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The Biographer's Craft 
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
October 2007
Vol. 1, No. 8
Biography of Save the Children Founder Wins Biographers' Club Prize

Clare Mulley's unpublished biography of Eglantyne Jebb, the remarkable woman who founded Save the Children, is this year's winner of the British Biographers' Club prize. The $4,000 prize, sponsored by the Daily Mail, has led in every case but one to publication with a mainstream publisher.

     Mulley toiled for years as a fundraiser for Save the Children. One day she came across a note written by Jebb. It said, "The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy." The find triggered a curiosity about the founder of the organization for which Mulley worked.

     In the years since, Mulley has pursued her quarry with passion, sleeping in Jebb's childhood nursery, eating from her girlfriend's plates, holding a curl of her auburn baby hair, as well as the usual drudgery of rifling through letters and journals.

     The prize was awarded to Mulley as the Biographers' Club celebrated its Tenth anniversary with a dinner at the London Savile Club on September 18th. Established in 1868, the Savile is at the heart of literary London. Among those who have gathered at its tables are Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, HG Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Compton Mackenzie, Max Beerbohn and W.B. Yeats.

     The speaker at the dinner was Hermione Lee, who is most recently the biographer of Edith Wharton. Her talk dealt with the biographer's difficulty of knowing how far to go with the material around the central figure. In particular, Lee discussed her work on Wharton, whose long life life was so thickly furnished with things, people, travel and places. The title, Lee said, "was taken from Virginia Woolf's remark in her memoir 'Sketch of the Past' that when writing about herself she felt like a fish in a stream; she could describe the fish but not the stream."
     Runners-up for the prize this year, were:
  • Katherine MacInnes, Polar Wives: To the Ends of the Earth, about the women the three most famous polar explorers left behind;
  • Warris Vianni, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya;
  • Greg Christie, A Song of his Bugle, a biography of Eric Knight, author of Lassie; and,
  • Anna Thomasson, Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler.
The judges for this year's competition were Anne Sebba, Rachel Holmes, and Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson.
Woodrow Wilson and his Biographer are Subject of New Book

It's not often that a biographer gets equal billing with his subject, especially when both have been dead for more than a half century. That is, however, the intent of Merrill D. Peterson's new work, The President and his Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker published this month by the University of Virginia Press.

     Baker, of course, was Wilson's original biographer who published an eight-volume study of the president's life and letters and seven other books about him. As with any subject, the biographer who is first casts a long shadow on those who follow.

     Peterson is well suited to the task of examining this shadow casting. The octogenarian historian is the author of numerous significant books on American history. He is best known for the well-regarded Jefferson Image in the American Mind, published in 1960 and still in print today. Its subject, as Peterson explained in an interview with The Biographer's Craft, "was not the history that Jefferson made, but what history made of Jefferson."

     Peterson's new book begins by introducing the muckraking journalist who would end up befriending Wilson and eventually becoming his biographer. Baker, who had found success as a writer for McClure's magazine, had been friends with Teddy Roosevelt until the President launched his famous attack on investigative journalism that gave birth to the term "muckraking." Baker then fell under the spell of Wilson, particularly because of his oratorical skills.

     However, as in Baker's life, Wilson soon eclipses his would-be-Boswell in this book's narrative tale. In fact, after Peterson asks, "Who was Woodrow Wilson?" Baker almost disappears until the final chapter, if one were to measure the amount of ink given the two figures. He does reappear, particularly in the chapter dealing with Versailles where Baker served as press secretary but only as a secondary figure.

     Ultimately the book is more of a biography of Wilson than a work about the two men. This may reflect Peterson's original interest. "I have long wanted to write a biography of Woodrow Wilson," he said. "Finally getting around to the subject in my eighty-sixth year, and having canvassed the existing literature, I concluded that there was no need for another biography."

     As a result, Peterson pursued this less encyclopedic approach comingled with ruminations about Wilson's biographer. The short book (260 pages) is engaging and graceful, but it may disappoint those seeking more of what the book's title promises. Unlike Adam Sisman's remarkable Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson, this book's interplay between subject and biographer is not the central focus.

     That said, however, what Peterson does write about Baker is fascinating. He details how Baker was drawn into the project and the role of a posthumous letter from Wilson. The relationship that Baker had with Wilson, who had been both hero and boss, was complex but always driven, on the writer's part, by a strong empathetic bond. An empathetic relationship is an essential component of a biographer connection with his or her subject, said Peterson. "No doubt there are instances to the contrary," he said. "I recall that Irving Babbitt devoted his life to the study of Rousseau, whom he hated; but no one now remembers the author."

     The book's final chapter also provides glimpses of the toll it took on Baker to devote so much of his life to this task.  In words that almost every biographer could have written, Baker said, "I sometimes wonder why I ever undertook such a task is this."

Pen American Center Creates Biography Prize
The Pen American Center is creating the Pen/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. The prize of $10,000 will be awarded biennially to an author of a biography published in the United States during the two previous years.
     Nominations may be made by writers, editors, literary agents or members of the literary community at large. The deadline is December 14, 2007.
     Information on the prize may be found at the Pen American Center web page.
Yet Another Biography about Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy. When is Enough, Enough?


In an essay for Publishers Weekly,Steve Weinberg, a prolific reviewer of biographies and the author of many himself, pondered the need for biographies of figures whose lives have been chronicled multiple times.

      His thought-provoking essay used Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy and Michael Korda's of Eisenhower as examples. In both cases, he was not picking on the biographers but suggesting their works raise fundamental questions about the need for certain biographies.
     In the end, Weinberg, whose biography of Ida Tarbell will be out next year, argues that both authors and publishers have an obligation to answer in direct fashion the need for the book they have completed.
Philip Callow

Philip Callow, a British biographer who began his writing life as a novelist, died September 22 age 82.

     Callow, who grew up in a working-class family in Coventry, England, began writing while holding down a clerk's job.  Eventually, after publishing two novels, he became a teacher.

     In 1974 he published a study of young D. H. Lawrence, Son and Lover. This biography was later followed by one of Van Gogh, Walt Whitman, Paul Cezanne, Anton Chekhov, and Robert Louis Stevenson. His last work of non-fiction finished his life study of Lawrence.

     When he first started to write in the 1950s his first novel met a sad ending. A bookseller claimed he recognized himself in the story as a man who sold pornography. Under the threat of a lawsuit, the publisher decided to pulp all the unsold copies of the book.

Letters to the Editor

One of the goals in launching of The Biographer's Craft was to connect biographers who are engaged in what is, after all, a very singular and lonely pursuit. In keeping with this idea, this month we inaugurate a "Letters to the Editor" section to provide you with a place to comment on contents of the newsletter or anything else on your mind. I will, however, reserve the right to edit the letters for style and length considerations.



Dear Editor:

     I'd like to take issue with Mr. Shields mean-spirited criticism of me and my biography of Martha Stewart, Just Desserts in your latest issue (September 2007). He attacks me for writing about when Stewart lost her virginity. Shields makes it seem as if it was pure gossip from some sort of Martha grapevine. In fact, to set the record straight, the man who deflowered the future domestic diva, and convicted felon, was her future husband, Andy Stewart, and the anecdote came from on-the-record interviews with Andy's best friend and roommate at Yale, who recounted the many conversations they had had about Andy's apprehension about making love with Martha for the first time.

     It's actually a quite poignant story about young love back in the '50s, and I would imagine that any biographer who had the kind of credible sources I had for this information would have used the anecdote, which by the way is covered in just four short paragraphs on page 81 of a 399 page book, a New York Times bestseller. Doing a little research, I see that Mr. Shields is an ardent Martha Stewart admirer and published a hagiographic-a term he appears to dislike-portrait of her for middle school students. The book is listed on Amazon. Interestingly, he never offered a disclosure about that book in attacking my biography.


Jerry Oppenheimer


Jerry Oppenheimer is the author most recently of House of Hilton: From Conrad to Paris: A Drama of Wealth, Power, and Privilege, the paperback of which was released in July.

Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Old Magazine Articles

Catherine M. Tierney of St. Louis sends in a link to OldMagazineArticles.com. According to its web site, "It is a private undertaking and the effort of one old magazine enthusiast in particular who believes deeply that today's readers of history can learn a good deal from the old periodicals."

            The material is all in the public domain and scanned from publications in libraries, bookshops, and yard sales. One does not need permission to use the material, but they ask for a credit line: "This article was provided by OldMagazineArticles.com."    

Have a great tip?

Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com
In This Issue
Bio Club's Prize Winner
Subject & Biographer, Topic of Book
New Biography Prize
Too Many Bios of Same Subjects?
Philip Callow Dies at 82
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner

From the Editor's Desk

Dear Readers,

In March, The Biographer's Craft will celebrate its first anniversary. For the occasion, I have a request.

It is my goal to make this newsletter self-supporting. To do so, I need to convince publishers that this would be a good venue to advertise.

Though our circulation grows every month (by word-of-mouth, mind you), we will never be able to offer advertisers the same reach as, say, The New Yorker. But I want to persuade them we have dedicated and influential readers. So, here is my request: Would you please send me testimonials about the newsletter than I may use in a publicity kit next year?

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

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Any book mentioned in this newsletter may be ordered from our official partner, Powell's Books, the legendary independent bookstore.
Sold to Publishers

The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in September as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources 

  • Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Benus: A Ghost Story and a Biography Princeton University Press

  • Sam Kashne, More than Famous (Elzabeth Taylor and Sir Richard Burton), HarperCollins

  • John Matteson, The Lives of Margaret Fuller, Norton

  • James S. Hirsch, Willie Mayes: The Life, the Legend, Scribner

  • Noralee Frankel, Stripping Gipsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Oxford University Press

  • Matt Birkbeck, Deconstructing Sammy (Davis Jr.), Amistad

Coming to Stores  

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis

Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh (Pantheon)


Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker by Stacy A. Cordery


Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf)


Sinatra: Frank and Friendly by Terry O'Neill (Evans Mitchell Books)


Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan

(A Shannon Ravenel Book, Algonquin)

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov

 (Henry Holt)

Madame Proust: A Biography by Evelyne Bloch-Dano

(University of Chicago Press)
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