Murdoch Biography Revisits Player’s Demise

A new biography of one of New Zealand’s best-known rugby players has been published. Murdoch: The All Black Who Never Returned, by Ron Palenski, New Zealand’s best sportswriter, outlines and reviews one of the most controversial episodes in New Zealand sport.

Keith Murdoch was on the All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team) in the early 1970s. After one victory in Wales, Murdoch got into a brawl with a hotel security guard. Over the next few days, this incident blew up as both the New Zealand Rugby Union and the British Home Unions’ administrators got involved. Murdoch was subsequently sent home.

Murdoch—nomadic by nature—did not return to New Zealand; he got off the returning flight in Singapore and then spent the rest of his life in Australia’s outback. He died this year, never having spoken publicly about what happened, or about the impact the incident had on him.

The “Murdoch incident” has cast something of a stain on the All Blacks. In Murdoch: The All Black Who Never Returned, Palenski outlines the pressure put on the All Blacks’ management to send Murdoch home by the Home Unions (of Britain and Ireland) and the New Zealand Rugby Union. Murdoch, it is fair to say, was a controversial figure. Yet by all accounts Murdoch was a good team-man who was relatively shy.

Although the incident took place nearly 50 years ago, Palenski concludes that it would be appropriate if the New Zealand Rugby Union apologized to Murdoch’s family, arguing that such a step would help clean up a black stain on the All Blacks rugby team.

Fall 2018 Preview

We’re highlighting here  some of the books due out this fall and winter that are likely to garner critical and popular acclaim, because of their subject, their author, or both. The titles already getting buzz are drawn from Publishers WeeklyKirkus ReviewsBooklistLibrary Journal, and Amazon, among others. BIO members with upcoming releases are noted in bold type.

Please note: We do our best to learn about new books, and the ongoing monthly “In Stores” feature in The Biographer’s Craft will include even more fall and winter releases. But, if we’ve missed any members’ upcoming releases, please let us know so we can add them to this list.


Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity by Nick Bunker (Knopf)

Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party by Terry Golway (St. Martin’s Press)

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World by Ramachandra Guha (Knopf)

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo (Gallery)

The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (Harper)

Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Later Years, 1966–2016 by Kenneth Womack (Chicago Review Press)

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy by Paige Williams (Hachette)

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
by Ben Macintyre (Crown)

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik (Knopf)

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman (Basic Books)

The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Crown)

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father by Stephen Fried (Crown)

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry (Beacon Press)

Becoming Lincoln by William W. Freehling (University of Virginia Press)

The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascomb (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The ABC of Modern Biography by Nigel Hamilton and Hans Renders (Amsterdam University Press)

The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order by David Levering Lewis (Liveright)

A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery by Justin Martin
(Da Capo Press)

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawel (Bloomsbury Publishing)



Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter (Henry Holt)

Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Viking)

I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux (Tim Duggan Books)

Reagan: An American Journey by Bob Spitz (Penguin)

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight (Simon & Schuster)

Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times by Alan Walker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart (Knopf)

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy (HarperCollins)

Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin (Melville House)

Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society by Tracy Daugherty (University of Texas Press)

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce by Colm Tóibín (Scribner)

After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet by Julie Dobrow (W. W. Norton)

Josef Albers: Life and Work by Charles Darwent (Thames & Hudson)

Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War by Dana Greene (Oxford University Press)

In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking)

The White Darkness by David Grann (Doubleday)

Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940–1946 by Gary Giddins (Little, Brown)

The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End by Gary M. Pomerantz (Penguin Press)

The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (Basic Books)

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)

The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire by John Eisenberg (Basic Books)

Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton by Philip Norman (Little, Brown)

Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl by Leslie Zemeckis (Counterpoint)

The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life by Charles J. Shields (University of Texas Press)

Enemies Within: Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins)

Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895–1929) by Jean Moorcroft Wilson (Bloomsbury Continuum)



Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery (Little, Brown)

The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster (Little, Brown)

Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (Viking)

Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants by H. W. Brands (Doubleday)

The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965–2005 by Zachary Leader (Knopf)

Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal by Eric Rauchway (Basic Books)

Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation by Jeffry D. Wert (Da Capo Press)

William Penn: A Life by Andrew R. Murphy (Oxford University Press)

John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books)

Being John Lennon: A Restless Life by Ray Connolly (Pegasus Books)

Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow by Gunnar Decker, translated by Peter Lewis (Harvard University Press)

