The Lion and the Journalist
Last month, during lunch at the third annual meeting of BIO (Biographers International Organization), I heard Arnold Rampersad, biographer of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, give an eloquent talk about his experience as a biographer and also about the genre itself and why it matters. Next to me sat Chip Bishop, author of The Lion and the Journalist: The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop. I had been aware of Chip’s book, but I had not read it. As I listened to Bishop talk, I realized: This was a book for me! Chip, the great-grandnephew of Joseph Bucklin Bishop, had put together a story he had begun hearing when he was twelve years old. You don’t think there is more to tell about TR? Well, the bedrock of Bishop’s book is six hundred letters between his two subjects, which no other biographer or historian has mined, even though the material was available at the Library of Congress and Harvard. If you want a sample of what Chip told me, watch .
As I listened to Chip, I began to think about my own experience as a biographer—especially my relationship with Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party when Margaret Thatcher trounced it with her election victory in 1983. I had interviewed Michael and his wife, Jill Craigie, for my Rebecca West biography, and both Michael and Jill were great supporters of my work. When Jill died, I asked Michael if I could write her biography. I wanted to explore in greater detail her friendship with Rebecca West, but I also was keenly interested in how she became one of the first women directors to make an impact—with films that dramatized a militant feminism and socialism—on the British public during World War II. That combination was rare, especially since her films were not sponsored by a government agency, but by J. Arthur Rank, a studio mogul. And yet, after the war, for a complex variety of reasons, Jill’s career faded, even as Michael’s took off.
Well, that is a story for another day—except to say that like Joseph Bucklin Bishop and TR, Carl Rollyson and Michael Foot developed a rapport and a strong set of mutual interests. And in the end, my proximity to power was destroyed because Michael, crossed a line that TR never crossed with Bishop. TR never told Bishop what to write and did not expect Bishop to always agree with him. In other words, TR never confused friendship and loyalty, or expected his journalist friend not to entertain different opinions. As a result, there were times when Bishop criticized TR in newspaper editorials, and yet TR, as Douglas Brinkley points out in his foreword to Chip’s book, realized that “every good statesman needs a top-tier journalist he can trust.”
When TR needed someone to go to Panama and report on how the precarious canal building project was going, it had to be Bishop. The journalist would give it straight to the president. Later, TR asked Bishop to become his biographer. The result was a two-volume biography, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, published to great acclaim in 1920.
In some ways, Bishop fit the stereotype of the authorized biographer—you know, the Boswell who follows in the great man’s shadow. Next to the leonine TR, the balding Bishop seemed undersized. He simply lacked TR’s magnitude. And isn’t this the rep biographers have? We are second-raters, trailing in the wake of our oceanic subjects. But Bishop had principles and guts and stood for progressive causes. Bishop also stood up to Roosevelt, and Roosevelt liked that.
TR needed a friend and biographer with a foot planted outside politics, someone who could give the politician a perspective unavailable inside government. TR knew, of course, that Bishop admired him, but TR also knew that Bishop would tell him if TR ever failed to meet the high standard his biographer expected of him. And perhaps best of all, TR simply enjoyed Bishop’s company. “I am always wishing I could see you,” Roosevelt wrote to his first biographer.
Biographers who are also their subjects’ friends are almost always in an impossible position. Even if the biographer pleases the subject, family members and friends can be hostile. They may be jealous of the biographer’s access and the confidence the subject places in him. That was certainly my experience with Michael Foot’s retinue. But Joseph Bucklin Bishop retained the confidence of TR’s family, including TR’s widow. There was no need to shoot the widow—to borrow the title of biographer Meryle Secrest’s book.
As that shrewd biographer of American presidents, Nigel Hamilton, notes, the “fresh material” in this book that portrays “President Roosevelt’s relationship with the American press across his lifetime, in particular with his chosen Boswell, may make many a politician, even presidents, long to recover that past age.” To which, I would add, Chip’s book also makes me (and other biographers, I suspect) envy a biographer who managed to capture his subject so well while remaining his own man.
Books mentioned in this column:
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. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.