Picking a Subject: Part Two


Carl Rollyson

While doing research on Lillian Hellman, I happened upon her review of Gordon Ray’s H. G. Wells and Rebecca West. Hellman disliked the book, thinking it unsporting of West to collaborate with a biographer to tell the story of her love affair with one of the century’s most celebrated and controversial writers. Wells was a notorious womanizer, in today’s parlance, but he was also a figure who brought to literature the journalist’s eye for breaking news and the scientist’s concern with man and nature. West was Wells’s match. She had intellect, wit, and ambition to match and a supple style that surpassed his own serviceable prose.

Hellman did not dwell on the greatness of these figures, but rather clucked over what she deemed a rather tawdry telling of tales out of school. Strange, I thought, for a woman who would make quite a career out of her own liaison with Dashiell Hammett. I suspected that the Stalinist Hellman’s distaste for West’s fiercely anti-Communist politics had something to do with her dismissal of Ray’s carefully put together and scholarly book—although Hellman made no mention of politics in her review.

The Wells and West story fit with what I had already written about Hellman and Hammett and Gellhorn and Hemingway, and as I read through West’s writing, I soon learned that she was a more important writer than any of the others. Her greatness was not widely recognized then (in the early 1990s), or now—alas. The recent republication of West’s work in digital form will, I hope, finally help to restore her reputation.

On a visit to my London agent, Rivers Scott, I expressed my desire to write a biography of Rebecca West. He frowned. Victoria Glendinning had recently published a short biography of West, and Stanley Olson was writing a longer one. I re-calibrated, turning out a proposal about literary liaisons and featuring chapters on Hellman and Hammett, Wells and West, Gellhorn and Hemingway, Robert Graves and Laura Riding. As the proposal went through the rejection mill, I added still more couples. Such books continue to be published (Uncommon Arrangements, for example), but I could not entice a publisher to commit. One editor said she feared I would just cannibalize my previous work, even though a good half of the book would focus on new subjects.

I went to my fallback position. Right out of graduate school in the late 1970s, I published an article in an academic journal, Biography, about Norman Mailer’s Marilyn. I decided to write a book about Mailer, who I continued to read. My American agent thought she could sell a proposal to Paragon House, a small firm (now out of business) headed by a friend of hers. I pitched the book as a discussion of Mailer’s writing with a biographical focus, and I received a modest advance. But soon, I realized I wanted to do a full-fledged biography. My agent was then able to get me a little more money from the same publisher. Mailer did not speak with me—he was loyal to an authorized biographer who never did publish his book—but that was okay with me, since unlike Gellhorn Mailer did not stand in my way. Years later, I learned that Mailer had read my piece on Marilyn and said it was the best thing written about one of his most maligned works. My book was a modest success, but Paragon had trouble getting review space. Unlike my first two biographies, The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography (1991) did not get a New York Times review. Later, I learned that one panelist on the jury for a Los Angeles Times book award proposed my biography, but he could not get his colleagues to even look at it. Paragon House did not rate with them. (I have subsequently revised and updated the biography, retitling it: Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic. I have also recently revised both my Hellman and West biographies, giving them new titles and including new material.)

Then fate intervened. Stanley Olson had a stroke and died before writing a word of his Rebecca West biography. Next, Vincent Giroud, curator of manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Library, called me and said Rebecca’s son, Anthony, had died. Giroud knew I was waiting to look at her sealed archives, which would be available only after her death and her son’s demise. Not even Victoria Glendinning, who had the sanction of West’s estate, could convince Yale to ignore the agreement they had with Rebecca to keep the archives closed while Anthony was alive. (West looked kindly upon Yale when it invited her to give the Terry Lectures in 1957, and afterwards she began sending a significant proportion of her archive to the Beinecke.)

But much of West was out of print, even though she had two best sellers in the 1950s and 1960s, and throughout the 1970s reviewed every week for the London Sunday Telegraph (Hilton Kramer called her the best reviewer in the world). She had been a fixture of the Anglo American literary community for seventy years, but she was no longer read widely. Feminists were infatuated with Virginia Woolf, and West’s fervent anti-Communism, which appealed to conservatives, made her, ipso facto, a suspicious character to the left. Doris Lessing later admitted to me that she had ignored West because of West’s politics, a decision Lessing had come to regret after so much of what West wrote seemed, in retrospect, prophetic.

So I had to work to do. It would not be enough to write a proposal touting West as a neglected great writer ripe for rediscovery. I needed discoveries, documents, connections, that would take publishers—well, at least one publisher, I hoped—by storm. So every Friday for a year I traveled via Metro North from my domicile in Brooklyn, the Ex-Lax Coop, to the Beinecke. I decided not to write a proposal until I could produce page after page of new material that no one had seen, let alone written about.

On my first visit, it took the Beinecke staff nearly two hours to find the West papers. The stuff had been gathering dust for twenty years, and it turned out only one Beneicke staffer had actually seen the boxes way back when. Where were they, I began to wonder, as I waited and waited. The collection was uncatalogued. I think the boxes were just filled as West sent along items. At last, however, the treasure began to surface and burst with revelations.

On one my first trips, I opened an overstuffed box, and out spilled Francis Biddle’s love letters to Rebecca. He had been one of the Nuremberg Trial’s prosecutors, and now I understood why West’s brilliant coverage of the trials was so intimate, so knowing about not only the defendants but their judges as well. I was the first to read West’s journal of her trips to Yugoslavia, which became the basis of one of the twentieth century's towering works, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

I had access to thousands of letters that Victoria Glendinning had not seen. After a year, I had a one-hundred-page plus proposal, and in short order I had a contract with Scribner. Then my American agent took it to Rivers in London, where he tweaked the proposal a bit before selling hardcover and paperback rights to Hodder & Stoughton (soon to become Hodder Headline).

It had all seemed such a gamble to begin with. Normally, I spend two months working up a proposal. To spend a whole year working on spec seemed like madness to me. But  then I learned that Rivers Scott had been Rebecca’s editor at the London Sunday Telegraph! Perhaps he assumed I already knew as much, since my American agent told him I was such a good researcher. But, in truth, I didn’t. With Rivers on my side, doors opened—even to the reticent Allan Maclean, Rebecca’s editor at Macmillan’s and brother to British spy Donald Maclean. Allan called up Rivers and said, “Do you think this American is up to the job?” “Don't be silly,” Rivers responded. That was Rivers, a mild mannered chap with guts who once told Rebecca that one of her reviews was not quite good enough. She was famous for her acerbic wit, I was sure she had roughed up Rivers plenty good. “Not at all,” he told me. “What did she say?” I asked. “She paused,” Rivers said, “and quietly told me, ‘Rivers, you’re right. I’ll write it again.’ ”

Very few of Rebecca’s friends and family denied me interviews. But an exasperating writer, Dachine Rainer, who befriended and then offended Rebecca, told me, “You cannot hope to sort out the fact and fiction in Rebecca’s life.” When I persisted, Dachine called up Anthony West’s first wife, Kitty, telling her to beware of a certain American oaf who would make a hash of RW’s life. “Who are you to tell me who I should talk to?” Kitty demanded. Ah Kitty, she wrote me wonderful letters and cheerfully greeted me while standing amid the Peacock shit outside her Dorset cottage.

Although tales of biographers told by novelists and biographers can sometimes make for rather grim reading—a horror genre to which I have contributed my share—researching and writing the life of Rebecca West was a romance. I got really comfortable, and wrote a piece, “The Biographer Who Came in from the Cold,” that will be included in Adventures of an Outlaw: A Biographer at Work, a book that is still looking for a publisher.

After warily avoiding contact with Hellman’s estate, braving blasts from Martha Gellhorn, and enduring Norman Mailer’s benign neglect, I had become one of those authorized biographers, positively chummy with West’s family and friends. This was an amazing development to me, because I certainly did not duck my subject’s unflattering aspects. In fact, one biographer, Mervyn Jones, told me my book proved him wrong. Wrong about what? I wondered. “That a good biography can be written about someone you dislike.” I was stunned. I loved Rebecca West, faults and all.

Barbara Belford, biographer of Violet Hunt and Oscar Wilde, then gave me some career advice. Stick with a period and subjects who are connected to one another. That was the way to build a reputation. Well, I guess. But I was looking for trouble. Biography had become a little too cozy for me. So who could I write about that no one else would touch. Who could I write about that had really touched me? Who could I write about that would also engage the interest of my wife, attorney and eventual co-author, Lisa Paddock? Who could I write about that was close to home? All those trips to London, to Tulsa (site of the largest Rebecca West collection), Texas, and many other archives and places were expensive. And who could I write about that would entice an editor (and I thought there would only be one) who actually thought it would be fun to pick on a sacred monster. And who could stand in the same roll call with Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, and Rebecca West? Who? Who? Who? Susan Sontag. Who else?

I pause for station identification.

Books mentioned in this column:
H. G. Wells and Rebecca West by Gordon Ray (Yale University Press, 1974)
Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic by Carl Rollyson (iUniverse, 2008)
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 by Kate Roiphe (Dial Press, 2007)
Marilyn by Norman Mailer (Putnam, 1981)
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (Penguin, 2007)
Rebecca West: A Modern Sybil by Carl Rollyson (iUniverse, 2008)
Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius by Barbara Belford (Random House, 2000)
Violet by Barbara Belford (Simon & Schuster, 1990)


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.



Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet