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.
BIO Conference Preview: Writing the First Biography of Your Subject: A Q&A with Debby Applegate and Abigail Santamaria
Debby Applegate is the author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday, 2006), winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age (forthcoming from Doubleday, November 2, 2021). Abigail Santamaria is the author of Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), and I Am Meg: The Life of Madeleine L’Engle (forthcoming, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Debby will moderate the conference panel “Writing the First Biography of Your Subject,” which will feature Abigail, Justin Gifford, and Carol Sklenicka.
Abigail Santamaria: Tell me a bit about the subjects of your two books. What writings about their lives preceded your work?
Debby Applegate: The subject of my first book, the once world-famous Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, had many biographies before me, ranging in quality and orientation from hagiography to hatchet job. But he’d been assigned to the dustbin of history after a national sex scandal, so no one, not even scholars, had looked at them in many decades. It was the best of both worlds: lots of shoulders to stand on, but plenty of freedom to do my own fact-gathering and form my own opinions.
My new book is the first biography of Polly Adler, an infamous and influential madam in Jazz Age New York, whose brothel was a bawdy salon as well as, in her words, a “speakeasy with a harem conveniently handy.” But she did publish a bestselling 1953 memoir, A House is Not a Home, which gave me a foundation, however faulty. Surprisingly, given her underworld occupation, she was shockingly well-documented in newspapers, memoirs, criminal records, FBI files, and other sources. So, it was easy to indulge that first biographer obsession with finding every tiny scrap of her life. Too easy, really, since in the end I spent 14 years on that obsession, even knowing I could include only a fraction of what I found. If I could’ve gotten away with it, this book would’ve been 1,000 pages and featured no fewer than 200 pictures. But to justify that kind of heft, you definitely need, say, an Abraham Lincoln or a Hillary Clinton.
AS: What do you see as unique roles and responsibilities of a first biographer, and how those may be different from the roles and responsibilities of, say, the next person to tackle Lincoln again.
DA: I have never been tempted to write a biography of a familiar figure, although I have been urged to pick a president—certainly that is a more lucrative bet. I’m not sure why, now that you ask. I suppose it is because the part I love is the research, the thrill of the hunt, the adrenalin of following hunches and finding hidden clues. Writing is the price I have to pay for spending my days nosing around the archives and devouring old newspapers.
I suppose first biographers need to be extra scrupulous since they are establishing the factual foundation, and so often later writers or readers won’t bother to go to the original sources but instead take your word for granted. Conversely, first biographers are also much more tempted to include every little nugget they’ve found, every nifty discovery, and justify the bloat with the belief that no one may pass this way again, so they better get it into the historical record while they have a chance. Which is great for later biographers, but not so fun for the reader.
AS: I’m writing the first adult biography of Madeleine L’Engle (there have been several middle grades and YA bios). My greatest challenge has also been my greatest pleasure: combing through some 100 boxes of her papers, unprocessed and languishing in a Manhattan Mini Storage Unit on the Upper West Side. (I’ve never had greater appreciation for processed archives with finding aids!) As your subject’s first biographer, what has been your greatest challenge and your greatest pleasure?
DA: This is an easy question. The greatest challenge? Polly Adler’s life is brimming with lies and liars. Corrupt politicians, avaricious businessmen, cheating husbands, confidence artists, and criminals of every stripe, not to mention Polly herself, as her entire career was built on keeping secrets and breaking the law. I should note that I spent a lot of time with liars in my first book about the Calvinists, so lying may be an occupational hazard for biographers even in the best of circumstances.
The greatest pleasure was discovering a suitcase filled with the writing notebooks and correspondence of Polly’s ghostwriter, Virginia Faulkner, which she used when working on A House is Not a Home. The papers included many of the real names, dates, and events that had been whitewashed or omitted in her book, even a list of all the top gangsters she knew well but couldn’t name. It felt like stumbling onto the key to a puzzle in a fairy tale—that’s how extraordinary it was.
