News

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.

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. 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.

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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.

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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.

Mayborn/BIO Fellow Looks at Two Subjects, Two Cultures

Working on a dual biography of a relative who crossed paths with the Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo, Morgan Voeltz has faced several challenges. She has also come to a conclusion that is probably familiar to many biographers: “Neither of these characters is entirely a hero,” she said, “and neither is entirely a villain.”

Voeltz spoke about her experience working on the biography (her first), at a talk on February 20, at the Women’s International Study Center (WISC) in Santa Fe. The event culminated her two-week stay in New Mexico as the Mayborn/BIO Biography Fellow. The fellowship was initiated by BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris nine years go. (The fellowship is being restructured for next year; you can read about that here.)

While all the Mayborn/BIO fellows have benefited from the chance to put aside daily demands and devote time to researching and writing (and to receive mentoring from Morris), Voeltz found her New Mexico stay especially helpful. During her residency at WISC, she met with some of the Southwest historians whose works she had already read, contacted Apache sources, explored the region’s topography, and saw artifacts from Geronimo’s time. Meeting with a representative of the Mescalero Apache tribe, Voeltz could ask a key question: “What should I know, what should I understand, if I want to write about this culture that is not my own?”

Finding a Focus
The impetus for exploring the intersection of the lives of Geronimo and Voeltz’s great-grandfather, Captain Henry Lawton, came from Voeltz’s grandmother. She suggested that Lawton’s life was worth researching and writing about. A native of Indiana, Lawton joined the army at 18 and fought in the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the West, and the Philippine-American War of 1898. He died in combat during that latter conflict. Voeltz began examining her relative’s life while working on an M.A. in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. She was struck by how “his life crossed paths with some really formative events for U.S. history during that entire era of the late 1800s.”

Her literary agent convinced Voeltz that instead of giving Lawton’s life a cradle-to-grave treatment, she should focus on one part of his life: the manhunt Lawton led to track down and arrest Geronimo and his Apache followers. But for Voeltz, the story is more than an adventure tale that follows the two men across the Southwest and into Mexico. She also wants to explore the two cultures at play. “Lawton and Geronimo come into the situation with completely different realities,” Voeltz said. “And I want readers to feel that.”

Part of Geronimo’s reality was growing up in the Gila Mountains of southwest New Mexico. That’s where he learned the survival skills that would help him elude capture for some four months in 1886, as Lawton and his men pursued the Apaches over mountainous desert terrain. For Lawton, a motivation in his life was uniting and then protecting the Union he loved.

Shared Traits
During her research, Voeltz learned that her great-grandfather and Geronimo had, as she put it, “a number of commonalities at a very deep human level.” Both chose the warrior life and saw violent conflict at an early age—Lawton during the Civil War and Geronimo while taking part on raids. Both became respected leaders because of their military skill (while Geronimo’s status was bolstered by his role as a medicine man). Lawton and the Apache chief also had strong family and community ties.

Finally, Voeltz said, both men “experienced profound loss in their lives, the kind of loss that knocks you loose from your foundation.” Each lost a parent before the age of 10, and each lost their first three children. Despite those losses, Lawton and Geronimo also had great physical and psychological resilience. Voeltz said the chase through the mountains—the backbone of her story—“puts both of their physical resilience to the test, as well as their emotional resilience.”

Challenges and Conundrums
Finding the sources to give each subject’s perspectives and experience equal weight has presented Voeltz with some challenges. It’s much easier for Lawton’s side, as his letters to his wife are in the Library of Congress. They give Voeltz insight into his character as well as details about life on the trail. But for Geronimo’s side of the tale, there are no written sources from his time when he was trying to evade Lawton. Voeltz is trying to piece together things by knowing how the Apaches lived and traveled in the region at that time. In one example, she noted how Geronimo had been given tips when he was a boy on how to survive in a hostile environment—tips that likely came into play in 1886.

For the Apache side, Voeltz has also turned to accounts left by Apache scouts who traveled with Lawton and his men, though they were recorded years later, as told to white men. Geronimo, likewise, dictated an autobiography later in life to a white notetaker. Voeltz also relies on Apache oral histories, including some from men who lived with Geronimo after his capture.

Voeltz is also considering the language she uses. Geronimo has often been described as a renegade, but is that the proper word, she wonders: “Can you really be a renegade if you’re traveling through a region that you perceive to be your own land?” And Voeltz has tried to find the proper description for Geronimo and his men, and has ended up using ApachesIndians, and Native Americans interchangeably.

Perhaps her biggest conundrum, Voeltz said, is how to grapple with issues of privacy and taboo. She said, “To the Apache, one does not speak someone’s name after that person has died. My book is full of the names of people who died. How do I navigate this?” Along with that, she is wrestling with how to do justice to Geronimo’s world view, one that included his belief that he could communicate with the elements and stop time.

Voeltz will continue to sort out these and other concerns as she works on her book. In the meantime, her fellowship in New Mexico has prepared her for the next phase of research and writing, even as she juggles a full-time job and raising a family. After the fellowship, she said, “the pump is primed.”

New Hidden Figures Fellowship Replaces Mayborn/BIO Fellowship

James McGrath Morris, the driving force behind the Mayborn/BIO Fellowship, is helping to launch a new fellowship program to assist aspiring authors working on a book about a lesser-known figure who merits a biography. The Santa Fe Hidden Figures Fellowship will provide a grant of $1,000, a two-week stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a casita at the historic Acequia Madre House in cooperation with the Women’s International Studies Center (WISC), dinner five nights a week in the Morris home, a public reading, and a meeting with a literary agent.

Fellows will also have time for consultation with Morris on research and writing techniques suitable for a book on a hidden figure. Morris is the author of, among other books, The New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize, given annually for the best book on civil rights history.

The fellowship evolved from the Mayborn/BIO Biography Fellowship, which for the last nine years has provided a creative residency to biographers. “We felt it had run its course and there was a greater need for a different fellowship program,” Morris said. “When I accepted the BIO Award in 2019, I said that BIO needs to find the way to support and foster works by those whose actions—rather than their fame—merit a biography. This new fellowship is an attempt to put that idea into action.”

The fellowship is open to women writing about a hidden figure or to men writing about a female hidden figure. The selection will be made by a panel that will include a former Mayborn/BIO Fellowship recipient. Details on the application process will become available in late May.

BIO Announces Finalists for 2020 Plutarch Award

BIOs Plutarch Award Committee has chosen five finalists for the 2020 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2019.  The selected titles include the third book in a multi-volume biography of Lincoln, a look at the lives of renegade anthropologists, and the story of an American spy during World War II.

“It’ been a remarkable year for biography,” said Caroline Fraser, Plutarch Award Committee Chair. The finalists have emerged from an exceptional long list that “reflects biographers’ wide-ranging interests and talents, showcasing the best of the genre’s originality, diversity, deep scholarship, and excellent writing.” See the five finalists here.