The BIO Award

Each year, Biographers International Organization presents its highest honor to an individual for contributions to advancing the art and craft of biography. Each honoree is presented with a bronze plaque and a cash prize.

2020

Herminone Lee

One of the leading literary scholars and critics of our time, Dame Hermione Lee is best known for her Virginia Woolf (1996), widely considered the definitive biography of that author. The book won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize.

Comfortable with literature from both sides of the Atlantic, Lee has written biographies of two American novelists, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, and also a critical study of Philip Roth. In addition, she has written a biography of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen and, most recently, of the British novelist, poet, essayist, and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life was the winner of the 2013 James Tait Black Prize and BIO’s 2015 Plutarch Award.

Lee has written extensively on the art and craft of what she calls “life-writing,” most notably in her books Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography (2005) and Biography: A Very Short Introduction (2009). She is a fine critical reviewer and judge of biographies, and her reviews have appeared regularly in The Guardian and The New York Review of Books, among many other publications. She was chair of the judges for the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2006 and has judged many other literary prizes throughout her career. In her work as a scholar of literature, she has edited and introduced numerous editions and anthologies of works by major English and American writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Hermione Lee has worked hard to raise the academic perception of biography. As president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she founded the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, in 2011. Nearly 10 years later, the Centre has become a busy hub of activities relating to many kinds of life-writing and interdisciplinary inquiry. Through its sponsorship of talks, lectures, performances, panel discussions, conferences, seminars, and workshops the Centre has helped raise public awareness about various forms of life-writing. It also fosters biographical research through postdoctoral research fellowships, postgraduate scholarships, visiting scholarships, and visiting doctoral studentships.

Lee’s honors are almost too many to list. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2003 for services to literature, and in 2013 was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), also for services to literary scholarship.

2019

James McGrath Morris

BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris, a writer, a teacher, and a mentor to other biographers, is the winner of the 10th 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, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, Candice Millard, and Richard Holmes. Morris will receive the honor on May 18, at the 2019 BIO Conference at the Graduate City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.

Morris told The Biographer’s Craft that he first fell in love with biography as a child reading newspaper obituaries. In fact, he said, his steady diet of them became an important part of his education in history. In 2005, after a career as a journalist, editor, book publisher, and school teacher, Morris began writing books full time.

Among his works are Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind BarsThe Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism; Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power;Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press (awarded the 2015 Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize for the best work in civil rights history); and The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. He is also the author of two Amazon Kindle Singles: The Radio Operator and Murder by Revolution.

He taught literary journalism at Texas A&M in 2016, and has also conducted writing workshops at various colleges, universities, and conferences. Morris is currently working on a biography of Tony Hillerman, the late author of ground-breaking mysteries set in the Navajo Nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

2018

Richard Holmes

Photo: Stuart Clarke

British author Richard Holmes, beloved for his biographies and memoirs about writing biography, is the winner of the ninth annual BIO Award.

Holmes’s The Age of Wonder was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has written many other books, including Falling Upwards, an uplifting account of the pioneering generation of balloon aeronauts, and the classic Footsteps. Its companion volumes, Sidetracks and This Long Pursuit, complete a trilogy that explores the Romantic movement biographer at work. Holmes’s first biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Prize; Coleridge: Early Visions won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; Coleridge: Darker Reflections won the Duff Cooper and Heinemann Awards; and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage won the James Tait Black Prize.

Holmes holds honorary doctorates from the universities of East Anglia, East London, and Kingston, and was professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia from 2001 to 2007. He is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1992. He lives in London and Norfolk, with the novelist Rose Tremain. TBC will have an interview with Holmes in an upcoming issue.

2017

Candice Millard

In Candice Millard’s bestselling books, the breadth and depth of her research are matched by her gift for creating fast-paced narratives that bring events in distant eras to vivid life. Millard’s first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005), was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Book Sense Pick, won the William Rockhill Nelson Award, and was a finalist for the Quill Awards. Her second book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President (2011), won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, the PEN Center USA award for Research Nonfiction, and the One Book – One Lincoln Award, among other honors. Millard’s most recent book, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill (2016), was chosen as a top ten critics pick by the New York Times. Millard’s work has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review,Washington Post Book World, National Geographic, and Time magazine. 

2016

Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin, winner of multiple prizes for her literary biographies, 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.

2015

Taylor Branch

Taylor Branch is best known for his best-selling, magisterial trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement and America in the 1950s and 1960s. In these three volumes, Branch showed, as he wrote in his introduction, that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” His vivid portrait of King’s rise to greatness humanizes the man and allows the reader to understand his era by portraying what it was like to live through it. His three-volume work has been compared to Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln and Robert Caro’s multivolume life of Lyndon Johnson.  Branch is also the author of a novel, The Empire Blues (1981), and was the ghostwriter of John Dean’s memoir Blind Ambition (1976). He also is well known for his innovative eight-year oral history project with a sitting president—The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009).

2014

Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Institut Français d’Amérique. Her most recent book, Cleopatra: A Life, appeared on most year-end best books lists, including the New York Times’s Top Ten Books of 2010, and won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography.  A fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, she was the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named a 2011 Library Lion of the New York Public Library. Little, Brown published her bestselling book, The Witches, in 2015.

2013

Ron Chernow

Known for his biographies of historic American business, financial, and political leaders, Ron Chernow was the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2011 American History Prize for Washington: A Life. HisThe House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance won the National Book Award, and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Alexander Hamilton were both finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Chernow is also the recipient of five honorary doctorates and the former president of PEN American Center. He served as a consultant on the successful Broadway musical Hamilton, which was based on his 2004 biography. He is currently working on a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

2012

Arnold Rampersad

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

A biograper and literary critic, Arnold Rampersad is the noted biographer of several prominent African Americans. His two-volume work Life of Langston Hughes was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize, and his biography on Ralph Ellison was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. Subjects of his other books include Jackie Robinson and W.E.B. DuBois, and he has also edited collections of writings by Hughes and Richard Wright. Rampersad received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. He currently teaches at Stanford University.

2011

Robert Caro

Caro published The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of his study of Lyndon Johnson, in 2012 to universal acclaim. Caro’s work on LBJ, along with his study of Robert Moses, had already earned him two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography, two National Book Critics Awards for nonfiction, a National Book Award, and a slew of other honors and prizes. In 2010 he received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. Caro is at work on the fifth volume of his Johnson series.

2010

Jean Strouse

Currently the director of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, Strouse is best known as the author of Alice James: A Biography, which won the 1980 Bancroft Prize and Morgan: American Financier. That study of the life of J. P. Morgan won acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the man and its lucid explanation of his financial work. Strouse has written essays and reviews forThe New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and Newsweek, among others. She is also a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.