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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
January 2008
Vol. 1, No. 11
Dual Biographies on the Rise

"I'm a rather complicated person," T.E. Lawrence once said, "and that's bad for a simple biography." True, but being simple was not what author Ronald Florence had in mind when he undertook his new dual biography Lawrence and Aaransohn: T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Viking).

    Florence combines the incredible life story of the iconic Lawrence of Arabia with that of a Jewish agronomist from Palestine. The pair, who could not have been more different, came together as colleagues in the British intelligence during World War I.  Using their relationship, Florence weaves a rich tapestry that is both biography and history.

    Florence's approach is part of a larger trend in biography. Publishers are shipping more and more dual biographies to bookstores.  Statistics are hard to come by as there is no category for dual biographies. Nonetheless, editors such as Sarah Gold, a Senior Review Editor at Publishers Weekly, say they are seeing more and more dual biographies.

    "My current favorite pair of pairs is Douglass and Lincoln and Lincoln and Douglas," Gold said. The first book by Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick is about Frederick Douglass and was published by Walker & Company. The second concerns Stephen Douglas and the famous debates and will be published by Simon & Schuster in February.

    Some subjects almost beg to be told as dual biographies, such as Gilbert and Sullivan, Ira and George Gershwin, or Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, because of their close identification to each other; others, because they worked against each other, such as Lincoln and Davis or Rommel and Montgomery. Some await an author (hint, hint) like Will and Ariel Durant who wrote a dual autobiography.

    Gold agrees that there are natural matches. Among them in 2007, she said, were The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever by David M. Friedman (Ecco), Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek (HarperCollins),  Bobby & J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J.Edgar Hoover that Transformed America by Burton Hersh (Carroll & Graf), and The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli by Richard Aldous (Norton)

     "Sometimes an author feels one can highlight the tensions of an era by juxtaposing two contrasting figures, as in Douglass and Lincoln or The Lion and the Unicorn," she said. "Sometimes it seems a bit contrived, like Erik Larsen's Thunderstruck, which he clearly modeled on the structure of The Devil in the White City."

    perry bookMark Perry, a Washington, DC, writer, has done his share of dual biographies. His most recent one was Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace (Penguin) that came out in May 2007. According to Perry, the biggest challenge in writing a dual biography is structural. "That is," he said, "how to weigh the attention you pay each protagonist."

    Biographers often make the mistake of treating a dual biography as two biographies, Perry said. He admitted he struggled with this greatly in his last book. When he was well into his book he realized the reader would have no sense that men even knew each other "It was as if I were writing a book about the relationship between Julius Caesar and John F. Kennedy." As a result he threw the manuscript away and started again.

    The other struggle is selecting the parts of the persons' lives to include in the book. "It is not just a matter of feel as I think some biographers or historians would claim," Perry said.

    "You have to pick and choose very carefully and sometimes you must discard things that are wonderful anecdotally that you want to tell the reader, but they have nothing to do with the story. You have to plan what you're going to use ahead of time, and you have to weigh it very carefully. You have to be absolutely ruthless in discarding those parts of a person's life that are not germane to the story. You have to stay focused on what is absolutely important."
    Perry believes his approach worked in his last dual biography. "I don't think this would work with George Patton. It's possible to write a book about George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower, of course, but I think that it would be contrived," he said. "This was a natural: the Marshall and Eisenhower relationship was a relationship in history that was crucially important to the American conduct of World War Two."
[Editor's note: A complete copy of The Biographer's Craft
interview with Mark Perry will be posted later this year on the forthcoming Biographer's Home Page that will be launched in March.]
LA Story: City of Angels Biographers Gatherings

On three or more Sundays each year, for more than 15 years now, many biographers around Los Angeles brave the region's notorious highways to gather over pizza for conversation about their craft.

    Originally launched by Noel Riley Fitch and Carol Easton, the group has included among the better known members over the years Lou Cannon, Bob Dallek, and Jack Miles and speakers have included Caroline See, Scott Berg, and Shana Alexander.

    Like the Washington Biography Group (profiled in the August issue), the Los Angeles gatherings are intended to provide a place where authors can discuss issues related to biographical writing.

     MillsKay Mills, whose This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer was recently issued in a paperback edition by University Press of Kentucky, has been attending the meetings since 1993.  She said the gatherings have been immensely helpful.

    Years ago she received one of her manuscripts back from the publisher. It had been read by an outside reviewer. The accompanying commentary was filled with ad hominem attacks that so angered Mills she was unable to work on the manuscript. Biographer Ann Rowe Seaman asked to see the offending comments and then proceeded to redact all the superfluous and unnecessary criticisms leaving the document looking like a FOIA document. But by obliterating all the nastiness, Mills was able to do her work. "I  knew I had to cut stuff and do some rewriting," Mills said, "but I was purple in the face until she did that."

            For information on the group, contact Kay Mills.

[Editor's note: Several corrections have been made to this story since it was originally published.]

Lists, Lists, Who Made it Onto the Lists

At the end of each year, reviewers can't resist selecting their favorite books of the year. Here is a list of some of the biographies that got picked:


Washington Post Book World

  • Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee (Knopf)
  • FDR by Jean Edward Smith (Random House)
  • Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)

 New York Times

Time Magazine
  • Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 by John Richardson (Knopf)

New York Magazine

  • Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (HarperCollins)
  • A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 by John Richardson (Knopf)

Los Angeles Times

Boston Globe

  • Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (HarperCollins)
  • Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)

London Times

  • Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (Yale University Press)

Christian Science Monitor

  • Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear (St. Martin's Press)
  • Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin (Penguin)
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster)
  • Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee (Knopf)
  • Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)
  • FDR by Jean Edward Smith (Random House)
  • Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda (HarperCollins)
  • Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father by John Matteson (W.W. Norton)
  •  Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm (Yale University Press)
  • Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (HarperCollins)
  • Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf)

The Economist

  • The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany's Most Illustrious and Infamous Family by Jonathan Carr. (Grove Atlantic)
  • God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain By Rosemary Hill. (Allen Lane)
  • Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. (St Martin's Press)
  • Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee. (Knopf)
  • Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice By Janet Malcolm. (Yale University Press)
  • Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal. (Yale University Press)
Cleopatra's Nose Dazzles

National Book Award winner Judith Thurman, author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, has collected many of her well-known essays into a single volume published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    The essays and profiles span twenty years Thurman's career at the New Yorker. They include a wide range of topics from A.S. Byatt's Possession to the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, from New York row houses to Charlotte Bronte. All in all, an eclectic assemblage bound to delight biographers.

Diane Middlebook, Famed Sexton Biographer

Diane Wood Middlebrook, a biographer best know for her work on Anne Sexton, died December 15 in San Francisco at age 68.
     A former Stanford University Professor, Middlebrook published the immensely popular and controversial Anne Sexton: A Biography in 1991. Her use of tape recordings of Sexton's private therapy gained the wrath of many members of the psychiatry community who believed they should have remained private.

    Middlebrook also wrote Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage and Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Her final book will be published by Viking in 2009. It is a biography of Roman poet Ovid. "One of the reasons I like working on biography is that it takes a long time," Middlebook said

    "With a biography there is no straight line," she explained in a Stanford University interview. "All is muddled. You don't know what you know, you don't know what you don't know; if you find anything you make a note about it because some day it may find its partner."

John Garraty, American National Biography Editor

John A. Garraty, a historian who edited the 23,040-page American National Biography used by countless biographers, died December 19 at age 87 in his home in Sag Harbor, New York.

    The author of many books of history, Garraty was best known for his work in creating the American National Biography which supplanted the Dictionary of American Biography in scope and style. It became particularly valuable because of Garraty's efforts to include many women and minorities traditionally ignored by such reference works.

    In 1999, when the American National Biography was completed, Garraty humbly described the monumental work as "a big telephone book of American history" in an interview.

    Garraty was also the author of the 1957 The Nature of Biography. Published by Knopf, it was a historical survey of the craft along with a review of methods, particularly newer approaches using psychology.

    Garraty was born on the Fourth of July and died just short of Christmas day. "Between those dates, John Garraty personally touched the lives of thousands of students and through his writing communicated with millions," said Alonzo Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University in a tribute posted on H-net. 

Your Personal Amanuensis

Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)


It took me about three years to write Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. I came up with some rules for biographers along the way. Here they are:

1. Write about someone dead. Biographical subjects, "like snakes," the essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote, are best handled cold and lifeless, when they can't "charm and ultimately bite you."  Read more. . .

-Jonathan Eig




Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Zotero & Internet Archive Join Forces
Zotero, which was featured in April Tips Corner, has forged an alliance with the Internet Archive. "It's really a match made in heaven-a project to provide free and open source software and services for scholars joining together with the leading open library," said Dan Cohen, the Director of the Center for History and New Media.

 The alliance will permit scholars to share documents by loading them onto the Internet Archive, create a means for researchers to optically scan their own files, provide an easy to use and common referencing system, among other things.

To learn more, visit:


Center for History and the New Media

Internet Archives

In This Issue
Dual Bios on the Rise
LA Biographers
Best of the Year
Cleo's Nose
Obit: Middlebrook
Obit: Garraty
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner
From the Editor's Desk


Dear Readers,
Last June, we reported on the strong initial sales of Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His life and Universe. But, at the time there was some sense the rate of sales was falling too fast. Apparently the naysayers were wrong. The books continued to sell at a steady rate for the remainder of the year. The book was the only biography to make Top 50 BookScan Bestsellers. It came in as number 40, selling 369,000 copies.

To many readers of this newsletter the name David Smith is a familiar one. Known as the Virgil of the New York Public Library, Smith has been quietly assisting writers for years. I am only one of thousands of writers who have turned to him for help. In my case it was a matter of tracking down a St. Louis School District report that listed Joseph Pulitzer's brother as a German teacher. Sam Roberts has written a charming profile of Smith in the New York Times. Let's hope fame will not swamp him with a deluge of research assistance requests.


Below, I am listing biographies chosen by a number of publications as the best of 2007. Many of the selected books were first featured in The Biographer's Craft which either proves the newsletter has its finger on the newest trends or is simply darn lucky. Take your pick. Either way I hope you keep reading the newsletter in 2008 and, please, keep sending in your letters. You are often our best source for news about what is coming down the pike


Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris


P.S. Be sure to read the Jonathan Eig rules for biographers in this month's "Your Personal Amanuensis." You'll want to print a copy.

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Sold to Publishers

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


Frances Brent, The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson, Atlas


Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel (Henry James), Norton


Tom Clavin and Danny Peary, Outside Man (Roger Maris) Touchstone Fireside


Michael D'Antonio, The O'Malley: The Man Who Broke Brooklyn's Heart, Won LA's Love, and Changed Baseball Forever, Riverhead


In Stores



Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin
by Herb Boyd (Atria)

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

by Mick Brown (Knopf)

 Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson
by Alan Pell Crawford (Random)


Lionel H. Pries, Architect, Artist, Educator: From Arts & Crafts to Modern Architecture by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (University of Washington Press)


The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America's First Modern Press Secretaryby Linda Lotridge Levin (Prometheus)


Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943
by Götz Aly. (Metropolitan)


Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway and the Story of America's First Black Star
by Camille F. Forbes (Basic Civitas)

Don't Send Books, Send Money. New Orleans Libraries Still Need Your Help
NO library

Monetary donations are the best way to help the library rebuild (link here to donate online). If you would rather mail your donation, please make your check payable to NOPL Foundation and send it to New Orleans Public Library Foundation, 219 Loyola Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70112