Acclaimed literary biographer Richard Holmes will receive the 2018 BIO Award at BIO’s upcoming conference in New York and give the keynote speech on May 19. As a preview of that, James Atlas interviewed Holmes; you can read the interview here.
The recent election for the BIO board of directors marked the end of Will Swift’s two-year term as president. Will shared some thoughts with The Biographer’s Craft on his achievements, the future of BIO, and what lies ahead for him. You can read the interview here.
James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale was published to high praise by Pantheon Books on August 22. As Ron Chernow wrote about the book, “Anyone even remotely interested in the art of biography will be captivated.” In moving and hilarious stories from his own life and his lifelong study of biographers, Atlas—an active BIO member and the celebrated biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, as well as the founding editor and publisher of the acclaimed Penguin Lives and Eminent Lives series of short biographies—recasts the lives, works, and misadventures of fellow biographers from Plutarch and Thomas Carlyle to Michael Holroyd and Judith Thurman and explains how he came to be a biographer and what he has discovered about the “obsessive diggers drawn into this odd profession,” during 40 years of biographical sleuthing and adventures. Anne Heller interviewed him for TBC.
Why were you attracted to biography, James? In your book, you quote Leon Edel: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of biography out of some deeply personal motive.” What was yours?
I didn’t realize until after I had been working as a biographer for a long time that one evenhas motives. I studied with Richard Ellmann at Oxford and decided I wanted to become a biographer myself. At first, I thought I was confronting a simple and basic calculation: Who’s interesting? I chose Delmore [Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, 1977], who had been dead ten years and whom no one had written a life of. After I finished, I was offered various projects, like Tennessee Williams and Cyril Connolly. And then, of course, there was Edmund Wilson, whose biography I agreed to write when I was in my early 30s. Unlike Delmore, Wilson was at that time near the peak of fame and influence. He had lived a fascinating, even ribald, life and had known everyone worth knowing at the time. He offered a large canvas on which a skilled biographer could draw a map of the intellectual life of twentieth-century America. And yet I procrastinated for five years. It got to the point where whenever I passed my shelf of Wilson’s books I averted my eyes. One problem was that there was a surfeit of published autobiographical material—letters and journals, autobiographical essays and books. To some degree Wilson had done the job himself; I felt that his biographer would mainly be a literary custodian. Then his catalogues of the many women he’d bedded got on my nerves. The detail! Finally, I realized that I didn’t want to write the book. I didn’t have a personal motive for writing it: a compelling connection to the subject.
I have discovered that there are both overt and covert motives for writing about a subject. My books are an example of “overt” motives, where there is a specific biographical and/or factual connection between the biographer and his subject. Delmore Schwartz was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, as were my grandparents, and he was a temperamental poet, as I was in my youth. I saw in him many of the experiences and conflicts that I myself had been working through. The same was true of Saul Bellow, my second subject [Bellow: A Biography, 2000], since I was from Chicago and he was part of the cultural context of my growing up. There’s a wonderful Yiddish word, mishpachah, meaning family that’s not your actual blood relatives but that forms your cultural and sociological circle of people. Both Delmore and Bellow were mishpachah. I learned that one of the reasons I picked my subjects was that I wanted answers to my own history.
Now with biographers such as Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann, to take two examples, the connections with their great subjects Henry James and James Joyce were not explicit. They were covert. In both cases the connection was subliminal, emotional, and powerful. For example, Edel and James both suffered from depression. So for me, this idea of finding your subject is in essence a means of finding yourself. When I realized this it opened up the practice of biography for me, both as a writer and as an editor. It helped me to understand what I was doing, what I was looking for.
