A Biographer on Your Doorstep


Carl Rollyson

I’ve stolen my title from a friend, Doug Munro, who writes in Archifacts (June 2011) about his book, The Ivory Tower and Beyond: Participant Historians of the Pacific. The historians in his book, J. C. Beaglehole, J. W. Davidson, Richard Gilson, Harry Maude, Brij V. Lal—some of whom Munro met, and some he knew well—had families (wives and children) whom Munro interviewed. A scholar of biography, who has tracked the efforts of Orwell biographers who dealt with Orwell’s widow, Sonia, Munro knows the pitfalls of dealing with his subjects’ relatives. As in the case of those obliged to deal with Sonia, the biographer may well confront efforts to censor and even suppress his work. Although Munro notes that he had great respect for all of his subjects, that did not mean that in dealing with their families he avoided trouble. His “rule of engagement,” as he puts it, enjoined him to “be unobtrusive, to be open and to tread softly. If I sensed unease I would back off for a while.” Even this diplomatic biographer discovered, however, that in one instance he had to “mend fences.” One never knows what might set a family off. It might be getting some detail wrong—or wrong as they see it—about something they told you. Or it might be quoting from a source the family dislikes.

In the end, Doug did not feel that he compromised the truth, although he allows that in some instances authorized biographers have had to shade their stories to suit family sentiments. He’s got it exactly right. In the case of Michael Foot, I was under considerable pressure from his nephew and other friends to suppress stories of his infidelity (I refused to do so). Initially Michael showed no inclination to censor me—indeed he kept saying, “It’s your book”—but he gradually bowed to the sensitivities of his family and requested deletions, which for the most part I refused to make. Fortunately for me, he did not have the heart (and it would have been against his principles) to actually interfere with publication of my book. In the case of Dana Andrews, I benefitted from exactly what Doug describes as his good fortune: not only complete access to family papers, but also tolerance of follow-up questions and e-mails—although to call the family’s attitude tolerance is to show ingratitude of the worst kind. I received from Dana’s children—Susan, Katharine, and Stephen—as well as other family members only the warmest and most enthusiastic cooperation. Even so, a few family members proved recalcitrant for all sorts of reasons, which I do not resent so much as I regret. I always want more testimony to factor into my story.

Like Doug, I send out chapters for family members to comment on. Not all biographers work this way, fearing that what was said in a warm and responsive oral interview may be retracted when seen in cold print. I’ve usually been willing to take that risk, especially since I have never given anyone the right to change what I write, only the opportunity to try to do so. When I gave a chapter of my Hellman biography to critic Diana Trilling, she not only made some changes in her remarks, but went on to edit the rest of the chapter! She asked me to forgive her. She just felt compelled not only to have her say about Hellman but also about my say. In fact, virtually all of Trilling's corrections made the chapter read better, without altering the truth of what she and I had to say. And I told her I was grateful. Of course, Trilling was not related to Hellman, except in so far as Hellman and Trilling both belonged to that brood of New York intellectuals whom critic Harold Rosenberg called “the herd of independent minds.”

Which brings me back to Michael Foot’s asseveration that the book was mine. It was, and I’d be damned if I’d let Michael or his nephew Paul (my most vociferous critic) redact my biography. At the same time, where would I have been without them? They both gave me wonderful interviews—in Michael’s case, nearly a hundred hours’ worth. If some biographers bow to family pressure—a capitulation I have always denounced—they may do so in part because they see biography as much more of a community enterprise than I have ever acknowledged it to be. I see their point—even if, in the end, I stand against the appeasers.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Ivory Tower and Beyond: Participant Historians of the Pacific by Doug Munro (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009)


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. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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