My greatest disappointment was finding out that Polly had saved trunks full of keepsakes, scrapbooks, tape-recorded reminiscences, correspondence, and inscribed books from her author friends—but her last surviving brother was so ashamed of his sister the madam that he threw most of it away after she died. Some of that material may yet turn up, but it still turns my stomach to think of all that was lost.
AS: Heather Clark, author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, wrote her subject’s 8th major biography. She and I often discuss the pros and cons of being a subject’s first, and I asked her to pitch in to this conversation: “In my biography of Plath,” Heather says, “I felt I had to respond, either directly and indirectly, to 50 years’ worth of biographical writing about Plath, which was exhausting in its own way. (Janet Malcolm wrote an entire book on the perils of Plath biography!) I was also constantly justifying my book to skeptics, why we needed yet another biography of Plath. It was, and still is, tiring to defend my work over and over again (how many books do we have about Hemingway!), and I’m sure I internalized some of that skepticism. So I can see the advantages, now, of writing that first biography, and the freedom of interpretation it allows. Fact-gathering is more time consuming, of course, but you have that unencumbered mental space to create the narrative rather than react to a narrative that already exists. That must be thrilling.”
DA:I am 100 percent in agreement. It is thrilling! I’ve not had to deal with what Heather describes but just imagining all those voices, all those authorities and opinions, dominating the conversation from the get-go gives me the heebie-jeebies. The upside of working among the obscure is that no one but other similarly obsessed pedants are going to argue with you. Even if they disagree, it’s usually a surprise and a pleasure to find someone else knows what you’re talking about.
AS: If you could write a first biography of anyone—if you could have that clean slate—whom would you choose, and why? I ask this with full recognition of the fact that you have a book in production, so perhaps you want to throw your computer through the window rather than contemplate a next subject.
DA: You are right about that. However, I have been fantasizing about taking some of the wonderful characters from Polly Adler’s story that didn’t get enough time on stage, and writing a book of interlocking biographical profiles. Midtown Manhattan in the Jazz Age—the nexus of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Madison Square Garden—was as much a classic cultural “scene” as, say, Paris of the Lost Generation or Greenwich Village in the beatnik era or Sunset Strip in the early decades of rock and roll. I would love to bring that scene back to life and reestablish its importance and influence on 20th-century American culture. As I say, I hate the idea of leaving all my delicious research on the cutting room floor.
AS: Going forward, would you be more or less inclined to take on another subject’s first biography? Will the experience of writing a subject’s first biography shape your choice of future subjects?
DA: You know, I have spent most of my adult life crafting just two, intricate baubles designed to amuse as much as anything else. At the rate I’m turning them out, I can’t fit that many more book projects into my lifespan. Lately, it has been occurring to me that perhaps I ought to have made more of a contribution to the land of the living rather than whiling away so many of my days in the company of the dead. Of course, at this point I may have unfitted myself for other occupations. Your question is making me think that if I do give in to habit and start another book maybe I should transcend my heebie-jeebies and choose something well-known, well-documented, and well-loved, and make it a slick think-piece rather than a deep dive into America’s attic. Whatever comes next, at least it should be a lot shorter.
Here are some highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference, held in New York City on May 17-19. You can see the morning plenary with David Remnick, Stacy Schiff, and Judith Thurman, and Nigel Hamilton introducing 2019 BIO Award winner James McGrath Morris, who gave the keynote speech.
A Writer’s Walk Spurred the Creation of BIO: An Interview with 2019 BIO Award-Winner James McGrath Morris
By Kitty Kelley
From the beginning of BIO, the organization and one person have been inextricably linked: this year’s BIO Award winner, James McGrath Morris. Even before he helped launch BIO, Morris was linking biographers through the newsletter he created, The Biographer’s Craft. He will receive his award on May 18, during the 10th Annual BIO Conference. When it came time to interview Morris, Kitty Kelley was an obvious choice. She took part in the first BIO Conference in 2010 and has known Morris since they met during a writers’ event supporting the players during the 1982 NFL strike (at least that’s Morris’s recollection). Kelley called him “my hero and beloved friend,” and let TBC know that she would have kicked and screamed if she hadn’t gotten the assignment.
