The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
May 2009
  Vol. 3, No.3
Jon Meacham's American Lion Takes Pulitzer Prize for Biography

Biographer and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham was attending a Meachamboard meeting at Sewannee: The University of South on April 20 when his Blackberry lit up with the news. His biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House) had been awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The citation called it "an unflinching portrait of a not always admirable Democrat but a pivotal president, written with an agile prose that brings the Jackson saga to life."
     Meacham, the author of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, discounted what critics have called his entertaining and lively writing style as something new. "I do not see the manner in which I wrote the Jackson book as distinct from the way many other biographies are written," Meacham told TBC. "I am an enormous admirer of writers such as Robert Remini, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Manchester, and so many others."
     American Lion also garnered praise for its evenhandedness and Meacham's analysis of the arcane political world of the early nineteenth century. "I like to think that my background in journalism may help me detect and assess the political forces at play in a given historical situation, and perhaps the human ones too," Meacham said. But, he added, "great biographers write in engaging ways no matter how they trained. I am just grateful to all the biographers who have given me so many countless hours of pleasure and profit."
     Also nominated as finalists for this year's biography prize were H. W. Brands's Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Doubleday) and Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (Penguin).

Biographers' Club Expands Number of Prizes and Begins Taking Applications for its Renamed Annual Award
The Biographers' Club is renaming its annual prize the Tony Lothian Biographers' Club Prize after the late biographer. The 2,000 prize is awarded each year by the London-based organization to an uncommissioned first-time writer working on a biography.
  Lothian   The name change was prompted by a generous donation from the Lothian family. Antonella, Marchioness of Lothian, OBE (1922-2007)--always known as Tony--wrote a biography of her close friend Valentina Tereshkova (Valentina: The First Woman in Space). Lothian was also a current-affairs columnist on the Scottish Daily Express and a broadcaster and television presenter. In 1955, along with Odette Hallowes and Georgina Coleridge, she created the Woman of the Year Lunch, an event that continues to this day.
     This year's judges will be Margaret Drabble, whose biographies include Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson; Anne de Courcy, author of The Viceroy's Daughters and Snowdon: The Biography; and John Guy, whose books include Tudor England and My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.
     The 2007 prize winner, Clare Mulley's The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, was released by Oneworld on April 24. All the book's royalties will be donated to the Save the Children Fund.
     In addition to changing the name of its annual prize, the club has decided to start awarding prizes for the best first biography, for club members' favorite biographies, and for services to biography. Details on applying for any of the awards may be obtained from the Biographers' Club Web site.

Lessons from an "Ensemble Story"
impeached David O. Stewart's Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, out this month from Simon & Schuster, may be of interest to biographers as a model for managing the eternal problem of minor characters.
     In writing what he calls an "ensemble story," Stewart had to cope with a huge cast of politicians and journalists. As biographers have to do with the numerous people who surround their subjects, Stewart had to weigh how much to tell the reader about each person who walked across his literary stage. If early reviews are any indication, his approach succeeded. "Stewart takes readers through a tangled web of motives and maneuverings in lively, unadorned prose," noted Kirkus. "He's skilled at characterizing his large cast of characters."
     Like a biographer, Stewart first had to decide whether to even identify a person. Frequently in a biography a minor figure is reduced to "an editor," "a friend," a "savvy observer," or some other anonymous epithet to prevent overwhelming the reader with names, an excess of which gives a book the Russian novel problem, said Stewart. "Readers get bogged down with too many names, so they stop trying to remember them or, worst of all, stop reading the book."
 Stewart     Stewart's rule of thumb is the person must make at least three or four appearances to merit a full identification.
     Once a figure has been identified, the next dilemma becomes how much needs to be said about them. "You have to keep people in balance," Stewart said. "They should get only as much air time as their significance warrants."
     To accomplish this, Stewart researches the person's life with an eye for those things that will illuminate their behavior in the tale he is telling. "You know how they behaved," he said, "so go back and look for parts in their lives that give some explanation as to why they acted as they did."
     The research is the key. Authors gather more information about their subjects than needs to be revealed. "You look for personality traits that will be central to the story you are telling," Stewart said. "You try to find expressions of that in their lives."
     Next up for Stewart is a book on the alleged treasonous conspiracy by Aaron Burr.

Best Biography and Best of Everything Through "Bracketology"

Final FourThe Final Four of Everything
, to be published month by Simon & Schuster, takes a look at everything from breakfast cereal and biographies to talk-show hosts and romance novels using the method of "bracketology" to determine what we love or hate--and why.
     TBC's editor contributed the entry on biographies. As an exclusive preview for our readers, the publisher provided us with permission to share the Biography Brackets. The PDF file may be viewed here, or you may visit a special page on our Web site with a link to the brackets.
     The choices and the winners are bound to inspire debate, and as always we invite you to send in your comments to us and we will publish them next month.
     It's hard not to be familiar with the tournament bracket format used in the overhyped NCAA basketball tournament pairings each March. If you've ever participated in a March Madness office pool, you know what a bracket looks like. If you are among those who have remained immune, Wikipedia can explain the "science."
     Editors Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir have taken the concept one step further by applying the knockout format to every category but basketball. You can build your own brackets at a special Web site created by the book's publisher.

Mary Lisa Gavenas: A Levy Center Fellow
In its first two years the Leon Levy Center for Biography has awarded eight one-year $60,000 fellowships to biographers. The fellowships are among the most competitive and significant funding awards available to biographers. Over the coming four issues we will profile the four 2009-2010 fellows.
GavenasMary Lisa Gavenas has worked as both a beauty editor and a scholar of the beauty industry, especially as it relates to cultural history. Her previous book, Color Stories: Behind the Scenes in America's Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2007.
     Gavenas described herself as "over the moon" in learning that she would be one of four Levy fellows. She will use the appointment, funds, and time to work on a biography of Mary Kay Ash, founder of the multibillion-dollar Mary Kay cosmetic company, whose products are sold in offices and homes by nearly two million women.
     Gavenas first covered Mary Kay Ash's company when she researched her earlier book. "I realized that her life story was intertwined with social history that I felt was ignored or, at the very least, under-explored," she told TBC.
   "On the technical level, she presented an opportunity to explore a new form of biography. As a longtime journalist and sometime academic author, I wanted to aspire to something beyond the standard form of storytelling. In this case, I plan to let Mary Kay Ash's life be defined by its intersections with the life stories of other people. I think of it as a Studs Terkel technique to biography.
   "This is a life that reads like a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. Her story is a page-turner, pure and simple. At face value, the book is a first look at an icon who founded an outrageously successful and secretive business with its own language, manners, and customs. I hope to push it into a biography that also clarifies evangelical capitalism, women's status in the business world, and the shaping of twentieth-century American identity."

Google Books Settlement Delayed
A federal judge is giving authors four more months to opt out of the deal and review potential pitfalls in the proposed Google settlement over its book-scanning program. Instead of the original May 5 deadline, the court ruled that authors now have until September 4 to consider the agreement.
     The Google Print Library Project has scanned millions of books from libraries. A class-action suit filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild alleged that Google was "engaging in massive copyright infringement." Publishers have also joined the suit.
     In October 2008 Google and the publishing industry agreed to settle. Under the terms of the settlement, Google would pay $125 million while developing online sales opportunities for scanned books that turn up in Google searches. Future revenues would be divided between Google, publishers, and authors. The latter two would divide 64 percent of the money, and Google would keep the remainder. The company also agreed to pay for the millions of copyrighted books already scanned and for the legal fees of the Authors Guild and publishers.
     Another hurdle to the deal's approval has recently surfaced. The Justice Department is reviewing whether Google's settlement violates antitrust laws.

Readex Adds Twentieth-Century Newspapers to Its Digital Collection
Readex is launching American Newspaper Archives, an online collection that will offer access to major US newspapers. A part of America's Historical Newspapers, the archives will provide users with fully searchable digital editions of historically significant and regionally diverse publications from the nineteenth century through the 1990s.
     Initially, American Newspaper Archives will feature nine papers and their relevant predecessors: The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana; 1837-1988), The Plain-Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio; 1845-1991), The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon; 1850-1987), Press-Register (Mobile, Alabama; 1821-1992), The Times (Trenton, New Jersey; 1883-1993), The Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington; 1896-1984), The Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts; 1850-1987), The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas; 1885-1984), and The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia; 1792-1993).

Picture This

Last month TBC inaugurated a new feature. In correspondence with other biographers, we got the idea it would fun to publish photographs of our work spaces.
JM2 office     We are posting the photographs on our Web site.  As promised, here is a photo of a less-than-neat biographer's workplace. Yup, it's the one belonging to the editor. Click here to see the Room of Our Own Web page.
     Send your photos to us.

May 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 May 17, 3 to 5 p.m., in Cambridge, MA. If interested in attending, e-mail Elizabeth Harris or call (978) 270-0084.


