The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
April 2009
  Vol. 3, No.2
New Organization for Career-Minded Biographers Is Launched

BIO meeting

More than fifty biographers gathered in New York City on March 26 to launch the Biographers International Organization (BIO). Ranging from a Pulitzer Prize winner to an aspiring student, the attendees strongly endorsed the need for an organization that would foster community among biographers, increase public awareness of the genre, and generally represent and serve the interests of career-minded independent and institution-affiliated biographers.
   David Nasaw, faculty director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, which donated the space for BIO's founding meeting, welcomed the attendees. After his brief remarks, Catherine Clinton, author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, offered a remembrance of historian John Hope Franklin, who passed away the day before the meeting. Will Swift, author of The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm, organized introductions of the attendees, some of whom had come from as far away as Canada and Ireland.
    When discussion began about the steps needed to organize BIO, Louise Knight, author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, suggested the group follow the model of nineteenth-century activists by creating a temporary committee to draft a mission statement and bylaws. The idea was accepted, and a fifteen-member founding committee was formed.
      The group then discussed at length the various anticipated purposes and roles for BIO. The group's various recommendations will be put into a formal statement, along with bylaws, by the Committee of Fifteen.
    In the coming months TBC will report on the committee's progress. Should you wish to be involved in the deliberations, please send us a note and we will add your address to an email distribution list.

Levy Center Holds First Biography Conference and Selects 2009-2010 Fellows
The new Leon Levy Center for Biography, established in 2008, opened its doors to writers and the public on March 26 for a well-attended daylong conference on biography. Beginning with a screening of Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend and closing with staff members of the National Portrait Gallery discussing "curating biography," the conference designated its theme as "Biography for the 21st Century." All events were held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.Levy conf
   The presentations also included an elegiac lament for the passing of biography by Benita Eisler (vigorously disputed by discussant John Matteson), an overview of biography in graphic novels and animation, a lively discussion of jazz and biography, and a well-received talk by Darcy Frey on the journalist as biographer.
   The Levy Center will host its Second Annual Conference on Biography in the spring of 2010, according to David Nasaw, faculty director of the center.
2009-2010 Levy Fellows
A Pulitzer Prize winner, a beauty magazine editor, an art critic, and a journalist were selected for the 2009-2010 Leon Levy Center for Biography Writing Fellowship. This is the second year that the center has provided four $60,000 year-long fellowships to biographers. One of the fellowships is reserved for a CUNY professor, so the competition was actually for three slots.
     "We again had a first-rate pool of applicants for the four fellowships, and all applications were read by an extraordinary group of editors, writers and publishers for the final analysis," wrote Nancy Milford, Levy Center executive director, in a letter to applicants.
     Nonetheless, the selection disappointed some observers, who had expected that the center would direct its fellowship funds to lesser-known writers. Indeed, the center itself raised such hopes. "While established biographers are welcome to apply," the fellowship announcement read, "we are especially interested in receiving applications from biographers in the early stages of their careers and writers moving to biography from other genres."
      Here are this year's awardees:
  • John T. Matteson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in biography last year for Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. An associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he is working on a biography of Margaret Fuller, journalist, critic, women's rights activist, and a prominent female figure of American Transcendentalism. (His fellowship is the one designated for a CUNY professor.)
  • Mary Lisa Gavenas, a former Glamour, Mirabella, and InStyle beauty editor, who is writing a biography of Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc.
  • Wendy Lesser, novelist and editor of The Threepenny Review, who is at work on a biography of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
  • Vanda Krefft, a journalist writing a biography of William Fox, founder of the movie company Twentieth Century Fox.

Up Next: Centre for Life-Writing Research to Host Major Biography Conference
Next month the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King's College, London, will hold a conference in collaboration with the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. To be held from May 26 through May 28, the conference intends to map the state of the field of life-writing, in practice and in theory, across a range of genres and media, and to investigate its personal, social, and cultural functions.
     Among the speakers are Bill Andrews, Paul John Eakin, Vesna Goldsworthy, Trudier Harris, Craig Howes, Kathryn Hughes, Meg Jensen, Margaretta Jolly, Hermione Lee, Philippe Lejeune, Sidonie Smith, Angela Thirlwell, and Julia Watson.
     The conference will comprise more than seventy lectures, papers, and readings. Topics will include Life-Writing and Cultural Memory; Life-Writing and Film; Memory; Portraiture; The Body; Medical Lives; Life-Writing and the Future; Life-Writing and Work; Life-Writing as Cultural Capital; the Politics and Pragmatics of Life-Writing; Life-Writing in the Family; Historicity; the Personal; Exhibiting Lives; Voices; and the Teaching of Life-Writing.
     Selected papers from the conference will be published, either in a special journal issue or in a volume of essays.
     For more information visit the center's Web site.

Taking on a Nineteenth-Century Giant and Those Who Wrote About Him
VanderbiltT. J. Stiles's long-awaited and lengthy (752-page) biography The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf) arrives in stores this month. The work traces the life of the economic dynasty founder, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, from his humble origins on Staten Island to his lordship over a railroad empire.
     The book is bound to have many readers. Knopf's first printing is 60,000 copies. But biographers, who are said to read books from the back to the front, will be fascinated by a nine-page bibliographical essay tucked in at the end of the book.
In this essay Stiles confronts problems common to many biographers.
     The first is how to deal with other biographers. Discussing one's disagreements with the work of others within the main text of the book can bog down the narrative and seem like research boasting. Taken to excess, it can be fairly disastrous, as Kenneth White learned when critics and readers complained about his lengthy criticisms of other biographers' work in his new book, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst.
Stiles     "Who wants to go after another biographer?" asked Stiles in an interview with TBC. However, he faced a difficult problem. Edward Renehan, author of a 2007 Vanderbilt biography, made major claims based on secret sources that the Commodore had suffered from syphilis and become demented. "Edward Renehan's claims were so enormous, so recent, and so untenable that I had to address them. Somehow."
     At first, Stiles included a lengthy critique in the text, explaining why, in light of both medical knowledge and all historical evidence, it was impossible to believe that Vanderbilt ever suffered syphilitic dementia. "Still, I hated to junk up my narrative with this discussion."
     "It was not until I read the story of Renehan's criminal convictions and his self-proclaimed struggle with severe bipolar disorder that his book (and his refusal to reveal his sources) made sense to me. Only then did I fully accept that his secret sources had no validity. I stripped my discussion out of the text and stashed it in the bibliographical essay. I still needed to spell out the case against Renehan's claims, but I kept it from marring my narrative."
     In the end, Stiles offers this advice when struggling with what role one should play in "correcting" mistakes in history books or other biographies. "My GPS system for this question is a simple admonition: Remember the reader. Will it help or entertain the reader (as opposed to a scholar or a researcher)? If the answer is yes, it goes in the main text. Otherwise, in the endnotes, if anywhere at all."
     If the issue is central to how the subject has been traditionally defined, then Stiles explicitly addresses the question in the narrative. "The interpretive passages should advance the storytelling--they should propel, not bog down, the reader," he said.
     "On the other hand, if I am correcting the record in subtler ways, I think it's best to simply give my version. Just leave out the bad and put in the credible. Many issues are best left to the endnotes, where they will be found by serious scholars or researchers, who will care enough to look up the sources.
     "Every once in a while, there's a story that doesn't merit a full discussion in the text but is known well enough to go into a footnote, at the bottom of the page. That's where I took on the idea that Vanderbilt helped invent the potato chip. The reader will see it and be amused by it, but the main narrative text is best off without it."

Google Book Settlement Challenged

The far-reaching settlement of a suit brought against Google by publishers and authors (announced in last month's TBC) is raising questions among many authors and is being challenged in court.
      The Authors Guild, one of the participants in the original suit, favors the agreement and urges authors to register their books by the May 5 deadline. The guild offers an explanation of the agreement and instructions on how authors can register their works on its Web site.
     On the other hand, Lynn Chu, a partner in a respected literary agency, penned a highly critical review of the agreement in the Wall Street Journal, "Say goodbye to your rights, forever, authors, if this mess goes through."
     Other critics also claim the settlement will provide Google virtually exclusive rights to publish the books online and to profit from them. Several academics and public interest groups plan to file legal briefs objecting to the settlement before a review by a federal judge in June, according to the New York Times.

Picture This

This month we inaugurate a new feature. In correspondence with other biographers, we got the idea it would fun to publish photographs of our work spaces.
Shields study     We are posting the photographs on our Web site. Click here to see this month's featured workplace, which belongs to Charles Shields, who is at work on a biography of Kurt Vonnegut. When asked if he had neatened the place before taking the photo, Shields assured us it always remains neat. Next month, we promise a view of a less fastidious author's desk.
     Send your photos to us.

April Calendar

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


The Boston Biography Group will meet on Sunday, April 19, 3-5 p.m., at the Arts at the Armory building, 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA. There is free parking behind the building. Contact


Stephen O'Harrow, Professor of Oriental Philology, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, will give a talk entitled "Getting the Blues in Chicago: The Life and Art of Photographer Susan Greenberg" on April 9.
Lilia Omarouayache, Instructor in French, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa will give a talk entitled "Pioneers in Education: The Case of Horace Mann and the Beginning of Public Education in the United States" on April 16.
Robert J. Littman, Professor of Classics, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, will give a talk entitled "The Book of Tobit and Biographical Fiction" on April 23.
Ty P. Kāwika Tengan, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Anthropology, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, will give a talk entitled "The Stories of Hawaiian Men" on April 30.

All talks will be held from 12:00 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

New York

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman
A celebration of the Yale University Press's publication of Adina Hoffman's biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
April 7, 7 p.m., Skylight Room

Radio Diaries Retrospective, 1999-2009, Mary Ann Weaver
Radio Diaries works with people to document their own lives for presentation on National Public Radio's This American Life. Their subjects include teenagers, seniors, prison inmates, and others whose voices are rarely heard. The producers and a diarist will join journalist Mary Anne Weaver, 2008-9 Biography Fellow, to explore the radio documentaries that they have created over the past decade.
April 21, 7 p.m., Martin E. Segal Theatre

Both events will be held at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. Contact



The Washington Biography Group will have a discussion on the topic of who has the right to write a biography, in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and biographer/subject relationship.
April 27, 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)

If authors only wrote about themselves and what they knew, we'd be flooded with bookshelves full of memoir and autobiography (though, to some, it might feel like we are). For writers like Wray, novels open up possibility through imagination and creativity. Yet, with that, comes a level of responsibility to stay true to the reality that the writer has assigned to his or her characters. For Wray, this was a central part of the process; he says it took him some time before he felt fully comfortable with his main character and convinced that he had gotten the voice and accordant emotions down pat.
   Although this can be a difficult and often frustrating endeavor for novelists, it is a struggle for other writers as well. Writers of non-fiction, especially biographies, may encounter similar frustrations and chagrin as they attempt to convey the story of the life of someone else. While authors may have had a prior interest or obsession with a subject that inspired them to write about them, there still requires a certain courage and conviction on the part of the author. [read more]
--Danny Groner, Huffington Post

Tips Corner: Outlining Software

At some point, most biographers create a roadmap for their project. Some write their outlines in long hand on yellow legal pads, while others use word-processing programs or spread sheets. But for those who want something more sophisticated, there is a vast array of software designed to help the writer outline a project. Some even help organize notes.
   Below are brief descriptions of some of the leading programs (quotations taken directly from the company Web sites). If we have missed one you like, don't hesitate to tell us about it; we will publish your recommendation.

"Writer's Blocks create hundreds of blocks, each containing a few sentences or a few pages of text. Arrange your blocks into a coherent structure and then transfer your outline into the integrated full-featured word processor and expound on your ideas. Each block remains linked to a section of your manuscript for quick and easy reference. Click on a block to automatically scroll the corresponding section of your manuscript into view."
Writer's Block [PC only]

"Whether you are taking notes in class or a meeting, planning a project, keeping track of vehicles or health, or just outlining your ideas, SplashNotes is a very powerful assistant. Create outlines of any size and complexity, and turn them into checklists if you wish. Attach notes and drawings for quick reference. Use it on a Windows desktop computer or on your handheld, and synchronize your notes between the two."
Splash Notes [PC/Mac]

"Begin by gathering source materials--books, magazines, periodicals, interviews, etc. Make a Source card for each item and any needed Author cards. As you read, use Summary / Paraphrase / Quotation note cards to take notes and link them to Source / Author cards. Begin outlining the paper using the Project feature. Add headings and see where your notes will fit. As you discover gaps in the paper, do additional research / take more notes. When your project outline looks ready for a draft, export it into your word processor for editing. Your bibliography will be exported, too."
Ndxcards [PC only]

"Opal lets you organize just about anything--ideas, reports, lists, notes, projects, graphics--in the form of an outline. Opal's elegant, uncluttered interface stays out of your way so you can capture notes efficiently. You're free to organize--and reorganize--however you like. You can always find information later, using fast filtering or Spotlight. Or keep it out of your way by shrinking long topics or focusing on part of a document. Prioritize lists with flexible sorting. Track projects with smart checkboxes. Multiple selection lets you work faster. Streamlined and responsive, Opal is truly your digital notepad. Opal will be familiar to anyone who ever used the popular and reliable Acta outliner. However, it's completely rewritten for Mac OS X."
Opal [Mac only]

"OmniOutliner 3, an amazingly flexible program for creating, collecting, and organizing information. Give your creativity a kick start by using an application that's actually designed to help you think. It's like having an extra brain--one that doesn't keep losing the car keys. You can use OmniOutliner's document structure to create hierarchies of main headings and subpoints that can be expanded and collapsed, which are immensely useful when it comes to brainstorming new ideas, drilling out specifics, and lining up steps needed to get everything done. But you aren't limited to outlines--you've got multiple columns, smart checkboxes, customizable popup lists, and an über-innovative styles system at your disposal.
    Use OmniOutliner to draft to-do lists, create agendas, manage tasks, track expenses, take notes, plan events, write screenplays . . . and just about anything else you can think of."

OmniOutliner3 [Mac only]

The following two Web sites include reviews of various outlining programs (caution: the second site has not been updated in a number of years, so some of its recommendations are out of date):

Mind Media
John Redmood

In This Issue
BIO Is Launched
Levy Center Conference
UK Biography Conference
Stiles's Vanderbilt Biography
Google Settlement Challenged
A Room of Our Own
Tips Corner

Link Yourself to Other Biographers, Editors, Agents, and Readers.

Make sure your Web page is listed in the TBC Directory of Biographers

From the Editor's Desk
Producing TBC each month yields enormous rewards. Many of you write to tell me how much you appreciate the newsletter. But, despite best efforts, I also engender criticism.
   Recently, I was taken to task for not challenging the claims made by a biographer in a new book that was featured in TBC. I explained to the angry reader that TBC does its best to cover biographies of interest to readers, but we will never have the staff to verify claims contained in the books. We leave that to others. (With remarkably fortunate timing, this month we are featuring an article that discusses how one biographer dealt with correcting the work of another.)
   I have also been severely rebuked by a member of an institution for a seemingly negative tone in our news coverage of its work.
   TBC can't be all things to all readers. We seek to provide impartial coverage of news of interest to writers and readers of biography, to present practical and useful information about the craft, and to foster community. It is by this benchmark that I evaluate TBC each month. 

Is Amazon the only place to buy books? It would seem so, if one were to judge by the Web sites of prominent authors and writer organizations. More often than not, the "buy this book" links on such sites take you directly to Nothing wrong with Amazon, but by limiting the choice to that venue alone, authors are hurting independent stores, their most valued partner in reaching readers. Independents are aggressive supporters of authors on book tours. They provide valuable personal support for books in ways that Amazon cannot match.
   So consider adding a link to Indiebound, which would allow visitors to your Web site to obtain your book from an independent store rather than solely from Amazon. Then the next time you do a well-attended reading at an independent bookstore, you can proudly point to your membership in Indiebound.
This issue features a story about T. J. Stiles's new biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Last month many readers undoubtedly heard or read about a discovery made inside President Lincoln's pocket watch. Stiles has an unusual connection to this intersection of myth and memory. You can read about it on the Atlantic magazine Web site.

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.

Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson, Quantum Leap (about John Polkinghorne, a British particle physicist who, after 25 years of research in academia, resigned his post to become an Anglican priest and theologian), to Lion Hudson Books
Edward Klein, Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died, to Crown
Mick LaSalle, The Beauty of the Real (a portrait of the women shaping the explosion of female talent in French film over the last two decades), to Stanford University Press
Jeni Stepanek, Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J. T. Stepanek and Heartsongs, to Dutton
Tim Newark, Lucky Luciano, to St. Martin's

Michael Hemmingson's Raymond Carver: A Critical Biography, to McFarland
Paul Batura, Good Day: The Paul Harvey Story, to Regnery

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. 

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
by Kirstin Downey (Doubleday/Talese)
PW Review
The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants
by Jane S. Smith
PW Review
Nina Simone
by David Brun-Lambert
(Arum Press)
Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits
by Barney Hoskyns (Broadway)
PW Review
The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys
by Lillian Pizzichini
PW Review

Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams's Doc Graham
by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising
(John F. Blair)
Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How a Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science
by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano (Collins/Smithsonian)
PW Review
Judge Richard S. Arnold: A Legacy of Justice on the Federal Bench
by Polly J. Price
(Prometheus Books)
Cat Power: A Good Woman
by Elizabeth Goodman
(Three Rivers)
PW Review
The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
by Robert Sullivan
PW Review
Puttin' on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache
by Peter Levinson
(St. Martin's)
PW Review
The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China
by Jay Taylor
PW Review
Sojourner Truth's America
by Margaret Washington
(Univ. of Illinois)
PW Review
A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream
by Mark Gevisser
PW Review
Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare
by Jonathan Bate
PW Review

In Paper


Girls Like Us: Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Books)

Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler (Applause)

Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician Man
by George Case
(Backbeat Books)

Sylvia Path: A Biography
by Connie Ann Kirk


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