Jennifer Homans’s Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century wins the 2023 BIO Plutarch Award

Jennifer Homans’s Mr. B: George Balanchines 20th Century(Random House) is the winner of BIO’s 2023 Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2022. The Plutarch is the only international prize of its kind. Named after the famous Greek writer, the Plutarch is awarded to the best biography of the year by a committee of five distinguished biographers, and this prestigious prize comes with a $2,000 honorarium.

“For the Plutarch judges, Jennifer Homans’s magnificent biography of the choreographer George Balanchine presented a perfect model of seamless narrative integration of the life with the work,” says 2023 Plutarch Award Committee Chair Deirdre David. “With impeccable research, Homans traces Balanchine’s life from joining the Imperial Ballet School in Revolutionary St. Petersburg at nine years old to becoming in 1948 the co-founder (with Lincoln Kirstein) of the New York City Ballet. Drawing upon her experience as a trained dancer and her distinction as a ballet critic, Homans creates a thrilling narrative of choreographic innovation that was developed, displayed, and applauded in Russia, in Weimar Germany, in Paris, and eventually in New York. As she puts it, ‘his entire life was ballet’: the women he loved (and there were many), the music he chose, the dancers he worked with, his ‘keen sensuality,’ all served the world of ballet. Beautifully crafted, Homans’s gorgeous tribute to a twentieth-century artistic genius enthralls, educates, and dazzles the reader.”
Jennifer Homans responded to news of her win, saying, “I couldn’t be more honored and thrilled by this recognition for Mr. B, especially since it comes from writers who know what it is to attempt to capture a life that is not your own.” 

Homans is the dance critic for The New Yorker and a former dancer herself who trained at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She spent more than a decade researching Balanchine’s life and times to write a vast history of the 20th century through the lens of one of its greatest artists. Mr. B was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award and was selected as a best book of the year by The New York TimesThe New YorkerVanity Fair, Oprah Daily, and NPR.
The 2023 Plutarch Committee consisted of five esteemed biographers: Deirdre David (chair), Roy Foster, Charlotte Jacobs, Tamara Payne, and Will Swift. Together they considered over 150 titles from the United States and the United Kingdom. The top 10 biographies were announced in January 2023, and from those were chosen the five finalists, announced in April. 

The five finalists: Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (Viking); Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchines 20th Century (Random House); Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (Random House); Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment (Harper Collins); and Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
The five semi-finalists: Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality (Pantheon Books); John A. Farrell, Ted Kennedy: A Life (Penguin Press); Paul Fisher, The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams (Little, Brown and Company); and Miranda Seymour, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys (W.W. Norton & Company).

Alec Pollak Wins 2023 Hazel Rowley Prize

The 2023 Hazel Rowley Prize honoring the best book proposal by a first-time biographer has been awarded to Alec Pollak, who is at work on a biography of the American writer Joanna Russ.

This year’s Rowley Prize Committee was comprised of Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (chair), Carl Rollyson, and Paula Whitacre. Of this year’s award, Gerzina said, “Our committee unanimously selected Alec Pollak’s proposal for a biography of Joanna Russ, which was very well-written and compelling, and a story we had not known before.”

The Rowley Prize has been awarded since 2014; Pollak is the ninth recipient. The prize will be given at the 2023 BIO Conference in New York City on May 19.

2023 Robert and Ina Caro Travel Fellowships Announced

The 2023 Robert and Ina Caro Travel Fellowship Committee, consisting of Carla Kaplan (chair), Marc Leepson, and Ashley Farmer, have decided the recipients of the travel fellowships for this year. BIO members with a work in progress are eligible to receive funding for research trips to archives or to important settings in their subjects’ lives. This fellowship is a reflection of BIO’s ongoing commitment to support authors in writing beautifully contextualized and tenaciously researched biographies. Up to four fellowships are awarded annually. Information on this year’s awardees follows.

Daniel Brook, a journalist and author of The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction (W. W. Norton & Company, June 2019), is at work on a biography of German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Of his application, the committee said, “We appreciated the ways Brook is linking Hischfeld’s work on sex and gender to his later work on race, and then linking all his work to contemporary questions and debates for a wide audience.” Brook will use the $2,500 fellowship award to support research trips to Kolobrzeg and Berlin.




