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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
March 2008
2007 Biographer of the Year: John Heilpern
For years, a well-known magazine has made it a habit to select a Person of the Year. Not to be left out, TBC has decided to do the same with biography. Each March TBC will select a single biographer whose work has either advanced or contributed greatly to the craft during the previous year. This is not an award, rather an editorial decision intended to highlight a particular individual's work.


HeilpernIn writing John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf), John Heilpern took an enormous chance. He put himself in the story. In doing so, Heilpern admitted in an interview with TBC, he ignored the "Rule Book of Strictly Objective Biography. One shouldn't have a personal response to anything."

     The result, however, is a deeply engaging and mesmerizing biography that may liberate other biographers to be so daring. Instead of intruding in the biography, Heilpern's presence enhances the narrative and allows the reader to connect with the subject, who by all accounts was a conflicted soul and anything but a nice fellow. John Osborne is a model for writers seeking to find a fresh way to write a biography.

     Osborne, who died in 1994, is perhaps best known for his 1956 play Look Back in Anger that rocked the English theater and launched Osborne on a forty-year career of writing for the stage, film and television.

     Osborne led a life that if put on stage would have been deemed unbelievable by critics. An enigmatic bundle of contradictions who married five times, Osborne was frighteningly cruel to those who loved him. To read his life story makes one feel like one is rubber-necking while driving by a highway crash scene.Osborne

     By any standard, Osborne is a difficult subject for a biography. Heilpern, the author of two previous books and drama critic for the New York Observer, was keenly prepared to take on the task of writing a literary biography of a famous playwright. But even so, he opted for an approach different than what most biographers would have taken. In almost every chapter, Heilpern appears.

     At one moment he is walking through Osborne's garden in boots that belonged to the late playwright, the next he chasing down a death certificate for Osborne's sister or sitting down for chilled Chablis with  a source. In Heilpern's hands, the quest of fathoming Osborne's life becomes a subtle but charming plot.

     "I consciously set out to do two things," Heilpern said. "I returned, firstly, to my roots in journalism. I don't think journalism is a low trade at all. Not if you treat it right. I worked for the London Observer for many years and was fortunate to profile and interview a number of great writers and artists. They were the story. It wasn't objective reporting in the tradition of, say, the Paris Review interviews. The interviews and vignettes were more like informal conversations between unequals. I was the catalyst trying to bring out the very best from the subjects."

     "Secondly," Heilpern continued, "I had a model for the Osborne biography-a book I'd read many years ago. A.J.A Symons's 1934 The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography remains the classic innovative biography. In his eight-year quest to fathom the life story of Frederick Rolfe--aka the Baron Corvo--Symons set out to break the traditional form and raise it to an art form. He tells us what happened in his numerous interviews--the process even of getting them-and how he came to be fascinated in Corvo in the first place. He even tells us where his quest for Corvo went wrong! It's a wonderful, honest book."

     There are, of course, other "search biographies," for lack of a better term. Perhaps the most famous in recent years was Edmund Morris's biography of Ronald Reagan Dutch in which the author mixed fact with fiction. "Nothing," said Heilpern, "in my Osborne book is imagined, unfortunately. Facts are sacred, though there were times when I would have changed Osborne's life, if I could."

     When Heilpern's book was published at the beginning of 2007, Carl Rollyson observed in the New York Sun, "If there is going to be a better-written, more entertaining, or more sharply observed performance this year, I'll be mighty surprised."

     Sadly for readers, there may not be another Heilpern biography in the future. The 2007 TBC Biographer of the Year said it won't happen again. "This is my first-and last-biography."

Cat and Mouse: Writing the Tale of Tarbell and Rockefeller

TrustSteve Weinberg's forthcoming Taking on the Trust: The epic Battled of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (Norton), which combines biography and narrative history, is yet another example in the dual-biography trend in publishing (See TBC, January 2008) But of greater interest to biography readers and writers, is that the book details the development of investigative reporting and its relationship with craft of biography.

