News

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 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.

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.

BIO Announces Finalists for Plutarch Award

Biographies of Malcolm X, Jimmy Carter, and Charles Dickens are in the running for the 2021 Plutarch Award, which will go to the best biography of 2020, as chosen by  a distinguished panel of BIO members. The winner will be announced on May 16 during the 11th BIO Conference. You can see the five finalists as well as the other five books that made the longlist for the award, here.

BIO Hosts Online Event with Peniel E. Joseph

Peniel E. Joseph will discuss his The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a conversation with author and poet Ed Pavlic. This event will take place via Zoom on Thursday, April 22, at 6:30 Eastern time. You may register by clicking on this link. You will receive another link to watch the event.

Members of the Biographers’ Circle are generously donating to this fundraising event. Gayfryd Steinberg, a member of BIO’s Advisory Council, and her husband Michael Shnayerson organized this philanthropic group in 2019 to support BIO’s fellowships and awards. Once the pandemic ends, Biographers’ Circle events will again take place in private homes.

Peniel Joseph, another member of BIO’s Advisory Council, is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is the author of Stokely: A Life as well as other books about the Civil Rights Movement. Ed Pavlic is a professor of English, African American Studies, and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His most recent publication is a book of poems focusing on racial dynamics in contemporary life, Let It Be Broke.

BIO President Linda Leavell said, “On behalf of BIO’s Development Committee—Deirdre David (co-chair), Kitty Kelley, and Will Swift (co-chair)—I invite you to join members of the Biographers’ Circle for a stimulating evening.”

A donation of $25 is suggested but not required. All gifts are tax-deductible. Click HERE to donate via credit card or PayPal.

Or send a check, made out to “Biographers International Organization” directly to:
Biographers International Organization
PO Box 33020
Santa Fe, NM 87594

Tanya Paperny Wins Hazel Rowley Prize

Photo by Fid Thompson

Tanya Paperny is the 2021 winner of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize for her proposal for Tender/Fierce: The Life and Death of My Revolutionary Prababushka. The committee was impressed by Paperny’s gripping prose about an important story of political tyranny that has been little told from a biographical perspective. “In 1938, my great-grandmother Tatiana Ivanovna Shatalova-Rabinovich was executed by the Soviet secret police and dumped in a mass grave where hundreds would soon lie,” Paperny writes. “In her too-short life, she organized the release of political prisoners, co-edited radical pamphlets, and intersected with the famed Leon Trotsky, a man also killed by a Stalinist agent. This biography will be among the first English-language works written by a descendent of Stalin’s victims.”

Paperny is a writer and artist based in Washington, D.C.  She earned an MFA in nonfiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications.

The Rowley Prize, worth $2,000, goes to a first-time biographer and also includes a careful reading from an established agent; a year’s membership in BIO and registration to the annual conference; and publicity for the author and project. The prize is a way for BIO—an organization of biographers, agents, editors, and biography devotees—to advance its mission and extend its reach to talented new practitioners. You can see a list of past winners here.

BIO gives the prize in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States. A BIO enthusiast from its inception, Rowley understood the need for biographers to help and support one another. Before her untimely death, she had written four acclaimed biographies. Rowley was a passionate advocate for the art and craft of biography, a writer of exacting standards, and a generous friend to fellow biographers.

BIO Conference Preview: Writing the First Biography of Your Subject: A Q&A with Debby Applegate and Abigail Santamaria

Debby Applegate

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

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.”
Your response?
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.

BIO Zoom Workshop: Biography of Science, Medicine, and Innovation

What particular challenges and opportunities lie in writing about the lives of pioneers in the fields of science, medicine, and technology? Three distinguished panelists share their experiences, ranging from making technical information accessible to general and young adult audiences, to debunking “racial champion” myths and revealing “warts-and-all” about legendary subjects. Watch a video of the workshop here.

Panelists:
Rayvon Fouché
is Professor of American Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Purdue University. His work explores the multiple intersections between cultural representation, racial identification, and technological design.  He is the author of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, & Shelby Davidson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), and authored or edited Appropriating Technology: Vernacular Science and Social Power (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), Technology Studies (Sage Publications, 2008), the 4th Edition of the Handbook of Science & Technology Studies (MIT Press, 2016), and Game Changer: The Technoscientific Revolution in Sports (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). https://www.rayvonfouche.com

Charlotte D. Jacobs, MD, is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University and a proud member of BIO. Her first biography, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease (Stanford University Press, 2010), tells the story of a controversial physician-scientist whose passionate drive to cure cancer changed the course of cancer therapy. Jacobs’ second biography, Jonas Salk: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2015), chronicles the life of one of America’s most beloved scientific heroes. Salk’s polio vaccine all but eradicated a crippling disease, and the scientific community never forgave him. It was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book prize for Biography. http://www.charlottejacobs.net  

Catherine Reef has written more than forty books for young readers and adults, many of them biographies. For Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind (Clarion, 2001) she received the Sydney Taylor Award and a National Jewish Book Award Honor. Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse (Clarion, 2016) was named an Outstanding Science Trade Book by the National Science Teachers Association. Catherine is also the recipient of the 2020-2021 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award, which honors her body of work. She lives and writes in College Park, Maryland. http://catherinereef.com 

Moderator:
Marlene Trestman
 is the author of Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin, and is now writing Most Fortunate Unfortunates: New Orleans’s Jewish Orphans’ Home, 1855-1946 for LSU Press. For her writing, Trestman has received funding from NEH, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Supreme Court Historical Society, American Jewish Archives, and Texas Jewish Historical Society. www.marlenetrestman.com 

David Levering Lewis Wins 2021 BIO Award

By Kitty Kelley

Among his honors, David Levering Lewis received the 2009 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House on February 25, 2010.

David Levering Lewis is the winner of the 12th BIO Award. This prize is bestowed annually to a distinguished colleague who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.

Lewis, 85, an American historian, is the Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University. He is the first author to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography for his successive volumes on W. E. B. Du Bois: W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography Of A Race, 1868–1919 and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and The American Century, 1919–1963.

Lewis also won the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his two-volume biography of Du Bois, 15 years in the research and writing, and hailed by critics as “definitive” and “magisterial.” Kirkus wrote: “Du Bois has finally found a Boswell worthy of his achievements as an African-American reformer who fought for human rights in the US and the wider world.”

A spectacular scholar who has written eight books and edited two, Lewis was educated at Fisk and Columbia Universities, and received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has taught at Morgan State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of the District of Columbia. He was professor of history at the University of California at San Diego from 1980–1984 and, in 1985, he joined Rutgers University as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History. He served as “distinguished visiting professor” in the history department of Harvard in 2001 and, in 2003, he was appointed to his current position at NYU.

Throughout his career Lewis has received prestigious fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Humanities Center, the American Philosophical Society, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has served as a trustee of the National Humanities Center; the commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery; a former senator of Phi Beta Kappa; and former president of the Society of American Historians. He currently serves on the board of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine.

“The BIO Award is the highest honor that our organization bestows, and David Levering Lewis is an obvious choice,” said Linda Leavell, president of BIO. “His spectacular lifetime of work—his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., his two volumes of W. E. B. Du Bois, and his most recent biography of Wendell Willkie—inspires all of us and adds immensely to the genre of biography.”

Previous BIO Award winners are Taylor Branch, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Richard Holmes, Hermione Lee, Candice Millard, James McGrath Morris, Arnold Rampersad, Stacy Schiff, Jean Strouse, and Claire Tomalin.

Kitty Kelley, who has written seven biographies, serves on the BIO Board of Directors.