The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
June 2009
  Vol. 3, No.4
New Yorker Critic Wins PEN/Bograd Weld Biography Prize

BrodyRichard Brody, a film critic and editor at the New Yorker, was selected for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, a $10,000 prize given to a distinguished biography possessing notable literary merit published in the United States during the previous calendar year.
     Brody received the award for his first book, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books). Billy Collins hosted the ceremony, which was held in Elebash Recital Hall at the Graduate Center, CUNY, on May 19.
     The award was established by Rodman L. Drake. This year's judges were Timothy Noah, René Steinke, and Judith Thurman.
     The finalists were Jeffrey Meyers, for Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (Basic Books), and Stanley Plumly, for Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (W. W. Norton & Co.).
     For more information about the award, visit the PEN website.

Book Watchers Spot an Unusual Biography Take Flight
GentileYears after breaking up with a man who had been a passionate bird watcher, Olivia Gentile decided to write an essay on bird watching. When she telephoned a few bird clubs to begin her research, one man misunderstood her. He thought she wanted to join his club. Trying to encourage her, he said, "Who knows? Maybe you'll be the next Phoebe Snetsinger."
     "I asked who that was," Gentile said, "and a couple of weeks later I was in St. Louis interviewing her widower."
     The late Snetsinger had become a consummate and famous bird watcher after a doctor told her in 1981 that she was dying of an incurable cancer. Rejecting medical help, she used an inheritance to travel the world in search of rare birds. The quest seemingly extended her life; at the time of her death, in 1999, Snetsinger had seen and recorded more birds than anybody else. In the end, it was not the cancer that got her. She died in a car accident on a birding expedition to Madagascar.
     Seven years later Gentile's biography of the legendary bird watcher, Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds (Bloomsbury), has caught the attention of book watchers, gaining wide critical praise and readership.  "I am not a woman," said Kurt Anderson of NPR's Studio 360, "[nor] am I a birdwatcher, and I don't plan to become one. But nevertheless I found Life List to be a charming, heartening, fascinating, and altogether inspiring guide to living life (and facing death) with one's full attention."
     A graduate of Columbia University's MFA program, Gentile had not written a biography before embarking on her pursuit of Snetsinger. "At different stages of the research process I encountered different challenges," she told TBC. "During the first two years--before I had access to Phoebe's memoir and personal papers--my main challenge was tracking down her friends and family all over the world, convincing them that I would be a good caretaker of her story, and figuring out the best questions to ask them. I tried to interview as many people as possible in person, but I hadn't sold the book yet and was short on money, so I had to settle for phone interviews with about half of my sources."
     Eventually, Gentile pieced together a timeline of Snetsinger's life and turned next to secondary sources to learn as much as possible about the places where her subject had lived, the era in which she grew up, her father's advertising business, the many countries she visited, the thousands of birds she saw, and the history and culture of birding.
     "I found this really enjoyable, and not as difficult as my primary research, but it was a challenge to stay focused and efficient. I must have spent weeks reading about the wonderful birds-of-paradise of New Guinea, for example, even though I only ended up devoting a couple of pages to them in the book."
     Four years into her research, Snetsinger's family gave Gentile access to personal papers. "I was able to get inside her head in a way that never would have been possible otherwise," Gentile said. "This was my biggest research 'break,' but it created its own challenges. Suddenly I had hundreds and hundreds of pages of Phoebe's writing, and I had to figure out how to organize them in my filing cabinets for easy retrieval, how to reconcile what Phoebe had to say with what people had said about her, and which of her statements to take at face value and which to question."
     Now that it's done, Gentile admits she had no idea how exhausting it would be write a biography. "I spent a total of seven years on the book. I'd really like to choose a topic for a second book that allows me to finish in about half that time; I think that would be better for my quality of life."
     "So, I don't think my next book will be a biography--it will be some sort of research-based nonfiction, but I want the research to center around going out and experiencing or observing something in the present, rather than interviewing people about the past. That will be a nice change of pace and a new challenge."

