Biographies Live on Despite COVID

COVID-19 has upset publishers’ schedules for releasing new books, which might explain the large number of notable biographies coming out in the last few months of 2020 (some were postponed from spring releases). Traditional cradle-to-grave works, group biographies, and books about “hidden figures” are among the books generating interest among media outlets, before their fall and winter publication. We’re highlighting here just some of the books likely to garner critical and popular attention, because of their subject, their author, or both. The titles already getting buzz are drawn from Publishers WeeklyKirkus ReviewsBooklistLibrary Journal, Publishers Marketplace, and Amazon, among other sources. You can see a longer list of the season’s highly anticipated biographies on the BIO website.

Please note: TBC does its best to learn about new books and our ongoing monthly “In Stores” feature includes even more fall and winter releases. But, if we’ve missed any members’ forthcoming books, please let us know so we can add them to the list on the website. Also, keep in mind that publishing dates change, especially during the pandemic, so some books may come out earlier or later than the dates indicated.

Political Figures
As is often the case, some of the most anticipated titles focus on political figures, past and current, from around the world. September sees the release of the second book of Volker Ullrich’s two-volume study of Adolf Hitler, Hitler: Downfall: 1939–1945. Other books out this month about World War II-era figures includes The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War by Catherine Grace Katz and Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben Macintyre.

Moving into the postwar era, out in September are JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917–1956 by Fredrik Logevall; The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson; His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter; Ten Days in Harlem: Fidel Castro and the Making of the 1960s by Simon Hall; The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne; and The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. Two books about contemporary political figures are Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters by Helena Andrews-Dyer and R. Eric Thomas and Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power by Justin Scheck and Bradley Hope.

Stepping back to figures from the 18th and 19th centuries, September’s biographies include The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation by Lynne Cheney; Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation by Peter Cozzens; and, adding to the 16,000 or so biographies on the 16th U.S. president, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds.

In October, the biographies of political figures range from ancient times to today: Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors by Adrian Goldsworthy; The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom by H. W. Brands; Eleanor by David Michaelis; Stalin: Passage to Revolution by Ronald Grigor Suny; The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian by Robert D. Kaplan; and Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932–1975 by Neal Gabler.

Jumping to December, two books look at influential women in politics and government: Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes and Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight by Julia Sweig. In January, Alison Weir’s Queens of the Crusades: England’s Medieval Queens looks at the first five Plantagenet queens. Finally, February releases take us back to World War II and the stories of some lesser-known women: Three Ordinary Girls: The Remarkable Story of Hannie Schaft and the Oversteegen Sisters, Teenaged Saboteurs and Nazi Assassins by Tim Brady and The Princess Spy: The True Story of World War II Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones by Larry Loftis.

Literary Figures and Fine Artists
Writers of all stripes are featured in many of the forthcoming biographies. Out in September are two books about women known for their feminist works: Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir by Judith G. Coffin and Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary by Martin Duberman. October sees the release of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. Out in November are books about an American historian—The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams by David S. Brown—and an American poet, The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography by Hilary Holladay. Also out that month is a book about literary lovers, not practitioners: The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui. December’s releases include Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody, while out in January will be Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells by Michelle Duster and The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene by Richard Greene. In February, a major work about a literary figure will be released: The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling by Ann McCutchan.

Moving to the visual arts, books about two Old Masters are out in September: Goya: A Portrait of the Artist by Janis Tomlinson and Young Rembrandt by Onno Blom. A notable October release is What Becomes a Legend Most: The Biography of Richard Avedon by Philip Gefter. Three modern painters are the subjects of biographies out in November: Magritte: A Life by Alexander Danchev and Sarah Whitfield; The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame, 1968–2011 by William Feaver; and Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. The latter two authors won a Pulitzer Prize for their 2005 biography of Willem de Kooning.

One notable book about a key figure from the world of classical music is Mozart: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford, which will be out in December.