The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams (Pegasus Books)

In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace by Miranda Seymour (Pegasus Books)

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Insane Mode: How Elon Musk’s Tesla Sparked an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil by Hamish McKenzie (Dutton)



All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson by Mark Griffin (Harper)

The Caesar of Paris: Napoleon Bonaparte, Rome, and the Artistic Obsession that Shaped an Empire by Susan Jaques (Pegasus Books)

Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic by Stanley Corngold (Princeton University Press)

Ike’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler by Peter Shinkle (Steerforth)


January 2019

Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik (Scribner)

Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter by Veronica Chambers (St. Martin’s Press)

Funny Man: Mel Brooks by Patrick McGilligan (Harper)

The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll by Ian S. Port (Scribner)

Henry VIII: And the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman (Atlantic Monthly Press)

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po) by Ha Jin (Pantheon)

Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History by Tony Perrottet (Blue Rider)

Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis (Gallery Books)

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch (Flatiron Books)


February 2019

Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right To Vote by Tina Cassidy (Atria)

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin (St. Martin’s Press)

The Man in the Willows: The Life of Kenneth Grahame by Matthew Dennison (Pegasus Books)

Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks by Doug Wilson (Rowman & Littlefield)

Inventing Edward Lear by Sara Lodge (Harvard University Press)

Lives on Film Remain Popular Topics for Both Biopics and Documentaries

As we noted in last year’s round up of biographical films, the demand for content from both cable networks and streaming services has increased the opportunities for filmmakers who tell life stories in their work. At the same time, Hollywood still seeks out captivating biopics, with big stars and big budgets. Once again, we offer a look—not meant to be comprehensive—of recent and future productions that tell biographies through film.

Recent and Current Releases
The month of April 2018 saw the release of the documentary American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, which was funded in part through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. In May, one of the most successful documentaries of recent years hit the big screen: RBG, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal influence both before joining and while serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. By the end of May the movie was showing in more than 400 theaters across the country.

A series of documentary releases in May highlighted the lives and work of cultural figures. One was The Gospel According to André, about fashion maven and Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley. Betty Davis—a songwriter, producer, and wife of Miles Davis, who is credited with introducing her jazz trumpeter-husband to funk—is the subject of Betty: They Say I’m Different.  Also in May, HBO began broadcasting a five-part “docuseries” on tennis star Serena Williams, looking at how she is balancing her career with new motherhood.

The notable biographical release in June was Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Fred Rogers. The story of one of the pioneers of educational television has, as of press time, brought in even more viewers than RBG, enough to make it the fourteenth-highest grossing documentary of all time. (Rogers will also get the biopic treatment next year, with Tom Hanks playing him in You Are My Friend.) Also in June, the documentary Westwood was released; its subtitle sums up Vivienne Westwood’s greatest roles since becoming a public figure more than 40 years ago: Punk, Icon, Activist. Three identical triplets adopted by three different families and reunited as young men, becoming celebrities of sorts in the process, are the subject of Three Identical Strangers. One biopic released in June was The Catcher Was a Spy, with Paul Rudd playing Moe Berg, the film’s subject. The movie is based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography of Berg. A fairly new, streaming network, CBS All Access, aired the docuseries Strange Angel in June. This tale of scientist and occultist Jack Parsons is based on the 2005 biography Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle.

Three documentaries out in July looked at celebrities with often-troubled lives. McQueen examined the successes and personal challenges of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. HBO released Come Inside My Mind, about comedian Robin Williams, while Whitney, by director Kevin Macdonald, appeared on the big screen. The latter, about Whitney Houston, stirred some controversy because of its claim that the singer was abused as a child by a cousin. Controversy was also at the heart of some of cartoonist John Callahan’s work, as some people found his cartoons politically incorrect. Callahan, a quadriplegic, did not shy away from dark humor on the subject of physical disabilities. His autobiography served as the source for the biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, with Joaquin Phoenix playing the cartoonist. Going back to the small screen, PBS’s American Masters aired Ted Williams: “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.” Ben Bradlee Jr., who wrote a 2013 biography of the Boston Red Sox batting legend, was interviewed for the film.

