Meade, Marion 1934-
Meade, Marion 1934-
PERSONAL: Born January 7, 1934, in Pittsburgh, PA; daughter of Surain (a physicist) and Mary (Homoney) Sidhu; children: Alison Sprague. Education: Northwestern University, B.S., 1955; Columbia University, M.S., 1956.
ADDRESSES: Agent—The Wallace Literary Agency, 177 East 70th St., New York, NY 10021.
CAREER: Biographer and novelist. Consultant for "The Ten Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table," PBS American Masters, 1987, and Would You Kindly Direct Me to Hell: The Infamous Dorothy Parker, Arts and Entertainment Network, 1994.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, National Arts Club, New York University Biography Seminar.
AWARDS, HONORS: Hertog Research Assistantships, 2001, and 2005; Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase named among best books of 1995 by New York Times; Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin named among best books of 2004 by San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post.
Bitching (nonfiction), Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1973.
Tennis (biographical sketches), Harvey House (New York, NY), 1975.
Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull (juvenile nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
(Compiler) Little Book of Big Riddles, illustrated by David Ross, Harvey House (New York, NY), 1976.
(Compiler) Little Book of Big Bad Jokes, illustrated by Chris Cummings, Harvey House (New York, NY), 1977.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (biography), Dutton (New York, NY), 1977.
Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1979.
Madame Blavatsky: The Woman behind the Myth, Putnam (New York, NY), 1980.
Sybille (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, Villard (New York, NY), 1988.
Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 2004.
(Author of foreword) Kevin Fitzpatrick, A Journey into Dorothy Parker's New York, Roaring Forties Press (Berkeley, CA), 2005.
(Editor and author of introduction) The Portable Dorothy Parker, Penguin (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to books, including TimeOut Book of New York Walks, TimeOut Guides, 2000; and Biography and Source Studies, AMS Press, 2001. Contributor to various periodicals, including New York Times, New Republic, Nation, Ms., Village Voice, McCall's, APHRA, off our backs, Brill's Content, and Baltimore Sun.
ADAPTATIONS: Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard was adapted for film as Stealing Heaven, Amy International Films/Jadran Films/Film Dallas Pictures, 1989.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, for Harcourt, 2008.
SIDELIGHTS: According to Spectator critic David Wright, biographer and novelist Marion Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? is "a lively book, an entertaining read and a memorable portrait" of Parker, an author who ultimately became more famous for her cutting humor and wit than for her actual writings. Parker was a member of a New York City salon known as the Algonquin Round Table. Many of the members of this clíque, which flowered during the 1920s, were, like Parker, associated with the newly created New Yorker magazine. Of the member of the Algonquin Round Table—writers such as Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Edmund Wilson, and Alexander Woollcott—many would die young, burnt out from hard drinking and other excesses. Parker was as indulgent as any of them, but lived to a lonely old age. Her rapier wit, never tempered by kindness, was feared even by her friends; the subtitle to Meade's biography was Parker's standard response whenever her doorbell announced a visitor.
Parker's life was filled with dramatic events, including suicide attempts, failed marriages, long drinking binges, and misadventures with numerous notable literary figures. Reviewer Emily Toth praised Meade for avoiding a sensationalistic approach to her subject, writing in the Women's Review of Books that Dorothy Parker "does not build up to punch-lines (rising action, climax, falling action—a masculine approach). Rather, it follows what feminist theorists might call a feminine approach: moments of consciousness, a lyrical portrayal of the dailiness of life." As Meade herself once explained, "Dorothy Parker is a sad book: like many women's biographies, it concentrates on losses, and it would be dishonest to make Parker's disintegration anything but painful to read about."
Less impressed with Dorothy Parker was New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who complained that Meade doesAlgonquin Round Table not penetrate deeply enough into her subject, demonstrating instead "a tendency to dwell on the details of Parker's and her friends' private lives, filling us in on their sexual predilections, their drinking habits and their continuing quarrels with one another. This makes for fast but not very illuminating reading; indeed, the reader ends with the feeling of having plowed through several decades worth of gossip columns." Still, other reviewers remained laudatory. Diana Eden, writing in New Statesman, declared that "Meade is to be congratulated upon a detailed and balanced reconstruction of a life based on interviews, insight, and research," while Times Literary Supplement contributor Shena Mackay credited the author with creating "a balanced and generally sympathetic study of an artist and her era, rich in detail and gossip." Meade was also given high marks for the scope of her work by Anne Chamberlin, who wrote in the Washington Post Book World that Parker "left no clues behind her when she died. No letters, no manuscripts, no memorabilia, no private papers of any kind…. Undismayed by this daunting void, biographer Marion Meade … has peered into every cranny that is left. No crumbling shard escaped her gaze."
Meade looks deeply into the background of another famous American in her 1995 biography, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase. First attaining fame as a star of silent-film comedies, Keaton, according to Joseph McBride in the New York Times Book Review, "developed a stoicism that set him apart from the more sentimental comedy of his contemporaries." In her book, Meade reveals the macabre roots of Keaton's comic artistry. As a child, he was featured in his family's vaudeville act, the Three Keatons. Young Buster was billed as "the Human Mop," "the Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged," and "Mr. Black and Blue." His part in the show was to remain stoic while his sadistic and frequently drunken father dragged, kicked, and threw him about the stage.
As an adult, Keaton became a famous silent film star, only to have his career go into a tailspin with the advent of talking pictures. According to McBride, Meade "chillingly details Keaton's headlong collapse with the coming of sound and gives a full and sympathetic account of his remaining decades as a dogged journeyman comic on television and in such movie potboilers as Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." In the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase "is an engrossing portrait of a tormented comedic genius."
Meade's 2000 biography, The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, appeared in print as an "unauthorized" profile of the famous actor/writer/director a month after another major Allen biography, John Baxter's Woody Allen. Whereas Baxter devotes a considerable portion of his book dealing with Allen's movies and his other work as an entertainer, Meade concentrates on the personal aspects of Allen's life, with emphasis placed on what she considers the central event of that life: the 1992 scandal that began when Allen's then-longtime lover Mia Farrow found nude Polaroid photographs of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn on the mantle in Allen's Manhattan apartment. Meade's prologue to The Unruly Life of Woody Allen portrays Farrow's discovery of those photos in dramatic style, and more than half of the remaining text deals with that discovery and the events precipitating from it, including the legal battles surrounding Allen's custody suit for his own son, Satchel, and Farrow's allegations of child abuse against her adopted daughter, Dylan.
Reviewers' estimation of Meade's approach to Allen varied widely. Iain Johnstone noted in the London Sunday Times that "Meade deals with … [the] initial part of Allen's career in an insightful fashion, bringing his family to life with a colorful pen, and pertinently integrating the roles of those who helped Allen on his way." This includes Allen's growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn in a dysfunctional family, his frequent childhood retreats into movie theaters, his precocious comedic talents (selling jokes to newspapers while still a teenager), his failed marriage while in his early twenties, his relationships with Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton, and his dalliance with a teenager when he was forty-one years old, as well as the professional dealings and relationships that led to his worldwide success and acclaim as an independent film maker. Describing Meade's coverage of such events, Mim Udovitch commented in the New York Times Book Review that Allen's "basic biographical facts are handled with dispatch." "This is not a vile book," Udovitch added; "it is accurate to its sources; its presentation of the facts of Woody Allen's life, while highly selective, is not irresponsible." Still, the critic ended by characterizing Meade's treatment as a "triumph of the trash imperative." In contrast, L. S. Klepp of Entertainment Weekly, while observing that "Meade is often perfunctory about the movies and other work" created by Allen, still called The Unruly Life of Woody Allen "an evenhanded, prodigiously researched biography." A Publishers Weekly reviewer described the book as "a psychologically nuanced, tough-minded portrait," while Dade Hayes in Variety found Meade's biography to be an "exasperating read" because of its "sense of disappointment and disapproval in Allen." However, Hayes concluded, "Meade's attack fizzles, due to the lack of serious consideration about an artist's moral compass." Overall, the psychological portrait that emerges of Allen is not a favorable one.
