LIVES OF OTHERS
The biography business.by Louis Menand
August 6, 2007
At a time when instruments for recording and disseminating information about people’s intimate behavior are cheap and easy to use, and when newspapers and magazines and television programs and Web sites purvey that kind of information without restraint, and when even ordinary people apparently can’t do enough to tell the world everything about themselves, a defense of the professional biographer’s right to pry does not seem something that civilization stands in dire need of. Just in case, though, two such defenses have recently been published.
Meryle Secrest is a biographer who has nine lives so far, all of figures in the arts, including Kenneth Clark, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Rodgers, and Salvador Dali. Her memoir, “Shoot the Widow” (Knopf; $25.95), is candid about the commercial bones of the enterprise. She started out as a reporter for local papers, in Canada and England, a job calling for a continual sacrifice of literary refinement in the interests of filling the page and meeting the deadline, and she approaches biography in something of the same spirit. “Deciding on a subject is mostly a cold-blooded business of weighing the subject against potential markets, timeliness, the availability of material, and the likelihood of getting the story, the kinds of factors publishers have to worry about,” she explains. Many of her stories about getting the story involve figuring out ways to maximize her advances from publishers and to massage the relatives, friends, ex-friends, lovers, ex-lovers, work associates, lawyers, dealers, executors, and agents—the many “widows” whom, as her title suggests, only semi-facetiously, she would like to shoot—who obscure a clear view into the private world of famous people.
What those uncoöperative witnesses want—and what the famous people themselves want, too, when, as has sometimes been the case for Secrest, they are still alive and competent to make trouble—is what everybody wants in life: to control the narrative. Secrest is either touchingly ingenuous or carefully disingenuous about this central fact of the biographical transaction: in her account, she is repeatedly astonished by the efforts people make to gerrymander the story to suit their interests—although, she says, she has grown wiser. “The older I get the more sympathy I have for families who discover that some stranger has decided to write about their famous member without, as it were, so much as a by-your-leave,” she admits. “Prurience titillates, the more the better, leading to bigger sales and better royalties for the writer who is, not to put too fine a point on it, making money from others’ misfortunes.”
Still, her collisions with her subjects and the people around them seem never to have prevented her from deciding that her next project will somehow please everyone (and earn back a nice advance). Not all the reactions she had to cope with involved hurt feelings or wounded egos. In the course of her research on Richard Rodgers, she learned about a possible connection with organized crime, and interviewed a person she identifies as “an old Broadway hand” on the matter. “If you quote me, I won’t kill you but I’ll get you killed,” he explained. “I won’t do it myself but I’ve good connections. One day they will find you somewhere with your manuscript.”
On the other hand, what were her subjects and their families and heirs and attendants thinking when they agreed to submit to her attentions? Secrest is, basically, a tell-all biographer—not Kitty Kelley, as she insists, not someone who would look to make her subjects feel ridiculed or humiliated, but she is interested mainly in the private lives of public people. She says that Kenneth Clark, who was a very wealthy man, the heir to a fortune made in the cotton industry, surreptitiously underwrote the publisher’s advance in order to insure that Secrest would write his biography, and then seems to have imagined that he would be able to edit what she said about his wife’s alcoholism and his own affairs. He tried, but he was not entirely successful, and Secrest claims that his son Alan, a powerful right-wing political figure in Britain, made sure that the reviews of her book there were vicious. (As she points out, Alan Clark went on to publish his own best-selling tell-all diary.)
“It seems to me that to invite someone’s confidences and then betray that person is a kind of treachery,” Secrest says. But she is in business because people like to confide. They want their stories told, and they somehow persuade themselves that in the right sympathetic hands their most embarrassing moments will be redeemed, and readers will appreciate the challenge, the complexity, the sheer human variousness of what it is like to be them. This is not on the theory that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” That theory is a canard; just ask Barry Bonds. It’s on the theory that, at the end of the day, one’s moral account will not only balance but be in the black. Probably most people believe this, deep down, about themselves. The unlucky get biographies.
The purpose of biography, Secrest says, is “not just to record but to reveal.” That’s what many people would say: that there’s no point in writing, or reading, the life of a famous person if it doesn’t uncover some previously unpublicized piece of personal information. This is because the premise of biographies is that the private can account for the public, that the subject’s accomplishments map onto his or her psychic history, and this premise is the justification for digging up the traumatic, the indefensible, and the shameful and getting it all into print. How centrally that kind of information figures in the biographical account depends on the tact and ingenuity of the biographer, but a biography that did not use events in its subject’s personal life to explain his or her renown is almost unimaginable. Still, the premise poses a few problems.
For one thing, it leads biographers to invert the normal rules of evidence, on the Rosebud assumption that the real truth about a person involves the thing that is least known to others. A letter discovered in a trunk, or an entry in a personal notebook, trumps the public testimony of a hundred friends and colleagues. Biographers go into a professional swoon over stories that some famous person has made a bonfire of a portion of his or her correspondence, or that notebooks in an archive are embargoed until the year 2050. That stuff must explain everything! Why should we especially credit a remark made in a diary or a personal letter, though? The penalty for exaggeration and deception in those forms is virtually nonexistent. People lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and to vent. These are rarely sites for balanced and considered reflection. They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception. But diaries and letters are the materials with which biographies are built, generally in the belief that the “real” person is the private person, and the public person is mostly a performance.