Miles Jackson, Emeritus Dean, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, author and filmmaker, will give a talk entitled "Holding Fast the Dream: Hawai`i's African American Experience" on May 6.
    All talks are held from 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
The Washington Biography Group will have a discussion on the topic of "Taboos: what you can say, what you can't say."
     May 18, 7 to 9 p.m., Washington International School, 3100 Macomb Street 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)

Not long ago a friend and I discussed the art of a really good romantic e-mail exchange--one with just the right mix of cultural allusion, flirtation and wit. While e-mail has killed the suspense of the old fashioned epistolary exchange, it is not nearly lamentable as the rapid fire (and often lazy) text message. Although the love letter has been reduced to 160 characters, it still stands as an imperative in modern day courtship. So, how do you think you would survive in a time when romantic exchanges were made through handwritten letters and sonnets? That was the question I pondered while reading Edna St. Vincent Millay's biography What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. [read more]

--Michelle Rafferty, OUP publicity assistant

Tips Corner: Criminal Matters and Tracking Down the Rich

Barbara Fister, a mystery novelist and librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, maintains a Web site full of useful ideas and links primarily to do with crime, criminal justice, and general research.
If you are chasing down information on the rich and famous in the 1980s and 1990s, Town & Country magazine can be a useful source. But it is not indexed. Waltman Associates, a firm specializing in helping organizations raise money, publishes the Town & Country Personal Name Index, which covers issues from 1986 to 1998, in a searchable database on CD-ROM for Windows, priced at $99.00.

In This Issue
Meacham Wins Pulitzer
Bio Club Prizes
Handling Lots of Characters
The Best Biography
Gavenas: A Levy Fellow
Google Settlement Delayed
More Digital Newspapers
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
For those of you hoping for a Pulitzer Prize in biography, the trend is clear. You will need to rethink your title.
An in-depth examination of the last four prizes awarded by the Pulitzer committee reveals an important bias. In three of the four years, they responded positively to the word "America" or "American," as in American Lion, The Most Famous Man in America, and American Prometheus.
Biographer and novelist Antoinette May has fun combining the two crafts in her new novel, The Sacred Well, in stores this month. The book combines the story of Alma Reed, a famous reporter who accompanied archaeologists to the ruins of Chichen Itza, where a fortune in Mayan artifacts has been stolen from a sacrificial well, and that of Sage Sanborn, who is writing her biography eighty years later.
   "Every biography is in some way exploitation," says Sanborn. "Hadn't I reinvented my heroine? Biographers face constant choices. What to say, what to leave unsaid."
    Sound familiar?
Author imitating subject?
This month Chicago Review Press (one of the nation's best independent houses) is publishing Matthew Algeo terrific book Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip.  In it he recounts how less than six months after leaving the White House in 1953, Harry and Bess Truman took a 2,500-mile road trip in their Chrysler New Yorker. Now Algeo is retracing the route as part of his book tour. You can read all about the book and the tour in Publishers Weekly

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.

Kathleen Jones, Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to Penguin

  Jeffrey Meyers, John Huston, to Broadway
Justin Martin, biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, to Merloyd Lawrence Books
William Silber, Paul Volker: Central Banker, to Bloomsbury Press
Jenny Woolf, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, to St. Martin's

Frederick Nolan, The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall, to Sunstone Press

John Guy, biography of Thomas Becket, to Random House
Michael Scheuer, Osama Bin Laden: A Biography, to Oxford University Press 

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. 

Paul Newman: A Life
by Shawn Levy

The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
by Alec Wilkinson

Iron Man McGinnity: A Baseball Biography
by Don Doxsie

  The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and His Sons of Genius
by Mike Jay
(Yale University Press)
PW Review

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century
by Barry Mazor
(Oxford University Press)

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England
by Ralph V. Turner
(Yale University Press)
PW Review
Mr. Mob: The Life and Crimes of Moe Dalitz
by Michael Newton

The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

by Alex Storozynski
(St. Martin's/Dunne)
PW Review
We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals

by Gillian Gill
PW Review
The King of Vodka:
The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

by Linda Himelstein
PW Review
Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945
by Andrew Roberts
PW Review
Becoming Bucky Fuller
by Loretta Lorance
(MIT Press)
PW Review
The Lassa Ward: One Man's Fight Against One of the World's Deadliest Diseases
by Ross I. Donaldson
(St. Martin's)
PW Review
In the Valley of the Kings: Howard Carter and the Mystery of King Tutankhamun's Tomb
by Daniel Meyerson
PW Review
On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno

by David Sheppard
(Chicago Review)
PW Review
The Match King:
The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals

by Frank Partnoy
PW Review
Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller
by Kim E. Nielsen
PW Review
A Biography
by Maurice Lever, trans. from the French by Susan Emanuel
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
PW Review


James McGrath Morris,

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