The most vivid example is about Bellow. I needed to try to understand what impelled him to marry so many times and have so many girlfriends and make such a mess. What need was he trying to address? I was looking for his motive. One night I was reading Heinz Kohut, the great psychiatrist and the founder of self-psychology, whom Bellow briefly saw for therapy. I came across his explanation of narcissism. He described the narcissist’s need almost to wake himself up, to try to fill a lurking sense of emptiness. I was electrified. I thought, “That’s it!” That was what Bellow was doing with his wives and lovers. Training oneself to think broadly about one’s subject and not just collect the historical data—you might say training oneself to intervene in the story—that’s where the energy is for me, that’s where biography comes alive.Having made a stunning survey of biography past and present—reading about them is one of the great pleasures of your book—and having written two biographies of your own, how do you gauge the benefits and drawbacks of writing about the living—someone you know or get to know—versus the dead?
That’s a good question. In my case, I wish I had waited until Bellow died, so that the issues wouldn’t have been so incendiary—his sex life and so on. But ideally, if you have empathy, common sense, shrewdness, and good judgment, you can create a vivid biography of a person you come to know, the classic example being [James] Boswell and [Samuel] Johnson, although Boswell did wait until Johnson was dead to publish his book. In our own day, Patrick French, the biographer of V. S. Naipaul, managed to create a brilliant portrait of Naipaul while he was still alive. What’s amazing about this feat is that Naipaul is widely regarded as a terrible human being. How did French do it? He did it by disallowing judgment. Apart from the fact that he is a great biographer and writer, French’s most important quality was that he could write about Naipaul’s grotesque behavior—toward his dying wife, for example—and somehow make everything clear and understandable. His objectivity, tempered by empathy, made for a portrait that was riveting. The biographer, while being driven by a passion, still has to stand aside. James Joyce said that the artist stands apart, paring his fingernails. The biographer should stand apart and yet enter deeply into a subject’s life.
You discuss the compelling nature of research—one more letter to be found, one more detail to pin down. When is enough enough?
There is definitely an end point, but one doesn’t always know where it is. You have to sit down and write. You can keep researching while you write. But at some point you feel a sense of weariness: I’ve heard enough from you. Now we’re going to hear from me.
You quote Dr. Johnson as saying, “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation. I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can use.” How is biography useful?
Biography is useful because it shows us what a human being is, who we are, and why we do the things we do. A great biography illuminates character. Why is Ellmann’s [James] Joyce one of the preeminent modern biographies? Because it gives us the cultural context of Joyce’s life and elucidates the greatness of his writing. It is itself masterfully written. But most of all, it evokes Joyce’s humanity in all the little details. There is a great scene in the book in which Joyce is having trouble with his landlord in Trieste. In that period, Joyce was insisting that he be called “the Bard.” Ellmann writes, “The Bard had no money.” So beautiful—the irony and the affection it expresses for its subject.
You write that like other art forms, biography is bound by the conventions of the moment. Are there any approaches to writing a life that you’re sorry have fallen from favor?
Yes: the writing itself. Some of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographies are beautifully written. And so are biographical works by Holroyd, Ellmann, E. M. Forster, George Painter’s [Marcel] Proust. I sometimes think we’ve forgotten to pay enough attention to the craft of writing. Biographies should be as much written as poetry or fiction.
Are your going to write another biography?
Here is James Atlas’s abbreviated reading list for practicing biographers:
- Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography
- André Maurois, Aspects of Biography
- Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
- Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
- Boccaccio, Life of Dante
- Lord Macaulay, Essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson
- Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
- Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self
By James McGrath Morris
This year the Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author” was awarded to an author who wrote neither a biography nor an autobiography. In fact, neither did the two finalists in this category. The prizewinner and the finalists all wrote memoirs.
The prize was awarded to The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The two finalists were In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi and When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi.
Further muddying the water was that in 2016 the prize for Biography/Autobiography went to William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and one of the two finalists was also a memoir. The other finalist, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles, was moved by the board to the History category and given that prize.
The Pulitzer Prize board’s selection of memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category has sparked a debate among biographers. Most believe that memoir is a fundamentally different form of writing about a life in that it does not require any form of documentation, especially the kind of research that often distinguishes biographies.
BIO’s board is requesting to meet with the Pulitzer Prize administrator to discuss the continued commingling of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Currently, the Pulitzer Prize organization is seeking a new administrator, since Mike Pride announced his retirement.