Secrest subscribes to this distinction between (as she puts it) “the private truth versus the public façade, appearance versus reality.” She is also, like many biographers, a believer in turning points—“pivotal moments in a person’s life when a single decision alters the future irrevocably.” It’s delightful to find (never concoct!) such moments, in which a chance encounter or a sudden revelation changes an ordinary life into the kind of life that people get paid to write books about, since those moments enable the biographer to construct the sort of conversion narrative, or Dick Whittington before-and-after story, that readers find familiar and take pleasure in. People like the notion that a little luck is involved in success—that becoming famous could be sort of like winning the lottery. One day, you’re riding along on your donkey or in your Honda Civic or whatever, a voice speaks to you, and suddenly you are on the way to being St. Paul or Leonard Bernstein.
The essence of the turning point is that it is retrospective. No one realized at the time that when little Johnny Coltrane put down the duckie he would go on to create “A Love Supreme.” But all biographies are retrospective in the same sense. Though they read chronologically forward, they are composed essentially backward. It’s what happened later, the accomplishment for which the biographical subject is renowned, that determines the selection and interpretation of what happened earlier. This is the writer’s procedure, and it is also the reader’s. We know what Coltrane or Cleopatra or Churchill achieved when we pick up the book, and we process the stuff we didn’t know, about their childhoods and their love lives and their abuse of whatever substances they may have abused, with this knowledge in mind. We are, in effect, helping the biographer do the work, because, like the biographer, we’re reading with an already formed image of the subject in our heads. We would not tolerate a novel that opened with twenty pages about the hero’s obscure grandparents and their miserable lives back in Perth or Minsk or Tenafly, but biographers get away with it all the time, because we go along with the presumption that the population, the sewage conditions, and the leading industry of eighteenth-century Perth are somehow inscribed in the hero’s genetic code.
If we think about the laughable mess that is our own life—in which (even with the prevalence of cell-phone cameras) only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded, and the record that does exist is incomplete, or distorted, or captures states of mind that are transient—we may wonder whether the bits and pieces on which biographical narratives are often strung are not a little arbitrary. William James’s diary entry “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” which makes a starring appearance in almost every life of him; Henry James’s dream of a chase through the Louvre, whose Freudian unpacking is given a prominent place in Leon Edel’s celebrated five-volume biography; Dickens’s story, first told to his biographer John Forster, about his experience in the blacking factory—once these “pivotal moments” or primal episodes get established in the literature, they acquire an unstoppable explanatory force. But what if William James decided the next day that free will was overrated but didn’t bother to write it down, or if Dickens later had a really good experience in a bluing factory, and never told anyone about it? All any biographer can hope, and all any reasonably skeptical reader can expect, is that the necessarily somewhat fictional character in the book bears some resemblance to the person who actually lived and died, and whose achievements (and disgraces) we care to learn more about. A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror.
Nigel Hamilton’s justification for biographies that expose the private lives of public figures is somewhat more exalted. Hamilton is a former director of an outfit called the British Institute of Biography; he has taught courses on biography; and his works include a life of Field Marshal Montgomery (a revised edition came out in time to be titled “The Full Monty”), a controversial biography of the young John F. Kennedy (“JFK: Reckless Youth”), and a multi-volume biography of Bill Clinton, two volumes of which have appeared so far. His view, argued in “Biography: A Brief History” (Harvard; $21.95), is that biography—by which he means frank and unexpurgated representations of individual human beings in any medium, including paintings, movies, photographs, novels, supermarket tabloids, and the Biography Channel—is the genre of democracy. Biography is what the people want, the franker and more unexpurgated the better, and they will rise up and overthrow tyranny and hypocrisy in order to have it. The enemies of biography—censorship, libel laws, copyright protection, and postmodernist critical theory—are enemies of the people. They are on the wrong side of history.
The conviction that the history of biography is a reflection of the history of everything leads to some unlikely sentences. “With the British yoke undone in the American Revolution of 1776 and the overthrow of the ancien régime in the French Revolution of 1789, it was perhaps small wonder that the newly labeled art of autobiography was at the literary forefront of life depiction,” for example; and, “Once the Japanese launched their air strike on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the fate of democracy lay no longer in critical, incisive biography but in the response of ordinary and extraordinary soldiers, sailors, and airmen.”
There is also this, about Albert Camus’s novel “L’Étranger”: “Portrayed with pitiless honesty as an existential, wholly ordinary, and unambitious character in a world without credible God, Camus’ unromantic antihero won the author celebrity, the Nobel Prize, a collection of beautiful mistresses, and an early death while driving to meet three of the latter in Paris in 1960.” (This is a classic of biographer’s logic. Any number of men have had beautiful mistresses, lived in Paris, and died in a car crash, yet only one of them wrote “L’Étranger.” So there is no reason to assume that “L’Étranger” is either explained by or explains good luck with mistresses and bad luck with cars. In a satisfying biography of Camus, however, his death will seem a death befitting the author of “L’Étranger.”)
Still, Hamilton is right that people love biographies, and he is right about some of the reasons. We learn about ourselves by reading about the lives of other people, for one thing. And biographies of the powerful and the famous that humanize their subjects may play some kind of egalitarian social role. It’s naïve, though, to suppose that the forces driving the appetite for “critical, incisive” (that is, highly revealing) biographies are all about democracy and demystification. Secrest is more to the point: people are prurient, and they like to lap up the gossip. People also enjoy judging other people’s lives. They enjoy it excessively. It’s not one of the species’ more attractive addictions, and, on the whole, it’s probably better to indulge it on the life of a person you have never met. ♦