its Jewish Lives series in November with Moses: A Human Life by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.
Biographers International Organization is currently in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status with the IRS so it can solicit tax-deductible contributions from individuals and institutions, and apply for grants. In the meantime, the BIO board has entered into an agreement with Virginia Organizing, a tax-exempt organization that partners with a wide range of non-profit organizations. BIO members can make out checks to Virginia Organizing or donate at its website and designate contributions to BIO that will be tax deductible. BIO members will receive an email after Labor Day with instructions on how to donate this way.
The Leon Levy Center for Biography, part of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), is seeking an executive director who will also have the title of distinguished lecturer. In announcing the job opening, CUNY said the preferred candidate “will be a renowned biographer who can serve as an articulate spokesperson for the Leon Levy Center for Biography and for the genre of biography and can solidify The Graduate Center’s reputation as the pre-eminent institution devoted to the study and promotion of biography. The director will be a practitioner who has thoughtfully considered issues in biographical writing and the place of biography in the academy and in contemporary literary culture.” The search committee for the position, led by David Nasaw, will begin reviewing resumes on August 10 and plans to conduct interview during September. For more information and to apply, go here.
On June 1, new BIO President Will Swift and Vice President Deirdre David began their two-year terms. Joining them as officers are Marc Leepson, who is returning as treasurer, and Dean King as secretary. You can read more about the current and outgoing board members 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.