Kitty Kelley: How did you come to start BIO?
James McGrath Morris: People often call me the founder of BIO, but I don’t think that’s really an accurate term because it was actually 50 of us who gathered in New York City in 2009 to found BIO. It’s more accurate to describe me as the progenitor of the idea.
KK: Where did the idea come from?
JMM: A walk. I was taking a walk on the dirt roads of my then-neighborhood, in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains above Santa Fe. Walks provide time for contemplation and I was giving thought to the success of The Biographer’s Craft, a newsletter I launched in 2006. It had 1,700 subscribers who seemed to enjoy the connection to other fellow biographers that the newsletter provided.
I got to thinking that we biographers work alone but we could benefit from getting together as mystery, science fiction, romance, and thriller writers do. In fact, my friend David Morrel helped launch International Thriller Writers. So, I thought biographers needed their own organization. I wrote an open letter about this idea at the top of an issue The Biographer’s Craft that essentially said, if folks were interested in doing this, we should have a meeting. David Nasaw, who had just created the Leon Levy Center for Biography, offered space at CUNY. And 50 people showed up for the meeting.
KK: What happened then?
JMM: We decided to create an organization and, as you might imagine, we had animated discussions, especially about whether or not we would include memoirists. No, we decided.
I said that I would help facilitate the creation of this organization and stay with it until it was established, but that I did not want to stay with it forever. And there was a very important reason for that thinking. I’ve seen a lot of organizations come and go, and usually the ones that fail are the ones that are too centered on the person who helped create the organization. I felt that it would only succeed if other folks took on the responsibility of running the organization. So, I served as the executive director and then as president and then as a member of the board. Since these various tours of duty, my role has been limited to being a contributing editor to TBC and occasionally serving on a committee, like the Hazel Rowley Prize committee.
I’ve been thrilled to see that the original plan worked. If you look at the program for the conference or go to its website, you see that BIO is really a grassroots organization staffed and sustained by volunteers from all around the world. And that’s what makes BIO a healthy organization.
KK: What do you think BIO’s most important role is?
JMM: When we started BIO, we decided to hold an annual conference, and I will tell stories about this when I give my talk. I think the conference, the newsletter, the grants and prizes, and the networking BIO provides are the critically important components of its work. We have remained true to BIO’s original mission of being an organization where anyone can find help, assistance, collegiality, and support in pursuing the craft of writing a biography.
KK: What drove you to create BIO?
JMM: A bad habit. In high school, I organized Students for a Better Environment—with the catchy initials SBE—and when I worked as a freelance writer, I recruited writers for the National Writers Union. I have a drive, a tendency, or a bad habit to be a mother hen organizing folks collectively. Heck, I was even a member of the Teamsters once.
KK: How’d you first get interested in biography?
JMM: I first got interested in biography because of obituaries. I developed what some people might think is a lugubrious habit when I was very young. By that I mean, 11 or 12 years old. I loved to read obituaries in the newspaper. Not the paid announcements, although I do read those, especially in small-town newspapers, but obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist are
An obituary is a biography. It tells you the life story of somebody who is worthy of attention, but it also has to provide the context. So, it gives you a history lesson. For instance, a recent obituary for Charles Sanna, the man who invented Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa, explained how the U.S. Army ordered powdered milk during the Korean war, and how a surplus of this milk led to his invention.
From obituaries, I went to reading biographers like W. A. Swanberg and Catherine Drinker Bowen. And, of course, The Power Broker, published in 1974, made me see the incredible potential of the modern biography.
KK: Of the books you’ve written, which are you most proud of?
JMM: That question is asked to me sometimes at a bookstore event. It’s a tough question because it’s sort of like asking which of your children you like best. Each book has represented something very different in my life. I most like to write about someone that nobody else has written about. Second, I like illuminating the life of someone who is less well known, who might slip through the cracks of history. I accomplished that best with Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press.
KK: What are the challenges facing biographers today?
