The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
February 2010
  Vol. 3, No. 12
Best-Selling Biography of 2010?

KelleyKitty Kelley completed her much talked about biography of Oprah Winfrey in January, and Crown Publishers is rushing to the printer to run off more than half a million copies. Oprah: A Biography will be released on April 13 in the U.S. and Canada in hardcover, audio, and electronic formats simultaneously.
     Kelley spent three years researching and conducted 850 interviews to complete her 544-page biography of the famous television talk-show host, movie producer, magazine publisher, and sometime actress. She told TBC, "I had so looked forward to a breather (i.e., bubble baths and bonbons) but am already starting a piece for the American Scholar entitled 'In Defense of the Unauthorized Biography.'" She invites readers who have any suggestions for the article to email her.
     Controversial and even the subject of an unauthorized biography herself, Kelley has had four of her previous biographies debut at number one on the New York Times best-seller list. The books were The Family, 2004; The Royals, 1997; Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, 1991; and His Way, 1986. She also wrote Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star (1981) and Jackie Oh! (1978). Her books have been published in 36 languages.

Compleat Biographer Conference Ranks Swell, Agents Roundtable Added to Lineup, Panelists Announced, Hotel Problems Being Fixed

Registration for the first-ever Compleat Biographer Conference, to be held on May 15 at the University of Massachusetts Boston, continues apace, exceeding the goals of organizers. The planning committee reports that all of the programming is complete and an additional event has been added to the daylong conference.

Agents Roundtable
In response to anxiety over electronic rights and other new issues, the conference has invited a group of agents to do a presentation called "Agents Roundtable: Representing Biographers in a Changing World." (Those who have already registered may return to the registration website and alter selections.)
     Following lunch the conference will have a two-hour "speed-dating" session with agents for unrepresented authors. Those wishing to participate should sign up while completing the online registration. They will receive an email with further instructions. The fee for the speed-dating session is $25.

Program and Panelists
Biographers International Organization (BIO) has also posted full descriptions of the programs on its conference website. In addition biographies of the panelists are being added each day. Those leading sessions include, among many others:
  • Debby Applegate, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher;
  • Maria Ascher, a senior editor at Harvard University Press and an award-winning translator;
  • Andre Bernard, author, former publisher, and now vice president and secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation;
  • James Bradley, author of the bestsellers Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys;
  • Gayle Feldman, author of a forthcoming biography of Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House;
  • Nigel Hamilton, author of prize-winning biographies of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and John F. Kennedy as well as Biography: A Brief History and How to Do Biography: A Primer;
  • Anne C. Heller, author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made;
  • Kitty Kelley, author of Oprah: A Biography, to be published on April 13;
  • Nancy Milford, author of Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Zelda: A Biography;
  • Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and a forthcoming biography of Kurt Vonnegut;
  • T. J. Stiles, author of the National Book Award-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt;
  • Will Swift, author The Roosevelts and the Royals and The Kennedys Admist the Gathering Storm;
  • Lissa Warren, vice president, senior director of publicity, and acquiring editor at Da Capo Press and author of The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity; and
  • Steve Weinberg, author of Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller and prolific reviewer of biographies.
Some registrants have experienced difficulties obtaining the discounted hotel rooms. Ray Shepard, the site committee chair, reports that the Doubletree Hotel is offering the promised discount, but registrants should be sure to request the University of Massachusetts Boston discount in case the clerk is unfamiliar with the conference. Shepard is also monitoring the demand for hotel rooms and will procure other discounted rooms should the need arise. In any case, should you have trouble obtaining lodging, please write us.

Leading Biographers Join BIO's Advisory Council
A large collection of leading and noted biographers has joined the newly established Advisory Council of Biographers International Organization (BIO). The council, which is still being formed, included at press time:
  • Deirdre Bair
  • Douglas Brinkley
  • Robert Caro
  • Joan Hedrick
  • Justin Kaplan
  • Eric Lax
  • David Levering Lewis
  • Andrews Lownie
  • John Matteson          
  • William S. McFeely
  • Jon Meacham
  • Marion Meade
  • Nancy Milford
  • Susan Ronald
  • Stacy Schiff
  • Martin J. Sherwin
  • Kenneth Silverman
  • William Taubman
  • Terry Teachout
     It is expected that more biographers from outside the United States will be added to the council in coming months.

Irving Medal for Literary Excellence Given to Brian Jay Jones

JonesOne of the more distinguished New York City literary prizes was awarded to Brian Jay Jones, author of Washington Irving: An American Original. The Associated Press called the book "authoritative" and the Washington Post's Michael Dirda praised it as "engaging, clearly written, and well researched."
    Jones received the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence on February 4 at the St. Nicholas Society of New York. Despite its name, the award does not require one write about the famous American writer to win it. In fact, previous recipients include David McCullough for his biography of Truman and Ron Chernow for his biography of Alexander Hamilton.
     "That's heady company indeed," said Jones, "and I'm humbled beyond words to have my name appear alongside theirs."

Dropping the Pen and Opting for Film to Tell a Life

By Dona Munker

Documentary film maker and historian Suzanne Wasserman thought briefly about writing a book about the popular Lower East Side Jewish writer Anzia Yezierska, but since there were several biographies already, she decided to make a short film instead.
    Last week Wasserman completed work on Sweatshop wassermanCinderella, as the 1920s press dubbed Yezierska. Even though the film was to run only 30 minutes, making it a reality proved exceptionally challenging because no footage of Yezierska existed--and unlike books, documentaries require images, especially moving images.
     Fortunately, in the course of her research the filmmaker discovered a reel-to-reel taped interview with her subject. By interweaving Yezierska's words and voice with stills and archival footage, newspaper clippings, and excerpts from Hungry Hearts, a 1922 Hollywood silent film based on a best-selling collection of short stories by the writer, she was able to write and produce her film.
     Director of the Gotham Center for New York History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, Wasserman produced her first biographical documentary in 2003. Its subject was her cousin and fellow Chicagoan Janet Rosenberg Jagan, who married a Guyanese political activist and who, after decades of working for that South American country's independence from Britain, was elected Guyana's president in 1997.
     Knowing that her relative was too private to cooperate in a print biography, Wasserman decided to make a film about her public career and Guyana's complex political history. The result, Thunder in Guyana, which was broadcast on PBS, won a Cine Golden Eagle in 2004 and took the prize for best documentary at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. (It is available on VHS and DVD from its distributor, Women Make Movies.)
     What does it take to turn a life into a documentary film? According to Wasserman, it requires "a great story, a great central character, and access to the means to bring them alive." She advises biographers who believe their subject to be worthy of a future documentary to keep track of filmable materials, especially images and film footage showing the subject. "You always," she says, "need something for the audience to look at."
Dona Munker is a former college English teacher and trade book editor in New York. Her book, Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem through the Islamic Revolution, with Sattareh Farman-Farmaian, was the first account in English of the life of a modern Middle Eastern woman. She is currently writing Sara and Erskine, An American Romance, a book about the love affair of poet and suffragist Sara Bard Field with the anarchist C. E. S. Wood. She is also inching toward a long-planned blog on her website about the intersection of research and literary imagination in biography, "Writing a Biography, Imagining a Life."

Louis R. Harlan
Louis Auchincloss

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer Louis R. Harlan
Biographer and historian Louis R. Harlan, whose biography of Booker T. Washington won him the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, died on January 22, at age 87, in Lexington, Virginia.
     Attending a lecture by John Hope Franklin in the 1940s set Harlan on the path of studying and writing about race relations and Southern history. It took him three decades to finish his two-volume biography of Washington, which he did while at the same time editing the 14-volume edition of Washington's papers with Raymond L. Smock.
     For more see the New York Times.
Elegant Novelist of Manners and Biographer Louis Auchincloss
Louis Auchincloss, novelist, essayist, biographer, and editor, died on January 26, at age 92, in New York.
     Over a span of 70 years, while working as a lawyer, Auchincloss produced more than sixty books. He was best known for his novel The Rector of Justin, published in 1964, about the founding headmaster of an elite prep school.
     In addition to a short biography of Edith Wharton, with whose writing his own was compared, he also wrote biographies of Cardinal Richelieu, Queen Victoria, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, as well as editing the diaries of two 19th-century Manhattan grandees, Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong.
     For more see the Washington Post.

Letters to the Editor

The following letters came in response to a letter published in the January issue of TBC.

Dear Editor,
      I know just the children's biographies of accomplished women that Miriam Beyer read and would like to find again. They have been read by generations of girls and were first published in the 1940s. I read the one about Julia Ward Howe when I was young and never forgot it. A few years ago, I found myself reviewing a new biography about Howe, and I discovered in the preface to that book a reference to the "little book" I had read as a child.
     The first editions of these books were orange, as older people will remember. I have found that many, many women remember these books, and their delightful silhouette illustrations. There was also one about Jane Addams, which many people have told me they read, since I am a biographer of Addams.
     These books were part of the Childhood of Famous Americans series published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. Some authors wrote only one book, some wrote several, and some wrote many. Most of the books were about famous men, but some were about women. Augusta Stevenson wrote the one about Clara Barton, Clara Barton: Girl Nurse. Helene Albee Monsell wrote Dolly Madison: Quaker Girl. Flora Warren Seymour wrote Pocahontas: Brave Girl. Jean Brown Wagoner wrote the most, including the one I read, Julia Ward Howe: Girl of Old New York, and also ones I didn't read: Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl (horrible title!), Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston, and Martha Washington: Girl of Old Virginia. I guess they would have called the Addams book "Girl of Old Chicago" if only Addams had grown up there! And Wagoner wrote many more. I reread her Howe book two years ago and fell in love with it (and Howe) all over again. Wagoner tells the story beautifully, with utter respect for a girl's dreams and ambitions, and a gentle understanding of the obstacles that traditional expectations can pose. We all remember these books for a reason.
     I bought my copy of the Howe book from ABE Books, the used-books website. Perhaps now that you know the authors' names, you'll have some luck there or elsewhere.
     Most libraries, sadly, have removed these books from their shelves because they have supposed them "out of date." (Those rejected library books are the ones for sale on ABE books.) In fact, they are childhood classics every bit as influential on girls' dreams as Little Women or the Nancy Drew series. The rights to publish several of those written by Wagoner (I have the list somewhere) have been bought by another publisher, and these are still in print, but the copyrights of most of them have not been renewed. My hope is that some day we fans of those "little orange books" about remarkable women can organize and bring them back into print! Wouldn't that be a fine thing?
     Louise W. Knight

Editor's note:
Knight's new biography, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, will be published by W. W. Norton on September 6, the 150th anniversary of Addams's birth.
Dear Editor,
     I just read your January newsletter and noticed a query from Miriam Beyer regarding a series of juvenile biographies of well-known Americans.
     As this bit of research gave me an opportunity to procrastinate for a few minutes, I thought I'd send on the results (though you may have already received several responses!).
    Miriam is probably referring to the Childhood of Famous Americans series published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis. Bobbs-Merrill created the series following successful sales of former schoolteacher Augusta Stevenson's biography of Lincoln (1932). Though initially devoted to famous men, the Boyhood of Famous Americans series was rebranded under the title Childhood of Famous Americans when a book on Louisa May Alcott appeared in 1943.
     This website provides numerous cover illustrations, and this one provides a list of the books and their authors.
     There's an interesting article by the author of several of these volumes: Howard H. Peckham, "Historical Writing for Children," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul., 1952), pp. 401-410.
     Peckham makes some enlightening points about the rather peculiarly "inventive" approach taken in these texts, noting that "the Bobbs-Merrill series is not biography; it is an introduction to biography and history by the use of stories about the childhood of the character subject. The distinction is lost on some librarians, who catalogue the books under biography."
      David Horn
      Paris, France
Dear Editor,
      I share Miriam Beyer's nostalgia for and obsession with those little silhouetted biographies, but the ones I remember reading were bound in orange, not blue. Dolly Madison was my favorite, and I checked it out again and again. I too have scoured bookstores in search of these titles. Booksellers tell me they remember them and occasionally even see them. But I've never been lucky enough to find one.
     Leslie Stainton, author of Lorca: A Dream of Life
     Ann Arbor, Michigan


New Query

Dear Editor,
     I wanted to compliment you on the Biographer's Craft. I wait for it with more anticipation than I did my copy of Seventeen magazine when I was a teen. I finally feel like I belong to a group, thanks to you.
     I have a quick question: I am partway through a biography and have not yet sought a publisher. I am concerned that some of the people I interview will have forgotten they spoke to me or be deceased before I get permission to use their interviews. Is there some boilerplate permission form available?
     Charlotte Jacobs

Editor's note: TBC sent Ms. Jacobs a sample of such a form, but we thought other readers might like to share their experiences in obtaining permissions for interviews and the techniques they used. So write to us.


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)

Apropos of the front cover of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, James Breig, a reader of this blog, writes with a query:

Impertinent question: Is the cover photo reversed (Armstrong's pocket handkerchief is on the right side of his jacket)? If so, was it done deliberately by the photographer or book designer, or inadvertently?

My jaw dropped when I read this e-mail, and I immediately set to investigating. It turns out that the photograph in question, taken by Philippe Halsman in 1965, was in fact reproduced in reverse--both on the cover of Pops and on the Web site of Magnum Photos, which is where the book's designer found it. [Read more]

--Terry Teachout, About Last Night blog
Tips Corner: You'll Want This Catalog
I'll confess this is a love story masquerading as a research tip. Recently TBC received two catalogs from ReadInk, in Los Angeles, a purveyor of fine books from the past, whose name is a play on words that rhyme with "Dead Ink." The catalogs were produced by Howard Prouty, who owns the online bookselling operation now in its 12th year of selling "books for the obsessive or the merely curious."
     No one who loves books should fail to visit this website. The selection of books is unmatched. The catalog entries make for great reading in and of themselves, even if you don't succumb to buying the books. All the covers are beautifully and lovingly reproduced.
   sample Yes, he is a bookseller, but he has also created a wonderful research resource and, who knows, you may even find a copy of that one book you need to own.

The introduction to this book, one of thousands at ReadInk, is by Jean Shepherd, who advises the reader: "Do not expect to be welcomed to New York. It will simply envelop you and will shed no tears when you leave."

In This Issue
Best-Selling Bio of 2010?
Conference Update
Leading Biographers Join BIO Council
Irving Medal to Jones
Dropping Pen for Film
Obits: Harlan, Auchincloss
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner


Annual Conference on Biography

The End of Biography: Purpose, Promise, Prospects
Keynote Speaker: Arnold Rampersad

The Leon Levy Center for Biography is pleased to announce that its annual Conference on Biography will feature acclaimed author and MacArthur Fellow, Arnold Rampersad, author of books on Ralph Ellison, Jackie Robinson, and a two-volume biography of Langston Hughes. Other participants will include James Atlas, Gary Giddins, Langdon Hammer, Molly Haskell, Richard Howard, D.T. Max, Jed Perl, Andrew Sarris, Amanda Vaill and more.

Friday, March 19th, 10.30 AM - 6.30 PM Elebash Recital Hall
Graduate Center at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue,
New York, NY

the Editor's Desk
Many more readers would be mourning the passage of a literary great recently had the world not changed while Louis Auchincloss (whose obituary is below) was penning his novels. The subject of his books--upper-class men and women worried about estates and manners--seemed to many people trivial during decades that brought us holocausts, continuous wars, apartheid, and apocalyptic visions of ecological destruction. But the veneer of social politeness in his novels belies a tremendous writing skill.
   I try to pay tribute to the passing of writers by buying and reading one of their books and spending one last time with them. I would suggest picking up any of his novels, sadly to be found primarily in used bookstores, and a copy of A Writer's Capital, his memoir and reflection on writing. You'll be rewarded by the experience.
When I walk with my strolling companion, Mauri, here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo, I often talk about the many friends I have made through TBC and working with BIO. Then one day I realized I had never actually met some of these folks but that our relationship had grown entirely through cyberspace. So, I said, perhaps the term "acquaintance" would be better suited to describing them. No, Mauri corrected me, the term should be "ecquaintance," displaying his usual brilliance.
   A little Internet research reveals he is not unique in coming up with this wonderful term. One of the popular Web-based dictionaries of urban slang defines e-cquaintance as "someone you know through email or online chat, but would not recognize face-to-face. Upon meeting his e-cquaintance in person, Joe was surprised to see she had no legs... ."
   So to all my ecquaintances out there, I'm glad to have made your acquaintance.
Speaking of sending emails, I recently received a missive from the marketing director at Austin's best independent bookstore, BookPeople, that included a wonderful feature. At the bottom of each letter that Alison Kothe Nihlean writes, there is a line listing what books she is reading. When she wrote me, the line then said, "Currently reading: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and The Passage, by Justin Cronin."
    Isn't this a terrific idea?
Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

Currently reading: Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler, and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale.

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You can catch up with the author this month at the following events

Feb. 9, 7 PM
Collected Works
Santa Fe, NM

Feb. 14, 5 PM
Politics & Prose
Washington, DC

Feb. 16, noon
Library of Congress
Washington, DC

Feb. 16, 6 PM
American University
Washington, DC

Feb. 17, 7 PM
R.J. Julia Booksellers
Madison, CT

Feb. 24, 7 PM
Strand Bookstore
New York, NY


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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.

Debra Joe Jackson, Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and Five Deadly Weeks in the Race to Conquer the Atlantic, to Farrar, Straus

Jerry Oppenheimer, biography of the late Casey Johnson, to St. Martin's
Thomas Bloch, Many Happy Returns: The Story of Henry Bloch, America's Tax Man, to Wiley
Neale Donald Walsch, The Mother of Invention: The Legacy of Barbara Marx Hubbard, to Hay House

Ian Halperin, untitled biography of a yet to be identified celebrity, to William Morrow

Ever Chivas and Steve Springer's biography of heavyweight champion, "Irish" Jerry Quarry, to Lyons Press

Marc Spitz, Jagger: A Biography, to Gotham

James "Tad" Hershorn, Let Freedom Swing (Norman Granz) to the University of California Press

Nat Segaloff,  untitled biography of Arthur Penn to the University of Press of Kentucky

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. 


Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend by James S. Hirsch. (Scribner)
PW Review

Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
by Nadine Cohodas
PW Review
Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by  Lynne Olson
PW Review

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James McGrath Morris
Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War by Michael Kranish
(Oxford University Press)
PW Review
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
PW Review
Millard Fillmore by Robert J. Scarry

Henry Clay Frick: The Life of the Perfect Capitalist by Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr. (McFarland)

Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography by James Forr and David Proctor

Sliding Billy Hamilton: The Life and Times of Baseball's First Great Leadoff Hitter by Roy Kerr

To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark Lee Gardner
PW Review
Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting by Dietmar Elger, trans. from the German by Elizabeth M. Solaro
(University of Chicago)
PW Review
Susan Boyle: Dreams Can come True by Alice Montgomery
Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson by Rus Bradburd




The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance by Kirstin Downy
Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber
Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick
 (Simon & Schuster)
The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army by Paul Douglas Lockhart
Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution by Gerald M. Carbon
Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan (Harper)


James McGrath Morris,

Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM  87574

Photo of
 James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd

Photo of
Kitty Kelley
by Clay Blackmore