In 2004, Meade returned to the Roaring Twenties in her book Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. The book focuses on the lives of Dorothy Parker and three other women writers: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edna Ferber, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Like Parker, all of the women lived dramatically in the twenties, whether living in excess, breaking hearts, fighting off mental illness, or just striving to accomplish the best of their writing. Millay and Ferber both won Pulitzer prizes during the decade. Meade's group biography chronicles the decade in a series of vignettes, sharing the lives of the women and making real the literary world in which they lived. "Since these ladies got around—in every sense," commented Carolyn See in the Washington Post, "the larger, American, international literary scene comes into view through their eyes." When describing the book to Julie Farin of WordSmitten Quarterly Journal, Meade explained, "It is a book about writers and the business of writing…. The people who follow writing as a profession and what it costs them. And the costs are plenty, especially for these women."
In History, Amy Henderson noted that Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin "grew out of Marion Meade's love for the 1920s, and for the way writers live their lives. She has chosen fascinating characters who illuminate both and who scintillate by their complexities. It is a book that deserves a wide readership." Ms. contributor Brenda Wineapple wrote that, "Weaving together the lives of her subjects in rapid-fire style, Meade … creates a bright book of hardships, tears, success, and hilarity," while Gretchen Gurujal, writing for the Olympian, predicted that readers interested in the 1920s "will be hard-pressed to find a more scintillating and easily readable book."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Marion Meade contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I'm a biographer. My job is to recount the stories of people's lives. Since nobody forces me to do this, I am at liberty to pick and choose whose life I wish to recreate, the main issue being to persuade a publisher to pay for it. During my lifetime I've published ten books, eight of them biographies or collective portraits and two novels. The lives of my subjects span approximately a thousand years of history, from the twelfth century to the twenty-first, and include a beautiful English queen, a French nun, the pear-shaped Russian founder of Theosophy, and a pair of American film auteurs.
In recent years, a recurring theme in my work has been humor and my subjects were one way or another extremely funny people, primarily writers, directors, and actors with ties to the film industry. In Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? I wrote about Thirties Hollywood and the golden age of screenwriting; Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase toured readers through Hollywood from the silent film years of orange groves and barley fields to the collapse of the studio system and the Desilu barbarians at the gates; The Unruly Life of Woody Allen took on celebrity cultdom in the heyday of the independents; and in Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, the film studios figured as corner ATMs, convenient one-stop banking for New York writers in need of quick cash. All four of these books have something else in common. The subjects, none of whom was gloriously happy, suffered from the same rare condition: they were natural comics. Even though my current subject, novelist and screenwriter Nathanael West, is not considered a humorist, he called himself a particular kind of comic writer and can be seen as a forerunner of such irreverent Sixties figures as Terry Southern and the writers of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Life writing is all about exposure, by which I mean laying bare the famous or infamous individuals who are your subjects—and what they did and said (easy enough to find out) and what they thought (often an impossible task). Over the years I have become an expert at attempting to know the unknowable.
For a professional biographer, the idea of writing about yourself can be a bit frightening. I have no doubt there are, somewhere, biographers who would embrace the opportunity with enthusiasm. "I too have a life and now I can tell you all about me." I am not one of those biographers.
Write my life story?—do I have to? What about invasion of privacy? What can be glossed over or left out, what family secrets concealed, which ex-husbands and lovers erased, what bad behavior rationalized?
Suffice it to say, this concern with deception is absolutely the opposite of how I approach writing about another person's life, when every skeleton in the cupboard is fair game. Does that sound unfair? It isn't. My subjects were memorable public figures, people who for one reason or another became newsworthy. I, on the other hand, am a private person whose role is to stay in the background.
I was born in Pittsburgh during the Depression and grew up there in an academic atmosphere because my father was first a student, then a physics teacher at the university.
My parents met by chance in a bank around 1930. My mother, working as a teller at the Mellon Bank near the university, was impressed by a certain young man with a radiant white smile who came in on paydays and made deposits in a passbook savings account. What could be more ordinary? In fact their meeting was not ordinary and has always seemed fantastic to me.
My mother Mary Elizabeth was the second child of a carpenter, Louis Homoney (originally Aomonai), who at the age of thirty-six left behind his young wife and baby son in his native Austria-Hungary. Settling in Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, he was able to send for his family before long. In the new country, Louis and Mary Homoney had my mother Mary, born in 1902, followed by two more girls and three boys.
In this family of immigrant Americans, higher education meant graduating from high school and going to work. At age seventeen the carpenter's eldest daughter was employed as a stenographer at a local furniture store while enrolled in courses at a business college. Her excellent typing and stenographic skills eventually led to banking jobs, which I suspect must have carried a bit of white collar status as well as decent wages.
For entertainment Mary and her girlfriends would ride the streetcar from East Pittsburgh into Oakland to attend productions by Gilbert and Sullivan, and perhaps too the musicals of Friml and Lehar that she would always adore. Other than her love of operetta, almost everything I know about my mother's life before she married my father comes from photographs. She was a pretty brunette who once vacationed in Canada—there is a snapshot of her there with an unidentified woman, both smartly dressed in the cloche hats and knee—high dresses of the twenties, giddily posing on the wing of a monoplane and showing off their shapely legs. In a formal portrait, taken in 1924, showing her hair bobbed and marcelled in the latest fashion, she is wearing a peach satin dress trimmed with boa feathers and she is also weighted down with jewelry—two rings, a bracelet, rope of pearls, and a fancy wristwatch. I don't know this person.
The woman I did know seemed to have no discernible interest in such things, or in her own birth family for that matter. When I once questioned her about her mother, who died before I was born—from what, I've wondered—she had no answers. In fact, she kept her family at a distance and maintained relations with only a younger sister. Otherwise, the most revealing detail she ever told me about her childhood came in her eighties, on an occasion when I had said something mean to her. My words, she said, made her want to crawl under a hedge and cry, as she had done as a small girl.
The thrifty young man who made regular deposits lived alone as a lodger in a Forest Hills rooming house. In the 1930 census he is recorded as twenty-nine years old and a chemist employed by a chemical plant. (This is news to me.) Sometime after April of that year, the bank teller and the bank depositor were married.
While I have a half-dozen pictures of my mother before her marriage, there is only one of my father. It is a school photograph that shows him looking solemn as he poses with the hockey team, a skinny teenager in shorts and traditional turban, his hockey stick resting against his right thigh.
In turn-of-the-century colonial India, Amritsar was the largest city in the Punjab, important as the site of the fabled Golden Temple, the holy shrine of the Sikhs. My father was born in nearby Shamnagar, into a family of farmers. The youngest of ten children, and the only one of them to leave the farm, Surain Singh Sidhu attended the government high school where as a board-ing student he learned to speak the Queen's English and to conduct himself like a proper English schoolboy. In the spring of 1919, a Sunday afternoon in April, thousands of people—a few political demonstrators but mainly families picnicking on the grass with their children—were gathered in a walled park called Jalianwalla Bagh when British and Gurkha soldiers opened fire. The appalling number of casualties, almost 400 killed and another 1200 injured, were people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Whether my sixteen-year-old father was anywhere near Jalianwalla Bagh that afternoon is irrelevant; the whole city was traumatized, indeed an entire generation of Indians would be radicalized by the Amritsar Massacre, which would become a major catalyst for the independence movement. It would be another twenty-eight years until Partition, but in the heat of that bloody Sunday afternoon the sovereign nations of India and Pakistan were born.
Surain departed at the earliest opportunity. In the fall of 1920, with four other students, he embarked on a journey that would take him half way around the world, almost 10,000 miles measuring as the crow flies. Measuring as the crow didn't fly, it was twice that far and meant traveling by railway from Amritsar to an international seaport, most likely Bombay, and then sailing for Japan, where he could connect with a steamer bound for America. Leaving Yokohama on January 14, 1921, on board the SS Siberia Maru, one of the fast modern steamships owned by the Nippon Yusen Kaisha line, he reached San Francisco on the afternoon of February 1, after a port of call in Honolulu. The Siberia Maru's manifest of alien passengers listed my father and his four companions and a family of Russian barbers. Eighteen years old (although he told immigration he was twenty-one), he enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley to study electrical engineering. Apparently he did not look back. At that time Berkeley was tuition-free. Summers as a farm laborer harvesting tomatoes, cabbages, apricots, and grapes enabled him to support himself all year long. Never once did he return home, although I was told that during Partition in 1947 he sent money. To whom, I always wondered, because most of his relatives, caught in the jaws of history, perished in horrific massacres.
After nine years in America, Surain was no longer a newcomer when he met my mother. Bringing him home as a prospective husband to Greenfield Street in Chalfant Borough must have horrified the Homoney family. Not only was he not Catholic, and not Protestant either, he wasn't even a Christian. He was something called a Sikh. A confused 1930 census-taker, unsure how to classify Sikhs (who happen to be Aryans), or for that matter any Indians, listed my father's race as HIN for Hindu. (Hinduism is actually a religion, not a race.)
Hardship marked the beginning of my parents' marriage. Life for many in those early years of the Depression was desperate, and it could be particularly harsh for students without money. At that time Mary and Surain lived in Oakland, about a half hour distant from downtown, in the east end of the city where the university was situated. My father studied for his Ph.D. in physics and taught math at a local night school.
I have practically no memories of my father from my early childhood, except visiting his laboratory in Thaw Hall, which always reeked of chemicals. While he was working on his degree, my mother's job was to look after me. Our daily routine was to leave our lodgings in the morning and walk a few blocks to the Carnegie Museum, where we would pass through the monumental halls of the dinosaurs and stuffed lions and continue on to the Carnegie Library. There we settled down and whiled away the hours until it was late afternoon and time to go home. In summer the two of us unpacked bag lunches in nearby Schenley Park. Surrounded all day long by books, with nothing really to do, I learned quite a bit about life: one was that public libraries do not permit chitchatting or cranky whining; even bright remarks are looked upon disapprovingly.
Besides the rule of silence, the other thing I learned in that cathedral atmosphere was how to read. As a result, I have always been better at reading than talking to people. In my memory I picked up reading on my own, but surely my mother had something to do with it. If so, she appeared to regret her teachings because later on she liked to say, disapprovingly and sometimes resentfully, "Marion always has her nose in a book." Still, as a four year old I could read any children's book, and by the time I went to first grade could muddle through many adult books, although how much I comprehended is debatable. I have dim memories of the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley. Otherwise, my literary tastes tended toward gory tales of the Middle Ages. One of the first books I recall reading was about Charlemagne and Roland. To me, it seemed awfully thrilling stuff.
Within ten years or less of obtaining his doctorate in 1938, my father's fortunes changed dramatically. While a charismatic physics teacher, his true passion lay elsewhere. Pure research being his work and his play, he directed the X-ray laboratory at Pitt from 1935 to 1947 in addition to his teaching duties. A nuclear physicist twenty years before the term "nuclear" came into use, he explored the atomic structure of the nucleus using X-ray diffraction techniques. After World War II, he resigned from the physics department to work on top-secret programs at the Argonne National Laboratory. This was the country's first national laboratory, chartered as a direct descendent of the unit at the University of Chicago where on December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and his team had created the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in a squash court. By the time my father arrived at Argonne the year after it had opened in 1946, the facility remained more or less an armed camp of Quonset huts hidden in the forests southwest of Chicago.
Almost nothing of my father's heritage was passed on to his children. In Pittsburgh, eager to become Americanized, Surain named his children Paul (a son who died in infancy), Marion, Victor, and Ellen. At Pitt, he was known to his colleagues as "Sid," to his students as "Doc." He voted Republican, rooted for the Pittsburgh Pirates, drove a dark blue Hudson, enjoyed a cold summer beer while mowing his huge lawn in a very beautiful suburban real estate development called Brookside Farms. I myself never heard him speak of his mother or father, or for that matter of his life in what was then Shamnagar, India, and is now a suburb of Lahore, Pakistan. His sister, I recall being told, had blue eyes, which was of course unusual.
My mother's life was happy or not, depending on your definition of happiness. With limited education, the carpenter's daughter married a man so highly educated that any clear conception of his work was beyond her capabilities. Her own interests always impressed me as, well, boring. She grew orchids in a backyard greenhouse and attended monthly meetings of a local orchid society. She also wrote poetry, in fact song lyrics whose themes fell into distinct classifications: love, children, religion, the city of Pittsburgh, and patriotism. ("Nestling in the valley/There is a place of great renown/Where the three rivers meet/It's Pittsburgh/My home town.") During the Second World War she aspired to publish her lyrics and joined a songwriting group, but could never find a suitable collaborator to compose the music. With a war taking place, it must have seemed reasonable to pen flag-waving verses peopled with "Uncle Sam's leathernecks" and "Japs of the Rising Sun." Most of her middle years were given over to raising her children. She had four, including her first-born son who died of some unknown childhood illness, then myself, then four years later twins, a boy and a girl. My brother developed normally and grew up to become a bank executive. My sister, retarded from birth, was institutionalized when she was eight. She died in 1992, at the age of fifty-three.
My mother spent more years as a widow than a wife. After my father died from a heart attack in 1966, my mother was free to be her own person. At the age of sixty-four, she learned how to lead an independent, remarkably active life, booking passages on freighters and journeying to remote spots like the island of Iwo Jima; she was a passionate reader and vigorous walker, who regularly covered several miles a day. In her eighties, however, she developed Alzheimer's and went batty, carelessly picking up caretakers on the streets of Evanston, Illinois, and pestering the FBI with reports of imagined crimes and misdemeanors in her family. Increasingly paranoid, she suspected plots on her life and consequently had to be cared for in a nursing home. As her brain cells died off, the gears of her mind slid into reverse, and she forgot who she had been. The identities of adults claiming to be her children also slipped her mind.
In the end, she had come a long way for an unworldly girl from East Pittsburgh. At the nursing home, she did not appear to be either happy or unhappy. All she wished to do was sit in her wheelchair and be served regular meals. Getting her to remember anything about her early life was hopeless.
Both my mother and father (and sister) are interred in the churchyard of the Winnetka Congregational Church in Winnetka, Illinois. When my mother died in 1997 at the age of ninety-five, the family gathered at my niece's home in Mt. Prospect, my brother and sister in law flying in from Los Angeles and me from New York. One evening we attended a production of Kismet at the Lincolnshire Marriott where we were staying; another night we sorted through plastic bags of her belongings to decide what should be donated to charity and what should be kept. Among her clothing I noticed sweaters and socks that I had sent her over the years, none of them worn, and so I selected two pairs of socks, lavender and pale green, and took them back home. I still wear them when I work out at the gym.
Once my father went to the Argonne, he was away for extended periods but we his family continued to live in Pittsburgh. In those years of the Cold War, government scientists working on highly classified programs were under almost continual scrutiny, surveillance that had embarrassing consequences for me as a high school student. Not only did the FBI monitor my movements, which meant reporting back to my parents behavior that struck them as unacceptable, but worse, they tapped our phone. The crude system involved one or more men listening to our conversations. My adolescent twittering with my friends, best described as endless drivel punctuated by gales of giggles, must have pushed the government operatives to the edge because they would exchange rude comments about us when they could stand it no longer.
Who is that? friends wondered.
We have a party line, I lied.
During my teenage years I had my future planned. There is a nice anecdote involving a man for whom I'd one day be working, New York Post columnist Earl Wilson.
Wilson was born in a small Ohio town. Asked about when he first decided to come to New York, he said, "The minute I heard about it."
I would say the same thing. Probably I was not yet ten when I fell in love. Religiously on Saturday mornings I would listen to a radio program about a couple of teenage girls living in Manhattan. The fairy-tale lives of Judy and her older sister Lois and Judy's best friend the frog-voiced Fuffy absolutely enthralled me, and even the most ordinary activities, such as ice skating in Central Park, seemed joyous. (I had no idea, until decades later, that the program was based on Sally Benson's charming Junior Miss stories.)
From this radio show emerged my shimmering imaginary city, a Shangri-La far from rural Brookside Farms. My father's not-so-secret hope that I might study medicine was fading. If I knew where I wanted to go at ten, I had by sixteen figured out how to get there: my plan was to go away to college, then immediately move east.
As far back as I can remember I wanted desperately to become a writer. At Bethel Township (now Bethel Park) High School, I was editor of the paper. In college, I majored in journalism at Northwestern University and then received a master's degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Another guidepost on the path I would take was literary. My favorite writer—the favorite of other girls of my generation, too—was Dorothy Parker, whose feisty verse and stories were collected in a book called a "Portable." (An ironic twist is that I've become editor of a new edition of this very same collected work, the Portable Dorothy Parker, to be released in the Viking Portable Library Penguin in March, 2006.) Years afterward I would devote seven years to reconstructing the life of this writer, gnashing my teeth because the real Mrs. Parker was not the person I envisioned from my chintz and maple twin bedroom in Brookside Farms. But back then, all I knew about her was that she wrote shrewd verse, lived in New York, and enjoyed the best of all possible times exchanging witty repartee with her friends at the Algonquin Round Table. That was enough.
I first came to New York to attend Columbia, a starry-eyed heartland innocent landing at Idlewild Airport. Topping my list of priority landmarks was not the Statue of Liberty but the Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fourth Street. Barging into a bar alone was just not what young women did in those days, but there was no choice because I did not know a soul in the city. In the lobby cocktail lounge of this literary shrine, I settled myself on one of their little settees. Hoping I would not be mistaken for a streetwalker, I pulled off my prim white gloves, lit up a Herbert Tareyton, and ordered a Tom Collins. That was in the fall of 1955. I have lived in New York ever since and still get a thrill every time I walk into the Algonquin Hotel.
New York in those days was a heavenly place to be a student. Every radio played "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," and the popular new novel was Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar. I couldn't help feeling as if I'd stepped into a Marjorie Morningstar world. Springtime lilacs really did grow at the Cloisters, I discovered. I remember, for example, West Fifty-second Street and the block of brownstone clubs where for the price of a fifty-cent drink you could spend the entire night at Jimmy Ryan's listening to Dixieland. I remember the palatial movie theaters offering first run films and elaborate stage shows, not just Radio City in Rockefeller Center but also the incomparable six-thousand-seat Roxy a block west. On Broadway I was excited to see My Fair Lady and Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game. Even though I was never a huge sports fan I went on dates to the Polo Grounds to see the New York Giants, to Forest Hill for tennis tournaments, and to Madison Square Garden, then located on Eighth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street. I once attended a formal dance at the Waldorf-Astoria, for which occasion I bought a strapless, seafoam-green chiffon gown, worn that night and never again. Someone once took me to Sardi's but most often it was Schrafft's or Howard Johnson's.
At the journalism school it was rumored that our master's degree would be the equivalent of a union card guaranteeing jobs on the best papers in the country. Consequently, I brashly applied for a position at the New York Times but was not hired, not even invited to come in for an interview. So much for union cards. Instead, I felt grateful to land a job as an assistant to the New York Post columnist Earl Wilson. Never mind that the position paid $55 a week, or that my desk in his West Side apartment was in the maid's room behind the kitchen. I was twenty-two and certainly too intimidated to think of uttering a peep of complaint. In the months that followed, I scooted around the theater district in my pointy high heels interviewing show people for Wilson's syndicated column, snappy little celebrity stories tailor-made for his readers in cities like Columbus and Tulsa. I once was assigned to meet a hot young actor who was costarring with Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind, a powerful drama about the Scopes monkey trial. His name was Tony Randall, not the ultra-fastidious Felix Unger of The Odd Couple but a dreamboat, enormously flirtatious, whose skittish humor entertained me throughout lunch. Afterward, I behaved unprofessionally by jokingly asking if I might have his autograph. He sent me an inscribed photo (which I have somewhere). When I next ran into my heartthrob, after fourteen years, he was sitting in his dressing room trailer parked on Fifth Avenue and filming The Odd Couple. This time he was not quite so charming and nervously ordered me to put out my cigarette.
A year or so later I said goodbye to Earl Wilson and the newspaper business. It must never have occurred to me that the world was a scary place because I scraped together enough money for a second-class steamship ticket to France and hauled my bulky blue suitcase around Europe for three months. Upon my return home, I wound up getting married, since that was what girls were supposed to do.
In retrospect, it seems that the years after college, the decade of my twenties and early thirties, were a wasteland, the better part of fifteen years when nothing happened. Of course that's wrong, because a lot happened. My father died. My mother came to live with me, an unfortunate mistake, and afterward she returned to Chicago and tried to remake her life. I floundered from occupation to occupation, job to job: freelance writer, editorial staffer, ghostwriter, actress, stage manager. I divorced, remarried, and at some point had a baby, which has got to be the most important event of my life. I believed that I was a good wife, at least I tried, but now I can see that I was kidding myself. Closer to the truth is that I had no desire whatsoever to be a wife, good or bad. Nevertheless, I did learn to cook a few dishes. I can give you my recipes for meat loaf (from a Campbell's tomato soup ad), potato salad, and New York Times Christmas cookies, all of which I continue to make to this day. Otherwise, homemaking skills were not my strong point.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, in a note for his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, "There are no second acts in American lives." That sounds truly profound but Fitzgerald must have been drunk when he wrote it. I doubt if it's even remotely the truth. The turning point that determined my course of life began unexpectedly in 1969 when the curtain rose on an important new social movement, women's liberation.
The date was August 26, 1970, and the Upper West Side Brigade #2 of the New York Radical Feminists had turned out en masse, all fifteen of us. It was a hazy yellow afternoon and for hours hordes of women, literally tens of thousands carrying banners and posters, had been pouring into Grand Army Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. People seemed to have hurried there from God knew where, east from Hackensack and west from Massapequa Park, down from the Barnard dorms and up from the West Village walkups. By the time I arrived the crowds were so thick, the energy so intense, that it was impossible to move or do anything. You just stood in place surrounded by all that whizzing electricity and hoped not to be electrocuted. At 5:30 p.m. we began moving south on Fifth Avenue, rolling like a gigantic wave down the east sidewalk toward the intersection at Fifty-seventh Street. Cars and buses were forced to halt. Mounted police suddenly moved back lest they stomp on bodies. Outside Tiffany's, the coordinator of the march, Betty Friedan, swung around to survey the marchers, our numbers now too vast for the sidewalk.
"Take the street!"
Within seconds we spilled into Fifth Avenue filling the street curb to curb. Office workers hurrying home stopped to watch, bug-eyed.
The Women's Strike for Equality was meant to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment—the suffrage amendment that gave women the vote. Ironically, the march itself also made national news and marked a critical point because for the first time in half a century, women demanded that their civil rights be taken seriously. Having the vote was fine, but what else had it done to improve our lives? It was about time for real reform.
Afterward the demonstration would be called the biggest congregation of women ever recorded, a claim hard to prove—or disprove. But it was now widely agreed that the issue of women's rights was political and that the protest reflected deep, widespread discontent shared by women of all ages, classes, and situations.
While I was among those marching in the Women's Strike for Equality, I was neither leader nor organizer, never even close to the front lines. I was instead perhaps typical, just one of the angry 50,000, a proud and enthusiastic witness to history. Those dreamers responsible for the women's movement, which in fact shook up the lives of both men and women, were brilliant tacticians. In this struggle, I was content to be an insignificant foot soldier. To be sure, I marched and picketed and sat in during a takeover of the editorial offices of the Ladies' Home Journal (where I couldn't stay because I'd left my two year old with a babysitter). About the only thing I had to contribute to the movement were my writing skills, which I began using to disseminate seditious ideas. One of my articles ("Does Rock Degrade Women?") that appeared in the New York Times raised a flap and readers were quick to write letters denouncing me as an old-maid lesbian schizophrenic. One reader, however, happened to be a literary agent who suggested I write a book about women's lives. Bitching was published in 1973, followed by my first biography, Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull.
A few years ago I prepared a book proposal that would bring back that soft, golden afternoon of August 26, 1970. I called it So Long, Ruby Tuesday. The lack of interest in this idea cannot be overstated. (My title, from a Rolling Stones song, also drew blank looks.) Reaction tended to echo that of my eleven-year-old granddaughter who failed to understand what all the fuss had been about. I said we were rebelling against a way of life. Why? she said. Women could do as they pleased and once she reached voting age she planned to support Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for president.
"Maybe it can be sold at a later time," said my agent. Well, maybe but I expect she was being kind. So Long, Ruby Tuesday is stored in a filing cabinet, where it is likely to remain forever.
In the Seventies, writers still did their work on typewriters. Mine was an Olivetti Lettera, a slender turquoise machine with a zippered blue carrying case. This lightweight beauty was apt to slide around the top of my desk, but that was a small price to pay for such stylishness.
One afternoon, I got up from my desk for a break and accidentally dozed off. This was unusual because my daughter, who might have been four or five then, was at home and normally I would never have left her alone to run amok. But when I returned to my office, she was playing quietly in her room and all was well. As I sat down to resume work, however, I was thunderstruck to see my gorgeous Olivetti transformed. In my absence it had turned into something resembling a stuffed turkey, a turquoise turkey without wings. The type bars were heaped with masses of a pale creamy substance. I stared in shock until I realized the mounds of glop were mashed potatoes. I began howling "Alisooon!"
It would be easy to dismiss the incident as a joke, the antics of a lonely child desperate for her mother's attention, perhaps doubly enraged that her rival was a machine. Even as I was scolding her, I could grasp the reason for her anger.
"I'm working," I'd say to my daughter when I was working, and sometimes when I wasn't, or at least did not appear to be. To a certain extent, as a biographer you are always working because clumped together in your head is not only the subject but the subject's wife or mother or dogs, an entire parallel galaxy constantly racing in your brain without an off switch. To make matters worse, this fixation on a dead person is certain to continue on a day-to-day basis for years. No wonder your own loved ones, reduced to the status of bystanders, reach a point where the slightest reference to the subject makes them sick to death and can bring an automatic SHUT UP! or a verbal barrage of mashed potatoes.
Three of the books I wrote on the Olivetti (and then on a Smith Corona Electric) shared a French setting: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard, and Sybille. In the early eighties I switched to an IBM computer, which revolutionized my life overnight. Goodbye to cutting and pasting, carbons and correction fluid. Better yet, information could now be stored on disk. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? was the first book I wrote on a computer.
In no period of history had I felt more at home than the twelfth century. Still, the time came when I'd enough of crusades and crumbling castles and decided to write about a contemporary subject. The person I settled upon was Edna St. Vincent Millay, a favorite poet of mine for years and years. To my disappointment, however, I learned that another biographer had just contracted to write her life. My second choice was Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), the literary heroine of my adolescence. Actually, the loss of Millay probably turned out to be a blessing because for all her virtues and her magnificent talent, she was a prima donna whose theatrics and unrelenting narcissism would have driven me mad in no time, as I learned when writing a subsequent book.
Clearly, it was Parker's life that I was meant to write. One of the funniest women of the century, whose wit and good sense never fail to entertain me, she is a subject I've returned to again and again, and she makes a cameo appearance in my biography of Nathanael West.
There's practically nothing I dislike about Mrs. Parker, except maybe her drinking.
From time to time, readers will say to me, "Oh, she had such a sad life."
"What do you mean sad?" I am tempted to argue. "She had a grand life."
Of course it was messy. Struggling with the twin demons of depression and alcoholism caused her to derail sometimes. That was to be expected but it did not prevent her from being wildly successful, the multitalented author of verse, stories, plays, movie scripts, and criticism, most of which have never been out of print since first published. Besides, I figure that anybody who makes it into Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum must have experienced a couple of fabulous moments.
It always amazes me to realize how few people fathom what a biographer does. On one occasion a photographer came to my apartment. Her assistant, a young woman with a pierced navel, busied herself setting up the lights and equipment, then stood to one side and folded her arms over her chest. After a while she made a stab at conversation by saying, "What are you writing about?"
Woody Allen, I said.
The name seemed to pique her interest. After a minute or two, she asked, "How much do you have to pay him?"
"Excuse me?" Then I understood she was serious. "Nothing. Biographers don't pay their subjects."
"But you're sort of stealing his life, aren't you?"
Here was a person obviously young, unsophisticated, and possibly unable to tie her own shoes. Still, her misconception was common because to read a biography is not the same as understanding how it was made.
What do biographers really do? Well, we start by gathering a million itsy-bitsy pieces of information, a scavenger operation that most often continues for several years. At some point, we will discard 99 percent of the tidbits, and from the leftovers somehow piece together a smooth, orderly account of how one particular human being made the journey from birth to death. Then we begin to write, one draft, two drafts, in my own case as many as six drafts, sometimes. Traditionally, when biography was the province of scholars, we could get away with lifeless prose, but that is no longer the case. The ability to present ideas in a dramatic, page-turning narrative—in other words, old-fashioned storytelling—has become a requisite for life-writing. After our work is published, we wait for people to advise us what we did wrong, or what we should have done differently. There is always someone to tell us how we screwed it up.
After completing a book that has devoured three, four, five, maybe as many as ten years of your life, after watching a disparaging New York Times reviewer wipe the floor with your opus, after being forced to give up the movie-option fantasy, after all that literary angst, you're worn out. There is nothing left in the tank. Never again, I would tell myself, never again. For a change, you focus on your own life, without feeling guilty, although you still dream of movie money. You paint your kitchen. You donate clothes to Goodwill. You go on a vacation. But the day always comes when all this dillydallying, i.e., living like a normal person, gets boring. Without meaning to, you find a new biographical love, little by little the horrible memories fade, and so it begins all over.
There are no schools for biographers, no academic programs that lead to a degree. (Mastering the nuts and bolts of newspaper reporting is not required but it helps.) And although biography has remained one of the most popular book genres for a hundred years, and interest shows no sign of flagging, there is still no formal preparation for its practice. Seldom do biographers receive much respect in academe, where our work is disdained as a craft rather than an art. In the writing community, we are outlaws not considered "literary," although the writing found in biographies tends to be of exceptionally high quality. By coincidence, the most successful biographers happen to be really good writers, but probably the most important qualifications combine the determination of a terrier and the sweet-talking blarney of a snake oil salesman—or saleswoman, because some outstanding biographers happen to be female.
Like all biographers, I'm self-taught. I first got the hang of it by interviewing those Broadway guys and dolls when I worked for Earl Wilson, eventually progressed to celebrity magazine profiles, and only twenty years later wrote my first real biography, a young-adult book about Victoria Woodhull, which contained no original research whatsoever, as I recall. Eventually I felt confident enough to tackle an adult book.
If I were teaching a biography class, I would warn my students: You're likely to be captured by headhunters and wind up boiled. Here's why: biographers need to put up with more than their share of criticism, more than novelists, poets, or cookbook writers. Even though post-publication abuse seems to be an occupational hazard, most biographers imagine they will escape, the it-can't-happen-to-me syndrome. One of my friends, praised for her previous works, decided to write an unauthorized book about an elderly literary icon, who in turn reacted by throwing a royal tantrum. The icon's agent immediately posted a protest letter to the New York Times Book Review to convey his client's displeasure and no doubt to scare off anyone disposed to help the biographer. But the icon did not stop there. She sent the writer a brutal personal letter setting down her deficiencies and implying she was a second-rater.
In my view there are two possible reactions to such an attack. You can assume right then and there that the subject is going to be a real pain in the ass, or you can cry. (Or both.) My friend cried. In this manner biographers are forced to develop thick skins.
Thick skins or thin, it is still easy to fool yourself. In 1990, for instance, I embarked on the life of Buster Keaton (1895-1965), one of the greatest movie comedians. A complete filmmaker, Keaton conceived, wrote, directed, edited, and starred in ten silent features and nineteen short comedies, with his masterpiece, The General, still revered as one of the outstanding movies of all time. Together with Chaplin and Lloyd, he set the standard for film comedy. There had been two previous biographies of Keaton, not including his own ghost-written memoir, but neither of them satisfied me.
Kicking up as much dust as possible remains the heart and soul of true biography. Is any useful purpose served if we fail to shed fresh light on the subject? Keaton's beautiful frozen face (he was called Stone-face and Deadpan) made me wonder. Was it filled with secrets? Or was it nothing more than a clever comedic device that had made him a vaudeville headliner by the age of five? His melancholy persona, for example, never changed. How come? To find out if there was a connection between his so-called deadpan and his art I contacted the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children because this organization had begun policing Buster's family around 1900 for "rough handling" and for violation of child labor laws. Billing Buster as "The Little Boy Who Cannot Be Damaged," Keaton's father had developed a roughhouse act in which he threw his child into the orchestra pit. It took several frustrating years of requests before the NYSPCC finally agreed to open its microfilmed case files. What I discovered was the tip of the iceberg concealing a childhood history of broken bones, violence, and paternal sadism exacerbated by a mother who looked the other way. To my mind, this significant new information in no way diminished Keaton's accomplishments, indeed the physical and psychic wounds he had endured only increased my admiration.
Since Keaton's fans are legion, the news of a new book was greeted with enthusiasm. During the five years it took me to complete the book, a host of authorities from all over the world stepped forward to offer alliances and assistance. Because there were so many people who had known or worked with him, it was possible to collect personal reminiscences from more than four hundred, from the likes of director Billy Wilder, dancer Gene Kelly, and a one-hundred-year-old woman who had seen Buster perform as a child. The documents I gathered on his family and friends, material dating back to the seventeenth century, would eventually amount to the largest collection of Keaton material ever assembled.
For my part, being proud of the book, I was already congratulating myself and expecting that my portrayal of Buster would please Keaton lovers everywhere. I was wrong. Some were deeply offended and others angry for having wasted time on me. The reason for their distress, I would guess, reflected disagreement over interpretation. My Keaton was not their Keaton. Never would they have concluded that the comic's art was associated with his childhood mishandling. Another cause of displeasure was my attempt to substantiate Keaton's literacy, or lack of it, because he'd never learned to read and write properly. Such deficiencies are unfortunate and sad, but we are talking about real life versus fantasy.
Making happy a subject's family or estate is probably impossible. Naturally, they are the ones who knew the subject in the flesh. Dead or alive, he or she continues to remain their property, not a complete stranger's however well intentioned. At the outset the family does not understand that their view of the person is unlikely to be mine. They assume that character flaws will be ignored, unpleasantness swept under the rug, secrets bolted into coffins. "How did she find out about Grandpa's embezzling!" I can hear them saying, and "But medical records are supposed to be private!"
In the case of Buster Keaton I could not help feeling that his widow would surely appreciate my book. Over a period of five years, my trips to Hollywood had helped establish an amicable working relationship, at least up to a point. In no way could Eleanor Keaton be described as cozy, but I grew to accept her sour-lemon personality. A few months prior to publication, in a burst of something like goodwill, she wrote an encouraging note hoping that the book would be "a huge success since you put so much into it."
On publication, I made sure that one of the first copies was specially inscribed and sped to the door of her North Hollywood condo by FedEx. I expected to hear from her. (Actually, I expected compliments.) There was, oddly, an uncomfortable silence. Mystified, I waited a few weeks before questioning a mutual friend. Did Eleanor receive the book?
Yes, of course, although he had no idea whether or not she'd read it.
But didn't she say anything? I protested.
All she said, he reluctantly told me, was: "Where did Marion get that picture of me in a bathing suit?" (The glamorous cheesecake picture of Eleanor as a young dancer came from one of her own photo albums.)
Here I'd been waiting for approval, but no congratulations were forthcoming, no thank you, no acknowledgment of any kind.
A few weeks later, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a much ballyhooed gala dinner to celebrate Keaton's centenary. I was not invited. When a HarperCollins publicity person phoned the museum, she was told that Mrs. Keaton made a special point of asking that my name be removed from the guest list.
Never again did Eleanor speak to me. Shortly before she died in 1998, at the age of eighty, a person wrote to me on her behalf saying that Mrs. Keaton was missing a certain snapshot and believed I had it. The intimation, that I must have pocketed the item, was sad but not surprising, not at all. Writing biography is not for the faint of heart, I suppose.
If families can be classically noxious critics, fan clubs may inhabit a special level of hell. These societies that assemble academic conferences, publish newsletters, and set up Web sites are for the most part composed of serious-minded admirers. But, as may be expected, the groups also attract those with frivolous motives, who may, for example, imagine themselves reincarnations of the famous person, or worse. (Among the latter I include an overwrought fan who changed her surname to Keaton and was scheming to be buried near Buster at Forest Lawn.) Presumably the Keaton fan club felt I had been too rough on its hero, while I saw it differently, feeling that I'd probably been too gentle. A vaudeville superstar as a child, Buster had extraordinary talent; but he could never be described as a saint. He grew up to become a self-centered adult with a ruinous sense of entitlement and managed to inflict misery on a great many people. You hardly need to be a psychiatrist not to notice that Buster the sweet abused child is also Buster the not-so-sweet abusive husband and father full of bottled-up rage. Alcohol contributed to his excesses.
For me, a dead comic makes an excellent subject. A dead comic with a living widow is also acceptable. The most dreadful, however, is a living comic, a media darling, who in spite of pricey spin control has taken severe punishment in recent years and desires no more grief.
I don't like writing the same type of book over and over, which occasionally leads me to abandon biography for fiction, even though I'm not really a novelist. In 1996, I did something more peculiar. That year I decided to pursue a controversial living person, an endeavor that might strike some biographers as asking for trouble.
My sixth biography, The Unruly Life of Woody Allen (2000), was radically different from anything I'd done before. For one thing, it had usually been necessary to make explanations about my previous subjects. I'd say, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman who ran for president, Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen of France and England, Buster Keaton was a silent film comic. But nobody asked who the bespectacled New Yorker was.
The second difference was that my previous subjects had been deceased and Woody made his home on the Upper East Side in a bubble that I call Woodyland, a netherworld where time stood still. It was difficult adjusting to a living subject, and the idea that Allen was right across Central Park occasionally made me uncomfortable. But in time, as I progressed further into the research, his presence ceased to bother me. Disembodied, he gradually receded into a biographer's twilight zone, where getting the job done is pretty much the same whether the subject is dead or alive.
By 1995, Woody Allen had become famous for not only his thirty-year career of acting, writing, and directing, in all a unique and original talent, but also for a recent, extremely disagreeable legal battle with his costar and partner, Mia Farrow, over custody of their three children, two adopted and one biological. As a consequence of this dispute, and his subsequent marriage to one of Farrow's daughters, his gold-plated reputation wound up badly dented. Even three years later, the media continued to wash Woodyland laundry, and it was into this unpleasant atmosphere that I stepped with the proposal of writing his life. So timely was the subject, however, that I had no trouble obtaining a contract from Scribner's, an eminent literary publisher not traditionally associated with scandal.
Seeking approval from a subject—Woody or anyone else—is a bad idea because the result is usually junkyard biography. I did not request Allen's authorization or cooperation because I had no desire to become an amanuensis. Accustomed as he was to riding in the driver's seat, always an enthusiastic author of his own mythology, he seemed unlikely to relinquish control to anyone else.
Still, I did not want him to learn of my project over the transom. Before word could get around, I posted a letter informing him of my Scribner's contract. Making clear that I was asking nothing of him, and that the letter was simply meant as a courtesy, I wondered if he might be interested in meeting me. Of course I would understand if he preferred not to.
There was no response.
A couple of weeks later, his assistant phoned me with bright reassurances. Heavens, her boss had no objection to my enterprise. Why didn't I send along copies of my previous books?
So far so good.
Although initially the assistant sounded like little Mary Sunshine, her tone soon changed. For example, I was puzzled by one of her questions: How much space in the book would be devoted to Mia Farrow?
This was startling because Farrow had starred in a dozen of Allen's films and their personal relationship extended over an equal number of years. Was Allen a total jerk? Was he really hoping that Farrow's role in his life story could be boiled down, perhaps even completely strained out?
"As much space as she deserves," I said finally.
The assistant did not answer.
In fact, it was I who had been a jerk by falling for the doubletalk and ignoring the woman's fishing expedition. As soon as I'd pressed a few cold towels to my forehead, I returned to reality.
Did Allen even consider cooperating? Far from it. After Allen's assistant stopped speaking, his secretary screamed at me on the phone to never call again. At this point, as opposition grew even more intense, I realized my sense of humor was disappearing. I had to hang a sign above my desk. "THE LESS SAID ABOUT THIS PERSON THE BETTER," it read.
To be sure, getting interviews is an important part of the process, and not getting them causes depression. I'm afraid I was spoiled from previous books—about dead people—when even the senile cooperated. This time it took ten letters to get one response. Letters and e-mails went unanswered, phone messages unreturned. When I did manage to connect people couldn't get off the phone fast enough. Perhaps they wanted to protect Allen, but I suspect that many loathed him so heartily they didn't want their names associated with his.
Of those who did agree to cooperate, some may have been acting out revenge fantasies against the director while others feared reprisals and therefore developed cold feet at the last moment. My all-time favorite was a retired film executive who had to be coaxed into an interview. The meeting was to take place in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel at eleven on a Friday morning. Waiting for the man to show up, I set up my tape recorder. Then I ordered a pot of coffee. Twenty minutes went by but he was nowhere to be seen. The man was quite old, I reminded myself. Did he drop dead on his way to the hotel? Suddenly, a nattily dressed individual stepped out from his hiding place behind one of the potted palms.
Anything wrong? I greeted him.
No, he said.
I kept trying to steer the interview to Annie Hall, but all he wanted to talk about was his very own special method of preparing oatmeal.
Rejection or not, the biographer must still do the work and that's all there is to it. During the seven years I worked on the life of Dorothy Parker, I could not help lamenting the long tortuous path connected with a traditional birth-to-death biography. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I thought, to do something short and simple for a change? Maybe a portrait spanning a period of ten years? I had no specific subject in mind—and no clue who might want to publish such a strange work—but only saw this scheme as different. It would take less time and undoubtedly be quite easy, a sort of biographer's Carnival cruise. Nonetheless, after publishing Parker, I went on to write about Buster Keaton (five years) and Woody Allen (three years).
Some twenty years later, I decided to resurrect my idea of a short, uncomplicated book. The period I chose was the 1920s, a favorite of mine for two reasons. The twenties were an explosive ten-year binge, a rowdy decade when a popular song declared "ain't we got fun!" and the reply frequently had to be no. It was also a spectacular decade for women who not only sheared their hair and exposed their knees, but sought successful careers alongside men. (Two of the women in my story scooped up Pulitzer Prizes.) In literature, the twenties is a gilded age that produced such memorable writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and editors like Harold Ross and Maxwell Perkins. When the economy sprung a leak in 1929, even after the market bubble had collapsed and the country was a wreck, people refused to admit the worst and tried to carry on as usual, which was a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties follows the youthful lives of four writers: the exciting autobiographical novelist Zelda Fitzgerald, the gifted storyteller Edna Ferber, the memorable poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and once again Dorothy Parker and her life during this particular decade. My earlier writing about Parker had made me realize that she was not the only clever, witty woman of her generation. All of the women in Bobbed Hair were blessed with terrific senses of humor, even though plenty of awful things happened to them. Although Parker is probably one of a kind, I grew to admire Ferber for her grit, Millay for her inspirational self-confidence, and Fitzgerald for outstanding courage in the line of fire, because to my way of thinking F. Scott Fitzgerald was a catastrophe as a husband.
As it turned out, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin was neither short nor simple, and it certainly didn't take less time.
Since writing is a life of financial instability, it is absolutely essential to engineer your own security, a couple of sturdy Ionic columns to bear the weight of your domain. To my mind, writers too often neglect to give proper credit to their literary agents. It's as if we operate all by ourselves when in truth it is a collaborative venture. We write; agents look after what we've written. We complain; they peddle, proofread, fuss, make excuses, twist arms, wring necks, and complain.
At one time, when the publishing business operated in a sentimental unbusinesslike fashion, a writer could look forward to hooking up with a house and continuing to publish under the same imprint, sometimes the same editor, year after year. On both sides it seemed almost like a lifetime commitment. That was then. Editors move around now and so do writers. Along the way, through nobody's fault, I've rarely published with the same house twice. All the companies—Knopf, Putnam's, Scribner's, HarperCollins, Random House, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday—were first class. What ordinarily happens is that a house will be crazy about one idea, but completely disinterested in the author's next subject. And so off you go, searching for a company that adores your new idea.
Owing to the lack of continuity, as a writer you need someone who is always around, who has your best interests at heart, and that someone is likely to be your agent. Not all agents are angelic, naturally. A suspicious friend of mine believes they are mainly interested in lining their own pockets and therefore can't afford to alienate publishers. "They are really working for the publishers," she insists. However, in my experience, agents labor for their clients and also manage to avoid alienating editors, at least not permanently.
In this regard, I've been extremely fortunate.
One evening while having drinks with an editor at the Stanhope Hotel I began railing against my agent. She was lax about this and that and the other (and she also introduced me to one of her ex-boyfriends who proved to be a complete disaster, but that is another tale of woe).
Even though I did not ask the editor for recommendations, he was quick to offer advice.
"What about my wife?" he said.
"What about your wife?"
"She's an agent."
I was annoyed and told him so. Wasn't it poor taste to peddle one's wife—whoever she might be—over cocktails?
Several weeks later, by sheer coincidence, another editor mentioned the very same agent as a good match for me.
For the past twenty five years I have been represented by the Wallace Literary Agency, which has not offered any ex-boyfriends but has got me what I need when I need it, including practical items such as garden clippers to clean a gravestone. My agent Lois Wallace, now my friend as well, is the only agent I know who enjoys participating in author research. On one occasion, she accompanied me to hear Woody Allen play his clarinet at the Carlyle Hotel and made sure we avoided the cover charge by arriving early and camping at the bar. For Nathanael West, when I wanted to pay visits to farms once owned by West and his bookish friends, she drove me from New York to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and only got lost twice.
If a business representative is important, so is a suitable writing habitat, and again I've had great good fortune. For more than thirty-five years I've lived and worked on the same street, in the same building, in the same apartment, where I've written my books and raised my daughter (and a Scottish terrier named Snuffy who had a notable career as a television actor).
Unlike those writers who make up things, and therefore can easily operate out of Starbucks and Hamptons summer rentals, biographers need to stay put. To an extent, the quest for information, either from individuals or the archives of various institutions, can entail a great deal of traveling, but the real work is accomplished at home. During the years required to complete a book, tons of stuff are accumulated: books, photographs, scripts, tapes, videos, chronological files, subject files, genealogies, clippings, stacks of notebooks. Nowadays, when biographers store much of their research on computers, there still remains an enormous amount of research material hanging around in boxes, bins, and I hate to admit it, disorganized piles.
Even though space is vital, it is not readily available in this city and getting what you need often requires divine intervention. In the late 'sixties, when I was eight months' pregnant, my husband and I left midtown where we had lived for five years above the Stage Delicatessen, and moved to the Upper West Side, to a typically decrepit building whose glory days had ended in the forties. I hated the neighborhood, a realm of Chinese restaurants, Korean markets, and funky movie theaters where the floors were paved with chewing gum. Still, the rent was cheap, only $350 a month. And the size of the new apartment was not just ample, it was awesome—eight big rooms—with high ceilings, moldings, and parquet floors, and clanging fire engines seven stories below on West End Avenue.
At the time, we moved to get extra room for a family, but the apartment turned out to be ideal for a biographer. Never have I been tempted to apply for residence at a "writers colony," and when a poet friend of mine once suggested avoiding distractions at Yaddo, a retreat in remote Saratoga Springs, New York, I laughed. With my own peaceful hideaway on West End Avenue—and the art deco charm of the Metro Diner only a block away—it seemed silly to leave home.
Aside from a good agent and a good apartment, what more could a writer want? Why, money of course.
Dorothy Parker had it right when she said that a writer was pretty much the same as any other worker. Asked why she became one, she would reply, "Need of money, dear." The most beautiful words in the English language, she said, were "check enclosed." Parker had no patience with writers who put on airs and make high flown pronouncements about creativity.
I side with Mrs. Parker. And, besides, writing is not necessarily the marvelous profession that people suppose. Sometimes it can be lousy.
Nine out of ten biographies achieve modest sales. Furthermore, they usually receive conservative advances against royalties in the first place, but even if the advance is generous, it still takes several years to complete the book and then a lifetime to earn out the advance. Taking into account research and travel expenses, not to mention taxes and agents' commissions, we wind up working pretty much on our own nickel. Come to think of it, one might have earned more making lattes at Dunkin' Donuts.
How then do we pay the bills? Husbands with fat checkbooks! Trust funds! Movie money! In reality the route traveled by lots of my friends is a second job. Some of us go into teaching. Others find an obscure corner in the cogs of big business, employed in mundane jobs that offer medical benefits. The typical business office, a petri dish of mediocrity, provides a perfect intellectual vacuum. Amid coworkers whose reading material is often limited to USA Today and the latest John Grisham, where the words Great Gatsby would cause puzzled looks, biographers can hope to spend their days laboring anonymously in peace and financial security.
Aspiring writers tend to glamorize the profession, I've observed, and the younger they are the more romantic. I remember somebody once saying to me, "You must be so proud to have written all those books."
I burst out laughing. "Oh, I'm not proud," I said. Then I hastily added, because she looked confused, "I'm not ashamed either. It's what I do for a living." I think we were both talking about intrinsic worth but I had trouble explaining myself, and she continued to look skeptical.
The romance of writing fades all too soon, unfortunately. Now I'm inclined to view it as a profession like any other, just as a book is usually only a book.
Once a book is completed, and available in bookstores and libraries, it essentially passes into history, a closed door that I seldom open. In a short time, especially once I've started the next book, I'm totally capable of forgetting both facts and identities of sources. Looking at the indexes of books written years ago, I regret to say there are names I no longer easily recognize, which is in effect a healthy cleansing sort of amnesia. Periodically it's time to houseclean in other ways: research materials should be packed up and shipped out for a number of reasons, one being the sanity of the author. While it may be practical to retain every document assembled, stashing them under the bed to collect dust, as some writers do, is not a sensible idea. For one thing, such materials need to be preserved for the sake of history and of course made available for the benefit of other researchers. To this end, my files on Buster Keaton are housed at the University of Iowa Special Collections and my Dorothy Parker archive is at Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
I can't explain what made me become a biographer. I don't think it was due to any overwhelming love of people because people can be very irritating, and the older I get the more irritating I find them. But what can be more fun than studying people? Smart people, crazy people, people who performed incredible exploits as well as those who attempted incredible feats but failed. Human behavior never fails to captivate me and that is probably as good a reason as any to write biography.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Belles Lettres, spring, 1995, p. 102.
Booklist, December 15, 1999, Bonnie Smothers, review of The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, p. 738; June 1, 2004, Whitney Scott, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, p. 1694.
Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1988, section 14, p. 6.
Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 1988, p. 20.
Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2000, L. S. Klepp, "Scandal Sheets," p. 78.
History, April 1, 2004, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, p. 315.
Kirkus Reviews, winter, 2005, Amy Henderson, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, pp. 59-60.
Library Journal, July, 1994, p. 134; February 15, 2000, Stephen Rees, review of The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, p. 165; May 15, 2004, Anthony J. Pucci, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, pp. 84-85.
Listener, April 21, 1988, p. 33.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 26, 1989, p. 10.
Ms., summer, 2004, Brenda Wineapple, "Queens of the Jazz Age," p. 88.
New Statesman, April 22, 1988, p. 28.
New Yorker, April 25, 1988, p. 109.
New York Times, January 9, 1988, p. A17; April 25, 1988, p. 109; February 26, 1995, section LI, p. 8; October 6, 1996, Janny Scott, "It's a Lonely Way to Pay the Bills: For Unauthorized Biographers, the World Is Very Hostile," p. 37.
New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1995, p. 12; March 5, 2000, Mim Udovitch, "Deconstructing Woody," p. 13.
Observer (London, England), February 27, 2000, Neil Mullarkey, "Misdemeanors and All."
Olympian (Olympia, WA), June 6, 2004, Gretchen Gurujal, "Gossipy Book Examines 1920s Literary Scene."
Publishers Weekly, March 11, 1983, pp. 26-27; July 13, 1994, p. 466; September 4, 1995, p. 59; January 3, 2000, review of The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, p. 67; March 29, 2004, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, p. 45.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 20, 2004, Diane Scharper, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, p. M1.
Spectator (London, England), April 23, 1988, pp. 30-31.
Times (London, England), February 6, 2000, Iain Johnstone, "Woody and His Women," sec. 9, p. 39.
Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 1973, p. 1473; May 6, 1988, p. 497.
Variety, March 20, 2000, Dade Hayes, review of The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, p. 39.
Washington Post, June 18, 2004, Carolyn See, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, p. C03.
Washington Post Book World, February 14, 1988, pp. 4, 7.
Women's Review of Books, May, 1988, p. 4.
WordSmitten Quarterly Journal, autumn, 2004, Julie Farin, "Running Wild with Zelda, Dorothy, and Two Ednas," p. 41.
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (June 24, 2005), Bob Rhubart, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin.
Dorothy Parker's New York Web site, http://www.dorothyparkernyc.com/ (April 27, 2004), Kevin Fitzpatrick, review of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin.