Remembering Anne Heller
At its best BIO has been compared to a family. An interconnected group of biographers devoted to a common task: telling the life stories of famous—and unduly forgotten—men and women. More experienced members share their wisdom with the others. The nature of the work creates strong bonds because the work is based on no less than the human condition: Why do people do what they do?
If all that is true, most of the time, with the death last week of Anne Heller the BIO family lost one of its parents. Rigorous but gentle. A zen-like serenity with a prickly impatience. What Kitty Kelley has called her “mesmerizing voice”: soft, gentle, but peremptory when it needed to be. Quick with the sincere compliment for a job well done. An ideal parent.
When our founding parent, Jamie McGrath Morris, heard of Anne’s death a singular moment came to mind. “Years ago, Anne got mad at me about some now long-forgotten issue. What she didn’t know was that at the other end of the telephone line I was smiling. Anne’s anger—quickly followed with an apology—let me know that BIO was going to make it. Her willingness to express her wrath with me proved BIO had grown from an idea that I hatched in 2008 to an established organization run by its members. Anne’s ceaseless efforts to make BIO a reality and, yes, her willingness to raise her voice with me is why we owe such a debt of gratitude to her.”
As BIO matured and grew, Anne kept track, every step of the way. Linda Leavell, BIO’s current president, picks up where Jamie left off: “Few people have done more for BIO than Anne Heller,” Linda wrote. “She served three terms on the Board of Directors and has served on virtually every BIO committee. She won the 2017 Ray A. Shepard Service Award and co-chaired the Program Committee, her particular love, for the past three years. Many people said that the program for this year’s 2022 conference was the best ever.”
In 2018, BIO finally gained a long-sought goal: a base in New York City for the annual BIO Conference—The Leon Levy Center for Biography. Anne cemented that connection as Program Committee co-chair, bringing in the many editors, publishers, authors, and agents based in or near the city. The membership could be better served by these New York-centric connections, and the conference—pandemic notwithstanding—grew and prospered apace, as a unique source for biographers around the world.
“We’ve lost a charismatic advocate for the cause of biography,” said Kai Bird, the executive director of the Leon Levy Center. “Anne was indefatigable, smart, but relentless in her pursuit of her craft. She also had that rare emotional intelligence so valuable for someone everyone wanted to chair a committee. She knew how to herd the cats with a deft calmness. It was always a pleasure attending a meeting with her.”
Anne often appeared so calm in the midst of the inevitable conference snafus that at the BIO Conference at Boston’s Emerson College someone asked her if she was a Zen Buddhist. She laughed but didn’t answer.
Anne also often hosted what we called “The Gotham Group,” a monthly evening gathering of about 10 biographers from New York (and one Virginia). In her beautiful apartment on Fifth, and later on Park, she graciously welcomed us in to share news and talk shop. “During our decade together,” writes Justin Martin, “I also appreciated her enviable knowledge of literature, wit, fiercely held opinions, the breadth of her interests, her enthusiasm. Anne was an original. She is missed.”
Anne’s leadership is only half of her story. Holly Van Leuven, the editor of TBC, which you are now reading, asked me to be sure to include in this obituary Anne’s “own attentions to the craft of biography” and to make it a “tribute to an amazing craftswoman.”
“I first saw and knew of Anne,” Holly writes, “through her panel at the 2012 BIO Conference in Los Angeles, and I still remember her ‘How to Write Beautiful Biography’ presentation. She was such a fine artist in biography and so generous in sharing her wisdom.” Two years later, Holly would be the first winner of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize, for her proposal for a biography of Ray Bolger, which was published in 2019. One example of Anne’s “incalculably diffusive” effect on her fellow biographers.
It’s no surprise that Anne’s own two trade biographies were of formidable women: Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times. Doing justice to their lives required a rigorous, multi-level intelligence and a certain fearlessness. “Lucid and accessible” was a critic’s description of the Arendt biography. Published as one of James Atlas’s Penguin Lives series of short biographies, it encapsulated Arendt’s life in 144 pages, a feat in itself. The New York Times found that Anne’s telling of Rand’s life was “far more interesting than anything in Rand’s novels. That is because Heller is dealing with a human being, and one with more than her share of human failings and contradictions—‘gallant, driven, brilliant, brash, cruel . . . and ultimately self-destructive,’ as Heller puts it.”
This brew of motive, act, and consequence that forms the complex flow of a person’s life was a source of endless fascination for Anne whether it was for the subject of a biography or for a close friend sitting across the table from her in an Upper East Side coffee shop.
When Anne asked me, on the telephone, in 2019, if I would co-chair the 2022 BIO Program Committee with her, I said yes immediately, only because it was Anne who was asking. A few months later, before Christmas, she called to tell me the cancer diagnosis. It was a rare privilege to work with her going forward through her early treatments, expecting that at any moment she would no longer be able to carry her share. That never happened. She finished the job, a professional to the end.
She called me after the BIO Board meeting, which met in late May, to assess the 2022 BIO Conference. The sound of her voice—exuberant, happy—telling me how pleased the board and attendees were with the conference was a tonic. It meant everything to her that the BIO Conference program was smart, topical, and attuned to the hidden figures waiting to have their stories told. The craft had to keep up with the edge of the times.
One of the last times I spoke with her, I asked what she was reading. “Trollope,” she said. I asked which title I should read so we could share it. Phineas Finn, she said. I read it, loved it, ripped apart the old Penguin paperback to take the half I hadn’t read to Sicily and, at her suggestion when I got back, continued with Phineas Redux. Then, the connection stopped. I kept calling and emailing, not wanting to be intrusive.
When Linda called me on the telephone to give me the news of Anne’s death, I so appreciated the call. It was personal. Family. Anne would have recognized the gesture because she would have done the same thing.
I, like many others, am left with an ache to see her again. There was so much—life, death, love, ambition, regrets—to be discussed and shared with empathy and incisive understanding. And humor. I loved her laugh, and I loved her.
Kate Buford is the author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Knopf, 2010).