     Taking on the Trust tells the story of how Tarbell challenged and exposed the practices of Standard Oil using the newly invented techniques of investigate journalism, called muckracking by its detractors. The story is not new and has been told in biographies of both Tarbell and Rockefeller. Weinberg, however, is the first to make the battle the centerpiece of a book about the two adversaries inexorably linked in history.

     At the heart of the tale, is Tarbell's invention of a journalistic techniques. "Some of her investigative reporting took the form of biography, so in that sense the book is also partly about the evolution of the life-writing craft," said Weinberg.

    "Tarbell's main contribution: painstaking documentation in the form of county courthouse research, government documents such as Congressional hearings, and relentless interviewing," added Weinberg, who served as executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and knows first-hand the modern practice of investigative reporting.

     "Finding the right balance between the two lives, and settling on the proper pacing as I switch back and forth, turned out to be challenging," said Weinberg. "I received excellent guidance from my editors at W.W. Norton, Bob Weil and Tom Mayer."

      To achieve the right balance Weinberg decided to favor one character with more space than the other. "I left out as little as possible from Tarbell's life, because her accomplishments are not widely and deeply known, and because the personal archive she left behind is so revealing," he said. "On the other hand, I excluded more from Rockefeller's life, because multiple strong biographies of him exist, and because he left behind little of a revealing nature."

     In an era when publishers churn out multiple biographies about the same major figures, Weinberg's book offers a model for creating a new way to look at a subject. "My main contribution to the telling of Rockefeller's life is allowing readers to see him in an unusual context-as the subject of a searing investigation by a relentless journalist who seemed to come out of nowhere."

TBC Asks Biographers to Choose their All-Time Favorites

Biographers read biography. So it might be fun, stimulating, and thought-provoking to ask biographers to list their five all time favorite biographies. I wanted to call this feature the "Five Favs." But unfortunately a certain cell phone company trademarked the term and TBC's budget does not include defending itself against lawsuits.

     So the call went out to famous and not-so famous biographers. The responses have been so varied and interesting that they will keep this feature running for several months. "What a quandary!" responded Deirdre Bair, author of biographies of Carl Jung, Samuel Beckett, and Simone de Beauvoir. "Suppose I name some friends and not others? Oh boy will I be in big trouble."

      "But as I started to think about this, I realized that I simply adore some old historical ones and that I love to dip into them from time to time." The oldies on Bair's list are Vasari's Lives of the Artists and Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. "One of the great biographies of all time-a model for those of who write as well as one that earns the appelation 'reads like a novel, a page-turner,' is Aileen Ward's John Keats."

      Her fifth selection was Eileen Warburton's John Fowles (in the spirit of full disclosure, Bair pointed out she advised Warburton on her dissertation on Fowles.)

     And like many who were contacted by TBC, Bair couldn't stop at five. "One more (and I know this makes six): Douglas Day's Malcolm Lowrey for its brilliant beginning with Lowrey falling up the stairs to heath, in his usual drunken stupor."

    Bair herself showed up on another list compiled by Jill Norgren, author of Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President (in paperback this month).

     Pointing out that the task of making such a list is "insanely tough," Norgren courageously listed five books and, for good measure, added a couple more authors. Her selections were:

  • Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher, a study in American Domesticity
  • Philippa Strum, Louis D. Brandeis, Justice for the People
  • Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett
  • Elisabeth Gitter, The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl
  • Isaac Deutscher, Stalin
The other two on Norgren's list were Hilary Spurling's two-volume biography of Matisse and anything by Claire Tomalin or Lyndall Gordon

    Next month, more such selections. It's not too late if you want to join in the fun. Send your list of your favorite five to editor@thebiographerscraft.com


Can One Make a Living Writing Biographies?
Gray b 

Beverly Gray will moderate a panel called "Chasing History! Writing Biography" at the American Society of Journalists and Authors 37th Annual Writers Conference in New York  City on April 11.

