The Cosmos of the Biographer


Carl Rollyson

Call this the cosmos of the biographer column—or in more down and dirty terms, and now for a bit of gossip—a foray into the backstory of biographyland that rarely gets reported, not even in the memoirs of biographers.

Sometimes biographers are accused of writing fiction, confecting narratives that read just a tad too smoothly, with transitions that leave you wondering how they could possibly know. But actually the acknowledgments section of a biography is where the fiction is to be found. There biographers simply cannot tell the truth, in part because they rely on the kindness of strangers, or, more accurately, on the sufferance of strangers who became quasi-friends who are also sources requiring much handling and massaging.

Have you ever read an acknowledgments section that even began to tell the truth? I reviewed a biography of a contemporary novelist not long dead, and I mentioned how impressed I was with the cooperation the biographer had received from his subject's family. The biographer emailed his thanks for the review and then could not help but point out that the novelist's daughter had been an incredible pain in the ass. Just once I would like to see a thank you to a pain in the ass. That would be unseemly, I know, but, really, what kind of world is it in those acknowledgments, when everyone receives a fulsome tribute?

I don’t claim to do much better in the acknowledgments sections of my biographies, although I do try to hold down the number of haloes I bestow on my sources. And I even go so far as to say in a yet to be published memoir devoted to the British politician Michael Foot that one of my surliest sources made the unpleasantness of interviewing her even worse by taking me to a terrible Chinese restaurant. Of course, biographers are grateful for the assistance of even those obnoxious witnesses who seem to take sadistic pleasure in subjugating the supplicating biographer. I will never forget how one of Rebecca West’s dour cousins lit up with joy when his big dog bounded out of the garden, nearly knocking me down, and managed to plant four huge muddy paw prints on the front of my suit.

I can remember only one biographer, my friend Jeffrey Meyers, who is an exception to the rule of factitious acknowledgements. Jeffrey wrote a piece in The Spirit of Biography explaining how shabbily he had been treated in one of those hoity-toity archives (remember the scene in Citizen Kane?) that make you wear white gloves to examine their dusty documents.

Most biographers fear offending anyone in a position of authority who might be of use sometime down the road—although I want to tell that twit at the Bodleian right now just how pompous he sounded when, after putting me through the usual bureaucratic folderol, he asked, quite solemnly, “Have you a pencil?” I brandished my computer. “You will not gain admittance to the library if you do not have a pencil,” he admonished me.  After accepting my application, he added: “That will be three pounds.” I took a grim satisfaction in saying I had yet to convert my currency and so escaped, hoping never to return, after a free day in the archive.

This is all by way of saying that in their acknowledgments biographers never admit they have done hard time. As a biography nears publication, the biographer is often thoroughly exasperated with precisely those princely people named in the acknowledgments. This must sound like a lot of whining. Well, biographers want to blow off steam just like everyone else, but they feel compelled to bottle it up. Their suppression of feeling reminds me of what Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, once said at a party when asked how he was doing: “I’m not allowed to say.” Quite so. Biographers are not allowed to say.

And what gets left out of the Acknowledgments is often tied to what is omitted in the biographical narrative. My first lesson in that sad fact came while interviewing an important source for my biography of Marilyn Monroe. We were discussing the last  months of her life and those close to her. Much has been written about the drugs Monroe took and, of course, about her state of mind during her last days. Many biographers have wondered how she obtained so many Nembutal capsules since she was under an internist’s care who was consulting with her psychiatrist. Quite suddenly, my source, X, said, “It’s too bad about Y.” Y was one of those who felt so sorry for Marilyn that he could not resist giving her pills just to get her through the day--or the night. X was speaking of a man who was not a medical professional but who was one of those charged with keeping her in good physical condition. X and Y were friends, and they now regarded me as a friend too. We had all become quite fond of one another. What I had been told did not alter significantly an understanding of how Monroe died, but it did shed some light on a situation where those who tried to abet her also disabled her. Divulging this one comment would have made my narrative just a little more saturated with the atmosphere in which she lived and died. But both X and Y had been enormously helpful and believed in my biography. In the end, I just couldn’t betray them and so I betrayed my biography.

That is the hard truth of biography: Biographers betray their own work time after time. Most novelists who write about biographers presume it is the other way around: Biographers are almost always cast as the betrayers. I have yet to find a novel that understands what the true costs of biography are for the biographer. Or rather, there is one magnificent exception, Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination. But the novelist’s conclusion, I fear, is all too true. The only way his biographer escapes betraying himself is by not writing the biography and by becoming absorbed in the very world of the biographical subject the biographer set out to reveal.

Alas, all too many biographers conceal as much as they reveal. And yet like the characters in Waiting for Godot we go on. We have to go on. The alternative is silence and the dreadful prospect of not knowing.

Editor’s Note: For those interested in pursing his line of thought raised by this column, three of Carl Rollyson’s books—Reading Biography, A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography, and Biography: A User’s Guide—also deal with the issues.

Books mentioned in this column:
The City of Your Final Destination by Peter Cameron (2002)
The Spirit of Biography, edited by Jeffrey Meyers (UMI Research Press, 1989)


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



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