Kate Culkin is a professor of history at Bronx Community College. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American women, memorialization, and the role of eportfolio in teaching and learning. She is the author of Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography (University of Massachusetts Press, October 2010) and is currently at work on a book titled Thankful for My Sisters: Ellen Tucker Emerson, Edith Emerson Forbes and the Emerson Legacy. The committee found Culkin’s work to be an important way to “tell a new story of Transcendentalism, provide insight into complex family dynamics, and rethink Emerson’s much vaunted self-reliance as, in part, a story of gendered dependency.” Culkin will use the $2,500 fellowship award to support a research trip to Faial Island, Azores.


Lizzie Skurnick is a writer, critic, and editor. Her most recent book is Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words That Are Used to Undermine Women (Seal Press, March 2020). Skurnick is currently at work on The Special Students: My Great-Grandfather at Harvard, His Mysterious Death, and the Rise of the Talented Tenth (forthcoming from Henry Holt & Company). The project tells the story of George Whitte Jordan, an ill-fated ancestor of Skurnick, who was among a coterie of early 20th-century Black scholars that Harvard University once relegated to a discrete racial-caste category called “Special Students.” Skurnick will use the $5,000 fellowship award to support ongoing work.


The Caro fellowships will be presented on Friday, May 19, during the annual BIO Conference.

BIO Announces Shortlist for The 2023 Plutarch Award

The best biography of 2022 to be announced on
May 20, 2023 during the 13th Annual BIO Conference

New York, NY – A distinguished panel of judges from the Biographers International Organization (BIO) is proud to announce their five finalists  for the 2023  Plutarch Award, the only international literary award for biography judged exclusively by biographers. These biographies showcase a diversity of subjects, intrepid scholarship, and an admirable illumination of both cultural and political achievement in an historical context.

This year’s five finalists, in alphabetical order by author’s name, are:

Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (Viking)

Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century (Random House)

Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (Random House)

Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment (HarperCollins)

Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Brandon R. Byrd and Lizzie Skurnick Win 2023 Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowships

Brandon R. Byrd and Lizzie Skurnick are the winners of the 2023 Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for biographical works-in-progress that make a significant contribution to our understanding of the Black experience. Byrd and Skurnick are the first double recipients of this prize since best-selling biographer Kitty Kelley, a longtime BIO Board member, earmarked a major gift of $50,000 to the Rollin Fellowship in 2022.

Byrd has won for his biography-in-progress Pap: The Life and Legacies of Benjamin Singleton (forthcoming from Vanderbilt University Press) and Skurnick has won for The Special Students: My Great-Grandfather at Harvard, His Mysterious Death, and the Rise of the Talented Tenth (forthcoming from Henry Holt & Company). The committee was impressed by Byrd’s engaging invocation of a Reconstruction-era Black emigrationist—a latter-day “Moses”—who led his people, through property ownership, to resist the forces of disenfranchisement. They were equally taken by Skurnick’s measured account of George Whitte Jordan, an ill-fated ancestor, who was among a coterie of early 20th century Black scholars that Harvard University once relegated to a discrete racial-caste category called “Special Students.”

Brandon R. Byrd  is a historian of Black intellectual and social history. He is an associate professor of History at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate classes on African American history, United States history, Haiti, the Black Atlantic, and global Black thought, art, and politics. He is the author of  The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2020, among other books.

Lizzie Skurnick  is a writer, editor, and cultural critic. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, The Boston Globe, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Her first book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, published by HarperCollins in 2009, is a literary and cultural history of young adult fiction based on her column of the same name.

Named for Frances (“Frank”) Anne Rollin Whipper, one of America’s first recorded African American biographers, BIO’s Rollin fellowship seeks to help remediate the disproportionate reflection of Black lives and voices in published biography and to encourage diversity in the field. The fellowship awards $5,000 to each of two recipients, along with a year’s membership in BIO, registration to the annual BIO Conference, and publicity through BIO’s marketing channels.

2023 Plutarch Award Longlist Announced

A distinguished panel of judges from the Biographers International Organization (BIO) has selected 10 nominees for the 10th annual Plutarch Award, the only international literary award for biography judged exclusively by biographers. This year’s Plutarch Award Committee members are Deirdre David, Roy Foster, Charlotte Jacobs, Tamara Payne, and Will Swift.

Deirdre David, chair of the committee, says, “The judges this year were impressed by the remarkable variety and stellar quality of the books on our longlist. They showcase a diversity of subjects, intrepid scholarship, and an admirable illumination of both cultural and political achievement in an historical context. They also offer examples of the skills that enhance the art and craft of biography: how to work around black holes in a subject’s life and how to present a fresh portrait of a well-known figure in addition to bringing forth relatively unknown subjects to vivid life. The longlist [books] provide splendid evidence of how to write movingly and creatively about vastly different personalities representing many fields of accomplishment. We are pleased to present biographies about a poet, a novelist, a choreographer, a portrait painter, a civil rights lawyer, an iconic US president, a revolutionary, a US senator, an FBI G-man, and a misunderstood British monarch.”

Below is a synopsis of the biographies on the Plutarch Award longlist:

Tomiko Brown-NaginCivil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

(Pantheon Books)

In Civil Rights Queen, Tomiko Brown-Nagin illuminates the career of the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench. During the opening remarks of her confirmation hearing in March 2022, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cited Motley as the judge whose legal shoulders she stands upon. In this exhaustively researched biography, Brown-Nagin convincingly demonstrates how instrumental Motley’s work was in the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. She provides a riveting depiction of James Meredith’s battle to desegregate the University of Mississippi and shows how, in one of her most crucial cases, Motley assisted Meredith through a mental breakdown, until they won in court. Brown-Nagin details the pain and trauma of those who stood up and fought segregation, while exposing the courtroom antics of segregationist lawyers and judges. Highlighting Judge Constance Baker Motley’s personal and historical importance, Brown-Nagin unveils how Motley won some of her most important civil rights cases and examines the impact of many of the other decisions she handed down during her judgeship.


John A. Farrell, Ted Kennedy: A Life

(Penguin Press)

In his fresh, briskly paced, and novelistic Ted Kennedy, prize-winning biographer John Farrell brings the “Lion of the Senate” to his own place at the center of the Kennedy political dynasty and the conflicts between the forces of liberalism and conservatism in late 20th-century and early 21st-century America. Through meticulous research, including delving into Kennedy’s diary entries, family papers, and interviews with family members, Farrell crafts an even-handed but ultimately sympathetic account of the insecurities and recklessness that led Kennedy to the edge of self-destruction. In his masterful account of backroom deal-making, he shows us how Kennedy led the way with empathy and determination in championing AIDS funding, gay rights, healthcare reform, voting rights, and anti-apartheid activism. This is an edifying story of the expiation of personal failings through committed political action.


Paul Fisher, The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In The Grand Affair, Paul Fisher, a professor of American studies at Wellesley College, presents a bold, enthralling narrative of the life of legendary painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), whose audacious and sensual portraits brought him fame and notoriety. Within his vivid depiction of the fin-de-siècle world Sargent inhabited, Fisher illuminates Sargent’s expatriate family in Europe, the evolution of his artistry, and the divergent aesthetic circles in which he moved. Fisher also offers compelling insights into the multi-layered process of making great art. In addition, he is circumspect in examining the ambiguities and uncertainties of Sargent’s sexuality and adept at exploring the profound complexities of human intimacy.


Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century


In G-Man, Beverly Gage examines the man who was the face of the FBI for 48 years (1924–1971). Through extensive research, which includes newly released documents of Hoover’s personal and official files, Gage peels back the layers to reveal the world and the forces that shaped Hoover. Through this exploration of his views on masculinity, racism, and what he deemed as threats to American security both externally and internally (e.g., communism, organized crime, and Black agitators such as Martin Luther King Jr.), we gain a deeper understanding of Hoover—the man, the country he served, the tactics he used to serve it—and how his legacy looms over us today.


Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century

(Random House)

In this brilliantly researched biographical journey, Jennifer Homans takes Balanchine from being a nine-year-old student at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, scavenging for food in the early days of the revolution, to his emergence as the world-renowned magnificent choreographer who in 1948 co-founded (with Lincoln Kirstein) the New York City Ballet. Drawing on her experience as a trained dancer, Homans elegantly integrates analysis of Balanchine’s choreography with historical research to demonstrate Balanchine’s tumultuous, 20th-century artistic life. She creates a thrilling narrative of choreographic innovation that was developed, displayed, and applauded in Russia, Weimar Germany, Paris, and eventually New York. Attuned to Balanchine’s lifelong devotion to seeing everything in his life to an expression of his art (he was an impresario of cooking and ironing, as well as much else), she explores how his friends, his lovers, and the dancers he worked with (and often adored) were all seen as serving the world of ballet. Mr. B presents us with a splendid tribute to a dazzling 20th-century genius.


Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

(Random House)

In undertaking this admirable biography, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham said he set out to determine not only how Lincoln did what he did but also why. As a result, he demystifies Abraham Lincoln as a saintly hero, portraying him as an imperfect human being. Meacham details the early experiences that shaped Lincoln’s moral vision and the challenges he faced balancing pragmatic compromises with higher goals in his political career. Despite his foibles and his inconsistencies regarding racial differences, the president’s belief in a covenant with God, who created all men equal, ultimately forged his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Meacham shows us how profoundly Lincoln relied upon religious language in some of his most important public speeches, notably his second inaugural address. In this intensely soulful and moving biography, Meacham allows us a greater window into the deepest dimensions of one of our greatest presidents.


Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment


In her new biography, Jane Ridley seizes upon the paradox observed by one of King George V’s advisers—that although the monarch seemed a dull man, his reign (1910–1936) spanned a period of continuous crisis and upheaval, both internationally and domestically. Illuminating the relationship between the apparently limited and unimaginative sovereign and his tumultuous times requires formidable abilities of psychological perception, as well as heavyweight scholarship, and Ridley possesses these in full measure. She also displays a witty comprehension of significant minor incidents and foibles of character: the bizarre rituals and practices of royal lives are woven into the larger human comedy, above all in her portrait of the marriage that underpinned the creation of the first “family monarchy,” and the implications of this for the future of democracy in Britain. This is a long book, exploring a wide range of original sources including an impressively thorough use of the legendary Royal Archives. Nonetheless, it is rivetingly readable, often very funny, and fully lives up to its quizzical subtitle—as well as showing that the lives of crowned heads can be treated in a way that breaks new ground in the treatment of major historical themes.


Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Using superbly vivid prose, Katherine Rundell gives us this joyful, scholarly, and informative biography of the poet she declares to be “the greatest writer of desire”  in the English language. She takes us from Donne’s Catholic boyhood, through his various secretarial positions to aristocrats in both the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts, to his eventual celebrity as Dean of St. Paul’s, in 1615, where thousands clamored to hear him preach. From her flawless research, we learn fascinating details of how his poems were circulated to his friends (often on tiny scraps of paper), of how he studied the law, and of how he married a sixteen-year-old girl and struggled to support a family of 10 children. For Rundell, Donne was a poet who in the process of constantly transforming himself and his art, reconciled the sacred and the profane, the soul and the body. And, in her strikingly creative biography, she herself transforms familiar images of Donne as distantly mysterious, even unknowable, into a portrait of glorious poetic genius that is present both on the page and in his life.


Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams

(Little, Brown and Company)

In this luminous, often dazzling work of art, Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff conducts a master class in dealing with black holes in biography. She resurrects Samuel Adams, an elusive and crucial revolutionary who changed world history. Adams destroyed his documents and letters and reveled in secretly masterminding the greatest campaign of civil resistance in American history. Schiff’s exemplary research reveals him to be a virtuous, persuasive, and devious political activist who had the fortitude to “wire a continent for rebellion.” In creating a brilliant sense of place, she brings us a fresh view of Colonial New England and the seminal events in the birth of our nation, while illuminating Adams and the world he transformed.


Miranda Seymour, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys

(W. W. Norton)

Miranda Seymour describes her subject’s life as “haunted”—and therefore, the considerable achievement of this compelling book is to trace the ghosts of an unhappy existence back to their origins and bring them into the light of day, showing how they impelled an original writer to produce a small but classic oeuvre. Despite the cult status now rightly accorded to Rhys’s fiction, it seems extraordinary that no previous biographer has fully investigated her roots and background in Dominica, which is illuminated here. So are the obscure years between her first publications and her life in literary Paris during the 1920s, and her extraordinary renaissance and rediscovery in the 1970s. Seymour conveys the grit and creative commitment, as well as the addictions and deliberately “impossible” behavior that lay behind “the Jean Rhys woman”—a figure who appears and reappears in the novels. She indicates with delicacy as well as decisiveness the points at which Rhys’ life and books diverge, and she further navigates a careful course between the many figures in Rhys’s later literary life who claimed responsibility for bringing her back to notice. This kind of empathetic disentanglement is what literary biography must do, and this book is an example of the best kind of that genre.

Apply for BIO 2023 Fellowships and Prizes

BIO encourages all members to review its four fellowships, now accepting applications for 2023. Please share information about the Rollin Fellowship, the Chip Bishop Fellowship, and the Rowley Prize, which are open to nonmembers, with your friends, colleagues, and networks.

Please note that the amounts have increased from $3,000 to $5,000 for both the Rollin Fellowship and Rowley Prize, and the number of recipients has increased from one to two for the Rollin Fellowship and from two to four for the Caro Fellowship. These increased benefits, which BIO will sustain for at least five years, are thanks to gifts from Kitty Kelley and other generous friends of BIO.

  • The Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship awards $5,000 each to two authors working on a biographical work about an African American figure (or figures), whose story provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the Black experience. Applications are due February 1, 2023. More information about the fellowship is available here.
  • The Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship awards funding to as many as four authors working on biographical works for research trips to archives or to important settings in their subjects’ lives. The deadline for applications is February 1, 2023. Learn more here.
  • The Chip Bishop Fellowship awards $1,000 to one recipient for for travel expenses, including transportation costs and child care, needed to attend the BIO Conference. The deadline for applications is April 1, 2023. Learn more here.
  • The Hazel Rowley Prize awards $5,000 to a first-time biographer whose book proposal shows exceptional merit. The deadline for applications is March 1, 2023. Click here for more information.

Anne Boyd Rioux Receives BIO’s Ray A. Shepard Service Award

The Ray A. Shepard Award was presented at the 2022 BIO Conference to Anne Boyd Rioux, author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) and Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).  

The Shepard Award recognizes a BIO volunteer who has donated exceptionally of their time and talents for the benefit of the organization. It is named for Ray A. Shepard, a founding member of BIO who organized the first BIO Conference almost single-handedly. Rioux has served on BIO’s Board of Directors for five years. She has served as a co-chair for the BIO Conference Program Committee, and she is a member of the Membership Committee. She directs BIO’s Coaching Program and serves as a coach herself. 

While presenting the Shepard Award to Rioux, BIO President Linda Leavell said, “I first heard of Zoom from Anne, when she suggested that we conduct our board meetings that way, even before the pandemic happened.” She continued, “After we had to cancel the 2020 conference because of the pandemic, Anne suggested that we give BIO members an opportunity to meet online.” From this, Rioux initiated a series of workshops that summer on a range of topics, from marketing one’s book during the pandemic to copyright and fair use. This series of workshops has grown into BIO’s Online Events Committee, which Rioux now chairs. This past winter and spring, the committee hosted the “Reading Biography Like a Writer” series. “These workshops . . . provided BIO members a lifeline to our community during the pandemic,” Leavell said.  

Rioux also organized and supervised a series of online roundtables through BIO, which started in the summer of 2020. Leavell said, “In giving Anne the Ray Shepard Award, BIO recognizes her innovative ideas to keep BIO members connected with one another during the pandemic, and her extraordinary energy and talents in keeping those initiatives going.”  

Despite winning many awards in her career as a professor and writer, including four NEH fellowships, she said in her remarks, “I have never gotten an award quite like this, and it’s very moving.” She spoke of how, in the aftermath of the 2020 BIO Conference being canceled due to the pandemic, she was driven by a desire to keep members connected to each other. “Zoom was something that I got used to like everybody else,” she said, “but it was so easy to use and so easy for us to get together that way. I’m just really glad we’ve been able to stay connected. I think we’re even more connected now because of these periodic events. And I hope that this is a new tradition that BIO will continue, even once we’re meeting in person again, to keep us connected throughout the year.”