Progress on BIO Slow but Steady
Since early May, the international committee charged with producing a mission statement and bylaws for the Biographers International Organization (see TBC, April 2009) has been collectively working on the project using a Wiki.
     The online deliberations are set to conclude on June 10. The final draft will be reviewed with the aim of sending it to the BIO membership for approval in early July. Assuming the membership approves the mission statement and bylaws, the next step will be to elect officers and board members, which could be accomplished as early as September.
     Meanwhile planning continues for a spring conference, to be called "The Compleat Biographer," featuring workshops on such practical aspects of the craft as choosing a subject, funding your research, dealing with your subject's family, hiring a researcher by long distance, and note-taking systems, among other topics.
Wendy Lesser: 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. TBC is running profiles of the four 2009-2010 fellows. Last month we featured Mary Lisa Gavenas; next month it will be John Matteson
LesserIn 2006, Dmitri Shostakovich's centennial year, author and critic Wendy Lesser heard all of the composer's fifteen string quartets performed. A year later, when she heard the Twelfth Quartet, she instantly recalled everything about his life that was connected to the program notes from the prior year's concerts.
     "I knew enough about his life to know that he had been a very veiled and controversial figure, due to his persecution by (but also support from) Stalin and the Soviet machine, and I wondered if the quartets might be a way into the life that no one had tried before," Lesser told TBC. "When I read the existing biographies, this seemed to be the case--the quartets were mentioned but not focused on, and it was clear that they did correspond to important personal events in his life and revealed another side of him, and that he wrote them increasingly as he grew older."
     "So the concept seemed viable," said Lesser. "Plus I loved (and still love) the quartets as music."
     Writing a biography of the Russian composer is not the first challenging project Lesser has taken on. After all, few people in these times can claim to have been the founding editor of a successful literary review (The Threepenny Review), to have written seven books of nonfiction, and then to have turned out a novel.
     Nonetheless, this particular subject presents unusual hurdles. "You can't 'quote' from the music without alienating most of your audience (the non-musician part), and in any case I am not qualified to do that kind of musicological score-quoting," Lesser said. "So you have to learn to characterize the music in a way that will be accessible to non-musicians but still not sound silly to professionals."
     "That has been the hardest part, for me, since the book is actually a 'close reading' of the fifteen quartets as well as a discussion of his life with the quartets used as stepping stones."
     Lesser believes the Levy fellowship will permit her to complete her remaining interviews, which entail travel, and finish writing the manuscript. "In this era of extremely limited advances," she said, "that is a really important gift."

Obituary: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Biographer and Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner
By James A. Percoco
DonaldDavid Herbert Donald, renowned Lincoln biographer and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography, died on May 17 in a Boston hospital while awaiting heart surgery. He was eighty-eight years old.
     Donald was awarded his first Pulitzer in 1961 for his book about Charles Sumner, the staunch Massachusetts abolitionist turned U.S. senator (Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, published by Little, Brown). His second Pulitzer came in 1988, for Look Homeward (Knopf), about author Thomas Wolfe.
     But Donald remains best known for his 1995 bestselling one-volume biography, Lincoln, which was selected for the Lincoln Prize. Fourteen years after its publication, Lincoln still remains the standard treatment. "David Donald was probably the shrewdest student of Lincoln's political career and leadership tactics from Springfield to the White House," said Matthew Pinsker, a Lincoln scholar and professor of history at Dickinson College. "Nobody has produced a more sophisticated or nuanced analysis of Lincoln's decision-making."
     Well-regarded for his lucid prose, Donald expressed his respect for the craft in a 1995 interview: "I feel that biography is an art, like a novel; I thought it important to get the author, me, out of it, to let the story tell itself and have it as ambiguous, as ambivalent as a modern novel."
     Although born in Goodman, Mississippi, Donald had a grandfather who served in the First Vermont Cavalry during the Civil War. His academic career began at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. He went on to earn a master's degree and a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois. It was there that he was drawn to Lincoln studies, under the tutelage of James G. Randall. His academic career included teaching posts at Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard, where he served as Charles Warren Professor of American History, emeritus, after 1991.
     Donald's biographic oeuvre encompasses more than two dozen books he wrote or edited, several of them considered important contributions to Lincoln literature, including Herndon's Lincoln (1948), "the still-definitive biography of the future president's junior law partner and a startling re-evaluation of both Lincoln as an attorney and Herndon as a biographer," according to Harold Holzer, a prolific author of books on Lincoln.
     Donald soon thereafter published another classic, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, which shattered conventional wisdom about the sixteenth president. The final books among the thirty he published were, appropriately, Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln's Domestic Life (1999) and We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (2003). Two years later, together with Holzer, Donald edited a final work on his favorite subject, Lincoln in the Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in the New York Times. At the time of his death, Donald was at work on a long-anticipated biography of John Quincy Adams.
     Donald's writings and teaching have had a legendary influence on many current leading scholars and authors in the Lincoln and Civil War America fields. Those who benefited from his mentorship include Jean Baker, Catherine Clinton, Matthew Pinsker, and Gerald Prokopowicz. "An era has truly come to an end," said Pinsker on learning of Donald's death.
James A. Percoco is the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments (Fordham University Press) and is history educator-in-residence at American University in Washington, D.C.

Picture This

In the two months since TBC inaugurated this new feature of posting photographs of our work spaces, it has become the most popular item in the newsletter.
   Grabman This month we are featuring the office of Sandra Grabman. If you are wondering what all the high-tech recording equipment is doing on her desk, be sure to visit TBC's Room of Our Own website for the answer.
    Send your photos to us.

June 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, June 21, in Newburyport, MA, at the home of Elizabeth Harris. Contact.

"Sporting Lives"--A discussion with biographers Melissa Isaacso, Jonathan Eig, and Gary Andrew Poole, moderated by Dan McGrath.
June 7, 1 p.m., at the
Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest.

"The Monarchy Debate: Who Was Our Greatest Monarch?"--
Paul Lay, editor of History Today, as chairman; Marc Morris, presenting for Edward I; Alison Weir, presenting for Richard III; Susan Ronald, presenting for Elizabeth I; and Alice Hogge, presenting for James I.
Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m., at Foyles Bookstore, Charing Cross Road. Free of charge. The Biographers' Club will be providing free wine and nibbles afterward.

Biographers' Club Summer Party: Join us in the last surviving example of a complete Adam interior and in the private courtyard of Home House. We will have a second-hand bookstall with books donated by members. All donations will go to funding the Biographers' Club prizes.
Monday, June 15, 6-9 p.m., at Home House, 20 Portman Square. Tickets £25.

Washington Independent Writers--American Independent Writers conference.
Saturday, June 19, 7 a.m to 7:30 p.m., at the Cafritz Conference Center on the campus of George Washington University, 800 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C. For more information, visit the AIW website.


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)

Sons of the Famous

The dozens of reviewers and bloggers discussing Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963--edited by her son, David Rieff--aren't commenting on just how old-fashioned and inappropriate to our time this enterprise appears to be. In The Boston Globe, Liam Kennedy comes the closest to apprehending Rieff's mission: "What is at issue, though not directly stated by Rieff, is Sontag's intellectual estate--her career, character, legacy--and he is taking a significant editorial role here, shaping its initial public reception before the critics go to work."
   Let's put it more plainly: We will probably never know the real Sontag because her son did the editing. [Read more]
--Carl Rollyson, The Advocate

There's a particularly revealing anecdote toward the end of the book involving William F. Buckley's flirtation with suicide as his infirmities mounted. Given his routine abuse of prescription sleeping medications, it would have been a simple enough matter, but he was restrained by his Catholicism. His son, moreover, reports that, on more than one occasion, he was tempted to assist his father but inhibited by possible legal consequences. It also appears that the elder Buckley sought clerical advice on whether the church's prohibition might be finessed.
   However, when William F. Buckley's biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, informed Christopher that he intended to write about similar conversations for the New York Times, where he serves as editor of the Book Review, the son threatened to cut off his access to the father's papers. Tanenhaus relented and Christopher informs readers of "Losing Mum and Pup" that he "can't wait to read" the biography. [Read more]
--By Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

Tips Corner: The Treasure Trove to Be Found in Corporate Libraries

A biographer and noted screenwriter excitedly called TBC recently after visiting the corporate archives of a well-known New York magazine. He said he was astonished at its holdings and wondered if others knew that such places existed.
     If you don't know about these repositories, you may be missing out on an important resource. To get started, you'll want to check out the sixth edition of the Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada, which was just updated last month. The online directory, published by the Society of American Archivists, is a valuable research tool.
     "This edition," say its editors, "includes companies that maintain their historical records themselves, as well as companies that contract with historical consulting firms to maintain their archives collections for them."

In This Issue
Brody Wins PEN Bio Prize
Bird Watcher Bio Takes Flight
Progress Made on BIO
Lesser: A Levy Fellow
Obit: David Herbert Donald
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
I'm notorious (notorious, not famous--there is a difference) for typos and missing            . So it's always a pleasure when an eagle-eyed copy editor purges these embarrassing mistakes from my work. Recently, however, an excellent copy editor at HarperCollins added another interesting level of scrutiny to my work--rooting out the anachronistic metaphor.
    There were three in question. I referred to something being a carbon copy. I said that the light from a window beamed down on someone like a spotlight. And I wrote that the fickle treatment of certain employees by their boss made them feel as if they were on the end of a yo-yo. Unfortunately, carbon copies and theatrical spotlights turn out to be inventions that had not yet appeared in the era about which I was writing. So they got nixed.
   The yo-yo survived. Some quick research discovered that even the ancient Greeks had a spinning disk at the end of a string. Though it was not called a yo-yo, the concept of being at the end of one could well have been understood by my characters. Once again, the Greeks save us writers.
Erika Dreifus, editor of The Practicing Writer, sends news of a fellowship that looks perfect for a biographer working on a subject who lived prior to 1830. The Hodson-Brown Fellowship supports work by academics, independent scholars, and writers working on significant projects relating to the literature, history, culture, or art of the Americas before 1830. The fellowship is also open to filmmakers, novelists, creative and performing artists, and others working on projects that draw on this period of history. The award supports two months of research at the John Carter Brown Library, on the campus of Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, and two months of writing at the Starr Center at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The stipend is $5,000 per month, for a total of $20,000, plus housing and university privileges. The deadline is July 15.

Lastly, be sure to check out this month's Amanuensis selections. I grouped two excerpts relating to that thorny problem of coping with a subject's family. These accounts reminded me of Justin Kaplan's famous comment. "The first rule of biography," he said, "is shoot the widow." Biographer Meryle Secrest wrote a terrific book on this subject filled with such tales (Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, 2007, Knopf). It should be on your shelf.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris

P.S. Don't forget to submit a photo of your workplace for our Room of Our Own Web page.
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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.

Lenore Smokal, The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, to Globe Pequot

Sam Irvin, Think Pink: The Curious Life of Kay Thompson, to Simon & Schuster

Jeff Feuerzeig and Paul Cullum, Devil's Town, a biography of the singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, to Holt

 Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws, a group biography of the gay American writers who changed the culture, to Jonathan Karp

Peter Newman, biography of liberal leader, prime ministerial contender, and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff, to Random House Canada.

Mitchum Winner, Norman Mailer: Still King, to Atlantic Library

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. 

Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
by Stanislao G. Pugliese
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
PW Review

Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne
by James Gavin
PW Review
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England
by Ralph V. Turner
(Yale University Press)

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon
by John Ferling
American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone
by D.D. Guttenplan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
PW Review
Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart
by Gavin Hopps (Continuum)
The Bolter
by Frances Osborne (Knopf)
Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
(Random House)
Republican Leader: A Political Biography of Senator Mitch McConnell
by John David Dyche (Intercollegiate Studies)



James McGrath Morris,

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

Photo of Richard Brody by Alex Remnick

Photo of Olivia Gentile by Deborah Copaken Kogany

Photo of James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd