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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
June 2008
 Vol. 2, No. 4
Biographer Called upon For
Opera Libretto
Terry Teachout, biographer of H.L. Mencken and Louis Armstrong (book soon to be published) will find his words taking to the stage next year. The Santa Fe Opera commissioned Teachout, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec, to write an opera for the 2009 season. The pair chose to write their work based on Somerset Maugham's 1927 short story "The Letter," which has also been adapted as a play and a movie.
     "I didn't know it at the time, but my past life had already prepared me to become a librettist," Teachout told TBC. He was a professional musician before becoming a writer and has listened to opera since high school. But perhaps the best preparation has been his years as a critic for Opera News.
    "More recently, I've spent the past five years as the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, which requires me to watch two or three plays a week, then think analytically about why they work--or don't work. For all these reasons, writing an opera libretto came more or less naturally to me."
     Teachout confessed that one challenge surfaced when he talked his collaborator into incorporating a Gilbert and Sullivan parody into a scene. "The problem with this brilliant idea," said Teachout, "was that it meant I then had to put my money where my mouth was by knocking out a W.S. Gilbert-style text in rhyming couplets."
     On the whole, however, Teachout said the experience has been rewarding and fun. "No doubt I should have approached the task with proper trepidation, but I've always assumed that I could do pretty much anything I had a mind to do, so--as usual--I jumped in head first and never looked back," he said.
     "I did feel a bit anxious just before I heard The Letter sung for the first time in a workshop performance earlier this year, but once the singers had run through the first couple of scenes, Paul and I both felt confident that we had a good grasp of what we were doing. And when I set foot on the stage of the Santa Fe Opera for the first time in May and looked out at the two thousand empty seats in the auditorium, I felt a rush of exhilaration that's all but impossible to describe, even for a seasoned old wordsmith like me."
Biographers Share Tips and Ideas On Craft at ASJA Conference
The annual American Society of Journalists and Authors conference, held this year in May in New York, included a panel discussion on biography. Entitled "Chasing History! Writing Biography," the panel featured five biographers who shared tips, ideas, and reflections with an audience of forty to fifty professional writers, many of whom were working on biographies, memoirs, and historical nonfiction.
The discussion was moderated by Beverly Gray, author of Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers and Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond. The panelists were:

·        Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, filmmaker and author of A Cast of Killers; Turning the Tide; Lords of Sipan; Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet; and, most recently, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins.

·        Nancy Kriplen, a former staffer for Time Magazine, whose biographies include Dwight Davis: The Man and the Cup and the newly published The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur--Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary.

·        Marcus Mabry, international business editor of the New York Times and until recently a Newsweek foreign correspondent. In May 2007 he published Twice As Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power. February 2008 saw the paperback reissue of his 1995 memoir, White Bucks and Black-Eyed Peas: Coming of Age Black in White America.

·        Hazel Rowley, author of three literary biographies--Christina Stead, Richard Wright, and Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives & Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre--and currently hard at work on her latest project, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: An Extraordinary Marriage.

      Mabry shared with the audience the year-and-a-half effort to get Condoleezza Rice to agree to talk to him for his biography of her. "I also talked about the pitfalls you have to avoid when writing about a figure so controversial in the moment, since you are writing for posterity."

      Mabry also wrote an autobiography, just released in paperback. He said it is far easier to write about oneself than someone else. "It's actually therapy--and someone pays you to do it."

     Kirkpatrick advised writers to focus on the necessity of carefully choosing subject matter and clearly identifying readership before launching into a new book project. One member of the audience asked about legal and professional considerations when choosing subject matter. "Write about dead people," Kirkpatrick said. "They can't sue you."

     Questions from the audience, said Gray, "reflected interest in research methods, privacy issues, and the challenge of capturing a life in print." Each panelist offered practical and philosophical advice, and Gray collected their best tips into a one-page handout that may be obtained by sending us an email.