To help sort out this this issue, TBC turned to David Nasaw, the distinguished historian, accomplished biographer, and chairman of the advisory board of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. Nasaw is the author of three biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst; Andrew Carnegie; and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The latter two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography/Autobiography category.
James McGrath Morris: You were invited to chair the Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015 for the prize awarded in April 2016, isn’t that right?
David Nasaw: I was sort of surprised that they gave it to me, if only because I had been a finalist twice but never a winner. Of my three biographies, The Chief was never submitted to the Pulitzer committee, which was a bit of a scandal with Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times wrote about it. Houghton Mifflin just forgot to give them the book. My next two books were finalists. So, everything I say about the Pulitzers should be taken with a grain of salt, because I have a particular history with the prizes.
JMM: Nonetheless, you were chosen as the chairperson for the 2015 awards and you began work by studying the guidelines.
DN: We, the three of us who were on the committee, read the guidelines that we were given very, very, very carefully. And, we interpreted the guidelines as ruling out of competition any memoirs that were not documented. The guidelines that we were given said that for the nonfiction awards it was very important that the materials in these books be appropriately documented. And, they said that there should be some references, footnotes, endnotes, or in the text itself, which gave the reader the confidence that what was being said, or what was being reported, had actually taken place. The Pulitzer guidelines made that abundantly clear.
JMM: Did you have other things by which to guide your deliberations?
DN: In addition to those guidelines, I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.
It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.
JMM: What did you do then?
DN: So, we made our determinations clear to the administrator, who was in contact with us. And, we let it be known that after studying and applying the guidelines, we were not considering 30 percent or 40 percent of the books (I don’t know the exact number) that had been submitted under this category. When we finished our deliberations, we were asked to write a report. In it, we explained how we had made our decisions.
Twice afterwards I wrote to the administrator of the prize and I said, “We consider this very important, that the Pulitzer board has to make a decision as to what it’s going to do.”
JMM: What can it do?
DN: We recommended a number of changes to the Pulitzer board to remedy the situation we had encountered. It could establish memoir as a separate category; it could add memoir to the Biography/Autobiography category, so it’s Autobiography/Memoir/Biography; or, it could let publishers know that memoirs should be submitted in the general Nonfiction category. Whatever it decided to do, we argued against it continuing to accept “memoir” nominations in the Autobiography/Biography category because we thought that other jurors would do as we had done, would read the guidelines as we had read them, and not consider the memoir submissions for the prize.
JMM: Then the subsequent selections in 2016 and 2017 must have been a shock?
DN: You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs.
So, I, having been a judge, I’m not saying the jurors were wrong to do this, I would never say that. But I will say that the guidelines are so written that one committee could read them in a way that appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the way the other committees read them. There’s got to be something wrong there.
JMM: If you were made emperor of the Pulitzer Prize, what would you do to fix this?
DN: I’d simply make a category for memoir. When these categories were first designed, there were very few memoirs. The committee has adjusted all the other awards, certainly all the journalism awards.
JMM: Very often they have.
DN: On a regular basis. Why can’t it pay the same attention to the arts and letters awards?
JMM: And you would be okay with keeping autobiography and biography together as one?
DN: Sure. Sure. And, if the Pulitzer board doesn’t want to do that, then it should add memoir to that list. The fact that Amazon puts memoir into the same category as autobiography and biography doesn’t mean that we should do the same. There has historically been a difference between autobiography and memoir. And a memoir, as we know, is not in the same genre, I don’t think, as biography.
JMM: I was a judge recently on the Western Writers of American prize for best biography. I took out a memoir from the pile of books I was to judge because I didn’t see how you could compare it to biography.
DN: That’s exactly what we did for the 2015 awards. And, I assume from looking at the judging, that’s what had happened earlier.
JMM: When you think of presidential autobiographies, they have a staff who uses all these memoirs and calendars to get the dates right. Their autobiographies may be self-serving, but still, they are biographies of their lives.
DN: Yeah. So, I don’t know what’s going on. I think it is an extraordinary disservice to memoir and to biography. Because these are separate literary genres. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award.
