The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
March 2009
2008 Biographer of the Year: Fred Kaplan

Each March, in its anniversary issue,
TBC selects a single biographer whose work has either advanced or contributed greatly to the craft during the previous year. This is not an award; rather it's an editorial decision intended to highlight a particular individual's work.
On a winter day in 1918, on the Lower East Side of New York City, teacher Hattie M. Strelitz selected an earnest young schoolboy for the "Proficiency and Excellent Class Spirit" award. The prize was a copy of The Perfect Tribute, an account of how Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address.
    A generation later Issac Kaplan passed the prize book on to his son Fred. Despite its mythologizing approach to its subject, the book sparked such an interest in Lincoln as a writer that ninety years after that winter's day awards ceremony Fred Kaplan has Kaplanpublished Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (HarperCollins). In the sea of books honoring the bicentennial of the birth of the sixteenth president, Kaplan's is one of the freshest and most original.
    More than 10,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, some sixty of them published in the past few months alone, estimates James Swanson, who has written his share of Lincoln books. As with other popular historical figures, such as Theodore Roosevelt, finding a distinctive new perspective from which to examine the man is near impossible for a biographer. Kaplan succeeded, and his novel approach offers an example for others.
   A distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Kaplan is the author of many previous biographies, including The Singular Mark Twain; Gore Vidal; Henry James: The Imagination of Genius; Charles Dickens; and Thomas Carlyle, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
   After years as a professional student of Lincoln, inspired by his childhood admiration, Kaplan believed that "no one else had seen the origins, growth, and flowering of Lincoln's literary sensibility and genius with language as the key to the total man." While writing his biography of Twain, he was seized by an inspiring idea. "Just as Howells has called Twain the Lincoln of our literature," Kaplan told TBC, "I could envision Lincoln as the Twain of our politics."
   Certainly Kaplan is not the first to examine Lincoln's writings. LincolnAs Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley observed, "To be sure, many others before Kaplan have dealt in various ways with Lincoln's love of literature and writing." In fact, entire books have been devoted to a single speech by the president. Nor does Kaplan uncover anything we did not know before; instead all his material is drawn from readily available books. But his single-focused chronicle of the man as a writer provides an engaging new portrait. In short, in Yardley's words, "no one has explored the subject so deeply or found so much meaning in it."
    A secondary story also emerges in his book. It is one with which biographers can easily identify--the love of language. When you think of it, in biography we use words to recreate a life; in a way, to bring our subject back to life. In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer both the author and his subject display a passion for words. The marriage between the two makes for compelling reading.
     In an age before twittering, language held a primacy in life that today seems quaint to many. "Language mattered because it was useful for practical communication and for learning and because it could shape and direct people's feelings and thoughts in a culture in which spoken or written words had no rival," Kaplan writes.
    "In Lincoln's case it also mattered immensely because it was the tool by which he explored and defined himself. The tool, the toolmaker, and the tool user became inseparably one. He became what his language made him."

Biographers International Organization Holds Its Founding Meeting This Month
BIO logo
On March 26, in New York City, between fifty and one hundred biographers are expected to gather to launch the Biographers International Organization (BIO) in hopes of advancing the professional interests of career-focused biographers through networking and advocacy, the creation of a virtual library, and providing legal advice.
   The meeting will begin promptly at 11 a.m. in the Skylight Room at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue. It is free of charge and open to any professional or aspiring biographer. While advance registration is not required, it is appreciated. If you think you may attend, please send us word.
    The BIO founding meeting will be held in conjunction with the Leon Levy Center for Biography Conference, which runs from 1 to 8 p.m. on the same day. The Levy Center is donating the space for the BIO founding meeting.
    The preliminary agenda is as follows:
11:00   Registration, socializing
11:15   Welcome by James McGrath Morris
11:25   Discussion/debate over the proposed mission     statement
12:00   Discussion/debate over proposed bylaws
12:30   Election of governing board
    Please assist us in spreading the news about the founding meeting to as many writers as possible. A downloadable PDF flyer is available on our Web site.

Barbie's Inventor Subject of Two New Biographies
Two biographers have produced competing portraits of Ruth Handler to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Barbie, the sonsy doll she may, or may not, have invented.
    The books are Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her, by Robin Gerber (Collins Business), and Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel, by Jerry Oppenheimer (Wiley). Early reviews have been positive. "This stirring biography is a fine study of success and resilience," Publishers Weekly said of Gerber's book; it called Oppenheimer's "fast-paced and engaging."
   Both writers found a great story in Handler, but their approach to the topic is as different as Ken is from Barbie. In Barbie and Ruth, Handler is a woman wronged by business history. In Toy Monster, she is a white-collar criminal falsely credited for Barbie's invention. Side by side, the two books complement each other.
   "I wanted to bring a fascinating, complicated woman out of the shadows of history," Gerber told TBC. "Ruth Handler was a Barbiecorporate genius, but also a person with serious flaws. I wanted to be sure to capture her strengths without slighting her weaknesses."
     "She was a woman who founded a company in 1945 that become one of America's greatest companies," Gerber said. "Her husband had been given credit before, but it is clear from the record that, while he was a brilliant designer, he never could have built a company on his own."
   Oppenheimer focused his book more on the Mattel Corporation, founded by Handler with her husband, and its curious cast of characters, including the flamboyant doll designer Jack Ryan. "My goal," Oppenheimer told TBC, "was to write highly readable, colorful portrait but remain objective."
   One of the most interesting parts of Toy Monster addresses Toy monsterhow Barbie was conceived. According to Oppenheimer, the doll was inspired by a German curvaceous plastic sex toy. "For years, the credit was taken by Ruth Handler," he said. "In fact, as I disclose, the real power behind Barbie's introduction in society fifty years ago this month was a brilliant Yale-educated engineer with many sexual kinks by the name of Jack Ryan."
   "Barbie will never be viewed the same way based on the bizarre life of Ryan that I document for the first time."

Be Careful Using YouTube
As a Source
Jarred Weisfeld, manager of the late rap star Ol' Dirty Bastard, is unhappy with the way he was portrayed in Jamie Lowe's Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB. He is suing the author and the publisher, FSG's Faber imprint.
   Weisfeld's complaint, according to reports in Publishers Lunch, is that he was depicted "as a money hungry Jewish manager who was financially invested in ODB's very soul." The source for the description, he claims, comes from a parody of a press conference aired on YouTube and not from a real meeting with the press.

Authors Guild and Google Book Lawsuit Settlement Information

Statement from the Authors Guild regarding its settlement with Google:

"The settlement strengthens authors' rights and will, if approved by the court, result in millions of dollars of payments to authors. At least $45 million will be paid to authors and publishers to release claims for books that are scanned by Google by May 5th of this year. But that's not the most significant part of the settlement, in our view.  We expect the licensing that this settlement would enable, particularly of out-of-print books, will result in far more revenues for authors over the coming years. 
    The settlement covers essentially all in-copyright books that were published by January 5, 2009. (Some authors have told us that they think of the settlement as covering only books for adults or nonfiction books. This is incorrect. Books of all types are covered by the settlement.)
    We think it's in the strong interest of authors of all books, whether in print or out of print, to go to the Google Book Settlement web page and claim their books."

Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,
     I assume that a percentage of your readers are "starving writer types" who would appreciate opportunities for supplemental income. I would also think that nearly all of them have an interest in biography and history.
     I have started a company that is building a national (and I plan someday international) force of "Legacy Consultants" to serve as the human face of our centralized custom publishing enterprise. LCs meet with clients to interview them, organize and scan their photographs, and review drafts of beautiful custom "LifeStory" books that we create on their behalf. All editorial and layout is centralized, so Legacy Consultants are not writers per se, but they are at the center of the interviewing and story development. There are also opportunities to build a team of like-minded individuals through recruiting and sponsorship.
     LCs earn between $400 and $475 per LifeStory that they complete (each takes about twelve to fifteen hours, which equates to about $30 per hour). It is an opportunity for your readers to make substantial money in a gratifying part-time role.
Peter A. Gudmundsson
CEO The Priceless Legacy Company
15305 Dallas Parkway, Suite 1000 Dallas, Texas 75001
214.272.2363 1.866.320.9390 x301


March Calendar

To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.

Austin, Texas
Evelyn White will present a lecture titled "The Universe Provides: Alice Walker, a Hammock and the Art of Biography," discussing her ten years as the official biographer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of The Color Purple. March 11, 5 p.m., University of Texas campus, Main Building, Room 212. A reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.
The Boston Biography Group will meet on March 22, from 3 to 5 p.m., in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Contact

Eleanor Nordyke, author and former research fellow at the East-West Center, will give a talk entitled "Pacific Images: Views from Captain Cook's Third Voyage." March 5, 12 to 1:15 pm, at the Center for Biographical Research, Henke Hall 325, 1800 East-West Road, the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. Contact
Michael Holroyd will chair a major discussion panel entitled "Biography and the Current State of Publishing." Panel members will include Alexandra Pringle, publisher at Bloomsbury; Andrew Hayward of Constable, representing the sales and marketing position; and Andrew Lownie, literary agent and founder of the Biographers' Club. March 26, 6 to 8:30 p.m., Imperial College, Read Lecture Theatre. Contact
New York
The Leon Levy Center for Biography will host a conference exploring biography in all of its many guises. The conference schedule begins with a film screening and features talks by biographers working in a variety of genres and disciplines, ranging from literary biography and jazz studies to curatorial science. March 26, 1 to 8 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Contact
The Washington Biography Group will have a discussion on the topic "How I Found My Subject." March 30, 7 to 9 p.m., Washington International School, 3100 Macomb St., NW, Washington, DC. Contact


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)

Max Born's life was made for chronicling. For one thing, it tells a fascinating story that covers much of western history in the first half of the twentieth century. For another, he and his friends seemingly never threw away any of the thousands of letters they received nor much else for that matter. That is not to say that the record is complete and available. The dozens of archives I have visited in Germany and Great Britain divulge some wonderful tales, but upheavals from two world wars, government secrecy policies, and the unknown whereabouts of friends' children, ensure that one does not always find the "expected." For the "unexpected," there is only hope and here I have been very fortunate.
[Read more]
--Nancy Greenspan, "Surprises in Writing a Biography of Max Born"
AIP History Newsletter

Tips Corner: Sharing Ideas

Usually TBC offers a research tip of its own each month. This month, however, our suggestion is to visit Legal History Blog, a wonderful site devoted to scholarship, news, and new ideas in legal history. Here are links to a series of useful articles on research techniques posted by Emily Kadens of the University of Texas Law School.
    Thanks to alert reader David O. Stewart, author of the forthcoming Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy (Simon & Schuster), for suggesting these web sites.

In This Issue
Biographer of the Year
BIO Founding Meeting
Barbie Inventor Biographies
Watch Out with YouTube
Google Books Settlement
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner

Levy ctr

First Annual
 Conference on



featuring talks by Benita Eisler, Kai-Ming Cha, Darcy Frey, Farah Griffin, John Matteson, Jewell Robinson, Eiji Han Shimizu, Ilena Silverman, David Ward and Salim Washington

The first annual conference on biography at The Leon Levey Center for Biography will explore biography in all its guises. The conference schedule begins with a film screening and features talks by biographers working in a variety of genres and disciplines, ranging from literary biography and jazz studies to curatorial science.

Thursday, March 26,
1:00-8:00 p.m
Elebash Recital Hall
The Leon Levy Center for Biography
The Graduate Center
The City University of
New York
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016

Free and Open
to the Public 

Click here for more information

From the Editor's Desk
TBS celebrates its second anniversary this month. As we did with our first, we selected a Biographer of the Year. Last year, you may recall, it was John Heilpern for his book John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf).
Thanks to all of you who wrote me kind notes this past month about my vision problems (TBC 2/09). You will be glad to hear that my surgeon told me I won't have to give up writing biographies.

For those of you wondering when the next volume in Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson will be released, the answer is not soon, according to an interesting profile of the writer running in Newsweek.

Like many authors, Deirdre O'Connell has a Web site.  Surprisingly, however, it is not devoted to her new book, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius, but rather to its subject. This approach is far less commercial than that found on most author sites, and it's a service to others who might be interested in the topic.

It's not quite a biography, but readers of TBC may want to look at Louisa Gilder's The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn (Knopf). Gilder takes an unusual tack in this history of quantum mechanics. Using excerpts from journals, papers, and letters, she constructs dialogues among her cast of scientists. She explains and defends her method in an elaborate "note" to the reader. This unconventional approach may inspire the admiration of some biographers and the wrath of others. In any case, it's well worth examining.
Speaking of scientists, Nancy Greenspan offers tales from her pursuit of the story of Max Born in this month's Amanuensis.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris

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Sold to Publishers

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

Marc Eliot, Clint Eastwood, to Harmony
Mark Vieira, Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, to University of California Press
Adam Begley, biography of John Updike, to HarperCollins
Angel Esteban and Stephanie Panichelli, Fidel & Gabo, to Pegasus
Susan Wels, Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It, to Running Press
Wendy Leigh, Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance, to Simon Spotlight Entertainment
Deborah Strober and Gerald Strober, The Story of Bernard L. Madoff, The Man Who Swindled the World, to Phoenix

In Stores

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


Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
PW Review

A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green
by Thomas Cahill (Doubleday/Talese)
PW Review
W. C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
by David Robertson
PW Review

William Francis Bartlett: Biography of a Union General in the Civil War
by Richard A. Sauers and Martin H. Sable
Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin': The Authorized Story of Public Enemy
by Russell Myrie
PW Review
Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel
by Jerry Oppenheimer
PW Review

Barbie and Ruth: The Story
of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her

by Robin Gerber
(Collins Business)
PW Review
Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore
by Wendy Moore
PW Review
The Fearless Harry Greb: Biography of a Tragic
Hero of Boxing

by Bill Paxton
Meriwether Lewis
by Thomas C. Danisi and
John C. Jackson
PW Review
Judas: A Biography
by Susan Gubar
PW Review
  Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation by Mark Adams
PW Review
Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles
by Michael D'Antonio
PW Review

In Paper


Elton: The Biography
by David Buckley
(Chicago Review Press)

Wallace Stegner and the American West
by Philip L. Fradkin (University of California Press)

Michener: A Writer's Journey by Stephen J. May
(University of Oklahoma Press)


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