Popular Culture and Sports
In September, rock music biographer Philip Norman takes a look at one of the most influential musicians of his generation in Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix. Also out this month is Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman—the only sports book singled out in this season’s preview. After turning his gaze on Princess Margaret, Craig Brown turns to the Fab Four with his October release, 150 Glimpses of the Beatles. Also out that month is The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall and a book about another important musician, Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life by Gustavus Stadler. Turning to film, two books due in October are Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman and The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone. Fashion icon Coco Chanel is the subject of a November title, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto by Miren Arzalluz. Out in February will be Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris.Other Notable Biographies
Not all the new releases drawing attention fit into the above categories. Among them are: The Great Inoculator: The Untold Story of Daniel Sutton and His Medical Revolution by Gavin Weightman and The Martyrdom of Collins Catch the Bear by Gary Spence, both out in September; the December release El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord by Noah Hurowitz; and A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South by Ben Montgomery, which is scheduled for a January release.Biographies by BIO Members
As is often true, the works of BIO members are well represented on the lists of forthcoming books. Out in September are Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer by Iris Jamahl Dunkle; The Life of William Faulkner: This Alarming Paradox, 1935–1962 by Carl Rollyson; and Women in the Dark: Female Photographers in the US, 1850–1900 by Katherine Manthorne. In October, William Souder presents a new look at a major American literary figure in Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck. Katherine Manthorne has a second book out this season, Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex, hitting the shelves in December. Also out that month is Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell by Alison M. Parker. January’s new biographies include The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura. Finally, February sees the publication of three books by members: Tom Stoppard: A Life by 2020 BIO Award-winner Hermione Lee; George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart; and Michael Shnayerson’s Bugsy Siegel: The Dark Side of the American Dream, part of the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series.

Fair Use: Q&A with the Experts

On June 9, Brandon Butler and Peter Jaszi took part in a virtual workshop for BIO on fair use for biographers. Here, Butler and Jaszi answer two follow-up questions on the topic. You can see a recording of the workshop here, and read BIO’s Statement on Best Practices regarding fair use here

Q: Taking into account fair use doctrine, when do we—and when don’t we—have to pay licensing fees in order to use photographs and other illustrations still under copyright in our books? And how do we find out if a photograph or illustration is out of copyright and can be reprinted freely?
A: There are two key contexts in which you don’t have to pay fees to use third-party content (such as photographs or illustrative material). The first is when your use is a fair use. We covered the broad contours of the fair use doctrine, and how it applies to some recurring biographical uses, in some detail during our webinar. Another very useful source of guidance on the scope of fair use is the growing body of best practices documents developed by communities of creators and other frequent users of in-copyright works. If your use is a fair use, you don’t have to get permission or pay licensing fees. An excellent case in point, which we described during the webinar, is the Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley case. Among other useful things, the Second Circuit’s opinion informs us that:

Preliminarily, we recognize, as the district court did, that Illustrated Trip is a biographical work documenting the 30–year history of the Grateful Dead. While there are no categories of presumptively fair use, courts have frequently afforded fair use protection to the use of copyrighted material in biographies, recognizing such works as forms of historic scholarship, criticism, and comment that require incorporation of original source material for optimum treatment of their subjects.

This important case also makes clear that fair uses don’t necessarily involve critique or commentary on the work that is being used. In that case, as in many others, the point of the reproduction was to illustrate the author’s narrative—which can be an entirely legitimate fair use purpose.

The other major context for unlicensed use is when the work you’re using is in the public domain, i.e., the work is no longer protected by copyright (or, in the case of some federal government works, it never was protected by copyright). The best quick reference for determining whether a work is in the public domain is the Cornell University Library’s handy chart. And sometimes, of course, text or images you want to use are available under a general Creative Commons license.

Q: How can we talk to our editors and publishers about a more liberal interpretation of fair use, especially in light of what you told us in the Zoom workshop about courts’ evolving and more expansive views on the law over the last 20 years?
A: Most editors and publishers need to understand four key things:

  • Fair use law has changed very substantially over the last two decades, including (crucially) its treatment of unpublished material. The very bad cases regarding unpublished material in biographies that were decided in the 1980s and early 1990s were overturned by an act of Congress, which added language to the Copyright Act explicitly stating that unpublished material shall be susceptible to the same balanced analysis as published materials. More generally, the law of fair use has become much, much more coherent and much more strongly favorable toward legitimate users than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • This change is now very, very well established. Scholars have shown, repeatedly, that if your use is “transformative,” you will win in court. Cases about biography and related scholarly uses, in particular, show a very clear mode of analysis that any author and publisher can apply favorably to their own typical, recurring uses. Plaintiffs now understand this, and they are wary of bringing lawsuits they know will lose. Courts have become quite willing to dismiss cases at early stages when a strong fair use case is evident on the face of the complaint.
  • Fair use makes books better. Arbitrary omissions and alterations that are rooted in legal fear, rather than in the author’s (and the editor’s) judgment about what best serves the story, will always make a book worse. They will lead you to leave out important context, to make assertions without important evidence, to ask the reader to trust you rather than give them the opportunity to believe their own eyes. The publisher that is willing to flex their fair use rights in support of authors will publish more, better books, and they will attract authors who value the freedom to tell their stories to the fullest extent allowed by their First Amendment rights, rather than having to trim their sails in deference to illusory legal risk. For a while, this will give savvy publishers a competitive advantage. 
  • According to Congress, fair use is a right, and the Supreme Court has weighed in to say that it’s closely related to the First Amendment freedom of expression. So, there is nothing sneaky or disreputable about exercising the fair use right where it applies.
Experience in other fields suggests that once one publisher or editor takes advantage of their rights, others will follow eventually, lest they be left behind. As more join the fair use pack and industry norms catch up to legal reality, there will be safety in numbers and everyone will be better off for it. For this to happen, though, authors may have to take the first step, by insisting that the editors and publishers allow them to make responsible use of this important copyright doctrine. 

Race, Racism, and Biography

Six BIO members shared their views on race and biography for the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft:

Black Lives/Young Readers by Ray Anthony Shepard

Archival Interventions: Reconstructing Life on the Margins of History by Pamela Newkirk

Biography Matters by Patricia Bell-Scott

Before There Was Karen, There Was Miss Anne by Carla Kaplan

The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph

Biography Has Mattered to Black Lives by Eric K. Washington


Black Lives Matter to BIO

During this historic summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter is garnering support nationally and internationally. For biographers and readers of biography, black lives matter, and writing black lives matters. Six BIO members will contribute essays to the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft about black lives, racism, and how they relate to biography. Here, in the meantime, are biographies of African-Americans by BIO members.

Alexandrov, Vladimir. The Black Russian, 2013.

Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice, 2016.

Branch, Taylor. America in the King Years, 3 Volumes, 1988, 1998, 2006.

Bundles, A’Lelia. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, 2001.

Burgan, Michael: Olympic Gold 1936: How the Image of Jesse Owens Crushed Hitler’s Evil Myth, 2017.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, 2004.

Cooper, Michael L. From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls, 1994

Forret, Jeff. Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts, 2020

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Mr. And Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend, 2008.

Gould, Jonathan. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, 2017.

Henig, Adam. Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey, 2014; Baseball Under Siege: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training, 2017.

Joseph, Peniel. Stokely: A Life, 2014; The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., 2020.

Kaplan, Carla. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2002.

Kelley, Kitty. Oprah: A Biography, 2010.

Kiesel, Diane. She Can Bring Us Home: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer, 2015.

Kranish, Michael. The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor; America’s First Black Sports Hero, 2019.

Meyer, Eugene. Five for Freedom: The African-American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, 2018.

Mikorenda, Jerry. America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights, 2020.

Morris, James McGrath. Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, 2017.

Newkirk, Pamela. Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, 2015.

Parker, Alison M. Unceasing Militant:The Life of Mary Church Terrell, due in December 2020.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1976; The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 Volumes, 1986, 2002; Jackie Robinson: A Biography, 1997; Ralph Ellison: A Biography, 2007.

Shepard, Ray. Now or Never!: Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery, 2017.

Snyder, Brad. A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, 2007

Teachout, Terry. Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, 2013.

Tooma, Billy. The Black Eagle of Harlem (documentary film), 2017.

Washington, Eric K. Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, 2019.

Williams, Sonja. Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom, 2015.

Woelfle, Gretchen. Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, 2014; Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution, 2016.

If you know of a biography by a BIO member that should be added to this list, please email Michael Burgan.

BIO Workshop: Living Subjects

On Wednesday, June 24, BIO presents “Living on the Edge: Writing Biography of a Living Subject.” 

Kai Bird (author of a forthcoming biography of President Jimmy Carter), David Greenberg (John Lewis), and Will Swift (Joan Baez) will talk about the the craft of writing an authorized or unauthorized life of a living subject. This form of biography requires juggling the skills of a journalist (tracking down key sources and interviewing them) and a historian (doing archival research).

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY’s Graduate Center in New York City. He is the author of four biographies and a memoir about his childhood in the Middle East.

David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and a fellow this year at the Leon Levy Center for Biography. He is writing a biography of Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights leader, for Simon & Schuster. He is the author or editor of several books on American history and politics including Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (2003) and Alan Brinkley: A Life in History (2019).

Will Swift, Ph.D., has written three books about presidents and presidential families, but at this grim national moment he wants to focus on the voices of protest over governments that attempt to suppress human rights and individuality. He is currently working on a proposal for a biography of Joan Baez. The working title is Protest Voice: Joan Baez and Her Time. Swift is the author of The Roosevelts and the Royals and The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm. His most recent book, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, was shortlisted for the BIO Plutarch Award. Will is a founding board member and past president of BIO.

Register Now


BIO Welcomes New Board Members and a New Vice President

By Linda Leavell

BIO members recently elected a new vice president, Sarah Kilborne, and three new board members: Natalie Dykstra, Steve Paul, and Eric K. Washington. Like BIO’s membership at large, members of BIO’s Board of Directors come from diverse backgrounds and practice the art of biography in multiple print and non-print media.

Sarah Kilborne

Sarah Kilborne has chaired BIO’s Publicity and Social Media Committee for the past two years. Thanks to her initiative and enthusiasm for BIO and the support of her committee members, BIO is upgrading its website and increasing BIO’s presence in the media and publishing world. Kilborne is a performance artist and LGBTQ activist, as well as a writer for children and adults. Her American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster into Destiny was published by Free Press in 2012. Her current project is a group biography of the women musicians featured in her one-woman show, The Lavender Blues: A Showcase of Queer Music before World War II.

Natalie Dykstra

Natalie Dykstra is a longtime member and supporter of BIO. She received BIO’s first Ina and Robert Caro Travel Fellowship and has presented several times at BIO conferences. Her first biography, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Massachusetts Book Award. Her current project, a biography of the art collector and museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner, won support from the 2019 NEH Public Scholar program and is under contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Dykstra teaches in the English Department at Hope College in Michigan during the fall semester and the rest of the year works from her home near Boston.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is a journalist-turned-biographer. Since his retirement as a reporter, editor, and book critic for the Kansas City Star, he has written and published Hemingway at Eighteen with Chicago Review Press, an independent publisher that he connected with during his first BIO Conference. He has just completed the first draft of a biography and literary portrait of the American writer and Kansas City-native Evan S. Connell, under contract with University of Missouri Press. Paul is a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle and for the past year served on BIO’s Caro Fellowship Committee.

Eric K. Washington

Eric K. Washington is an independent historian of New York neighborhoods and the author of Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, just out in December from Liveright/Norton. The project earned him a 2015–2016 Leon Levy Biography Fellowship, a Dora Maar House Residency Fellowship in France, and participation in Columbia University’s Community Scholar program for three years. His profile of AIDs activist Phill Wilson for Out magazine received recognition from the National Association of Black Journalists. Washington is the owner of Tagging the Past, which endeavors to reconnect forgotten history to present landscapes through articles, talks, and tours.

Kilborne, Washington, Paul, and Dykstra will help BIO grow both in numbers and in influence over the coming years.

Linda Leavell is a charter member and current president of BIO. Her biography of the American poet Marianne Moore won the 2014 Plutarch Award and PEN Award.

BIO Workshop: Promoting Your Book During the Pandemic 

This meeting is free and open to all who register.

May 27, 2020 01:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Jennifer Richards and Rachel Tarlow Gul from Over the River Public Relations will share what they have learned about how book promotion is changing during the COVID-19 pandemic. They will share their insights and strategies and explain the role of a publicist and how to hire one. Former Random House, Inc. executives, Richards and Gul founded Over the River Public Relations in 2000, and have applied their expertise to nurturing authors’ careers from the beginning, to building greater awareness for established names—whether it’s creating full-scale marketing plans, launching new books, or planning and implementing innovative approaches to keep authors and their work visible in the public eye.


BIO Announces Winners of Caro Fellowships

BIO’s Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship Committee (Deirdre David, Marc Leepson, and Steve Paul) is pleased to announce the selection of the 2020 winners: Lance Richardson and Lynne Bermont.

Lance Richardson

Richardson, who lives in Austin, Texas, is working on True Nature: The Pilgrimage of Peter Matthiessen (under contract to Knopf/Pantheon [US] and Chatto & Windus [UK]). The $2,500 award will enable him to travel to Dolpo, in remote Nepal, the landscape that inspired Mattheissen’s best-known work, The Snow Leopard. In September, Lance will be trekking in Nepal for 21 days.

Richardson is a freelance journalist and in 2018 published House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row (Chatto & Windus), a narrative that charts the lives of two brothers—Tommy and David Nutter—from austerity Britain through the Swinging Sixties.

Lynne Bermont

Bermont, who lives in New York City, is working on beginning chapters for a biography of Dina Vierny, a French member of the Resistance who led artists, writers, and intellectuals at night through paths in the Pyrenees. After the war, she established a Paris gallery, a Left Bank bookstore, and furthered the careers of many important artists. The $2,500 award will allow Bermont to travel to Paris to explore the sense of place in Vierny’s life.

Bermont teaches French at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and also conducts guided talks on French writers and painters in Paris museums for graduate students.

You can learn more about the Caro Research/Travel Fellowship here.