JMM: I will elaborate on the three problems I see facing our craft when I give my talk at the conference. First, the prevalence of easily accessible biographical information about almost any figure—think Wikipedia here—has diminished the imperative of including biographies in one’s library. Because of this, the quality of the writing has become paramount. Second, it is increasingly hard to find commercial support for doing books about lesser-known subjects. Third, and conversely, it’s become a hostile world for unauthorized biographies of powerful figures. Hagiographical accounts of their lives thrive while independent and unauthorized biographies diminish. The current attacks on the press has compounded this.
KK: How do you feel about winning the BIO Award?
JMM: Obviously, I’m thrilled, touched, and honored at the same time. But it’s sort of an awkward moment. If you look at the list of previous BIO winners, which includes the likes of Claire Tomalin, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Jean Strouse, and Arnold Rampersad, these are some of the most eminent biographers of our times. I’m certainly not among the rank, so it’s clear that part of the reason I was chosen is not because of some turn of phrase or some remarkably good research I did, but for my contribution in creating and launching BIO. (That’s one long sentence.) Because the prize is for somebody who’s helped advance the art and craft of biography, I can see the rationale. But, at the same time, I’m in very lofty company now, and if there’s ever a plaque made with all the winners, I’m sure somebody, when they dust it off, will say, “Oh, Robert Caro, I know him. Stacy Schiff, sure. James McGrath Morris? Who the heck was he?”
Kitty Kelley is an internationally acclaimed writer, having written seven New York Times bestselling biographies, five of which debuted at number one. Her many awards include one from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for “courageous writing on popular culture.” She serves on the BIO Board.
By John A. Farrell
Did liberal scholarship, degrading the principle of truth with postmodern theory, pave the way for Donald Trump’s duplicity?
Biographer Nigel Hamilton, a former BIO president, proposed as much in a biting address that launched “Different Lives,” a three-day conference on biography at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, in late September.
“The White House was won . . . by a real estate developer committed to a platform of misogyny, hatred of immigrants, opposition to federal government, and greed-obsessed fantasy as preferable to reality,” said Hamilton. “Americans . . . are now living with the worrying outcome of that election—especially its implications for the concept of truth.”
Trump’s “Orwellian suppression of truthfulness” has roots in postwar postmodern and deconstructionist theories, Hamilton contended. Laudably, he said, biographers have resisted the call.
Organized by Hans Renders’s team at the Biography Institute in Groningen, with support from BIO and the Biography Society in France, the conference lured biographers from four continents and 18 countries.
The keynote address was given by British biographer Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award. The Dutch Biography Prize was given to Onno Blom, for his book on artist and writer Jan Wolkers. And the conference attendees were treated, midway through the program, to author Nick Weber’s stately, successful defense of his Ph.D. thesis on the painter Piet Mondrian.
BIO member Carl Rollyson spoke on the art of presidential biography. Writers from Iran, Russia, and Vietnam reminded attendees to not take for granted the immeasurable value of artistic freedom. Lindie Koorts of South Africa and Spain’s Maria Jesus Gonzalez gave instructive talks on how contemporary political issues affect the choices and interpretations made by biographers in their two countries.
Hamilton addressed issues of truthfulness and politics as well. We are “now confronting the effects of American cultural decay” symbolized by “a reckless administration of willful know-nothings,” he said, in a talk titled “Truth, Lies, and Fake Truth: The Future of Biography.”
Drawing from his own writings and experience, and quoting from critic Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Hamilton traced a line from the more extreme forms of poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism—that paint history, political verities, and at times science as social constructions—to today’s “fake news” climate.
With a few exceptions, biographers have resisted, Hamilton said. In the discipline, “truth has remained a red line,” he contended, a reason that readers have turned to biography in its recent golden age, for its reliance on “verifiable facts.”
Biographers “hewed to what was biography’s lifeblood: non-fiction,” he said, and “were pressed to work harder than ever in their search of the truth about real individuals. Where footnotes and endnotes had once been considered de trop in biography, they now became mandatory.”
Biographers, resisting the lure of postmodern theory, are now “willing to work harder to find and authenticate sources, do new interviews, challenge and update earlier accounts—to do, in short, the intense forensic research . . . footnoted and endnoted, that had once been the prerogative of the academic historian.”
Joanny Moulin, the president of the Biography Society and a member of BIO’s Advisory Council, replied in part to Hamilton in his own talk on biography. “My take on biography is theoretical, because I am French,” he said wryly. Biographers may resist the extreme interpretations—and extreme criticism—of postmodern theory, Moulin said, but it is foolish to say that social constructs and other forces don’t guide the lives and choices of individuals.
Biographers cannot close their eyes to the implications and insights of modern theory, Moulin contended. The notion that we can “go back to the good old days—this is nonsense,” he said.
Lectures about the culture of biography in Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and Indonesia were alternated by roundtables. During these discussions, there was a lively debate on propositions about censorship, the reception of biography, and the relationship between biography and history. Finally, David Veltman made some remarks about the political impact of artists’ biographies in Belgium.
This well-attended conference was prepared to the very detail by Hans Renders (another member of BIO’s Advisory Council), Madelon Nanninga-Franssen, and David Veltman. During the farewell dinner, they were frequently called upon to organize such an event again.
Below are reports on two of the panels that were offered at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in May, written with assistance from John Grady. Each article continues on the BIO website. BIO members can read about seven more sessions in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft; an archived copy is available in the Member Area.
You can see a photo gallery from the conference here.
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 Gourmands’ Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.
Writing About the Vietnam War
Moderator Marc Leepson, a Vietnam War veteran, began the session by providing some background. The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. war before the twenty-first century and the country’s most controversial overseas war. After the war, Leepson said, “Nobody really wanted to talk about it” because of its divisive nature. But as panelists Kai Bird, Max Boot, and Heath Lee showed, there is a market today for certain biographies relating to the Vietnam War era, even if there are challenges in writing them.
For Bird, one challenge was getting one of his subjects, McGeorge Bundy, to open up about his involvement in the war. Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms looked at the role both Bundy brothers played in setting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Bird, a former Vietnam War protester, wanted to explore how smart, liberal intellectuals came to get America into and then defend the war. He was able to meet with both Bundys. William, he said, “was much more of a gentleman and a scholar” and more generous with his time. On the other hand, Bird said, “I feared Mac Bundy”—a man Bird once considered a war criminal. McGeorge was sometimes dismissive of Bird’s questions. The Color of Truth came out in 1991, and Bird said he had no trouble getting it published, but he was still dealing with his own anger about the war as he wrote it.
Both Max Boot and Heath Lee are of a younger generation than Leepson and Bird; their experiences of the Vietnam War were not nearly as direct. Boot said that with younger writers of Vietnam books “you lose some of that sense of immediacy” that came from authors writing just after the war. “But,” he added, “I think what you gain is some more perspective.” Boot brought that perspective to his recent biography of Edward Lansdale, the first complete look at the life of a military officer and CIA agent who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Lansdale often appeared as a character in other books about the war, and Boot said he was usually presented in a one-dimensional way, as a con artist or malevolent figure. Boot wanted to present Lansdale in a more balanced way, while still presenting his flaws.
Heath Lee’s Vietnam book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the President, the Pentagon and the Rest of the US Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, which will be published April 2, 2019, is a group biography of civilians who have been overlooked: the wives of American POWs/MIAs. While writing the book, she said, she came to “love the ladies,” but she knew a biographer should not fall in love with her subjects. She interviewed most of the women featured, and they were eager to share a story that had not been told before. Another major source was the diary of Sybil Stockdale, one of the key figures in the book.
Highlights of the 2018 BIO Conference: Holmes Keynote Address and Husband-and-Wife Team in Conversation
More than 225 established and aspiring biographers from three continents immersed themselves in their craft at the Ninth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held May 18 and 19, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Along with the announcement of the Plutarch Award for 2018, conference highlights included a keynote address by Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award, and a discussion between Edmund Morris and Sylvia Jukes Morris, who shared their experiences writing about both living and dead subjects. [more]
Scenes from the 2018 BIO Conference: