The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
March 2010
Jean Strouse Selected as First Recipient of BIO Award

strouse Jean Strouse, biographer and director of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, is the recipient of the first BIO Award, to be given each year by members of Biographers International Organization (BIO) to a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of real-life depiction.
     Strouse will receive the honor during the 2010 Compleat Biographer Conference, on May 15 at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she will deliver the keynote address. The conference will bring together biographers from the United States and other countries for a daylong series of workshops focused on the practical aspects of biography, with panel discussions of topics ranging from how to work with subject families to new media and how it affects publishing options.
     "Strouse's astonishing, masterful, and inspiring work on Alice James and J. Pierpont Morgan has made her a biographer's biographer," said Debby Applegate, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who is serving as BIO's interim president. "As the first recipient of this award, she is setting a high standard for future honorees."
     A native of California, Strouse has been a book critic, a prolific contributor to periodicals, and the recipient of major fellowships, including ones from the MacArthur and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial foundations. Her Alice James: A Biography won the Bancroft Prize in 1980, and her second life study, Morgan: American Financier, won acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the man and its lucid explanation of his financial work.
     Founded in 2009, BIO is the first-ever nonprofit organization set up to represent those engaged in the practical business of biography--the most popular area of nonfiction publishing and broadcasting today. BIO has a distinguished leadership of practicing biographers, many of them internationally renowned. The Compleat Biographer will be BIO's first national conference.

Biographers Win Lincoln Prize and National Humanities Medals

Biographer Michael Burlingame will receive the $50,000 Lincoln Prize for his two-volume, 2,024-page biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins University Press). The prize, sponsored by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, will be awarded on April 27 at the Union League in New York. Burlingame and his book were featured in the December 2008 issue of TBC.
Previous biographers to have won this prize include Doris Kearns Goodwin, James McPherson, and Allen Guelzo.
Humanities Medalists
Three eminent biographers were among the eight Americans who received the 2009 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama on February 25. According to the White House, medals were given to:
  • "Robert A. Caro for capturing the subtle machinations of political influence in America. His biographies of Robert Moses and President Lyndon Baines Johnson have shown us how individuals accumulate and exercise power in local and national settings";
  • "Annette Gordon-Reed for her important and innovative research on Thomas Jefferson's slaves and the life of Sally Hemings, and for bringing light to a previously unrecognized chapter in the American story"; and
  • "David Levering Lewis for his insightful examination of W. E. B. DuBois, the Dreyfus Affair, and early Islamic-Christian relations in Europe, which have enriched our understanding of the figures and forces that shaped world history."
     In addition to the White House honors, Caro will receive the 2010 Cosmos Club Award at the Washington club's annual reception, on March 15.

Levy Center Second Annual Conference Set for This Month; Two Other Conferences Announce Plans
"The End of Biography: Purpose, Promise, Prospects," the second annual conference of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, will take place on Friday, March 19, from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., in the Elebash Recital Hall of the CUNY Graduate Center, at 365 Fifth Avenue, New York.Hoover 02
     Arnold Rampersad, author of acclaimed biographies of Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison, will give the keynote address. Other participants include Gary Giddins, author of Jazz; film critic Molly Haskell, author of Frankly, My Dear; Langdon Hammer, author Hart Crane and Allen Tate; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard; New Yorker writer D. T. Max; art critic Jed Perl, author of Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau and His World; film critic Andrew Sarris, author of The American Cinema; composer Eric Salzman, author of The New Music Theater; Yale University press editor Ileene Smith; and Amanda Vaill, author of Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, among others.
     The event is free of charge and open to the public. For more information consult the Levy Center website or send an email.   
Lives in Print
The 18th Annual North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference will hold a special session titled "Lives in Print" at its Vancouver, Canada, meeting, from August 18 to 22.
     "This special session invites speakers to scrutinize the relationship between literary biography (broadly defined) and print culture," according to the announcement. "How were biographies and biographical essays and reviews mediated in the periodical press, anthologies, dictionaries, and the book trade at large?"
     Information about the conference can be found here.

Nuremberg Conference
The practical uses and consequences of biographical research will be the focus of a conference put on by the research network Biographical Perspectives on European Societies, of the European Sociological Association (ESA), and the research section Biographieforschung, of the German Sociological Association (GSA). The meeting will take place from September 18 to 20 in Nuremberg, Germany. The conference is inviting would-be attendees from different countries and different disciplines of the social sciences to submit abstracts until April 30. For more information contact Thea Bolt of Gerhard Riemann

BIO Makes Plans for First Elections

The interim board of Biographers International Organization is making preparations for the election of permanent officers and board members.
     The elections will be held immediately following ratification of the bylaws during the business portion of the Compleat Biographer Conference in Boston on May 15.
     If you have an interest in running for an officer's position or for a seat on the board, please contact BIO's secretary.

Building Readers for Your Biography Through Articles

By Stephen H. Grant
Writing articles while working on a biography can pay dividends. You can dive deeply into a research topic, test the interest in your subject, and increase your visibility on the path to a larger prize. Far from a distraction, an article can stretch your thinking in unforeseen ways and lead to unexpected advantages.
     The main subject of my current biography project is a cultivated Standard Oil Company executive who used the proceeds of his stock dividends to acquire Shakespeare folios and quartos at London auctions. I did not initially consider submitting a short piece on Henry Folger to a golfing magazine. However, you go where the story leads you.
    Folger  Folger signed his telegrams "Golfer" in bidding instructions to his commission agent at Sotheby's. Winner of senior golfing events using a croquet-style putter, he received invitations to play with his boss, John D. Rockefeller, on Mondays at ten. The president of Standard Oil was known for carrying around a pocketful of shiny dimes and handing them out to unknown children and adults. The public-relations gesture took place with friends as well. When Folger sank a 16-foot putt, John D. presented him with a few dimes.
     Rockefeller could also be devastating: as the pair were leaving the green one day, he cautioned the owner of dozens of first folios, "We wouldn't want to think that the president of one of our major companies would be the kind of man foolish enough to pay $100,000 for a book"! After hearing an earful of these stories, my literary agent said, "I see a golfing article here." So I wrote one.
     The piece--published by the Golf Collectors Society--resonated with readers and provided welcome publicity for the forthcoming biography. Exposure to esoteric membership organizations, openness to writing for online as well as print media, and willingness to address unlikely or less major aspects of your subject all help to sow seeds that may lead to your reaping a greater harvest when your book is released.
Stephen H. Grant is at work on Ardor and Fulfillment: The Folger Shakespeare Story. His previous book, Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal, was published in 2006.

Is Writing a Biography Good for a Marriage?

Celia Lee, a member of the International Churchill Society, and John Lee, a former executive officer of the British Commission for Military History, are the authors of military history books and articles on the life of Lady Jean Hamilton; Winston and Jack Churchill; General Sir Ian Hamilton; and Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Palgrave Macmillan just published their newest churchillsbook, The Churchills: A Family Portrait, in the United States and United Kingdom.
     TBC interviewed the couple, who, appropriately enough, answered in a single voice.
Writing alone is hard. What are your tricks to working together and coming up with one voice?
We each write our own chapters. Having spent five years researching the Churchill papers, I, Celia, wrote about 90 percent of the book. John wrote the chapters on the Churchills' military careers, as John is the better military historian of the two of us. I cannot say there is any trick to coming up with one voice; perhaps it works for us because we have had a similar education and use similar vocabularies. However, different vocabularies are appropriate for different types of chapters.
Did gender enter your work? For instance, was one of you pushing for more and better treatment of the men or women in your story?
There really isn't the space for differences in gender in properly researched history. It is the facts and the situations and what they tell us which have to be accurately and very finely perceived and interpreted. The sharp differences in gender in the Victorian and Edwardian eras are only all too well apparent in this book. For instance, women didn't have the vote, and to supposedly protect their modesty they walked about in dresses so long that they were trailing in the mud.
Not to sound like People magazine, but does this professional partnership help or interfere with your marriage?
John and I are about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, on 18 August 2010. A marriage that has lasted that long will withstand anything. Systems have been worked out long ago for dealing with problems or conflicts. Whilst being deadly serious about our subject of history, we are a pair of hard-working individuals who worked all our lives in the buzz of commercial London. We are therefore also very laid back. We are not argumentative or competitive types. There exists within our marriage and therefore within our writing a mutual respect each for the other's opinion.

Letters to the Editor

We received this letter in response to a query in the letters column of the February issue:
Dear Editor,
      I have never asked an interview subject to sign a permission form. I never thought I needed to do so. As with reporters doing on-the-record interviews, the very act of the interview constitutes permission. I would never use such a form. It intimidates the interviewees. If publishers are beginning to ask for such forms, we need to push back and say no. You can quote me.
      Kai Bird
Bird's most recent book, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, will be released by Scribner on April 27, 2010. He is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. For more information, visit his website.


Dear Editor,
     I am in Venice on a fellowship until mid-March and would like to make contact with any writers, particularly biographers. Does anyone have contacts to suggest? Heck, I'll buy the coffee or the Prosecco.
     Nancy Kriplen
     Write to Nancy
Kriplen is the author of The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur--Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary and Dwight Davis: The Man and the Cup. For more information, visit her 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)

It is every writer's dream. Rob Morrison, a professor of English at Queen's University, was working on a biography of Thomas De Quincey, the famous "opium eater" of the 19th century, friend of Wordsworth, Coleridge and the other members of the Romantic cabal, when he discovered a cache of hitherto unknown letters.
   "They were from his three daughters, to a priest who lived with them for a time," says Morrison. "It was a picture of daily life in the De Quincey household never seen before."
   The timing of that discovery is also every writer's worst nightmare: Morrison came across the letters a week after he mailed his manuscript to his British publisher.
   "Oh great, I thought. I finally finish my life's work and already it's obsolete!"
[Read more]
--Merilyn Simonds, Kingston Whig Standard

