Home—CT. Agent—Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc., 177 E. 70th St., New York, NY 10021.
Former professor of theater and film at Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York, NY; writer.
Grigori Kozintsev, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1980.
Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981, published as Polanski: His Life and Films, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1982.
Orson Welles: A Biography, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1985.
If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.
Bette Davis: A Biography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.
Katherine Hepburn, Crown (New York, NY), 1995.
Marilyn Monroe, Crown (New York, NY), 1998.
Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years, Free Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine.
Biographer Barbara Leaming's Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur details the life and work of the controversial filmmaker who fled the United States while being tried for statutory rape in 1977. Leaming traces Roman Polanski's years as an abandoned child in World War II Europe. She also analyzes the possible influence his tragic experiences—such as the murder of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson's clan—may have had on his work, including the gruesome Macbeth and the pessimistic Chinatown. Los Angeles Times critic Irwin R. Blacker viewed the biography as "an insightful and useful study of both the artist and his work." A reviewer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reached a similar conclusion, calling Polanski "an appreciative but hardly gentle study."
Leaming once told CA: "I am a professor of film history and aesthetics. Both the [Grigori] Kozintsev and Polanski books were written out of my long-term study of Soviet and East European cinema and culture. I also have a special interest in the relationship between American film and its cultural context."
Leaming explored such a relationship in her next biography, turning her attention to the legendary cinematic giant Orson Welles. The appearance of Orson Welles: A Biography was timely, for it was published within weeks of his death in 1985. Reviewer Louis Parks saw it as a triumph in the Houston Chronicle: "The book is not only timely, it is also unusual and fascinating, an exceptionally intimate, personal look at a remarkable public figure. Leaming achieves what all biographers want but few manage—she gets at her subject from the inside."
Initially, when Leaming approached Welles to write his authorized biography, he refused. She pursued him for a number of years, all the while accumulating information on him from a multitude of sources. Leaming was on the verge of composing an unauthorized biography when Welles decided to speak. The meetings to follow were not mere interviews, for it is said by various reviewers that Welles slowly opened his soul to Leaming. According to Leaming, it is the achievement of such closeness which has made her work a success. Parks quoted Leaming: "If Orson Welles had died without talking, the private man just never would have appeared. There were hints (of him) in things people told me, but he just wasn't there…. That legend of his is so entrenched—a larger-than-life figure, arrogant and terrifying, unreachable and cold. But when you know him, he's shy and vulnerable. He's the most approachable, warm, amusing person you can imagine. It's something I would never have known if Orson hadn't decided to take the chance."
The fact that Leaming was able to get so close to Welles is viewed favorably by some critics and skeptically by others. Whereas Financial Times critic Nigel Andrews professed that Leaming "obtained near limitless access to the Master, and has repaid the privilege with a biography that is as revealing, confiding and sumptuously wide-ranging as any autobiography," Jay Scott noted in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Leaming wooed and won the recalcitrant Welles and, at the same time, one suspects, fell in love with him…. We are told in [others' biographies of Welles] that Welles could charm birds out of trees; he certainly charmed Leaming out of her critical faculties and with a few exceptions she accepts his memories as Holy Writ and his rationalizations as fact." Other reviewers express opinions similar to Scott's, asserting that Leaming was so taken in by Welles that he moved her to plead for all of his life's mistakes. Detroit News commentator Bruce Cook called it a "singular lack of objectivity" and believed Welles found the ideal biographer, "so protective of him that very often she seems more an amanuensis than a biographer." Nevertheless, in spite of this, Cook felt the biography is a "good and wonderfully readable book." Others are also pleased with Leaming's work. According to David Elliott in the Chicago Sun Times, "Welles is alive in [Leaming's] book as he has never been before in print…. Here is Welles as a talking, eating, sexing, stirringly emotive man…. Leaming should have spent more time on the films and plays, a little less with ‘look what I found’ stuff (courtesy of Welles, mostly) on his prodigious sex life. But for the first time his wives, and not just Rita Hayworth, are more than mere appendages…. Leaming has written the best of the Welles books, full of body heat, and a generosity that rarely blunts insight." Sarah Bradford, writing in Spectator, believed Welles's life was told in a "fascinating, skillfully assembled biography."
In her next two books, Leaming looked at two other film legends: Welles's former wife and World War II pin-up girl Rita Hayworth, and the combative Bette Davis, flamboyant star of the Warner Brothers studio during the 1940s. Both women, according to Leaming, were products of abusive childhoods, and both of them reflected this damage in their later histories. Both Davis and Hayworth were unable to keep their public images—Hayworth as a "sex kitten," Davis as a feisty, strong-willed feminist—from influencing their off-screen lives.
Rita Hayworth, according to If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth, was sexually abused by her sometime dance partner and father, Eduardo Cansino, who recruited his teenaged daughter to work with him in his nightclub act. "According to Ms. Leaming," wrote Susan Braudy in the New York Times Book Review, "her father's abusive treatment was the key to her emotional development and led to a lifetime of disastrous relationships." Hayworth married five times: the first, at age 18, to a much older man who exploited her, stated Braudy, by "threaten[ing] her with physical abuse and disfigurement," and "offer[ing] her to any man he thought would advance her career." Her second husband was Orson Welles, who married her in 1943. However, Welles was unable to meet Hayworth's emotional needs and soon sought solace outside the marriage. Three other marriages—to Prince Aly Khan, heir to the throne of the Aga Khan, to the singer Dick Haymes, and to the director James Hill—also ended in divorce. Hayworth became an alcoholic and in 1980 was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Her daughter, Princess Yasmin Khan, cared for her until her death in 1987.
Many critics celebrated Leaming's convincing portrayal of Hayworth. "The meticulous research," stated Braudy, "makes the painful story of Hayworth's personal problems vivid, which may diminish some envy of her public successes. The book teaches a harder lesson: Rita Hayworth's tortured childhood … shaped her…. Hollywood did not destroy her." "Leaming's prose can gush," declared Paul Gray in Time, "… and regularly descends to write-by-the-numbers cliche. But the material is poignant, another reminder of the chasm that can exist between public images and private pain." Hayworth "claimed to have been happy with Welles," Gray concluded, "at least before his infidelities became too blatant. ‘If this was happiness,’ Welles told Leaming years later, ‘imagine what the rest of her life had been.’"
Leaming also presents Bette Davis as a person haunted by her childhood. Davis's father, a Boston lawyer, deserted his family when Bette was ten years old. Bette's mother, Ruthie, compensated by pushing her older daughter into an acting career and making personal sacrifices to maintain Bette's schooling. "When Bette ultimately achieved success," wrote James Kotsilibas-Davis in the Washington Post Book World, "Ruthie would exact her toll, living like a queen on her daughter's earnings." In part because of these troubles, Davis evolved into a woman and an actress who practiced what Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor David Elliott called "empress tactics." Elliott continued: "A friend said later, ‘She began to imitate herself as an actress and to refuse to know that she was doing that.’" Davis's self-destructive practices helped to end all four of her marriages—including those to abusive husbands such as William Grant Sherry and Gary Merrill—and to alienate her daughter. "Leaming's biography," declared Richard Christiansen in the Chicago Tribune, "walks delicately between pity and scorn for its subject. The author records the traumas Davis inflicted on her daughter B.D., yet she carefully notes the deep pain that B.D., a born-again Christian, inflicted on her mother with the publication of My Mother's Keeper," her tell-all vituperative autobiography.
After the Davis biography, Leaming turned her attention to one of Davis's contemporaries, Katherine Hepburn, the most celebrated actress of her generation. Although Hepburn granted Leaming an interview, Katherine Hepburn is an unauthorized biography, its contents not approved by its subject. Describing her single meeting with Hepburn, Leaming stated: "She was so smart and so perceptive, irresistible. She would go so far in the interview and then be deliberately contrary if she thought she wasn't controlling it." Some critics suggested that in Katherine Hepburn Leaming reveals significant aspects of the star's character that have not been previously portrayed. Both in her own biographical writings and in her film personnas, Hepburn emerges as a self-determined and spirited woman, a feminist model of her day. According to Ellis Nassour, writing in Back Stage: "Leaming uncovers a Katherine Hepburn in stark contrast with the independent, opinionated, fearless Kate." Delving back two generations, Leaming shows how Hepburn's tragic family background shaped her life. It was a family plagued by suicides, five in all; Hepburn discovered her own brother's body after he hanged himself. It is Leaming's contention that these suicides were instrumental in shaping Hepburn's character, particularly her choice of men. Wary of committing to and losing a man, Hepburn had numerous affairs with married men, such as director John Ford and Spencer Tracy, who were not really available. Leaming depicts Tracy as an abusive and domineering alcoholic who often manipulated Hepburn, and Hepburn herself as a woman far less self-assured than her public image would have us believe. Yet despite its often critical frankness, Leaming's biography is more an insightful and sympathetic portrait than a sordid expose. "As feisty and fascinating as Hepburn herself," stated Ilene Cooper of Booklist, "Leaming's book catches all the angles of light reflected through the prism of a fascinating life." Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, felt that "Leaming's great accomplishment in Katherine Hepburn is to make the Great Kate come alive as a regular woman and to tell that story with an empathy and acuity desperately rare in the biographies of stars."
For her sixth film biography, Leaming chose a subject about whom countless biographies, memoirs, and other books had already appeared: Marilyn Monroe. Could Leaming find anything new or worthwhile to say about the blonde bombshell that had not already been said? The answer to this question, as well as critical response to Leaming's Marilyn Monroe, varies greatly. According to Booklist critic Brad Hooper, "Leaming … has lots to say, and she's worth listening to…. We come away from Leaming's detailed, explicit, sympathetic picture with more understanding of Monroe's demons and more comprehension of her talents." A People reviewer commented: "Leaming does not dwell on rumor and gossip about Monroe's life and death. Instead, basing her account on dozens of interviews and thousands of primary documents, she brings new insight—and a woman's perspective—to Monroe's professional and psychological struggles." Yet other reviewers felt that Leaming's book offered little information of value about Monroe. "This survey of the tragically brief life and career of the 1950s sex symbol," observed Stephen Rees in a Library Journal review, "devotes so much space to the men in Monroe's life (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, and many others) that she almost becomes a background player in her own drama…. Leaming shows little interest in Monroe's actual film work and provides little information on her involvement with the Kennedys." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted: "Leaming relays the precise dates when Monroe signed contracts, called in sick, filmed for half a day, etc. It's an approach that does little to explain Monroe's dynamic screen presence, her warmth and charm."
Leaming turned from biographies of film stars to celebrities of another sort, the Kennedys, in a pair of books profiling John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. The 2001 Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years takes on the question of the role Jackie played in the Kennedy White House, "arguing that Jackie played a key part in her husband's presidency," according to Time critic Laura Miller. As with many of the female film stars she has profiled, Leaming once again goes to Jackie Kennedy's childhood and youth to explain her later actions. Leaming portrays a troubled childhood with a mother that largely rejected her; this later made Jackie keep an emotional distance between herself and others. As First Lady, Leaming asserts, Jackie used her social skills to make the president—youthful and politically naive—seem more mature and august than he in fact was. Miller did not think that Leaming made her case for a Jackie Kennedy who was intimately involved in decision-making. Miller concluded: "However gracefully [Jackie] intervened in shaping the public face of [JFK's] Administration, her efforts, even by Leaming's highly sympathetic account, were intermittent at best." Likewise, Sally Bedell Smith, writing in the New York Times Book Review, felt Leaming "repeatedly misses the mark." However, Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist, observed that whether the reader accepts Leaming's thesis or not, the author "has clearly done her research, and she tells a darn good story." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer thought Leaming "provides a fascinating glimpse into the psychodynamics of one of the 20th century's most famous marriages." A critic for Kirkus Reviews had much higher praise, describing Mrs. Kennedy as "admirably detailed, stunningly successful, and likely to become the definitive biography of the Kennedy marriage."
With Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, Leaming focuses on the president and his ties to England. Jeff Broadwater, writing in History, thought this was a "serious book with a provocative thesis: John F. Kennedy brought to the White House a distinctive approach to foreign policy derived from his deep ties to Great Britain." While still a youth, Kennedy witnessed firsthand—as the son of the then U.S. ambassador to Great Britain—the failed attempts at appeasing Hitler prior to World War II. He also made lasting friendships with men who would later hold important office in England. Leaming also demonstrates how Kennedy learned much about foreign policy from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Broadwater felt that Leaming gave "an intriguing human face on the fabled ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom" in this work. For Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the New York Times, Leaming "has written what is in part an absorbing and enjoyable book; whether her thesis really stands up is another matter." Less positive was the review of a Publishers Weekly contributor who felt that Leaming "overreaches and overstates in her first attempt at political biography." On the other hand, Library Journal reviewer William D. Pederson felt the book was "engagingly written … [and] provides new insights into JFK's behavior." Further praise came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who found the same work "thoroughly well written and constructed, with fresh views on the Kennedy presidency and the difficult path that led to Camelot."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Leaming, Barbara, Orson Welles: A Biography, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1985.
Back Stage, December 1, 1995, Ellis Nassour, review of Katherine Hepburn, p. 30.
Biography, summer, 2006, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, review of Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, p. 526.
Book, November-December, 2001, Penelope Mesic, review of Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years, p. 57.
Booklist, March 1, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Katherine Hepburn, p. 1139; September 1, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of Marilyn Monroe, p. 4; September 1, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 2.
Canberra Times (Canberra, Australia), August 5, 2006, "Limits in JFK's Getting of Winston."
Chattanooga Times, February 13, 1982, review of Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur.
Chicago Sun Times, September 8, 1985, David Elliott, review of Orson Welles: A Biography.
Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1992, Richard Christiansen, review of Bette Davis: A Biography, p. 3.
Contemporary Review, March, 1986, review of Orson Welles.
Detroit Free Press, October 13, 1985, review of Orson Welles; November 9, 2001, John Smyntek, review of Mrs. Kennedy.
Detroit News (Detroit, MI), October 13, 1985, Bruce Cook, review of Orson Welles.
Entertainment Weekly, May 12, 1995, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Katherine Hepburn, p. 56.
Financial Times, October 19, 1985, Nigel Andrews, review of Orson Welles.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 14, 1982, review of Polanski.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), October 5, 1985, Jay Scott, review of Orson Welles; November 2, 1985, review of Orson Welles.
History, summer, 2005, Jeff Broadwater, review of Jack Kennedy, p. 113.
Houston Chronicle, October 20, 1985, Louis Parks, review of Orson Welles.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998; review of Marilyn Monroe; September 1, 2001, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 1268; April 15, 2006, review of Jack Kennedy, p. 393.
Library Journal, October 15, 1998, Stephen Rees, review of Marilyn Monroe, p. 73; September 1, 2001, Cynthia Harrison, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 196; April 1, 2006, William D. Pederson, review of Jack Kennedy, p. 104.
Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1982, Irwin R. Blacker, review of Polanski; September 9, 1985, review of Orson Welles.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 17, 1992, David Elliott, review of Bette Davis, pp. 2, 8.
New Republic, March 17, 1986, review of Orson Welles.
New York Review of Books, June 10, 1982, review of Polanski.
New York Times, September 6, 1985, review of Orson Welles; April 16, 1995, review of Katherine Hepburn; June 25, 2006, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "A Special Relationship," review of Jack Kennedy.
New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1985, review of Orson Welles; November 19, 1989, Susan Braudy, review of If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth, pp. 7, 9; November 5, 2001, Sally Bedell Smith, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 14.
Observer (London, England), November 18, 2001, Andrew Rawnsley, "I'm Not All Right, Jack," review of Mrs. Kennedy.
Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL), November 23, 2001, Loraine O'Connell, review of Mrs. Kennedy.
People, May 1, 1995, review of Katherine Hepburn, p. 28; November 23, 1998, review of Marilyn Monroe, p. 47; December 3, 2001, David Cobb Craig, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 45.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 12, 2001, Donald Newlove, review of Mrs. Kennedy.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 1995, review of Katherine Hepburn, p. 53; October 26, 1998, review of Marilyn Monroe, p. 53; September 3, 2001, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 71; August 3, 2006, review of Jack Kennedy, p. 59.
Reference & Research Book News, August, 2006, review of Jack Kennedy.
Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), April 11, 1982, review of Polanski.
Spectator, April 3, 1982, review of Polanski,; November 9, 1985, Sarah Bradford, review of Orson Welles; November 17, 2001, Sarah Bradford, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 49.
Time, October 7, 1985, review of Orson Welles; December 4, 1989, Paul Gray, review of If This Was Happiness, pp. B8, 97; October 22, 2001, Laura Miller, review of Mrs. Kennedy, p. 78.
Times Literary Supplement, November 28, 1986, review of Orson Welles.
Village Voice, October 15, 1985, review of Orson Welles.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1982, review of Polanski.
Washington Post Book World, September 17, James Kotsilibas-Davis, review of Bette Davis, 1992, p. 8.