Clearing the Bar
“Glad to see you remain as active—and eclectic!—as ever.” I quote from an email sent to me by an old friend in response to one of mine summarizing my recent work, including my biographies of Dana Andrews and Sylvia Plath. What could those two subjects have in common? To the professional biographer—I mean someone who writes biography after biography—there is a natural thread that only seems random to someone observing it from the outside. I remember saying to a biographer friend: “I’ll bet you see a certain trajectory in your biographies of Cotton Mather, Edgar Allan Poe, and Harry Houdini.” He nodded. Since then Kenneth Silverman has published biographies of Samuel Morse and John Cage, and though I haven’t asked him, I’m sure he is still following the same trail.
There is an inner dynamic in a biographer’s life—at least in some biographers’ lives—that critics, let alone reviewers, rarely detect and almost never write about, unless the biographer concentrates, let’s say, on figures from the American Revolution, American presidents, or movie stars. Beyond those obvious categories, however, literature on biography is silent on the subject of the biographer’s choices.
Reviewers who do acknowledge a biographer’s body of work usually do so in a superficial, uncomprehending way. When my second biography appeared, one reviewer chastised me for dwelling on Lillian Hellman’s looks, assuming that because I had published a biography of Marilyn Monroe my standard was movie star beauty, and I was somehow disparaging Hellman’s corrugated visage. But so many of Hellman’s friends commented on her wrinkled face that I did not see how I could ignore it. Then the PBS American Masters program about her began with what looked like shots of a mountainside, only to pull back to reveal the rocky face of its subject. Panning across that rugged terrain was the perfect way to evoke the life of a really tough personage, one I had thoroughly enjoyed scaling in my biography.
I have always been attracted to figures with powerful iconic images. Marilyn Monroe, my first subject, is obvious. Next came granite-like Lillian Hellman, who, I now realize, was a rather therapeutic choice after dealing with the lush and sometimes lugubrious Monroe. Hellman’s visage would be on the Mount Rushmore of playwrights, if such a monument existed. For fun, I put Monroe on Rushmore when I published my collection of reviews, titled American Biography.
If Marilyn Monroe materialized as the angel her cowboy-lover sees her as in Bus Stop, Hellman etched her way into the American pantheon. If Marilyn Monroe represents the soft side of fame, Hellman is hard core. Martha Gellhorn, my #3, is their improbable mixture: beautiful but also wiry, with a toughness that sentimental old puss Ernest Hemingway first adored and then abhorred. Visit Hemingway’s house in Key West, which still has generations of his cats lounging about, and then read about how hard it was for him to domesticate the feline Martha, who had to roam the world for her stories. Norman Mailer, fourth in my line of icons, worshipped Hemingway and lusted after Monroe—in both cases admiring idols who had succeeded in the ambition he coveted for himself to capture the consciousness of his time.
All of my subjects are cynosures—albeit, in the case of Dana Andrews, a reluctant one who did not want to be forever wearing that trench coat and fedora gazing wistfully at Laura's portrait. Even someone as austere and simply dressed as Marie Curie became a pinup for my sixth subject, Susan Sontag, who modeled her own affectation about not having a career or concern for fame on Curie’s genuine distaste for the limelight. Rebecca West, wedged between Mailer and Sontag in my itinerary of icons, is that unusual writer who consorts with the powerful, the Lord Beaverbrooks of this world who are quite literally in the business of creating the media that make icons in what Walter Benjamin called the age of mechanical reproduction. Jill Craigie, my least known subject, parlayed her beauty into stunning studio publicity shots that won backers for her early documentaries on art and town planning.
All of these subjects, come to think of it, have led me to Sylvia Plath—even my work in progress on Amy Lowell, who commanded stages across the United States in an age (the 1920s) that also hosted Edna St. Vincent Millay, another great platform poetry performer. Plath may epitomize what I have been after, because she ranges so far between the boundaries of high and low—to use the inescapably invidious terms that describe levels of cultural interest and consumption. In her book about Plath, Janet Malcolm objected to the way the poet had become a plaything of biographers. Malcolm has a point, I suppose—except that as I pointed out in an earlier column, Plath wanted the attention.
That’s it! I know it sounds simplistic, but I just realized that what attracts me to all of my subjects is that they wanted the world’s attention. Who doesn’t? you might rejoin. We want to be recognized, and we read (at least most of us do) about the famous to see how they got it done, and how much they really were able to enjoy the world on their own terms. Garbo may have said she wanted to be alone—but that was after she had already attracted her audience.
It all begins with “Daddy! Watch me!” Or “Mommie, look at this!” Remember that heartbreaking moment in Gone with the Wind when Bonnie, Rhett and Scarlett’s child, rides off on her pony to jump the fence, only to be dashed to the ground with her neck broken? We all start out somewhere waiting for our moment of recognition, and some of us do fall and fail. But oh how we admire those who can clear the bar.
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.