     Gray, the author of biographies of Roger Corman and Ron Howard, will be joined by:

  • Sidney D. Kikpatrick, a filmmaker and author of Edgar Coyce: a American Prophet
  • Nancy Kriplen, author of Dwight Davis: The Man and the Cup and The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur-Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary;
  • Marcus Mabry, author of Twice as Good: Condolezza Rice and Her Path to Power;
  • Hazel Rowley, author of several literary biographies, including Richard Wright and Téte-á-Téte Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The session will be in the morning on the all-day meeting for ASJA members only.

Book Show Premiers on Web

On March 3, a new book show will air-if that is the right term-on the internet. Called Titlepage, the program. feature a discussion among several authors in the style of the popular French televison program "Apostrophes."

     The host of the program will be Daniel Menaker, the former executive editor-in-chief of Random House Publishing Group.

     The first program will feature novelists but future shows will feature non-fiction writers, possibly biographers, according to its staff.
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)


What should we include in biographies for young readers? Should we exclude the disputed parts of peoples' lives? I found myself thinking about those questions as I was reading the January 25, 2008, issue of the Times Literary Supplement, featuring reviews of several new, often critical biographies of Mahatma Gandhi, including two by his grandsons. And I thought about that again as I was recently reading historian Barry Mackintosh's 1977 article about George Washington Carver in American Heritage magazine, which debunks or undermines some of the myths we've heard about the famous scientist. Read more. . .

-Marc Aronson


Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Your Own Web Advance Team


If you are overwhelmed by the number of websites and sometimes doubtful about their quality, you will appreciate the work of the Librarians' Internet Index (LII).

     A publicly-funded website and weekly newsletter, the LII is like an advance team, cruising the web and evaluating websites of interest to researchers. They have now 20,000 entries on their site, organized into fourteen main topics and nearly 300 related topics.

     Every Thursday the LII sends out a newsletter, to which one may subscribe free-of-charge, featuring dozens of websites that have been reviewed by their team of librarians.

In This Issue
2007 Biographer of the Year
Tarbell & Rockefeller
All-Time Favorites
Making a Living at Biography
Book Show on Internet
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner
A Lincoln biography in stone and metal.
Summers Lincoln

"This splendid evocation of Lincoln's image in sculpture combines poetic description, human-interest anecdotes, and incisive analysis. James Percoco shows how the different styles of public art shed light on the changing memories of our greatest president. Each chapter alone is worth the price of this book."

-James M. McPherson,

author of This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

Fordham University Press

From the Editor's Desk
Dear Readers,
I love birthdays. This issue represents our first birthday. In March 2007, I sent out a prototype of this newsletter to a few friends who, like me, were either embroiled in writing a biography or simply loved reading biographies. The response was so enthusiastic I felt it would be a disservice not to do a second issue, a third, a fourth. . .
Now, a year later the newsletter has a large and supportive readership. But gaining your editorial approval was only the first challenge The newsletter must find a stable economic foundation. To that end I will seek to obtain advertising support. So, in the coming months,  please be sure to patronize and thank those who advertise in our newsletter.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

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Sold to Publishers

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


Brian Donovan, Hard Driving:  Wendell Scott's NASCAR Odyssey, Steerforth


Gary Marmorstein, Lorenz Hart: An American Life, Simon & Schuster


Charles Allen, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1900, Little Brown


Jeffry Wert, Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart, Tantor


David Hawkes, John Milton: A Hero for Our Time, Counterpoint

In Stores

The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are now accompanied with a link to the PW review. 

chasing flame

Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World
by Samantha Power. (Penguin)


 House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family by Paul Fisher (Holt)


Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier (Abrams)


Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller by
Steve Weinberg. (Norton)


Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd by Lisle A. Rose (University of Missouri Press)


Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman by Toril Moi (Oxford)



New In Paperback

Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President by Jill Norgren (NYU Press)


Don Benito Wilson: From Mountain Man to Mayor, Los Angeles 1840-1878 by Nat Read (Angel City Press)

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