Le goût des autres

The biography business.
by Louis Menand

At a time when instruments for recording and disseminating information about people’s intimate behavior are cheap and easy to use, and when newspapers and magazines and television programs and Web sites purvey that kind of information without restraint, and when even ordinary people apparently can’t do enough to tell the world everything about themselves, a defense of the professional biographer’s right to pry does not seem something that civilization stands in dire need of. Just in case, though, two such defenses have recently been published.

Meryle Secrest is a biographer who has nine lives so far, all of figures in the arts, including Kenneth Clark, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Rodgers, and Salvador Dali. Her memoir, “Shoot the Widow” (Knopf; $25.95), is candid about the commercial bones of the enterprise. She started out as a reporter for local papers, in Canada and England, a job calling for a continual sacrifice of literary refinement in the interests of filling the page and meeting the deadline, and she approaches biography in something of the same spirit. “Deciding on a subject is mostly a cold-blooded business of weighing the subject against potential markets, timeliness, the availability of material, and the likelihood of getting the story, the kinds of factors publishers have to worry about,” she explains. Many of her stories about getting the story involve figuring out ways to maximize her advances from publishers and to massage the relatives, friends, ex-friends, lovers, ex-lovers, work associates, lawyers, dealers, executors, and agents—the many “widows” whom, as her title suggests, only semi-facetiously, she would like to shoot—who obscure a clear view into the private world of famous people.

What those uncoöperative witnesses want—and what the famous people themselves want, too, when, as has sometimes been the case for Secrest, they are still alive and competent to make trouble—is what everybody wants in life: to control the narrative. Secrest is either touchingly ingenuous or carefully disingenuous about this central fact of the biographical transaction: in her account, she is repeatedly astonished by the efforts people make to gerrymander the story to suit their interests—although, she says, she has grown wiser. “The older I get the more sympathy I have for families who discover that some stranger has decided to write about their famous member without, as it were, so much as a by-your-leave,” she admits. “Prurience titillates, the more the better, leading to bigger sales and better royalties for the writer who is, not to put too fine a point on it, making money from others’ misfortunes.”

Still, her collisions with her subjects and the people around them seem never to have prevented her from deciding that her next project will somehow please everyone (and earn back a nice advance). Not all the reactions she had to cope with involved hurt feelings or wounded egos. In the course of her research on Richard Rodgers, she learned about a possible connection with organized crime, and interviewed a person she identifies as “an old Broadway hand” on the matter. “If you quote me, I won’t kill you but I’ll get you killed,” he explained. “I won’t do it myself but I’ve good connections. One day they will find you somewhere with your manuscript.”

On the other hand, what were her subjects and their families and heirs and attendants thinking when they agreed to submit to her attentions? Secrest is, basically, a tell-all biographer—not Kitty Kelley, as she insists, not someone who would look to make her subjects feel ridiculed or humiliated, but she is interested mainly in the private lives of public people. She says that Kenneth Clark, who was a very wealthy man, the heir to a fortune made in the cotton industry, surreptitiously underwrote the publisher’s advance in order to insure that Secrest would write his biography, and then seems to have imagined that he would be able to edit what she said about his wife’s alcoholism and his own affairs. He tried, but he was not entirely successful, and Secrest claims that his son Alan, a powerful right-wing political figure in Britain, made sure that the reviews of her book there were vicious. (As she points out, Alan Clark went on to publish his own best-selling tell-all diary.)

“It seems to me that to invite someone’s confidences and then betray that person is a kind of treachery,” Secrest says. But she is in business because people like to confide. They want their stories told, and they somehow persuade themselves that in the right sympathetic hands their most embarrassing moments will be redeemed, and readers will appreciate the challenge, the complexity, the sheer human variousness of what it is like to be them. This is not on the theory that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” That theory is a canard; just ask Barry Bonds. It’s on the theory that, at the end of the day, one’s moral account will not only balance but be in the black. Probably most people believe this, deep down, about themselves. The unlucky get biographies.

The purpose of biography, Secrest says, is “not just to record but to reveal.” That’s what many people would say: that there’s no point in writing, or reading, the life of a famous person if it doesn’t uncover some previously unpublicized piece of personal information. This is because the premise of biographies is that the private can account for the public, that the subject’s accomplishments map onto his or her psychic history, and this premise is the justification for digging up the traumatic, the indefensible, and the shameful and getting it all into print. How centrally that kind of information figures in the biographical account depends on the tact and ingenuity of the biographer, but a biography that did not use events in its subject’s personal life to explain his or her renown is almost unimaginable. Still, the premise poses a few problems.

Article publié dans le magazine The New Yorker du 6 août 2007