Picking a Subject: Part One


Carl Rollyson

How do you pick your subjects? It’s the question I’m most frequently asked. Usually the subject I end up writing about has played a role in the life of someone else I’ve been investigating. I didn’t set out to write my first biography, Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress. She meant nothing in particular to me. I rather stumbled across her when I was working on Norman Mailer, the first author I chose to study after completing my dissertation on William Faulkner’s uses of the past in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses. I compared Faulkner’s characters’ re-creation of history with what historians and historiographers have written about the hermeneutics of historical interpretation. Mailer interested me because he was reinterpreting his past in book after book. Then I discovered his biography of Marilyn Monroe, and in the process of understanding why he was attracted to her, I became intrigued with her—and with aspects of her I felt Mailer did not understand. It was then that I realized I was not really concerned with epistemology per se, but with how individuals “construct” themselves over time, and how over time the culture constructs them. Hermeneutics I would consign to philosophers of history while I pursued my concern with historicism. Monroe became the quintessential subject for me, because she was all about self-construction and conflicting interpretations of her so-called “true self,” which, I realized, resembled what fascinated me in Faulkner’s work. How did Thomas Sutpen construct himself so as to create a figure that haunted subsequent generations? That question was not so different, actually, from Mailer’s preoccupation with Marilyn Monroe.

How I came to write about Lillian Hellman, the subject of my second biography, is a somewhat different story. I came to the realization that one biography was going to beget another because I was hooked on biography, the latent subject of my dissertation. My dissertation became my first book, Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner, and remains my touchstone, so to speak. I first became intrigued with Hellman by reading about her in Joseph Blotner’s biography of Faulkner. Faulkner liked Hellman, and he liked her companion, Dashiell Hammett. Hellman, unlike most New Yorkers, understood the Deep South. After all, she had been partly brought up there—to be precise, in New Orleans, site of Faulkner’s marvelous foray into the shaping of America’s multicultural identity before the word multicultural had any currency. Indeed, if you truly want to understand the significance of Barack Obama, you have to read Absalom, Absalom!

For Faulkner, by the way, Hammett was truly Hellman’s other half. Faulkner adored detective and mystery stories and read them by the ream. He also tried to write them—not too successfully when he followed the formula of pulp fiction, but spectacularly well when he messed with the popular conventions in Absalom, Absalom! That novel is an object lesson for biographers because it is about the obsession with knowing what really happened in the past, as well as about the utter futility of ever coming to a final, definitive, determination as to what can be known.

So Hellman lay dormant in my mind from about 1975 to 1985, when I was nearing completion of my Marilyn Monroe biography and preparing my dissertation for book publication. Hellman was “hot” in the late 1980s because of revelations about the “Julia” story she concocted. Searching for a subject that my new agent could peddle, I suggested Hellman. “I can sell that,” she immediately responded, and she told me to get started on a book proposal.

To me, Hellman had it all. I grew up in the theater, and she was theater to me. I had always been interested in politics, and she was politics to me. I was obsessed with Hollywood and its history, and she was Hollywood to me. She spent half her childhood in the South, and I was then still steeped in all things Southern. And then there were bonuses: She had a great sex life, and she loved to cook. She traveled to places I wanted to visit. She was endlessly entertaining. When my biography appeared, the  New York Times reviewer called my book “dishy”; it was the first time I had seen that word in print. True, my book did contain gossip. People loved to talk about Lillian (she pronounced it Lil-yan), and the endless speculation about this entertaining but fearsome woman brought me back to, yes, Absalom, Absalom! and the endless discussions about Thomas Sutpen.

During my research on Hellman I ran into Martha Gellhorn—not literally, but to encounter Gellhorn while writing on Hellman is rather like a collision. Gellhorn’s Paris Review article dismantles many of Hellman’s stories, showing they could not have happened—or at least could not have occurred as Hellman told them. Gellhorn’s demolition job was done with such glee that I wondered why no one had written a biography of this celebrated journalist, sometime novelist, and third wife of Ernest Hemingway. At the time I did not realize there was another reason—again latent—for what turned into an obsession with Gellhorn. She went out and got the story, traveling to the battleground of the Spanish Civil War on her own hook and writing with uncommon clarity about what she saw there. I didn’t know then that my biography of Gellhorn would be my farewell to the life I had been trained to follow: that of a bookish English professor. I would stay in the academy to enjoy the teaching and other perks, but my heart was out there beyond the books I read.

What I did was turn Martha Gellhorn into a book, and she hated it. Ironic, don't you think? But that’s a story for another day. What I mean to suggest here is that I became disenchanted with simply reading about Gellhorn. As I had done with Monroe and Hellman, I had to travel to many of the sites Gellhorn reported on and interview people who knew her.

Books like biographies and novels bring the world to you, but they are, of course, also a way of escaping from the world—as I felt many of my colleagues did. They studied literature and yet had very little interest in biography or the conditions in which literature was actually created. This tension in my own life—between the desire to wall myself off from the world by reading books even as I rely on books to bring home the world—came into stark relief when I watched, not for the first time, a scene in Fallen Angel, starring Dana Andrews and Alice Faye. He plays a con man who wants Faye’s inheritance and can only get it by marrying her. She plays the “spinster” infatuated with this glib and handsome man, who has seen the world beyond her small town. She argues that he does not know as much as he thinks because he does not read books, and he argues that books have actually closed off her sense of what life has to offer. In effect, he is saying books are secondhand experience, a copy of the world that he has seen. He has a point, just as Plato does in his allegory of the cave. But so does Faye, who contends that books are one of our windows on the world, and that without them we would be deluded into thinking that what we have seen of the world is all there is in it. In Fallen Angel, Alice Faye and Dana Andrews need one another and complete one another, just as Hammett completed Hellman and vice versa. When Faye and Andrews argue, they make an attractive couple, although neither one at that point has any notion they could actually fall in love. While crossing the street the con man suddenly holds the spinster’s arm, making certain she is not run over by traffic. He is looking out for her, as she will look out for him later in the picture. Don’t miss this Otto Preminger classic, readily available now on DVD.

What does all this have to do with biography and my choice of subjects? Simply this: As Michael Holroyd says in one of his essays about biography, one of the genre’s great values is to keep us from becoming too bookish. Another irony, of course, because biographies are books. My subjects take me out into the world, and I bring them back as books.

After Gellhorn, I wanted to write a life of Rebecca West. I read about her in one of Lillian Hellman’s book reviews. And yet I did not get to do West, not for several more years. Another story . . . to be continued.

Books mentioned in this column:
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (Vintage Books, 1995)
Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Leo Blotner (University Press of Mississippi, 2005)
Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (Vintage Books, 1991)
Monroe: A Life of the Actress by Carl Rollyson (Da Capo Press, 1993)
Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner by Carl Rollyson (, 2007)


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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