Tag Archives: biographies

And the Plutarch Award Nominees Are…

Over at Biographers International Organization — a group I’m proud to be the president of for another three months — we’ve announced the ten nominees for the Plutarch Award, presented to the year’s best biography. This is the world’s only literary biography prize given to biography, by biographers, which makes it a pretty neat deal.

BIO takes the Plutarch very seriously.  In fact, last year, with an eye on — among other issues — the hubbub surrounding the hijacking of the Hugo Award, we decided to better define and add a bit of rigor to our own process for selecting the initial ten nominees.  For this year, then, we dug into our esteemed Advisory Board and tapped Douglas Brinkley (who counts biographer among his long list of accomplishments) to chair a distinguished panel of judges who were tasked with sorting through, reading, digesting, and discussing as many of the biographies published in 2015 as they possibly could. The result of their hard work is the so-called shortlist of ten nominees.

And what nominees they are. This year’s ten nominees, in alphabetical order by author, are:

  • Irrepressible: A Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage, by Betty Boyd Caroli (Simon & Schuster)
  • Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis (Oxford)
  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961,
       by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne Heller (New Harvest)
  • Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
  • Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
  • Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

That’s a pretty distinguished group of books. And here’s something else I really like about this list: we’ve got six books written by women, and five books about women. As Jim Henson might say: “Lovely.”

Next, BIO’s Plutarch Committee will narrow the list to four finalists. Once those finalists have been selected, BIO members will get to vote for which of those four they think should be the Best Biography of the Year. We should receive that list in March, and the winner will be announced at the BIO Conference in June.

By the way, looking back at when I discussed the Plutarch last year at this time, I promised you I’d tell you who the winner was after the vote — and then I never came back and told you who that was.  It was Hermione Lee, for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Plutarch Time!

Plutarch2014-494x500One of the best things about being a member of Biographers International Organization (BIO)  is that each year, we get to vote for the recipient of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year.* This is the only international literary award given by biographers to biography, which makes it pretty neat.  (It was inspired in part by the Edgar Award, presented each year by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Nebula, given annually by the  Science Fiction Writers of America.)

Here’s how it works: each year, a select committee of biographers puts together a list of ten nominees for the year’s best biography.** This list is presented to BIO members in good standing, who then make their selection by secret ballot. The winner (and three runners-up) will be announced (in suitably dramatic fashion, since I’m the one tasked with putting together the ceremony) at BIO’s Annual Conference, which will be held the first weekend in June at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

I should add for the record that as president of BIO, I don’t sit on the Plutarch Nomination Committee, and have no role in of the selection of the ten nominees; like all BIO members in good standing, my responsibility is to simply vote for the book on the list I think is the best.

And what a list it is this year–an interesting, diverse, even somewhat eclectic group of biographies, any of which would be a worthy winner. Wanna see? I won’t make you wait. Here are the ten books nominated for the 2015 Plutarch, listed alphabetically by author:

  • Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner)
  • John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ( W. Norton & Company)
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf)
  • Helen Rappaport, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s)
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (Viking Adult)
  • Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House)
  • Will Swift, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions)
  • Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press)

I’ll be back here in mid-June to let you know who the winner is. And if you’d like to see a list of previous winners (and nominees), click here.

* In 2015, we vote on biographies published in 2014, which is why the medallion reads “2014”

** As a result of this process, we have NO SAD PUPPIES. (And we send kind thoughts to our friends at the Hugo Awards. Lost? Click here for more information on this year’s Hugo kerfluffle.)

Literary Detectives? Or Just Plain Nosy?

Over at the Washington Independent Review of Books, my colleague Charles J. Shields discusses the art and craft of research in biography—from rooting through personal belongings and private letters and papers, to rummaging through newspapers and digital archives.  Has the rise of the internet and online sources made it easier to research a life? Or has it merely made for more “I Wake Up Screaming” moments?

Charles discusses it all with his usual good humor (and a really great headline), and picks the brains of other biographers—including, I must humbly admit, yours truly.  But don’t let that stop you from reading it.  Go get it — and there’s more to come, so stay  tuned.

Big Fun at the BIO

The second annual conference of the Biographers International Organization (BIO) is now officially one week away, on Saturday, May 21, at the National Press Club (and several other sites, such as the Library of Congress and National Archives) right here in beautiful Washington, DC.  If you’re a biographer, an aspiring biographer, or someone who enjoys biographies, you should be here.

What’ll you find? In a word: lots.  BIO works hard to offer panels that are packed with information, staffed by some of some of the best writers, editors, agents, grant writers, publicists, and publishers in the business—so many, in fact, that you’ll probably find it tough to narrow down your choices.

You’ll also get a keynote lunch headlined by—wait for it—Robert Caro, winner of the 2011 BIO award and . . . lemme see . . . oh yeah: the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Twice.  The end of day features a reception where you’ll have the chance to mingle with pretty much everyone, buy books (and get ’em signed), and listen to Stacy Schiff (of Cleopatra fame) in an interview/discussion in Inside the Actor’s Studio style.

What are you waiting for? Click here for tons more information. Online registration closes soon — but if you miss the online deadline, don’t worry. Shoot BIO an e-mail and they’ll take care of you.

Oh, and if you hurry, there’s still space available in several pre-conference workshops being held on Friday, May 20, at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.  In addition to an exclusive tour of the Library open only to BIO attendees, space was still available as of yesterday in several of the daylong workshops, including the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Division, Geography and Map Division, and a favorite of mine, the Motion Picture and Television Division, which has a really fun (though surprisingly small) reading room. For the latest information, click here.

See you in DC.

Almost Like Being There

As you can imagine, the last week has been fairly crazy — crazy in a good way, natch — and I apologize for not checking in here a bit more quickly.  I appreciate all the kind e-mails and notes — you’re all Good People.  Thanks for all the nice words.  I mean it.

BIO guru Jamie Morris sent out a heads up the other day to note that many of the remarks and sessions from the Compleat Biographers Conference in May have been made available by the University of Massachusetts — our hosts that day — for your viewing pleasure.  And just so you don’t have to go and find them, here they are:

First, here’s the opening session, with welcoming remarks by Ray Sheppard, and the opening address by Pulitzer Prize winner Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher), who discusses the need for an organization like BIO, where writers can get together to learn from and support each other (Her stunning “I don’t know what to tell you” story comes at about seven minutes in):

Next, here’s a panel on Trends in Biography, where journalist D. Quincy Whitney, Henry Holt senior editor Helen Atsma, and biographers Gayle Feldman and Megan Marshall (The Peabody Sisters) discuss the future of biography — and, at times, publishing in general:

Next , here’s Harriet Reisen (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women), editor Carole Deboer-Langworthy, Beatrice Mousli (Virginia Woolf), and Steve Weinberg (Armand Hammer: The Untold Story) discussing one of the most surprisingly difficult parts of writing a biography, Selecting A Subject:

Now it’s the keynote speech by Jean Strouse, winner of the first BIO Award (there’s a bit of organizational housekeeping to take care of before Ms. Strouse speaks — her keynote begins at about 17 minutes in):

Next up, biographers Debby Applegate, James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers), Anne C. Heller (Ayn Rand and the World She Made), and editors Yen Cheong and Lissa Warren head up a lively discussion on Marketing Your Biography. It’s one thing to write it; now how do you ensure it finds readers?

Finally, here’s a fun session — courtesy of Melissa Nathanson (who’s working on a bio of Justice Blackmun), Charles J. Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee), Will Swift (The Roosevelts and the Royals), Nancy Kriplen (The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur–Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary), and Kitty Kelley (Oprah)on Dealing With The Family of your chosen subject:

Like what you see? C’mon, how could you not? If you’re not a member already, think about joining BIO. Go here.

Reflections on the BIO Conference

The first Compleat Biographers Conference — sponsored by the Biographers International Organization (BIO) — was held in Boston this past weekend, and I’d have to call it an enormous, unqualified success.  It was easily the best, most informative conference I’ve ever attended, with plenty of interesting sessions, great speakers, and — perhaps the best part — plenty of opportunities to sit and talk with fellow writers, editors, agents, or book lovers. 

Want a highlight reel?  Here’s a sampling of  just a few of this weekend’s many memorable moments:

  • Starting the weekend by diving into a cab — with the super polite super British super agent Andrew Lownie — and being driven all over south Boston by a driver who clearly had no idea where he was going.  I ended up taking out my phone and paying for a day’s worth of its GPS function so we could get where we needed to go.  And the guy still charged us 15 bucks!  (Best quote of the ride came from Andrew, who shouted, “You’re to go right! No, right! GET IN THE RIGHT LANE!” as our driver cluelessly ignored my phone’s spoken directions. Only the British can get so charmingly annoyed.)
  • By my count, there were at least four Pulitzer Prize winners sitting in the same room at the same time, and — delightfully — there wasn’t a single ego to be found. Debby Applegate — BIO’s interim president and the 2007 prize winner for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher — was genuinely flattered when I approached her with a hardcover copy of her book I had brought with me from DC.  “Thanks for buying the book,” she inscribed on the title page, ” — and in hardback!”
  • On a similar note, Debby’s opening remarks sparked one of the first jaw-dropping moments of the conference, as she told the story of her struggle to find just the right narrative voice and story arc for her Beecher biography, which also just so happened to be her first book. When she brought her concerns to the attention of her editor, the response was “I don’t know what to tell you.”  “Those were the last words we ever spoke,” Debby said to a stunned room. She cancelled her contract, gave back her advance (another gasp-inducing moment) and started over again with a new editor and publisher.  A great story.
  • I had a nice breakfast with fellow WBG member Charles J. Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee), to whom I owed huge thanks for some advice he had given me on Project Blue Harvest.  We chatted over fruit and bagels about our projects (he’s in the midst of edits on his Kurt Vonnegut bio) and he didn’t even flinch when I nearly splattered hot coffee into his lap.
  • The keynote speech for the day was delivered by Jean Strouse — the recipient of the first BIO award for Excellence in Biography — whose masterful Morgan: American Financier was the result of more than 15 years of writing and research. Strouse talked about learning finance, choosing a subject, and sticking with a project that nearly engulfed her.
  • Kitty Kelley — who’s in the midst of a massive tour for her equally massive Oprah: A Biography— gave the conference several hours of her time and participated in an incredibly useful session on How To Deal With The Family of your chosen subject.  While three of the panel’s participants gave valuable advice on how to work with family, friends, and heirs, Kelley told one funny story after another about the hows and whys of covering  your ass. (“I ask the hard questions first,” she said, “because I’m always afraid they’re going to throw me out.”)
  • Another writer who interrupted a book tour to participate (and made it with only minutes to spare) was another Pulitzer winner:  T.J. Stiles of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius VanderbiltStiles ran point in a session on self-editing, which evolved into an entertaining discussion on a variety of topics, from narrative arcs to the future of publishing (which included a heartfelt tangent on why self-published books, unfortunately, have a tendency to suck). Stiles also reiterated the point — with a funny story about a long digression on Nigerian steamboats in an early draft of his Vanderbilt biography —  that not all your research drives your narrative, no matter how interesting you think it might be. “It was like someone had dropped another book right into the middle of mine,” Stiles said.  Out it went.

My thanks to Jamie Morris — the soul of the operation — as well as to Ray Shepard of the Boston Site Committee and all those who participated.  It was a memorable weekend — and we’ll see you next year in Washington, DC.

Conference Call

A few things.

First, here’s a laurel and hearty handshake extended to T.J. Stiles, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Stiles pulled off a literary hat trick, of sorts, by having his biography awarded both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for non-fiction.  Plus he’s a Caro fan, which gives him even more points in my book.  Not that he needed them. Anyway, congratulations all around.

Speaking of Pulitzer Prize winners (watch what I do here), we’re less than a month away from the first Compleat Biographer Conference, hosted by the Biographers International Organization (BIO) in Boston on May 15.  It’s your chance to immerse yourself in biography for a day, talking with, listening to and learning from some of the best — including interim BIO President and Pulitzer Prize winner Debby Applegate, the aforementioned T.J. Stiles, Charles J. Shields, Kitty Kelley, James McGrath Morris, and tons more.  It’s a daylong series of workshops and panel discussion on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography, including a session with agents who represent biographies and non-fiction.  Come on, it’ll be fun.

For more information on the conference, go here.  While you’re at it, stroll over to the home page for The Biographer’s Craft — soon to be the official newsletter of BIO — and put yourself on the mailing list.

The BIO Conference

Are you an aspiring or published biographer, historian, writer, or just plain interested in books?  You might want to think about attending the first-ever conference of the newly-formed Biographers International Organization, to be held May 15 in Boston.

The brainchild of my colleague and pal James McGrath Morris (whose biography of Pulitzer is due in bookstores in early February) and the result of tons of hard work by folks like Debby Applegate, fellow WBG member Charles Shields, and devoted locals like Rob Velella, the daylong conference focuses on the nuts and bolts of biography writing.  Ten workshops are offered throughout the day on topics like working with primary documents, choosing a topic, working with the family of your subject, and how to land an agent. Yeah, it’s good stuff.

For the price of admission, you’ll also get fed twice, hear a keynote from a prominent biographer (more on that later), and get to hang out with lots of like-minded folks.  Think of it as a more literary San Diego Comic-Con, but without the filk singing or people dressed as Boba Fett.

“The Compleat Biographer Conference” will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston on Saturday, May 15.  For more information on BIO and the conference, check out the Biographers International Organization’s website.

Reviews in Brief: John Lennon: The Life (Philip Norman)

“In September 2003, I suggested to John’s widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer,” writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, “Yoko Ono was upset by the book,” Norman tells us, “and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been ‘mean to John.'”

I actually don’t think Yoko’s got anything to worry about; Norman’s book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon’s all-too-brief life and career. While there’s much in here that’s familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories — most of which are familiar to Beatle fans — and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn’t they? question that has surrounded Lennon’s vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn’t), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John’s darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.

There’s also quite a bit that’s new in here, too — or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what “business” Yoko was doing during Lennon’s househusband years — she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John’s profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon’s writings in the 1960s — a hidden gem in the literate Beatle’s career — exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.

For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon’s story finally come into their own. John’s Aunt Mimi — who can often come off as a bit of a shrew — gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You’ll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John’s seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons — excuses — for his actions, but for the first time, you’ll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.

If there’s a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman’s narrative voice. Norman’s prose isn’t ever stilted — he’s too good a journalist for that — but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to “Twist and Shout,” for example, “dippy”). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon’s fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.

For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can’t help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. “Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony,” he writes. “Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building” where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, “John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota — an omen if ever there was one . . . ” It took me a moment to figure out why this was “an omen” — until I realized it was the use of the word “Dakota” in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.

Perhaps even more annoying — especially to the biographer in me — there’s no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman’s book when I found myself saying “Where’d you get that?” and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn’t enough room left. But I’m sure I’m not the only one missing it.

Hard Work vs. Magic

I’m obsessed with knowing how things work. More specifically, I love knowing how people work — how they do their jobs, what their creative process is, what their working environments are like, and what challenges they face. I’m especially fascinated when it comes to learning more about how writers and artists produce whatever it is their particular craft might be.

When you hold a book in your hand — or view a painting, watch a movie, or listen to music — you’re seeing only one part of a story — and usually it’s only the last chapter, ripped from the book and handed to you as the Complete Story. That bit of creative misdirection means that you’re seeing only what the artist wanted you to see. The artist who produced that painting you’re looking at, for example, doesn’t really want you to know or care where he bought the canvas, who he scrounged the paints off of, what room he painted in, or that his mother always wanted him to be chef instead of a painter. The art itself — which is the end result of the creative process — is meant to be the statement; the rest is insignificant.

I tend to disagree with that. The biographer in me can’t help but wonder how people were working and living their lives, even as they were creating their art.

I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes. I love visiting the homes of famous writers, artists, or politicians, for instance, and soaking up the atmosphere where they lived and worked. I enjoy poring through journals, letters, records and receipts, fascinated with what people write in the places where they believe no one will ever be looking. I’m one of those annoying people who watches every single “Behind The Scenes” or “Making of…” feature on a DVD, so I can see the interviews with the cast and crew, writer and director.

Creating art is hard work. And I think that hard work deserves to be explored and celebrated — especially when it makes for such a good story.

Let me give you an example.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Beach Boys. It’s not so much their music, which I’m not interested in much beyond what you might find on a typical greatest hits CD; rather, I’m fascinated by the relationship and creative dynamic between the Wilson brothers and their overbearing father, Murry. While I’ve not yet been able to find a biography of the group that truly rises to my expectations in this regard (the last one I read, Catch A Wave, was, I thought rather flat), I recently came across a primary source that’s even better: forty minutes of open audio from a 1965 Beach Boys recording session, when the early takes of “Help Me, Rhonda” are broken up by the entry of a drunken, sometimes angry, sometimes weepy, but almost always abusive Murry Wilson.

Murry proceeds to take over the session, berating the singing of Al Jardine — who’s singing his guts out — and lecturing Brian Wilson on sacrifice and hard work (“I’m a genius, too!” Murray testily proclaims). At one point, Murry and Brian can be heard scuffling over the controls, as Murry tries to turn off the recording equipment and Brian — thankfully — manages to leave the tape rolling.

It’s a fascinating look behind the scenes, and makes you appreciate even more just how difficult it must have been for Brian Wilson to produce . . . well, anything. More than anything, you can see that Brian Wilson didn’t create great music through magic; it was, for more than just a few reasons, hard work.

If I’ve peaked your curiosity, don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. Courtesy of WFMU, then, here’s the full 40-minute version of the January 8, 1965 Beach Boys recording session. If you don’t have 40 minutes, here’s a highlight reel.

As an added bonus, here’s the first installment of Peter Bagge’s The Murry Wilson Show:

Part 2 is here, 3 is here, and part 4 is here.

My point is, sometimes what’s going on behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain is just as interesting as the final product itself — provided, of course, that you really want to look. But you tell me: Does that peek behind the scenes take something away from the final product? In other words, is the magic gone at that point? Or does knowing of all the hard work that went into it make you appreciate the final product that much more?