Biography

BIO Announces Zoom Event with Anne Zimmerman

 

Anne Zimmerman

BIO’s “Reading Biography Like a Writer” series continues with its third Zoom event, featuring Anne Zimmerman on Thursday, January 27, at 7 p.m. (Eastern Time). In conversation with Anne Boyd Rioux, Anne Zimmerman will discuss what biographers can learn about the craft from the recently published Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (HMH 2021). Julia Cooke’s Come Fly the World tells the story of several “ordinary women” who embraced the liberation of a jet-set life by working as stewardesses for the iconic Pan Am Airlines. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the book is a biography writer’s lesson in how to write about subjects who lack extensive archives. This conversation will help first-time biographers, those working on family history projects, and anyone exploring how big historical moments (the Vietnam War, the feminist movement) touch writing about the lived experiences. Reading the book ahead of time is not necessary, but if you can read at least part of it, that would surely enrich your experience. The event will also be recorded and available for later viewing.

REGISTER HERE

Anne Zimmerman’s first book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher (Counterpoint), is the product of extensive research at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. She edited two subsequent collections of the noted food writer’s work: Love In A Dish and Other Culinary Delights and M.F.K. Fisher: Musings on Wine & Other Libations. She lives in Portland, Oregon and has taught for many years in Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program, including a course on biography writing. She is finishing a memoir.

Anne Boyd Rioux is a member of BIO’s Board of Directors, a BIO coach, and the author of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (Norton), chosen as one of the best books of 2018 by the Daily Mail and Library Journal. Her biography Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (Norton) was chosen as one of the ten best books of 2016 by the Chicago Tribune. She is the recipient of four National Endowment for the Humanities awards, two for public scholarship. You can find her online at https://anneboydrioux.com/.

 

 

BIO Announces Zoom Event with Debby Applegate

Update: The recording of this event is available here.

Debby Applegate

BIO’s “Reading Biography Like a Writer” series continues with its second Zoom event, featuring Debby Applegate on Tuesday, December 7, at 7 p.m. (Eastern Time). In conversation with Holly Van Leuven, Applegate will discuss what biographers can learn about the craft from Nancy Milford’s groundbreaking feminist biography Zelda: A Biography (Harper & Row, 1970). The book explores the tumultuous relationship between Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, a great beauty and gifted writer, and her more famous husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Reading the book ahead of time will not be necessary for gaining insights about voice, structure, use of sources, and more. But if you can read at least part of it, that would surely enrich your experience. The event will also be recorded and available for later viewing.

REGISTER HERE

Debby Applegate is a former president of BIO and the author of the newly released Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age (Doubleday), as well as The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday, 2006), for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. She is the chair of the BIO Advisory Council.

Holly Van Leuven is the author of Ray Bolger: More than a Scarecrow (Oxford University Press, 2019) and the inaugural winner of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize (2014). She is the editor of The Biographer’s Craft.

BIO Presents its 2021 Editorial Excellence Award to Bob Bender of Simon & Schuster

Update: The recording of this event is available here.

Bob Bender will receive BIO’s 2021 Editorial Excellence Award, presented annually to an outstanding editor of biography, on Thursday, November 18 from 7 p.m to 8 p.m. Eastern, at an online event featuring several of his authors: Marie Arana, David W. Blight, Scott Eyman, and Jeff Guinn.

Registration for the Zoom event is available at this link.

Bender is Vice President and Executive Editor of Simon & Schuster, where he has worked since 1981. He acquires a wide range of nonfiction, including biography and autobiography, history, current events, popular science, popular culture (primarily film and music), and narrative nonfiction with a distinctive voice. Authors that he has published also include Muhammad Ali, Marie Arana, Miles Davis, Jonathan Eig, David Hackett Fischer, Linda Greenhouse, John Kerry, Naomi Klein, Pauline Maier, David McCullough, Gilda Radner, James Shapiro, and Jean Edward Smith.

Kai Bird, chair of BIO’s Award Committee, with Tim Duggan, Ruth Franklin, Peniel Joseph, Candice Millard, and Will Swift, praised Bender for his “cultivation and support for so many illustrious biographers over many decades.”

Marie Arana was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story, chosen by the American Library Association as the top nonfiction book of the year; Bolivar: American Liberator, winner of the Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography; the memoir American Chica, a finalist for the National Book Award; two novels, Cellophane and Lima Nights; and The Writing Life, a collection from her well-known column for The Washington Post, where she was editor-in-chief of Book World. She was the inaugural Literary Director of the Library of Congress, founder of the Literary Initiatives division of that library, and one of the principal architects of the National Book Festival. In 2020, she received an award for her lifetime literary work from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. A writer-at-large for The Washington Post, she divides her time between Washington, D.C., and Lima, Peru.

David W. Blight is Sterling Professor of History and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which won BIO’s Plutarch Award; American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era; Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory; and annotated editions of Douglass’s first two autobiographies. He has worked on Douglass much of his professional life and been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Prize, among others.

Scott Eyman was the literary critic at The Palm Beach Post and is the author or coauthor of 15 books, including the bestselling biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend; Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart; Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille; Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer; Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford; and, with the actor Robert Wagner, the bestsellers Pieces of My Heart and You Must Remember This. Eyman also writes book reviews for The Wall Street Journal, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. He and his wife, Lynn, live in West Palm Beach.

Jeff Guinn is the bestselling author of many books, including War on the Border: Villa, Pershing, The Texas Rangers and an American Invasion; Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip; The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple; Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson; Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde; The Last Gunfight; and The Autobiography of Santa Claus. The former books editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and an award-winning investigative journalist, he is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. He lives in Fort Worth.

BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award has been presented since 2014. Past recipients are Tim Duggan, Robert Gottlieb, Gayatri Patnaik, Jonathan Segal, Ileene Smith, Nan A. Talese, and Robert Weil.

David Levering Lewis Looks at Two Black American Leaders in BIO Conference Keynote

David Levering Lewis accepts the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk.

After receiving the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk, David Levering Lewis spoke on “Black Biography Matters: A Prophet and A President.” The prophet was W. E. B. Du Bois, the subject of Levering’s two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The president was Barack Obama.

Levering started his talk by giving a mini-bio of an unnamed figure: A biracial American who did not face the extreme discrimination other Blacks did, thanks in part to having one white parent and living in a relatively tolerant state. This figure, though, came to embrace his Black roots as well as the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.

Levering said that if his audience assumed he was talking about the first Black president of the United States, they were correct. But Levering pointed out that many of the details of Obama’s life as a biracial American applied to Du Bois as well, another man who embraced his Blackness and achieved greatness. The two, Levering said, shared “strikingly similar biographical profiles,” and his introduction featured the “interweaving of like-minded quotations” from Obama’s and Du Bois’s autobiographical writings.

Levering’s goal with this introduction was to illustrate “the significance of a largely unsuspected parallelism in the racial coming of age of two of the most influential American men of the last 100 years.” But as Levering went on to show, Obama’s career as president ultimately diverged from the path Du Bois took as a scholar and activist, though he also noted that there would have been “no Obama presidency without the Du Bois civil rights legacy.”

After adding a few more details to each man’s biography (noting that in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “black families were rarer than Democrats”), Levering turned to Obama’s idea of the “audacity of hope,” the title of the book Obama wrote before announcing his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Levering called that expression an example of political optimism—an optimism reflected in candidate Obama’s belief that racism was an old problem that the country had transcended. Levering said he “had seemed to resolve those dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably proposed by Du Bois in his foundational text The Souls of Black Folk.” And Americans seemed eager to embrace the idea of a “post-racial” future.

But then, in not so few words, Levering said, “Not so fast.” He explained Du Bois would not have accepted that the country had transcended race. “Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race still would remain the predicate of our American experience long after the formal dismantling of segregation.”

Levering recounted how, as a presidential candidate, Obama tried to generate universal appeal by not being threatening to white voters, while winking reassuredly at Black ones. And he might have been “just progressive enough to intrigue old troublemaker Du Bois.” But Obama didn’t live up to the promise of the “audacity of hope” and become a transformational president. And Black scholars who pointed out that John McCain won the white vote in 2008 by 10 points over Obama had their op-eds dismissed as being out of sync with the supposed post-racial era the country had entered.

Levering said that Obama didn’t seize the opportunity the Great Recession presented when he took office in 2009. Obama was economically timid and pursued a “futile strategy” of conciliation with his Republican critics. Though there were critics on the left, too, who berated Obama’s timidity. Still, Levering said Obama had notable first-term successes, such as saving the auto industry and signing legislation that created the first federal consumer protection bureau. And Levering called passage of the Affordable Care Act the signature accomplishment of Obama’s presidency (while noting it was a bonanza for the insurance industry).

Turning back to Du Bois, Levering said he should avoid speculating on what his subject might have made of the Obama presidency. But he said he would any way, given that Du Bois had “spoken rather presciently to our times” in the 1950s about what he saw as a lingering American problem: too many people were willing to live in comfort “even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellow men.” Du Bois, Levering said, moved from seeing racism as the central American problem to a broader economic emphasis on class discrimination, while still recognizing that race was a “component of America’s DNA.” Obama, on the other hand, saw race “as of limited value in formulating an economics of redress.”

In the end, Levering suggested, Obama and DuBois stood at opposite poles. “For Du Bois, racism defined the American social contract.” For Obama, “the less said about race relations, the better.”  Levering admitted that the Obama presidency ended “with much to its credit.” But the idea of a post-racial reset for the nation “had already been fatally belied by worsening disparities now become irrevocably color coded,” by a Supreme Court decision that hamstrung the voting rights of Black and Latinx voters, and by criminal justice misdeeds and police violence that fueled protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these problems were only exacerbated during the Trump presidency.

Levering closed with words from Du Bois, which he believes are relevant for the 2022 elections. Du Bois wrote that the majority of voters had to challenge a political system run by a minority based on their wealth and power. Du Bois said some might call his ideas for change “socialism, communism, reformed capitalism or holy rolling. Call it anything—but get it done.”

A. N. Wilson Wins 2021 Plutarch Award

A. N. Wilson’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens (HarperCollins) has won the 2021 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2020. Wilson is a prolific writer, whose previous books include biographies of Charles Darwin, Prince Albert, C. S. Lewis, and Queen Elizabeth II, among many others. He is also a prize-winning novelist.

Named after the famous Greek writer, BIO awards the Plutarch to the best biography of the year, chosen by a committee of five distinguished biographers. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.

“During an unprecedented year marked by political upheavals, the COVID pandemic and many publishing challenges,” said Kate Buford, chair of the Plutarch Committee, “we were struck by the compelling humanity and deft artistry of Wilson’s biography. It is a biographer’s biography.”

Buford added in her taped remarks for the 2021 BIO Conference that Wilson “passionately and elegantly manipulated the genre, the form [of biography] to get at the mystery of Dickens’s craft.”

Photo by Sam Ardley

In his acceptance remarks, Wilson said he was “left speechless to have been put in such wonderful company”—both the biographers judging the award and the other writers who made the Plutarch longlist. Although Dickens might seem like a character from the distant past, Wilson said, he was “constantly arrested by how much he is our contemporary, how much he realizes that we carry around in ourselves our own childhoods, which never leaves us; the inner child is always directing us.”

In addition to honoring Wilson, the Plutarch Award Committee gave a Special Citation to Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Crown), in recognition of its summoning of Baldwin’s penetrating voice and eyes that remind us of the post–Civil War and post-civil rights betrayals of racial justice. In announcing the citation, committee member Ray Shepard said that Glaude “reminds us of the post-Civil War, post-civil rights betrayals of racial justice. He warns us of slipping into a 21st century betrayal unless we begin again and heed Baldwin’s prophetic words.”

Along with Shepard and Buford, members of the 2021 Plutarch Award Committee were Barbara Burkhardt, Andrew Lownie, and Holly Van Leuven. The committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting five finalists for the 2021 prize and then choosing Wilson’s book as the winner. You can see all of this year’s semi-finalists and finalists here.

Rachel L. Swarns Wins Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship

Rachel L. Swarns is the winner of the 2021 Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for her proposal of an as yet untitled, multigenerational biography of an enslaved Black family torn apart by the 1838 slave sale that saved Georgetown University from financial ruin. The committee was impressed by Swarns’s lucid, engaging narrative as she highlighted slavery’s devastating impact on a family fatefully separated when “the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests sold 272 enslaved men, women and children.” Her compelling biography-in-progress is projected for publication by Random House in 2023. “My biography of this African American family will fill critical gaps in our understanding of American history and the legacy of American slavery,” Swarns wrote. She is the fellowship’s inaugural recipient.

Swarns is a journalist, author, and professor, who writes about race and race relations as a contributing writer for The New York Times. She is an associate professor of journalism at New York University, and the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, published by Amistad/Harper Collins in 2012. The Leon Levy Center for Biography also just awarded Swarns one of  its 2021-2022 Biography Fellowships to work on her same forthcoming book.

The Rollin Fellowship awards $2,000 to an author 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. This fellowship also includes a year’s membership in BIO, registration to the annual BIO conference, and publicity through BIO’s marketing channels. The fellowship advances BIO’s commitment to remediate the disproportionate reflection of Black lives and voices in published biography, and to encouraging diversity in the field.

The fellowship commemorates 19th century author and activist Frances Anne Rollin Whipper—who wrote under her nickname-turned-pen name “Frank A. Rollin”—whose 1868 biography, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, about a Black abolitionist journalist, physician, and Union Army officer, positioned her among the first recorded African American biographers. The Black press particularly underscored the significance of her precedent and called for more biographies of African Americans, a call which this fellowship, in her honor, seeks to carry on.

Need Help Paying the BIO Conference Fee? Apply for the Chip Bishop Fellowship

Honoring the late Chip Bishop, a former BIO Board member, this fellowship for biographers-in-need covers the annual conference fee. For 2021 only, there will be 10 Chip Bishop Fellowships offered. Students and other aspiring biographers in financial need are encouraged to apply. (If a winner has already paid for the conference, the fee will be refunded.) To apply, please respond to the four questions listed under How to Apply. The deadline is May 1, 2021.  

Afridi, Dunkle Win 2021 Caro Fellowships

Humera Afridi and Iris Jamahl Dunkle are the 2021 winners of BIO’s Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship.

Humera Afridi

Afridi, a New York-based writer of Pakistani origin, is working on The Book of Secrets: The Extraordinary Life of Noor Inayat Khan, a biography of a World War II heroine, mystic, poet, author, and musician. Khan was an Indian American woman who posthumously became a renowned and decorated war hero for her role in guerrilla tactics in occupied France. She defied the conventions of her upbringing, as the daughter of an Indian Muslim mystic and American mother, in a community of predominantly white European theosophist disciples. Afridi will travel to Karlsruhe and Pforzheim prisons in Germany to see where Noor was imprisoned for 10 months in isolation. She will also visit the Imperial War Museum in London to listen to sound files bearing testimonies of Noor’s colleagues in the field. In addition, she will visit the Fondation de la Résistance in Suresnes, France, for archival research on the role of women in the resistance. Afridi holds an M.A. in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle

Dunkle is working on the first biography of the author Sanora Babb, a largely forgotten female writer of the American West. Dunkle aims to understand the unique historical moment in which Babb lived through the telling of her life story: from her poverty-stricken upbringing in the Oklahoma Territory to living in a one-room dugout in southeastern Colorado with her broomcorn-farming family; to her time working in the Farm Administration camps in California assisting Dust Bowl migrants to her years traveling with her husband, cinematographer James Wong Howe, in Europe and the Soviet Union. Babb was a prolific short story writer and the author of several novels evoking the lives of Americans struggling to survive in the Depression years of the 1930s. Dunkle will travel to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas, where she will examine a large archive of Babb’s papers. Dunkle holds an M.F.A. in poetry from New York University and a Ph.D. from Case Western University.

The Caro Research/Travel Fellowship honors the work of Robert and Ina Caro, who have stressed the crucial importance of depicting a sense of place in delineating character. BIO members with a work in progress can apply 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. You can read more about the fellowship and past winners here.

The selection committee for the award this year was Deirdre David, chair, Carla Kaplan, and Marc Leepson.