Contrary to the feminist wisdom tweeted on bumper stickers, well-behaved women do indeed make history. Consider Rosa Parks, universally perceived as the civil rights movement's instigator. And Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring is commonly credited with igniting the environmental movement. In their respective movements Parks and Carson are as famous for being well-behaved, as for the history it is said they made.
   That's why you might not recognize the name Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery, Alabama teen-ager who in 1955 was the first black person to be hauled off to jail for sitting in a front seat on a bus. Civil rights activists strategically staged the same incident nine months later with "calm" Parks in the seat and the spotlight, because she seemed a more sympathetic representative of their cause than "mouthy" and spontaneous Colvin.
   You may not have heard of Rosalie Barrow Edge either, the New York fierce society lady who sparked environmental activism more than 30 years before the 1962 publication of Carson's Silent Spring. [Read more]
--Dyana Z. Furmansky, Audubon Magazine
Tips Corner: Get Yourself Organized
Jean Strouse, who will be honored by BIO this May, tackled a daunting research project in writing a biography of J. Pierpont Morgan. In an excellent interview with, she explained how she went about organizing her work:
Organization is an extremely interesting problem in an enormous research project. I knew I couldn't tell at the outset what kind of system I would need, so I simply gathered material for a year or two without trying to impose much order on it. Once I saw more or less what the map was going to look like, I began to file things chronologically and also under subject headings. I have a big lateral file drawer for letters and diaries--there are two separate sets of chronological files, one for Morgan, a file per year from his birth to his death, and one for everybody else (also a file per year).morgan
     In addition, I have other file drawers and loose-leaf notebooks organized by topic--there are sixteen notebooks, plus one called "Chronology," which just lists what happened every year. There are six binders for Morgan's business affairs, five for his art collecting, and five for his life. Each of those has dividers with subheadings (family, schooling, houses, illnesses, friends, travels, etc.), like a high school notebook.
     Since I started this book in 1983, I wasn't yet completely comfortable with the computer, and so I used this old-fashioned method, which was very cumbersome but had some important advantages. I could file Xeroxes of documents--letters, diaries, things written by hand, by Morgan or others. There is something extremely important about reading original documents again and again--getting to know the person's handwriting, seeing the mistakes, the crossed out passages, the misdating of letters.
     You learn a lot by this kind of direct access to the person who wrote the document a hundred years ago--and if it had all been typed into my laptop, I'd have my version of what was said, not his. Still, if I were doing it all over again now, I'm sure I would take most of my notes on a computer, and I did begin to do that as I went through this project. For those sections, however, I've had to go back and check against the original documents several times, because it's so easy to make mistakes when you're transcribing.
     Also, after several years I had so much material that I wasn't able to find it readily, and decided I needed an index. It took about six months to create. I read through every letter and diary entry in the chronological files, and entered them into subject files (on my computer), so that if there were fourteen letters referring to Morgan's first wife in 1860, and if three of those referred to her interest in art, I could look up those subjects in the index and find them quickly.
     It helped a lot--and having to reread the documents in order to create the index helped me assimilate that overwhelming mass of material. The evidence has to inhabit you, in a way, and you have to inhabit it, in order for a vital story to take shape in your imagination. You can't make a character come alive, and it doesn't always happen, but there are certain moments in this strange, long process in which something mysterious and intangible does suddenly come to seem vivid and real.
     Richard Holmes has written wonderfully about this experience in his book, Footsteps. He calls writing biography "an act of deliberate psychological trespass, an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present." There has to be "a continuous living dialogue between [biographer and subject] as they move over the same historical ground, the same trail of events. There is between them a ceaseless discussion, a reviewing and questioning of motives and actions and consequences, a steady if subliminal exchange of attitudes, judgments and conclusions. It is fictional, imaginary, because of course the subject cannot really, literally, talk back; but the biographer must come to act and think of his subject as if he can."
To read the entire interview, go to

In This Issue
Strouse Is BIO Award Winner
Biographers Take Prizes
Levy Center Conference
BIO Election Plans
Building Readers for Your Bio
Is Writing a Bio Good for a Marriage?
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner

If you want to be a biographer, make plans to be in Boston this May 15th for the Compleat Biographer Conference
 The conference will bring together biographers from the United States and other countries for a daylong series of workshops and panel discussion on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography, with topics ranging from Dealing with the Family to New Ways to Publish in the Age of the Internet.


To learn more or to register,
visit BIO's website.

From the
Editor's Desk
This issue marks the beginning of the fourth year of TBC. Each month our subscription list keeps growing, and we continue to receive comments like this one, from a biographer in Italy, who wrote, TBC "has become a lifeline of sorts for many of us who work in relative isolation, an important resource on many levels."
   TBC has also helped spark the creation of BIO, a nonprofit organization to represent and serve the interests of those engaged in the practical business of biography.

   All in all, not bad for three years of work. But some changes are on the way.
    At some point this summer, ownership of TBC will be transferred to BIO, and the newsletter will become its official publication. Under the proposed plan, the publication would remain editorially independent, but the BIO board would appoint the editor. Once the publication becomes part of BIO, members will receive it as a membership benefit. Others would have to pay for a subscription.
     As you may have noted, each anniversary issue has featured a biographer of the year. As part of our transition, we are now instead using the issue to announce the annual recipient of the BIO Award.
   This year's recipient was selected by the interim BIO board from a list of biographers nominated by an awards committee.