Cathy Curtis: What prompted you to start writing biographies?
Candice Millard: I have always been interested in biography. In fact, one of the best parts of my job at National Geographic was looking for story ideas that focused on human history rather than natural history. So, when I thought of writing my first book, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be about someone, not something. But I also wanted a story, not a subject. I didn’t want to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I was looking for a story within a life.
CM: I spend a great deal of time looking for the right subject. In fact, I think it’s the most important part of writing a book. I’m looking for not only a great story, but one that comes with enormous amounts of primary resources, so much that I despair of ever getting through it all.
Without mountains of letters, journals, newspaper articles, it’s difficult to have dialogue; all the little details that, I hope, make readers feel as if they’re there; and a deep understanding of the story and the people within it. I’ve fallen in love with book ideas in the past and spent months, even years researching them, only to realize that there just wasn’t enough primary source material. As difficult as it was, I had to walk away.
CM: Like any thinking person, I highly value biographies that take in the full expanse of a person’s life, and I read a lot of them. But when I’m looking for a subject for myself, I’m interested in stories that are intimate, focused, and, I hope, illuminating. To me, the most illuminating moments in a life are when a person is at his or her most vulnerable, when they’re searching for a foothold, unsure of the path forward, frightened, grieving, even desperate. These are emotions we’ve all experienced, and they help us understand each other, help us find that thread of common humanity.
CM: The greatest lesson The River of Doubt taught me is the importance of outlining. I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but I am lost without an outline, and not just a basic sketch of how the book will unfold but a long, incredibly detailed outline that helps me think through every step of the story.
CM: As I get older, I feel like I understand my subjects a little better because I’ve had more of those shared experiences. I’ve seen more of the world, experienced more joy, more sorrow, even tragedy, and because of that when I peer into someone else’s life I can see a little of myself. Maybe because of that I have more compassion, I hope, and am not as quick to judge. I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. I’m certainly not. And that’s what interests me—not the perfect person, but the person who struggles, as we all do.
CM: While I love my work, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it, it comes in a very distant second place to my children. Surprisingly, however, what I’ve realized over the past 15 years is that being forced to work around my kids’ schedules is actually not a bad thing. I don’t know that I would have the discipline to get right to work every morning if I knew that I had all day to get it done. Knowing that I only have between drop off and pick up is incredibly helpful. I get up, get dressed, take the kids to school, and then go to work.
My office is in my husband’s company, so I’m not home, thinking about the laundry waiting to be done or the Legos that are scattered all over the floor. As soon as I step into my office and close the door, I’m in another place and time. To be honest, it’s a little disorienting when I have to go pick up the kids, but I leave myself notes so that I can pretty easily jump back in the next morning.
CM: Wrapping up the research. There’s always another lead to follow, another archive to visit, another storyline to investigate and that, to me, is the best part of the job. I love doing research, and I would be very happy to keep doing it for years on end, but eventually I have to start writing or I will never finish the book.
CM: I have been very fortunate to be able to meet many of the descendants of the people I’ve written about, not just the central characters but the people surrounding them, from Candido Rondon’s grandchildren to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all, but no one has made a stronger impression on me than Bob Garfield, James Garfield’s great-grandson.
I spent some time with Bob, who is now the patriarch of the Garfield family, while I was doing research, and I remember thinking that he was one of the finest people I had ever met—kind, smart, a skilled pianist, and the consummate gentleman. When Destiny of the Republic was released, Bob attended a talk that I gave at Garfield’s farmhouse in Ohio, where Bob had spent much of his childhood. After I spoke, he stood up and said that the book had meant a great deal to him and his family and that it had “brought a ghost to life.” I will never forget that moment. It made me very proud.
CM: I just started work on a book about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story that I fell in love with many years ago, when I was still working at National Geographic, so I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to really dig in and understand it.
Biographers International Organization will present its third annual Editorial Excellence Award to the legendary editor Nan A. Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of her own imprint, Nan A. Talese Books at Doubleday, at an evening reception on October 5 in New York City.
In the course of fifty years, Nan Talese has edited and published some of the most distinguished biographiess and nonfiction works of our time, including A. Alvarez’s enduring classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide; Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List; Phyllis Rose’s Josephine Baker in Her Time; François Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso; Benita Eisler’s O’Keeffe and Stieglitz; Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette; many books by Peter Ackroyd, including The Life of Thomas More, Shakespeare, Chaucer, J. M. W. Turner, Newton, Poe, Chaplin, and London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets; and Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg and the forthcoming Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, among many others. We spoke with Nan briefly about the experience of editing biography and what she looks for when considering the acquisition of a book.
TBC: Can you provide us with a telling example of how working actively with an author improved one of the biographies you published?
Talese: The best example may be the first biography I edited, A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966). The author and I sat together with the manuscript. I pointed out scenes that seemed less interesting than other scenes or that did not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character of Hemingway. I asked him questions: “What is going on there? What do you want to convey?” and he answered and I would say, “Put that in!” We ended by cutting one fifth of the manuscript and adding another one fifth in.
TBC: What do you look for in a proposal or a manuscript?
Talese: The first thing I consider is whether the subject is well known and well respected, and what the crucial scenes were in his or her life. What caused a subject to change his mind or direction? Then I look for whether the author has a gift for storytelling and whether the writer’s voice transfers his or her passion to the reader and the page. I look for the ability to tell a powerful story while being very careful to stay within the facts.
TBC: What are editors looking for today?
Talese: Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in pop stars and in celebrities of all kinds. This is cyclical, and—if fifty years of editing is any guide—this interest will go and come again.
If you will be in or near New York on October 5, do consider joining Nan and a number of the biographers she has published for an evening of lively conversation. The event takes place at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.
Buy tickets here.
If BIO gave an award to the member who ventured the farthest for its annual conference, Radha Chadha would have taken it for 2016. Originally from India, Chadha traveled from her current home in Dubai to Richmond for this year’s event, after being introduced to BIO by TBCNew York correspondent Dona Munker. The path to meeting Munker intersected with Chadha’s effort to write a biography of her father, the documentary filmmaker and producer Jagat Murari.
As Chadha told TBC via email, she was going through her late father’s papers in Pune, a city near Mumbai, when she discovered diaries going back to his days as a film student at USC shortly after World War II. The diaries mentioned a Persian princess named Sattareh Farman Farmaian, whom Murari had met at the school. Farmaian, Chadha learned, had written an autobiography with Dona Munker’s assistance, so Chadha contacted the BIO member, starting a relationship that has been very fruitful for the rookie biographer. Chadha said that Munker “has been amazing—very generous and full of helpful advice that a first-time biographer like me thirsts for. I found the same generous spirit at the BIO conference in Richmond. I am simply delighted to be part of this group.”
What led Chadha to tackle the challenge of writing about her father’s life? Part of it was wanting to tell the story of a key figure in postwar India filmmaking. “He has a fascinating story of achievements that even I didn’t know properly,” Chadha said. “He is a pioneer in the Indian cinema world, both as a documentary filmmaker and a film educator.
Murari directed nearly 50 films, and many of them won national and international awards and were screened at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. As an educator, Chadha said, her father was “in a sense…the man who changed Bollywood, who injected a steady stream of professionally trained directors, technicians, and actors into India’s prolific but chaotic film industry from the 1960s onwards.” Murari did that work as the head of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), which he created. “Think about it,” Chadha said. “Just a dozen years after India’s independence, in a desperately underdeveloped country, he builds the finest film school in India; it becomes the largest in Asia. His students become the who’s who of Bollywood, as well as the instigators and key players in the New Wave cinema movement that picked up steam in the late 1960s in India.”
Chadha was also drawn to her father’s story because his work in cinema is a part of modern India’s history that has largely gone untold. His documentaries, she said, “tell the story of India’s attempts to develop and unite a fragile nation, they capture a certain innocence or idealism of the times as India tried to ingrain the spirit of democracy in a vast, far-flung, diverse, poor, largely illiterate country.”