Coming Soon
PBS’s American Masters show launches a biographical series later in August called Artists Flight. A different artist is featured in each of the four episodes: Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray (with Meryl Streep providing the artist’s voice), Andrew Wyeth, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. One documentary scheduled for release in September is Love, Gilda, an authorized look at the Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner. Through the fall and into the winter, several prominent biopics will be coming to theaters around the world. In September, Keira Knightly stars in Colette, about the famous French novelist. Also that month, a sequel to Unbroken, Lauren Hillenbrand’s biography of Louis Zamperini, hits the screens. In October, Ryan Gosling appears as Neil Armstrong in First Man. The film again pairs Gosling with director Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar for La La Land. The Armstrong biopic is based on James Hansen’s 2005 biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. Also out in October is Can You Ever Forgive Me, with Melissa McCarthy playing celebrity biographer and convicted forger Lee Israel.

Moving into the holiday season, the long-anticipated biopic of the group Queen, with the focus on front man Freddie Mercury, is coming in November. Rami Malek, star of the TV show Mr. Robot, plays Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, which is based in part on Lesley-Ann Jones’s book Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, which was published in 2012. Another biopic based on a biography is also out in November. The Professor and the Madman, starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, is based on Simon Winchester’s 1998 book of the same name. December releases include Mary, Queen of Scots, with two Oscar-nominated actresses in the lead roles: Saoirse Ronan plays Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I. Beau Willimon, of House of Cards fame, adapted the screenplay from John Guy’s 2004 biography My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. Finally, Ruth Bader Ginsburg returns to the big screen as the subject of the biopic On the Basis of Sex. Felicity Jones stars as RBG.

Deals for the Future
The list of biographical movies in the works, in various stages, is a long one. Some of these films might never be made, but others already have release dates. For instance, filming has wrapped on The Irishman, a film due in 2019 or 2020 on Netflix. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the film is about mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and is based on Charles Brandt’s biography of Sheeran, “I Heard You Paint Houses”: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Final Ride of Jimmy Hoffa, published in 2004. Scheduled to come out next year is a film about Ronald Reagan, with Dennis Quaid cast as the president. The movie is based on biographies by historian Paul Kengor, whose books about Reagan include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, published in 2006. Currently filming is The Silent Natural, a low-budget biopic about William “Dummy” Hoy, who was the first deaf Major League Baseball player. The filmmaker, David Risotto, has already made a documentary about his subject.

Journalist and biographer Gabriel Sherman has been busy working on two projects. For Showtime, he co-wrote the first episode of a docuseries based on his biography The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country. Russell Crowe will play Ailes; it will be Crowe’s first major role in a U.S. television series. Sherman is also writing a screenplay about Donald Trump called The Apprentice. Showtime is also planning to air a new documentary about Charlie Chaplin. British filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney have received access to Chaplin’s personal and professional archives, and their movie will include outtakes not publicly seen before.

Several major film stars are considering roles in planned biopics. The Producers of King of Oil are trying to get Matt Damon to play Marc Rich, the subject of the film, which is based on Daniel Ammann’s 2009 book The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich. Hugh Jackman is said to be considering playing the role of CIA agent Robert Ames in a film version of The Good Spy, based on BIO member Kai Bird’s 2014 book of the same name. A book by another BIO member is serving as a source for a docuseries scheduled to air on the History Channel. Ron Chernow’s Grant will come to life in the series, which is being produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions. As reported earlier in TBC, DiCaprio has also acquired the rights to Chernow’s book for a feature-length movie. DiCaprio seems to have a keen interest in biographical subjects: he is slated to play Leonardo da Vinci in the film adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the artist and inventor.

Octavia Spencer is not just considering a biographical role.  She will star in and co-produce a miniseries for Netflix about African American business pioneer and social activist Madam C. J. Walker, based on the 2001 book On Her Own Ground, by BIO member A’Lelia Bundles. Basketball star LeBron James is also a producer of the series.

It seems that filmmakers can’t get enough of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She and former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be the subjects of a TV series produced in part by actress Alyssa Milano. The show is based on Linda Hirshman’s 2015 biography Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World. Multiple female subjects also figure in a TV adaptation of J. Randy Taraborrelli’s biography Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, which was published earlier this year. On the big screen, Clementine Churchill will get her own biopic, with a movie based on a biography written by her and Winston Churchill’s youngest child, Mary Soames.

As is often the case, figures from the arts, sports, and pop culture will be the subject of many upcoming films and TV productions. In sports, Tiger Woods will be featured in a docuseries on the golfer, based on the 2018 biography by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente’s story will be told in a film directed by Ezra Edelman, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for O. J.: Made in America. The Clemente film will be based on the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, by BIO member David Maraniss.

