2018 BIO Conference Panel – Writing Multiple Lives

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives, said she discovered that through a group biography she could dramatize her initial subject and anchor her in a community, a social circle. What tied together her three subjects—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—was that they “were women who knew everybody” and their sexuality.

“I didn’t set out to write collective biography,” Carla Kaplan said when she started work on Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. From her earlier biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Kaplan knew that many white women had connections to Hurston and others in the renaissance. As Kaplan delved deeper into the relationships those women had with Hurston and each other, she found “extraordinary dead ends” on how to approach writing about a single white woman in that time, in that place. Finally, Kaplan decided, “I am going to have to write that book to read that book” on the complexities of the relationships of the “Miss Annes”—a collective nickname—of being hostesses, philanthropists, snubbers of convention, and more.

Likewise, Justin Spring in The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy had to work through “any number of false starts” to settle on how to proceed to write about six very different writers, who “were very much like the Americans of the ‘Lost Generation,’” in another era of “enormous American cultural ferment:” Paris after World War II.

Interesting as the six were as individuals, Spring said, “these people were not coming together” as a possible group biography until he found a key in Alice B. Toklas’s second book on cooking, and their shared love of French cuisine. Among the subjects in The Gourmand’s Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.

The challenges in writing a group biography are many, the panelists agreed. “Having to turn over every single piece of paper” as a biographer would do with a single subject, Kaplan said, “is six times as much work.” Making matters more difficult, she found “these women’s papers were not archived in their names,” meaning she had to look under names of relatives or husbands to find letters, journals, diaries, and other writings. This hunt occurred after she had narrowed the research from 60 names to six to pursue. She said the finished work ended with three larger biographies and three shorter ones, “a balanced unevenness.”

What Kaplan found was that the women were “essentially volunteers for blackness” during the Harlem Renaissance and “were not considered important enough” to have their letters and other writings collected and archived.

Kaplan also discovered “these women were not fond of each other,” often to the point of not speaking to each other when in the same room, and were further divided by age.

Because Spring’s book centered on Americans in Paris, the research was “very expensive” and proved to be “far and above” what had been budgeted. He was gathering material that to him became “like writing a biography of a whole subway car.” Spring later compared a group biography to writing a symphony instead of a sonata.

Spring laughingly added, “It’s always good to have a secondary source of income.”

Not having to worry about another income, because she was employed, Cohen thought that because she was approaching a “taboo subject”—lesbianism—“I will never find enough evidence” to produce the book. To her surprise, she found “a glut”; but, as Kaplan experienced, there were the frustrations of having to track down materials not archived under subjects’ names. She said she was guided by luck, persistence, and other’s knowledge—librarians in special collections, archivists in research institutions.

In the writing, Spring said he decided to keep the subjects separate. “I wanted my reader to go to Paris and stay there” and take in “the small-town nature of the Left Bank.”

Cohen said in her writing she “wanted a triptych” and “thinking about structure was key.” For the reader, she explained, “I wanted people to be really in those lives,” and she kept the subjects relatively separate to give each her due. Cohen added, “It was really important to quote their detractors” in the book. It was a reaffirmation of “yes, they were human beings” with faults.

The session was moderated by Linda Leavell, who is currently working on her own group biography of the Stieglitz circle.

—John Grady