Frank, Elizabeth 1945–
Frank, Elizabeth 1945–
PERSONAL: Born September 14, 1945, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Melvin G. (a screenwriter) and Anne (a radio writer; maiden name, Ray) Frank; married Howard Buchwald (a painter), August 3, 1984 (divorced, 1992); children: Anne Louise. Education: Attended Bennington College, 1963–65; University of California, Berkeley, B.A., 1967, M.A., 1969, Ph.D., 1973.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Languages and Literature, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504. Agent—Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary Agency, 156 5th Ave., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Writer. Mills College, Oakland, CA, teacher of English literature, 1971–73; Williams College, Williamstown, MA, teacher of English literature, 1973–75; University of California, Irvine, teacher of English literature, 1975–76; Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, teacher of English literature, 1976–77; Connaught Films, story editor, 1979–82; Bard College, Annandaleon-Hudson, NY, teacher of English literature, 1982–1990, Joseph E. Harry Professor of Modern Languages and Literature, 1990–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize for biography and nomination for National Book Critics Circle Award, best biography, both 1986, both for Louise Bogan: A Portrait.
Louise Bogan: A Portrait, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Esteban Vicente, chronology and appendices by Ellen Russotto, Hudson Hills Press (Manchester, VT), 1995.
Cheat and Charmer (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Art in America, Nation, New York Times Book Review, Salmagundi, Parnassus, and Artnews.
SIDELIGHTS: Elizabeth Frank is best known as the author of Louise Bogan: A Portrait, her Pulitzer-Prizewinning biography of the American poet and literary critic. Bogan was a particularly prominent poet from the 1930s to the 1950s, a period when her poetry and criticism appeared regularly in the New Yorker. Emotionally unstable, Bogan twice committed herself to mental institutions, and in her early romantic affairs she endured considerable disappointment and frustration. In her verse, however, she exhibits discipline and precision. By adhering to traditional metric structures while exploring her often turbulent life, Bogan produced poems that were at once classical and contemporary. She published only a few collections, but those volumes—notably Dark Summer and The Sleeping Fury—established her as an important artist, and she received praise from such revered peers as Theodore Roethke and W.H. Auden. After publishing The Sleeping Fury in 1937, Bogan slowed her production of poetry, but she continued contributing literary criticism to the New Yorker., Before retiring in 1969 she may have been America's most respected poetry reviewer.
In tracing Bogan's life, Frank conducted extensive interviews and studied the poet's letters and incomplete memoirs. In addition, Frank analyzed Bogan's poetry, which often proves disturbingly realistic, particularly when Bogan writes of the problems that necessitated her stays in mental institutions. The often trying task of compiling, sorting, and analyzing information on Bogan preoccupied Frank for more than ten years while she taught English at various American colleges. But her endeavors proved richly rewarding, for with Louise Bogan Frank was recognized as an accomplished biographer.
Louise Bogan earned Frank widespread praise from reviewers. Ms. critic Marion Meade noted Frank's "sensitive narrative," and Elizabeth Wheeler wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Frank's book was "a fine biography" and "almost a classic." Among Frank's most enthusiastic reviewers was Richard Howard, who wrote in New Republic that Louise Bogan was "finely shaded and impassioned" and that Frank proved "astonishing" in her ability to fathom the complexities of Bogan's life and work. Similarly, New York Times reviewer John Gross wrote that Frank's book was an extremely impressive achievement. Gross contended that Bogan, in her poetry, had sought to objectify her personal feelings, thus rendering difficult any attempts to interpret her own life. "To reconstruct such a life is a difficult task," Gross declared. "It calls for exceptional empathy and insight, and for the ability to set imaginative work in its biographical context without reducing it to mere documentation. Fortunately, Elizabeth Frank … has risen to the challenge." Gross called the Bogan biography "a model of its kind, and one that does full justice to a remarkable woman."
Reviewers of Louise Bogan accorded special recognition to Frank's skills in researching, organizing, and analyzing her materials. Richard Howard wrote in the New Republic that Frank was "scholarly and even scrupulous in her sleuthing," while Bogan's friend and fellow writer William Maxwell wrote in the New Yorker of Frank's "secure … exegesis" and of her interpretations suggesting "many years of thoughtful reading" of Bogan's writings. Wheeler also noted Frank's "impressively thorough job" and commended her "patient, perceptive and level-headed manner." And Bodine Williams, in his assessment for the Toronto Globe and Mail, acknowledged the biography as "well researched and presented with care." Williams especially appreciated Frank's use of Bogan's own accounts, noting that her memoirs are the most interesting parts of the book. "Bogan may not have been a major poet," he wrote, "but she showed herself to be an articulate thinker." New York Times contributor John Gross found that Frank used Bogan's poems to similar effect. "Above all, of course, there is the poetry," he wrote, "which Miss Frank analyzes at length, and with considerable skill." According to Gross, Louise Bogan was "a biography of the caliber [Bogan] deserves."
Also impressive to many critics was Frank's ability to interpret Bogan's work within the context of her life. Wheeler wrote: "Frank uses Bogan's work to find her ideas, and she uses the ideas to theorize intelligently about those events in Bogan's life that can be documented." Similarly, Alicia Ostriker wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Frank "plainly admires both the poet's art and her life, and enables us to see how they illuminate each other, triumphantly and tragically." Ostriker also cited Frank for not "reducing her subject to a titillating love life or a neurosis, though the material for that kind of treatment is not lacking in Bogan's life." For Ostriker, Louise Bogan was a "thoughtful biography" of particular interest to Bogan's own readers. New Republic reviewer Richard Howard declared that Frank's elucidation of Bogan's writings resulted in compelling insights into the poet's often tragic life. "This is not a work of literary criticism only, or of biographical exposure merely," Howard wrote. "It is a meditation on how to live, traced through the agony of a difficult woman's art."
In her book Jackson Pollock, Frank surveys the life and work of the abstract American painter whose dense, chaotic works sparked immense controversy in the 1940s and 1950s. Pollock pioneered a form of abstraction known as drip painting, in which colors were splashed and scattered onto vast canvases, and Frank traces the development of his technique within the context of twentieth-century art movements. In arguing that Pollock is "the greatest … American painter" of the twentieth century, Frank notes his significance in extending and reworking aspects of the visual arts, and she offers detailed analysis of specific works. Sarah McFadden, reviewing Jackson Pollock in Art in America, reported that Frank's book would prove "invaluable" to "future students of Pollock's work." McFadden also noted that "Frank provides a distillation of virtually everything that has been published about [Pollock]," and she concluded that Frank had written a nearly "essential Pollock."
Frank once told CA: "Louise Bogan: A Portrait was written out of personal necessity. That is the only way I can write. Biography, it seems me, is a very impure art, and biographical truth perhaps the most elusive of all. More than this I cannot say, except that I continue in current projects to be driven by necessity, and surprised, always, by the uncertainty of everything."
Frank's first novel, Cheat and Charmer, took twenty-five years to write, but the result brought comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Ostensibly the tale of two sisters in 1950s Hollywood, Cheat and Charmer is Frank's social commentary on the effects of the blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee that ruined so many careers in the McCarthy era. The book grew out of Frank's first-hand experience growing up in Hollywood as the daughter of a powerful industry figure and stands as a fictional portrait of a world obsessed with glamour and wealth. When subpoenaed by the committee, Dinah wastes no time in naming her sister Veevi, a bombshell movie star, as a former Communist, in order to protect her husband Jake's screenwriting career and her posh lifestyle. Veevi lives in Paris and is married to a famous novelist, Michael, and it appears that Dinah's namecalling is revenge for Veevi having had all the good luck in life. Veevi is no angel, either. She returns from Paris, tries to seduce Dinah's husband, wreck her marriage, and calls Dinah's daughter names. As for the men, they are not much better. They profess to love their wives but their actions say otherwise; infidelity and pomposity are their strongest characteristics. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called the book "an old-fashioned Hollywood sudser." Frank "has a certain feel for the indulgent life of her Hollywood characters, and an ear for the competitive banter that passes as conversation in studio meetings and parties," but, Kakutani continued, "these people not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk of bad cinema stick figures." But for the author, the story is less about Hollywood and more about politics. "I tried to write a drama about the way history and politics intrude into private lives at the most inconvenient times," Frank told Barbara Hoffert in an interview for the Library Journal. "It's a story of entrapment," she concluded. Many critics considered the book a success. The moral dilemma Dinah finds herself in becomes a "rich meditation on family, sex, responsibility and betrayal," according to a writer for Publishers Weekly, and a contributor to Kirkus Reviews said the book "is beautifully imagined and plotted, deftly blending tinselly melodrama with astute commentary on politics, sex, and issues of personal ethics and responsibility."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Art in America, April, 1984, Sarah McFadden, review of Jackson Pollock.
Booklist, September 1, 2004, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of Cheat and Charmer, p. 5.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 30, 1985, Bodine Williams, review of Louise Bogan: A Portrait.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2004, review of Cheat and Charmer, p. 762.
Library Journal, September 1, 2004, Barbara Hoffert, "When Politics Is Personal," p. 40.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 31, 1985, Elizabeth Wheeler, review of Louise Bogan.
Ms., December, 1984, Marion Meade, review of Louise Bogan.
New Republic, March 25, 1985, Richard Howard, review of Louise Bogan.
New Yorker, July 29, 1985, William Maxwell, review of Louise Bogan.
New York Times, February 15, 1985, John Gross, review of Louise Bogan; October 4, 2004, Michiko Kakutani, "Rats of Every Imaginable Variety in 1950's Hollywood," p. E6.
New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, Alicia Ostriker, review of Louise Bogan; November 30, 1986.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 2004, Lucinda Dyer, review of Cheat and Charmer, p. 130; August 16, 2004, review of Cheat and Charmer, p. 40.