At the conclusion of a talk I gave recently at the Library of Congress, John Cole, director of the Center for the Book, presented me with a copy of Biography & Books, a slim volume that Cole edited using presentations given at a 1983 symposium. The book is something every biographer should own. It contains remarks by Daniel J. Boorstin, Samuel S. Vaughan, Edmund Morris, James Thomas Flexner, David McCullough, and others on why biography is popular, whether it is an art form, how a biographer chooses a subject, and other topics we are still wrestling with three decades later.
   I have purchased three copies of this out-of-print collector's item from used book dealers and will send them to the first three subscribers who write offering to make a tax-deductible donation of $50 to Biographers International Organization.
   Heck, if public broadcasting can have premiums for its donors, so can we!
Send your pledge to us.
The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, by Clare Mulley, which was selected for the 2007 London Biographers' Club Prize (since renamed the Tony Lothian Biographers' Club Prize, after the late biographer), will be published in the United States this fall by the American arm of Oneworld. All the royalties from this book go to the Save the Children Fund, created by the book's subject. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Mulley's biography "a truly brilliant book."
Amanuensis this month features an excerpt from one blog posting by Dyana Z. Furmansky, a prolific writer on the environment, travel, and culture of the American West. I urge you to explore her other postings. To whet your appetite, here are the opening sentences of one that first caught my attention: "When I became a serious biographer I encountered the litigious specter of the late J. D. Salinger. The author's spirit got touchy way before he died; since 1988 it has hovered around all those who dare to write books about the lives of others."
    To read more about Furmansky and her work, go to this Audubon website.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

Currently reading: Hellhounds on his Trail, by Hampton Sides (coming out in April), and Let the Great World Spin, by Column McCann.

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"No doubt I will not be the only one to remark upon the timing of this excellent book: a thorough, possibly definitive biography of the man who shaped the modern newspaper more than anyone else. . . There have been other biographies of Pulitzer . . . but James McGrath Morris's is the best. It is lucid and fair to its complicated subject." Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post


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

March 14, 2:30 p.m.
Washington, DC

March 15, 7:30 p.m.
Penguin Bookstore
Sewickley, PA

March 17, noon
Capitol Hill Historical Society
Washington, DC

March 18-19
Virginia Festival of the Book
Charlottesville, VA

March 22, noon
Missouri School of Journalism
Columbia, MO

March 22, 4 p.m.
Book & Toy
Jefferson City, MO

March 23, 7 p.m.
Left Bank Books
St. Louis, MO

March 24, 7 p.m.
Missouri History Museum
St. Louis, MO

March 25, 6 p.m.
Denver Press Club
Denver, CO


Order your copy at IndieBound
or order a signed copy here

Sold to Publishers

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

Steve Taravella, Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before, to University Press of Mississippi, as part of its Hollywood Legends series

James Christie, You're the Director, You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner, to Bearmanor Media
Mark Lamster, Philip Johnson: Architect of the Modern Century, moving to Little, Brown

Rhonda Garelick, Antigone in Vogue, to Random House

Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, to Tyndale

  Jonathan Steinberg, Otto Von Bismark: The Man Who Made Modern Germany, to Oxford University Press
Matt Birkbeck, The Quiet Don: The Untold Story of Russell Bufalino, the Mob's Most Fearsome Kingpin, to Steerforth

Joe Woodward, Lonely Heart: The Life of Nathanael West,  to OR Books

Marc Leepson, Lafayette, to Palgrave

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. 


Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

by Marion Meade
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
PW Review
The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires, and the Road to World War I
by Miranda Carter
PW Review
Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero
by Abigail Green
PW Review
Conspirator: Lenin in Exile
by Helen Rappaport
PW Review
Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
by Claire Harman
PW Review
Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen
by Jimmy McDonough
PW Review
Mark Twain: Man in White, The Grand Adventure of His Final Years
by Michael Shelden
(Random House)
PW Review

Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years
by Laura Trombley
PW Review
Harry the K: The Remarkable Life of Harry Kalas
by Randy Miller
(Running Press)
Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero
by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary

I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler
 (Simon & Schuster)


Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey

King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman
by Lon and Debra Davis
(BearManor Media)

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor
by Brad Gooch
(Back Bay Books)
Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
by Jeff Guinn
(Simon & Shuster)
Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater
by William F. Buckley Jr.
(Basic Books)
Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire
by Flora Fraser



James McGrath Morris,

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