Adding some spice to the story, it doesn’t hurt that Murari did an internship with Orson Welles while the director was making Macbeth¸ and that he later met world-famous directors as they passed through India. And for a time, Indira Gandhi’s role as the country’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting effectively made her Murari’s boss.
Asked how to balance the desire to be objective while writing about a parent, Chadha called that “the heart of the dilemma I face—how to do your duty as a biographer (by being as objective as possible) while doing your duty as a daughter (by presenting him in the best light possible).” Chadha is turning to her father’s filmmaking as a guide of sorts. Above all, she said, her father was a dramatic storyteller, “and every good story is ultimately a tussle between the forces of good and bad… the forces that propel your character forward and the forces that prevent him from getting where he wants to…. Fortunately, my material has plenty of drama built in—he was strong-willed, he was a visionary, he was in a tearing hurry, he made things happen against formidable odds…. He made enemies along the way, he made mistakes, there were ups, yes, but there were some pretty awful downs. Much as I love him, it would be totally counterproductive to write an I-love-my-daddy puff piece. I just have to get out of the way and tell the story.”
Chadha has some advice and caveats for other biographers thinking of writing about a close relative: “Of course, talking to other people is a great help. But people are not forthcoming about the negative stuff—in fact, one of my surprising learnings is that many elderly people haven’t told me the truth. I had naively imagined that “age equals honesty”—it doesn’t. But if you talk to enough people, you will get to the truth, a few will spill the beans. And every interview, even the sketchy ones, gives you a sense of what might have happened. Soon you begin to notice contradictions, and that leads to many ‘aha’ moments. It is detective work, but so much fun when you figure out someone’s motives. More importantly, it helps you develop a considered viewpoint, and ultimately, that’s what matters. I think the only way to write convincingly is to be convinced.”
Many of the people Chadha hoped to interview had passed away, but even talking to their surviving spouses or children helped. “It has led me to books/articles/speeches (often in languages that have needed translation) that I would not have found without the family’s help. Even better, it has led me to colleagues who are alive. For example, I stumbled upon a 94-year-old man who had studied with my father at USC—they had even shared a room for a short period.”
Chadha also benefited from her father’s being something of a celebrity for most of his career, so newspapers covered his activities. “But again,” she added, “I have learned that they don’t necessarily tell the truth—there are vested interests, there is careless reporting—you have to test the information with your other sources.” Her father was a controversial figure, Chadha said, as some critics accused him of being too enamored of a commercial, Hollywood style of filmmaking when other countries were moving toward the French New Wave approach. As Murari got caught up in the debates, the reporting on him was a “mixed bag.” Overall, Chadha said, trying to remain objective while writing about a famous parent put her on high alert: “You simply try harder. You try to get multiple viewpoints from multiple sources.”
The sources included, of course, Murari’s films, which Chadha said helped her learn who he was as both a filmmaker and a human being. She also studied the films of his students. In the Bollywood vs. New Wave debate, she thinks her father saw value in both approaches. “His aim was to make ‘better cinema’—through professionally trained filmmakers—never mind which side of the fence that cinema came from.”
Today, India has the largest film industry in the world, producing up to 2,000 full-length movies each year. Both splashy Bollywood spectacles and more serious art-house films are shown around the globe. Radha Chadha is still uncovering the role her father played in creating that industry. “It is,” she said, “a story that needs to be told.”
In a preview of the BIO Conference panel “Three Ways of Looking at a Subject: Richard Nixon,” moderator John A. Farrell explores the presidential subject with two of the panelists.
Lincoln, we know. The Roosevelts, we get. Of Kennedy, we probably know too much. But the roster of American presidents still presents a few white whales for biographers to chase—chief executives whose lives don’t yield characterization easily. Jefferson has been called a sphinx. Reagan opaque. And then there is Richard Nixon.
The challenge in writing a life of Nixon is not a shortage of material; it’s partly that there is so much: millions of documents and thousands of hours of tape recordings; archives chock-full of videotape from the Vietnam War and Watergate; countless newspaper articles and columns and books about the Tricky Dick of the 1950s, the various New Nixons that ran for president, and the tragic chief executive who went to China, signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, won a landslide re-election, and resigned in disgrace. The vast sea of material makes fishing for Nixon an arduous task. So does his personality, which aide H. R. Haldeman compared to a piece of quartz, with its many, many facets.
Compounding the difficulty is the polarizing nature of the man, and of his times. For most of his political career, often deliberately, he divided the citizenry into those that loved Nixon, and them that hated him with unyielding passion. He came on the scene as an ally of Joe McCarthy. He implied that Harry Truman was a traitor, and was throughout an unforgiving partisan hatchet man. “If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, let’s call for a hatchet,” he said, campaigning, in 1952.
And his enemies—the liberals, academics, Democrats and journalists who Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked as impudent snobs and effete intellectuals—gave as good as they got.
“The American lower middle class in the person of this man moved to engrave into the history of the United States, as the voice of America, its own faltering spirit, its self-pity and its envy…its whole peevish, resentful whine,” the liberal New York columnist Murray Kempton wrote.
For the upcoming BIO conference in Richmond, three recent Nixon biographers—Evan Thomas, Being Nixon; Jeffrey Frank, Ike and Dick; and Irwin Gellman, The Contender and The President and the Apprentice—will join me on a Saturday afternoon panel, and talk about our turns as Captain Ahab. I quizzed two of them about the hunt last month.
Q: What special challenge does a polarizing figure like Nixon present? Is the historic record accurate, or does it reflect the political bias about Nixon from his era? How do you navigate these shoals?
Jeffrey Frank: The challenge is not to start off regarding him as a ‘polarizing’ figure, but rather to try to see him plainly—to let his life and times guide.
Evan Thomas: I worked for The Washington Post for 24 years, and…Nixon was the devil—an evil figure, corrupter of the Constitution, Tricky Dick. That is pretty much the view that has taken hold in the public generally, certainly in the so-called liberal establishment.
The Watergate era record makes Nixon look like a madman. The fuller record is more complex.
His reputation and standing will never escape Watergate, nor should it. But I wanted to humanize him. I tried to look at Nixon from the inside out. To understand his own sense of outsider-ness. To see what it was like, literally, to be Nixon.
“I can’t pretend to know with anything approaching certainty what Nixon was really feeling and thinking. I’m not sure Nixon himself did. He was, as far as I could tell from the record he left, remarkably un-self aware. He brooded constantly—about his enemies—and he felt deep insecurity. But he did not know his own weaknesses, not in a way he could control.
I once asked (Nixon aide) Brent Scowcroft if Nixon could see himself. No, answered Scowcroft, “but sometimes, I think, he took a peek.” That sounds about right to me.
Q: Is there a difference in how the generations of Americans view Nixon?
Jeffrey Frank: I’ve found that the Boomers still pretty much loathe him, although some try to see his better side. The Millennials see him as a cartoon —the Evil President, a little comic, too.
Q: After publication, did you find critics and readers open to your interpretation, or were they bound by their own political viewpoint?
Jeffrey Frank: I wondered whether some would see me as too sympathetic to Nixon, but in fact I think most were pretty open to what I was doing—not to sound pompous but trying to be, ahem, fair and balanced.
Evan Thomas: A mixed or somewhat forgiving picture of Nixon is not going to satisfy the large population of Nixon haters, especially those whose careers have been wrapped up in the view of Nixon as Monster. Since those same people were likely to review my book, I feared I would take my lumps, and I did. But I never had so much fun writing a book.”
Q: What are you hoping to learn from the other members of our panel?
Jeffrey Frank: I’m interested in hearing how the picture of Nixon began to change as other biographers drew closer to him—learning more about him, good and bad. Did he become more a “rounded” figure, and therefore more interesting, or did he simply seem to remain an unwavering partisan, and therefore increasingly tedious? Or a little of both?
John A. Farrell’s single-volume biography of Nixon will be published early next year.