In the world of arts, a film about Alvin Ailey is in the works. The producers are basing the story at least in part on Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, a 1996 biography by Jennifer Dunning. In addition, Leonard Bernstein could be the subject of two competing biopics. Shooting is scheduled to start on one of them this fall, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the cast. The script for the latter is adapted from Humphrey Burton’s 1994 book Leonard Bernstein. Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper wants to direct and star in a film about the composer. According to Deadline Hollywood, the principles for both projects have been in discussions with the Bernstein estate. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who brought Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton to life on Broadway, is turning to television for one of his upcoming projects. He’s working on a series for FX about choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, based on Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography Fosse. Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are slated to play the leads.

Film stars will be the subject of two planned biopics. Kevin Godley, a musician and video maker, is making The Gate, a film about Orson Welles’s stint as a teenage actor in Dublin. The biography Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, by Jill Watts, will provide the source material for a movie about the first African American to win an Academy Award. McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for her performance in Gone with the Wind.

Finally, two of popular music’s most influential figures will have their lives depicted on the big screen. Johnny Cash was already the subject of the biopic I Walk the Line, and now, Thom Zimny is planning a documentary about the Man in Black, with Cash’s 1968 concert at Folsom Prison serving as a focus of the film. Billie Holiday will be profiled in a documentary based on the interviews journalist Linda Kuehl conducted almost five decades ago, while researching a biography of the jazz singer that Kuehl never wrote. The people she talked with included some of Holiday’s jazz contemporaries, school friends, and criminals she knew. The film will incorporate still images and animation.

2018 Conference Goers Take Home Useful Insights from Top Biographers

Below are reports on two of the panels that were offered at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in May, written with assistance from John Grady. Each article continues on the BIO website. BIO members can read about seven more sessions in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft; an archived copy is available in the Member Area.

You can see a photo gallery from the conference here.

Writing Multiple Lives

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives, said she discovered that through a group biography she could dramatize her initial subject and anchor her in a community, a social circle. What tied together her three subjects—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—was that they “were women who knew everybody” and their sexuality.

“I didn’t set out to write collective biography,” Carla Kaplan said when she started work on Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. From her earlier biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Kaplan knew that many white women had connections to Hurston and others in the renaissance. As Kaplan delved deeper into the relationships those women had with Hurston and each other, she found “extraordinary dead ends” on how to approach writing about a single white woman in that time, in that place. Finally, Kaplan decided, “I am going to have to write that book to read that book” on the complexities of the relationships of the “Miss Annes”—a collective nickname—of being hostesses, philanthropists, snubbers of convention, and more.

Likewise, Justin Spring in The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy had to work through “any number of false starts” to settle on how to proceed to write about six very different writers, who “were very much like the Americans of the ‘Lost Generation,’” in another era of “enormous American cultural ferment:” Paris after World War II.

Interesting as the six were as individuals, Spring said, “these people were not coming together” as a possible group biography until he found a key in Alice B. Toklas’s second book on cooking, and their shared love of French cuisine. Among the subjects in The Gourmands’ Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.

From left to right: Marc Leepson, Kai Bird, Max Boot, and
Heath Lee. Photo by Jane O’Connor

Writing About the Vietnam War

Moderator Marc Leepson, a Vietnam War veteran, began the session by providing some background. The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. war before the twenty-first century and the country’s most controversial overseas war. After the war, Leepson said, “Nobody really wanted to talk about it” because of its divisive nature. But as panelists Kai Bird, Max Boot, and Heath Lee showed, there is a market today for certain biographies relating to the Vietnam War era, even if there are challenges in writing them.

For Bird, one challenge was getting one of his subjects, McGeorge Bundy, to open up about his involvement in the war. Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms looked at the role both Bundy brothers played in setting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Bird, a former Vietnam War protester, wanted to explore how smart, liberal intellectuals came to get America into and then defend the war. He was able to meet with both Bundys. William, he said, “was much more of a gentleman and a scholar” and more generous with his time. On the other hand, Bird said, “I feared Mac Bundy”—a man Bird once considered a war criminal. McGeorge was sometimes dismissive of Bird’s questions. The Color of Truth came out in 1991, and Bird said he had no trouble getting it published, but he was still dealing with his own anger about the war as he wrote it.

Both Max Boot and Heath Lee are of a younger generation than Leepson and Bird; their experiences of the Vietnam War were not nearly as direct. Boot said that with younger writers of Vietnam books “you lose some of that sense of immediacy” that came from authors writing just after the war. “But,” he added, “I think what you gain is some more perspective.” Boot brought that perspective to his recent biography of Edward Lansdale, the first complete look at the life of a military officer and CIA agent who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Lansdale often appeared as a character in other books about the war, and Boot said he was usually presented in a one-dimensional way, as a con artist or malevolent figure. Boot wanted to present Lansdale in a more balanced way, while still presenting his flaws.

Heath Lee’s Vietnam book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the President, the Pentagon and the Rest of the US Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, which will be published April 2, 2019, is a group biography of civilians who have been overlooked: the wives of American POWs/MIAs. While writing the book, she said, she came to “love the ladies,” but she knew a biographer should not fall in love with her subjects. She interviewed most of the women featured, and they were eager to share a story that had not been told before. Another major source was the diary of Sybil Stockdale, one of the key figures in the book.

Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) is introducing a new fellowship program this year—the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships—to support the research ambitions of community college faculty in the humanities and related social sciences. The program, which has its first application deadline on September 26, 2018, will offer up to 26 fellowships of $40,000 to community college faculty working on a diverse range of research projects. You can find out more about the program here.

Like all ACLS fellowship programs, this program will use a peer review process to evaluate applications and select fellows. ACLS is currently looking for community college faculty in all fields of the humanities and related social sciences to serve as reviewers for the program’s inaugural competition or in a future year. Serving as a reviewer would involve evaluating 25-30 applications in the reviewer’s discipline using an online portal. Reviewers will have approximately six weeks this fall to score the applications and enter very brief comments. The honorarium for service is $200.

Anyone interested in serving as a reviewer next fall or in a future year should email ACLS program officer Rachel Bernard no later than July 18 with the following information: name(s), email address, institution, faculty rank/title, department, and discipline.

Different Lives Conference

On September 20 and 21, 2018, BIO joins the Biography Institute and the Biography Society in hosting the conference “Different Lives: Global Perspectives on Biography in Public Cultures and Societies.” The conference will take place in Groningen, Netherlands, home of the Biography Institute, which is directed by BIO member Hans Renders. The event will allow biographers to look beyond their own borders, explore how biography is practiced in other parts of the world, and discuss the cultural perspectives that guide biographers in their approach to the infinite complexity of their subjects.

With a mix of panel, roundtable, and public discussions, featuring speakers from many nations, this conference is designed to present the state of the art of biography from a wealth of different perspectives. The 2018 BIO Award-winner Richard Holmes will deliver the keynote address, and BIO members participating include Carl Rollyson, John A. Farrell, and Nigel Hamilton. The latter will host a master class on Wednesday, September 19, for young biographers working on their first books.

Also on Wednesday, attendees can choose to explore two cultural sites in and around Groningen: Museum of Graphic Arts and Camp Westerbork. The latter features an exhibition depicting the Netherlands during World War II, focusing on the persecution of Jews.

The cost of the conference is 60 euros, with additional fees for the optional cultural tours and the conference dinner on September 21. Get more information and register here. If you require assistance in booking hotel or travel arrangements, email the conference board. You can see the entire conference program here.

Caroline Fraser Wins Plutarch Award

Caroline Fraser won the 2018 Plutarch Award for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, among other honors. Fraser received her award at the ninth annual BIO Conference on May 20.

The Plutarch is the world’s only literary award given to biography by biographers. Named after the famous Ancient Greek biographer, the Plutarch is determined by secret ballot from a formal list of nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.

BIO’s Plutarch Award Committee for 2018 was:

Anne C. Heller, chair
Kate Buford
Nassir Ghaemi
Brian Jay Jones
Andrew Lownie
Julia Markus
J.W. (Hans) Renders
Ray Shepard
Will Swift, ex-officio

You can find out more information about the Plutarch Award here.

Exploring the Depth of Subjects’ Souls: An Interview with 2018 BIO Award-Winner Richard Holmes

By James Atlas
A great biographer is someone who writes great biographies. A revolu- tionary biographer is someone who writes revolutionary biographies. Since the publication of his massive, ingenious, and mesmerizing debut, Shelley: The Pursuit, published when he was twenty-nine, Richard Holmes has written seven biographies and assembled four collections of biographical essays uniform only in their strange, unclassifiable aura. Holmes’s essential principle is not simply to write about his subjects but to inhabit them—and, to borrow his own description of his method, to haunt them.

All biographers aspire to know the people they’re writing about, to get beneath their skin, as Claire Tomalin, that other master of the craft, puts it; Holmes aspires to become them. In the quest of this goal—the source of his power as a biographer—he has perambulated with the ghost of Dr. Johnson in St. James Square, tracked Shelley to the site of his drowning in the Gulf of La Spezia, shadowed Coleridge to every corner of the Lake District. Untethered to the library, he has gone up in a hot-air balloon and risked his life in a sailing adventure that required a rescue by helicopter in the course of his research. But Holmes’s greatest journey has been inward, to the depths of his subjects’ souls. He has gone, he writes, in This Long Pursuit (his new collection of essays), not just to “the blue-plaque place” but to “the temporary places, the passing place, the lost places, the dream places” where the real story is.

In the terrestrial sense, he lives in London and Norfolk with his partner, the novelist Rose Tremain.

James Atlas: One of your most famous innovations as a biographer has been the idea of biography as not simply a recording but a “haunting,” a “pursuit” of one’s subject. What is the origin of this method, first articulated in Footsteps and a ruling principle of your work ever since? Has it been refined and how does it continue to preside over your work?
Richard Holmes: I think the idea of biography as a journey of pursuit actually goes back a long way, such as in A. J. A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo (1934), and there are elements of a pursuit even in [Edward] Trelawny’s wonderful and disreputable Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858). My pursuit began quite naively as a lonely teenager simply finding that I was “walking with” Robert Louis Stevenson (who died in 1894) through the remote Cevennes hills in southern France. But it was extraordinarily vivid, almost a continuous hallucination over 200 kilometers, lasting many days. It was perhaps an extension of that experience that many people have in their childhoods of inventing an “imaginary friend.” But my friend eventually turned out to be real. The pursuit of Shelley, Johnson, Coleridge, Herschel, and the others that followed was just a sophisticated version of this, with additional documentation, so to speak. It is a pursuit through space (geography) but also through time (history).

JA: You speak of empathy as the biographer’s dominant task. How is this difficult, imaginative feat to be achieved? Why is it the crucial component of his art?
RH: Yes, I have called empathy the most necessary and most perilous of biographical gifts. Philosophically, you can never know how another person actually feels, but imaginatively I believe you can. So biography not only attempts to narrate the events of a life—to tell the story—but to enter imaginatively into it and tell the inside story. It requires a long, faithful, passionate immersion in letters, journals, contemporary memoirs, places, and objects. And simply immense, insane amounts of time spent in your subject’s company—somewhere between three and 10 years perhaps. The process is something I have described as an extended handshake. My feeling is that at the end of a biography the reader should know not only what this person “was like,” but what it was “like to be” this person.

JA: Could you bring us up to date on the Master’s degree program in Biography at the University of East Anglia? Is it still a going concern?
RH: I originally launched and designed this MA in Biography in 2001, and taught it for some five years, and thereafter contributed an occasional lecture. (I give a detailed account of the program and of why I think biography is so valuable to teach in my most recent book, This Long Pursuit.) My colleague, the biographer Kathryn Hughes, took it over and is still running it with great success, now as the MA in Biography and Creative Non-Fiction, with some dozen students every year (several American). The two other teachers are both accomplished biographers: Ian Thompson (Primo Levi, 2002) and Helen Smith (The Uncommon Reader, 2017).

JA: Could you say something about your current project? What are you writing now?
RH: Ah, the “current project”! Not sure I think quite like that, more like the “current distractions” (in the plural). Right at this moment I am writing a short study of the inspirational American astronomer and teacher (Nantucket and Vassar) Maria Mitchell (born 1818), who also toured the observatories of Europe. After The Age of Wonder I am still very interested in the way scientific discovery has steadily (sometimes violently) transformed our imaginative vision of the world around us, especially in the years immediately before Darwin’s theory of evolution became the new orthodoxy. Whether this will be done through a traditional biography, a group biography, or some much more personal footstep, I am still not sure. One provoking but strictly working title has been Tennyson and the Kraken, referring to the legendary deep-sea monster which threatens to surface in one of Tennyson’s earliest poems and which haunted the Victorian unconscious—a symbol of all kinds of modern disruption—for a generation.

James Atlas is the author of The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale and the founder of the Penguin Lives Series.