The Pink Slipper Board
by Nancy Kriplen
In one of her speeches or essays about the joys and challenges of writing history and biography, Barbara Tuchman mentions a colorful detail that she was, alas, never able to work into one of her narratives. A German officer's staff car was strafed by machine-gun fire and crashed. Found in the car's wreckage was a pair of elegant pink dancing slippers the officer was taking to his wife.  The index card containing this detail was moved from chapter to chapter, says Tuchman, but try as she might, she was never able to work in those slippers without disrupting the flow of the narrative.
    I faced similar problems with orphan details in the writing of The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur--Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary. Where to put the nickname, Tanglefoot, that John MacArthur was given as a boy? Where to put the detail that Catherine T. MacArthur was not comfortable shopping in the tony shops of Palm Beach, despite the fact that her husband was the second richest man in the United States. (Tanglefoot never made it into the manuscript; Catherine's shopping discomfort ended up in Chapter 20.)
    As I rushed toward my deadline, whenever I came upon a quote or detail that did not belong to the section on which I was currently working but was too good to lose, I would make a quick notation on a blue index card, along with a note about the source. The card then was tacked onto what I came to think of as my Pink Slipper Board--a 25-by-36-inch cork bulletin board separated into vertical columns by strips of seam binding grabbed from my sewing box and held in place by thumb tacks.  (I had seen a similar layout on a TV show about how segments of a Saturday Night Live-type show were organized. Well, maybe not the seam binding.) For my purposes, the middle four columns were each labeled with a decade--1940s, 1950s, etc. Columns on either end were for "earlier" or "later."
     My Pink Slipper Board sat on the floor to the right of my computer, so that I could easily see it as I wrote. Sometimes as I stared into space, searching for the right word or an effective transition, my eyes would wander over to the Pink Slipper Board. Ah, yes, I would think, now I know where I can use that story about insurance-tycoon MacArthur selling a policy to the Florida highway patrolman who had stopped him for speeding--and recommending that the personable patrolman be hired as a salesman for one of John's companies.
     The Pink Slipper Board kept me from losing focus on the current chapter at hand. Just as important, it let me sleep nights without fretting about details that might get lost. When the patrolman made it into Chapter 13, his card graduated into a "used" pile. Other cards also made it into the narrative during the revising process. But some of those blue cards were still pinned forlornly to the board when the manuscript was finished. After all, advises Tuchman, the writer must have "the courage and self-confidence to make choices and, above all, to leave things out."
     But there is also a cautionary lesson from the Pink Slipper Board. Be careful of the facts you "remember." Though I have told the pink dancing slippers story frequently, I have not been able to find it again as I scan Barbara Tuchman's (un-indexed) book of essays, Practicing History. What I did find was reference to a detail about the kaiser always giving his wife twelve hats for her birthday. The card on which this was written was moved from chapter to chapter but never used, says Tuchman in her essay "History by the Ounce." Did my memory somehow conflate the two wardrobe details? But Twelve Hat Board? No, that would never have served me as well as the Pink Slipper Board has.
Nancy Kriplen  is the author of The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur--Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary (Amacom). She was recently named a Strnad Fellow at Ragdale.
Telling Only a Portion of a Life
Many biographers choose to chronicle only a portion of a life. Examples include Kenneth D. Ackerman's Young J. Edgar: Hoover, The Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (De Capo), a paperback edition of which just landed in the stores this spring, and Patricia O'Toole's When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House garnered strong reviews three years ago.
     Few, however, limit their scope to one thousand days, as Will Swift has done in The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm: A Thousand Days in London, 1938-1940 (Smithsonian). The book examines the years the Kennedy family spent in London and provides a new look at Joseph Kennedy's role as U.S. ambassador.
    Nigel Hamilton called the book "delightfully readable" in his Boston Globe review, and Kirkus's starred review proclaimed it "an admirably balanced assessment of an enormously complicated man who, wrongly, but not ignobly, stood athwart history."swift
    The difficulty in undertaking a work like this is that most readers need some context, historical and biographical, in order to make sense of the very focused slice of the subject's life. Swift explained to TBC how he sought to provide enough information from outside the brief time period covered by the book to ground readers without drowning the narrative in extraneous detail.
    "By distributing the back story in small pieces in the introduction and prologue, the author can be very selective--choosing only emotionally salient places in the main story for highlighting the past and a bit of the future," Swift said.
    In six paragraphs within the introduction, Swift covered the complicated relationship between Joseph and Rose Kennedy and the dynamics of their large family. Terseness is the order of the day. "I believe that the background material should rarely cover more than two pages at any point in the text."
    Swift also used the prologue to interweave background material with the narrative. Here, as well as elsewhere in the book, Swift found natural opportunities to work in information about Kennedy's previous career and his relationship with Roosevelt.
    "It is crucial to attach past history to emotionally salient moments in the book," Swift said. For instance, when Jack Kennedy arrived in England in 1938, he delighted in hearing Winston Churchill debate in Parliament. At this point, Swift could explain how he spent his sickly childhood reading Churchill's speeches and idolizing him.
    "In summary," said Swift, "the art is in blending brief historical or biographical snippets into a wide range of vivid episodes in the story."
A Dual Bography of Two Who Never Crossed Paths
Does being born on the same day and growing up to change the world merit a dual biography of two subjects who never crossed paths? It does, according to author David R. Contosta and his publisher, Prometheus Books.
    Contosta's new book, Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln & Charles Darwin, published in May, examines the lives and careers of the politician and the scientist. "Although there have been many books about these men as individual subjects, no one has written about the two of them under one cover," explained Contosta in his introduction. But, he contends, there are many parallels in the lives of Lincoln and Darwin that offer insights into their own greatness as well as the connection between individuals and important paradigm shifts in history.
     "This book," Contosta said, "addresses the question of how and why paradigm shifts occur and how some 'rebels' are specially equipped to lead or nurture such changes."

All-Time Favorites
 A continuing series featuring favorite biographies of biographers.

Terry Teachout, featured above, whose biographies include The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken and All the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, struck a musical tone when asked to list his five favorite biographies. That makes sense, as he is also a music critic for Commentary.

    His five favorites are:

·        W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson

·        David Cairns, Berlioz

·        John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

·        Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle

·        Amanda Vaill, Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins.

     Bate's book shows up on Patricia O'Toole's list, as well. Author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House; Money and Morals in America: A History; and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, O'Toole also included the following four books:

·        Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

·        Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

·        Julia Blackburn, Daisy Bates in the Desert

·        David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 

       Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, which won the Casey Award for best baseball book of 2005, and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, lists only two sports biographies in his top five. He explained that his selections are organized alphabetically, by author:

·        Scott Berg, Lindbergh

·        Leon Edel, Henry James

·        Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life

·        David Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi

·        Leigh Montville, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth

     When persuaded by TBC to share his list, Eig added, "Ask me again tomorrow and I might give you a different list."

    There will more such selections in coming months. It's not too late if you want to join in the fun. Send us a list of your favorite five.


PEN's First Biography Award
Goes to Malcolm

The PEN American Center presented the inaugural PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography to Janet Malcolm for her Two lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale). (See the September 2007 issue for an article.) The biennial prize of $10,000 is awarded to an author of a distinguished biography published in the United States.
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)

Meryle Secrest recently wrote a book called Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject (Knopf, 2007). The title is darkly humorous. Secrest does not literally plan homicide. But, like many biographers, she resents the widows (and widowers) who block access to documents that would reveal the foibles and accomplishments of the subjects under scrutiny.
  Secrest--author of nine biographies, including studies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonard Bernstein--was trained as a journalist, most notably at the Washington Post. If she had been trained in academe, if she had begun her career by writing a doctoral dissertation about an individual's life, she almost surely would have approached her biographies, and her book title, more gingerly...
  Sadly, her risqué--and educational-- revelations are quite unlikely to permeate university classrooms. Biography is rarely studied as a literary genre, despite its practice going back thousands of years, despite its prevalence on library shelves, despite its obvious fascination for readers.
  We can theorize why biography has failed to gain traction in academe. But whatever the reasons, it is time to anoint biography--both its history and its composition--as a genre just as worthy of university courses as are novels, short stories, poetry, and essays...

Read on


--Steve Weinberg


Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
So, How Much Is Old-Time Money Worth?

It's common when writing about the past to want to help readers understand the value of money. Say, for instance, your subject earns a $10-a-week raise in 1898. How do you convey to your readers that this is a substantial windfall?
     A solution is offered by the Current Value of Old Money website. It provides links to several sites displaying the work of scholars from around the world who have devised methods to determine the current value of money from the past.
     Here is how one of those sites would estimate the 2007 value of that $10 raise in 1898:

  $257.89 using the Consumer Price Index
  $226.22 using the GDP deflator
  $1,211.11 using the unskilled wage 
  $1,864.68 using the nominal GDP per capita
  $7,652.14 using the relative share of GDP 

     Obviously, you now have a new dilemma: which of these five calculations best conveys the practical value of the raise?
     One way to avoid this cross-the-ages comparison is to keep your reader grounded in the era about which you are writing. You can do so by giving examples of the purchases and actions a given amount would allow rather than translating it to twenty-first-century monetary values. 
   For example, when talking about the $10-a-week raise in 1898, you could write,"With cocktails selling for a dime and a porterhouse-steak dinner, complete with French fries and a saucer of piccalilli, for fifty cents, this was a handsome take." Telling details such as these are also the gems that readers will remember. (Piccalilli, by the way, is green tomato relish.)
Thanks to reader Pat McNees for this tip!
In This Issue
Biographer Turns to Opera
ASJA Features Biographers
The Pink Slipper Board
Telling Only a Portion of Life
Dual Bio but They Never Met
All Time Favorites
PEN's First Biography Award
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner

Two books all biographers  want on their shelves

How to bio 
How to Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton,  $22.95   
Bio user guide
Biography: A User's Guide
by Carl Rollyson

From the Editor's Desk

Frequently when I hold a review copy of a book, I look nervously at the spine. If I see the logo of HarperCollins, I wince. Not, mind you, because I think it is a bad house, but rather because I am under contract to it.


My fear is that readers will perceive a bias, a favoritism toward HarperCollins books in the newsletter. I also worry that I will exclude a worthy book because it is from HarperCollins. So I took a stroll through back issues and found that neither seems to be occurring; HarperCollins books have not received a disproportionate share of space, nor have they been ignored. Phew.


I had wanted to write an article about summer workshops devoted to biography. I figured that among the hundreds of summer writing programs there would be several with a focus on biography writing and research. Well, if there is one, it's hiding. I couldn't find any, despite sending out dozens of inquiries. So if organizers of summer writing programs are reading this, they might want to consider such an idea for the summer of 2009. There is certainly a demand.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

P.S. You must read the "Pink Slipper Board," just below to the left.
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Sold to Publishers

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

Patrick Hunt, Hannibal,  to Simon & Schuster
 Jan Reid, Talking Texas: The Life, Politics, and Legacy of Ann Richards, to University of Texas Press
David Kastin, The Jazz Baronness: The Life and Times of Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, to Norton


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. 


Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet

by Tom Wolf
(University Press of Colorado)

House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family
by Paul Fisher
PW Review
Zachary Taylor: The 12th President, 1849-1850
by John S.D. Eisenhower
PW Review

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke
by Timothy Snyder

Command of Honor: General Lucian Truscott's Path to Victory in World War II
by H. Paul Jeffers
(Berkley Caliber)
PW Review

Dark Genius: The Influential Career of Legendary Political Operative and Fox News Founder, Roger Ailes
by Kerwin Swint
(Union Square Press)
Mark Spitz: The Extraordinary Life of an Olympic Champion
by Richard J. Foster
(Santa Monica Press)

Blair Unbound
by Anthony Seldon with Peter Snowdon and Daniel Collings
 (Simon & Schuster)
PW Review

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln
by Kate Clifford Larson
Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl
Next Door
by David Kaufman (Virgin Books)

Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher
by Neil Gross
(University of Chicago) PW Review

The Tremendous World
I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay
by Louis Begley

The Snake Charmer:
A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
by Jamie James
PW Review
New in Paperback
by Leo Zeilig
(Haus publishing)

To All Gentleness:
William Carlos Williams,
The Doctor Poet
By Neil Baldwin
(Black Classic Press, Inprint Editions)
Note: Baldwin's biography of Williams was originally published by Atheneum in 1984, to considerable acclaim. This edition is being brought out in anticipation of the poet's 125th birthday.
Anthony Boucher:
A Biobibliography

by Jeffrey Marks
Life as Literature
by Alexander Nehamas
(Harvard University Pres) 
Before Newton: The Life and Times of Isaac Barrow
by Mordechai Feingold
(Cambridge University Press)


James McGrath Morris, editor
Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM  87574