Secrest, Meryle 1930–
Secrest, Meryle 1930–
PERSONAL: Born April 23, 1930, in Bath, England; emigrated to Canada, 1948; emigrated to the United States, 1953; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1957; daughter of Albert Edward (a toolmaker) and Olive Edith May (Love) Doman; married David Waight Secrest (a journalist), September 23, 1953 (divorced, 1965); married Thomas Gattrell Beveridge (a singer and composer), November 23, 1975; children: (first marriage) Cary Doman, Martin Adams, Gillian Anne. Hobbies and other interests: "European travel, foreign languages, painting, environmental problems (including air, water, and soil pollution and the acute problem of noise in twentieth-century America)."
ADDRESSES: Home—Washington, DC. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Knopf Publishing, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Journalist and writer. Hamilton News, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, women's editor, 1949–50; Bristol Evening Post, Bristol, England, reporter, 1950–51; affiliated with F&R Lazarus & Co., 1953–55; Columbus Citizen, Columbus, OH, food editor, 1955–57; Washington Post, Washington, DC, feature writer, 1961–69, cultural reporter, 1969–72, editor and art critic, 1972–75; freelance writer, 1975–; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, professor of English, 2002–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Canadian Women's Press Club award, 1950, for "An Interview with Barbara Ann Scott"; woman of the year citation, Hamilton Press Club, 1951; American Library Award, 1974, for Between Me and Life; Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award nominations, both 1981, both for Being Bernard Berenson; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981–82; George Freedly Memorial Award, 1988, for Stephen Sondheim: A Life.
Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974.
Being Bernard Berenson, Holt (New York, NY), 1979.
Kenneth Clark: A Biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1984, Holt (New York, NY), 1985.
Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Leonard Bernstein: A Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Duveen: A Life in Art, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of articles to periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Meryle Secrest has painted compelling biographical portraits of a number of prominent personalities in the world of twentieth-century arts, according to reviewers. In books such as Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Being Bernard Berenson, Secrest has earned the praise of critics for her thorough research and engaging style.
"Biography seems to be the natural outgrowth of my journalistic experience," Secrest once told CA, "and skills acquired as a researcher and interviewer are particularly valuable in unearthing documentary information." Because of her many years of journalistic training and experience, she attaches particular importance to interviews as a source of information about her chosen subject. "Flawed though the human memory is," she noted, "and biased as the reminiscence may be, colored by circumstance and prejudice, it is still a potentially rich source of information that can be obtained by no other means."
Her first book, Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks, was most influenced by her experience as a reporter. "I began," she recalled, "with the intention of reporting anything and everything that could be discovered about the personality and with the determination to keep my personality in the background. I completed the manuscript and realized that the biography simply didn't work. So I threw it away as a source and completely rewrote the book, taking another year to do it, and recast it in the form which seemed much more sympathetic to my own assets as a writer. I eliminated extraneous detail and concentrated on developing and illustrating my own point of view about Romaine Brooks." Although the book was only mildly successful, it was well reviewed by critics in both England and the United States, which encouraged Secrest to leave journalism and devote herself to writing biography.
When tackling the wealth of information that was available on Bernard Berenson, a noted authenticator of Italian art, Secrest found it necessary to eliminate detail. "A ridiculous amount of material exists, documenting almost every aspect of his life except his childhood and business dealings," she told CA. "So the challenge to present a coherent picture continues. I find myself unalterably opposed to the current vogue for biography which I find unreadable—and if I can't read it, why should I write it?" In the view of many critics, Secrest met her challenge in Being Bernard Berenson: Robert Hughes noted in the New York Review of Books that Secrest's narrative "is the liveliest evocation of this strangely conflict-ridden man that has yet been written, a portrait with the unmistakable ring of psychological truth."
Noted art historian Kenneth Clark provided Secrest with his insight and reminiscence for her biography of Beren-son; she was so taken with Clark's personality that she made him the subject of her third biography. Kenneth Clark: A Biography, which some reviewers noted was approached by its author as an act of hero-worship, was problematic for Secrest when Clark, who was still alive at the time of its writing, protested about certain details and forced Secrest to rewrite much of the book. The critical opinion that followed was mixed. "This is not a book that does full justice to Kenneth Clark's distinction," commented John Gross in the New York Times, "but neither … does it trivialize him. Or if it does, it is only because humanizing someone usually involves a degree of trivializing as well, and Miss Secrest does undoubtedly succeed in making Clark seem more human than he did before."
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, surrealist painter Salvador Dali, and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein have also been the subjects of Secrest's energetic interest. Her Frank Lloyd Wright was the first biography of the man to be compiled with access to the complete microfiche Wright archives. In the New York Review of Books, Martin Filler judged it "likely to remain the most satisfactory treatment of Wright's life until a definitive multi-volume study appears."
Secrest reached a wide audience with biographies of Broadway composers. For Stephen Sondheim: A Life she conducted marathon interview sessions with her subject, and the result is a volume that, in the words of an Economist reviewer, "is informative and perceptive rather than a plodding 'and-then-he-wrote' chronology or fannish piece of unvarnished adulation." The book covers Sondheim's personal and professional life with frankness, beginning with the musician's frosty relationship with his mother. The product of a broken and abusive home, the teenage musical prodigy bonded with the great Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who served as mentor and father figure to Sondheim. With his first big success, West Side Story, Sondheim became known as a lyricist who could produce audience-pleasing hits such as Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But commercial success was later eclipsed by a more serious Sondheim who, in collaboration with director Harold Prince, revolutionized the musical theater with such "dark" fare as Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Secrest presents a full picture of her subject—by turns "telling, closed, demanding, arrogant, overly sensitive, mean, repressed, awkward—and brilliant, charming and companionable," wrote James Morris in the Wilson Quarterly. In doing so she shows that the composer-lyricist is not so far removed from some of his darker characters, such as Company's Bobby, a middle-aged man who cannot commit to a relationship, or Georges Seurat of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, a painter who places his work above normal human interaction.
Sondheim's story includes a discussion of his homosexuality, and this was the first time Sondheim had publicly spoken about that aspect of his life. Patrick Smith, writing in Opera News, commended Secrest, whose "ability to draw a character is evident not only in her delineation of Sondheim and his mother but in the host of others that surges through the book…. She handles Sondheim's coming to terms with his homosexuality with a restraint and dignity not often found in such biographies." Offering similar praise, Advocate contributor Robert Plunket said the author "does an excellent job of illuminating her subject's personality. He comes across as a classic homosexual type and a very honorable if old-fashioned one." Linda Barnhart summed it up in Notes by asserting that Secrest has produced, "for the immediate future,… the definitive biography of Sondheim."
In Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers Secrest recounts the life and career of the composer who collaborated first with lyricist Lorenz Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein II to create such theatrical classics as Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I. As Secrest makes clear, the wholesome cheer typified by Maria, who sang in The Sound of Music of "raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens," hardly reflected the life of that show's composer. Rodgers was notoriously misanthropic, lived out a dysfunctional marriage with a wife described as his equal in meanness, and had no qualms about unceremoniously dumping his first partner when Hart fell on hard personal times. "According to Broadway apocrypha," noted American Theatre critic Peter Ritter, "Hart, sliding toward terminal alcoholism, arrived at the 1943 premier of A Connecticut Yankee only to find that Rodgers had barred him from the theatre."
But Secrest also asserts that Rodgers had another side to him, defending him against the charge that he had "the soul of a banker," as Sunday Telegraph contributor John Gross put it. "Such a view, she claims, is superficial; she points out how sensitive he could be on occasion." Noting that "greater artists than Richard Rodgers have been worse characters," Gross concluded that after closing Somewhere for Me, "absorbing as it is, you're glad to get back to the songs and quite glad to forget about the man who composed them." This reaction demonstrates Secrest's success at showing her subjects' humanity and true characters.
While Secrest has written primarily of artists, musicians, and composers, her Duveen: A Life in Art has as its subject an art dealer. Joseph Duveen, who later became Lord Duveen of Millbank, was a prominent, influential, and charismatic dealer in fine art. The author draws on previously closed archives about Duveen stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a major resource. Yet critics were somewhat disappointed with the result, especially regarding the author's account of Duveen's professional relationship with Bernard Berenson, the art expert who received kickbacks from Duveen for authenticating certain artworks. According to Isabelle Anscombe in Apollo, Secrest "fails to examine the nature of [Berenson's] relationship with Duveen." Anscombe added that the author "lacks any real curiosity about what drove Joe Duveen's desire to be the greatest art dealer of his time." However, Peter Daily concluded in his Art in America review that "Secrest's intelligent and absorbing treatment is as close to a definitive biography as Duveen is likely to receive. Its principal shortcoming is that … it vastly overestimates Duveen's impact on American collectors and collections."
In her work, Secrest strives to balance the necessary abundant factual information about her subjects' lives and work with insights into the personalities of her subjects and those around them. "If I have any criticism of biography in [the United States], it's that it's too much inclined to a very objective, scholarly approach," she once told John F. Baker in Publishers Weekly. "That way you get just a huge collection of facts, but somehow the personality of the subject seems to slip away. And there is no such thing as a definitive biography."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate, May 12, 1998, Robert Plunket, review of Stephen Sondheim: A Life, p. 79.
American Record Guide, March-April, 1999, Richard Traubner, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 333.
American Theatre, December, 2001, Peter Ritter, review of Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers, p. 70.
Apollo, January, 2005, Isabelle Anscombe, "Duveen: A Life in Art: Meryle Secrest's Biography of Joseph Duveen Lamentably Pulls Its Punches," p. 66.
Art in America, June-July, 2005, Peter Dailey, "The Dealer King," review of Duveen, p. 67.
Booklist, May 1, 1998, Ray Olson, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 1476; September 15, 2001, Jack Hel-big, review of Somewhere for Me, p. 163.
Choice, March, 1999, R.D. Johnson, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 1276.
Economist, September 12, 1998, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. S14.
Entertainment Weekly, June 18, 1999, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 71.
Guardian (London, England), September 4, 1998, "An American in London," p. T16.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1998, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 567; September 15, 2001, review of Somewhere for Me, p. 1344.
Library Journal, May 15, 1998, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 87; November 1, 2001, Bruce Schueneman, review of Somewhere for Me, p. 95.
Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2001, Merle Rubin, review of Somewhere for Me p. E3.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 14, 1999, Don Shirley, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 2.
New Republic, January 24, 2005, E.V. Thaw, "The Art of Money," review of Duveen, p. 35.
New Yorker, August 24, 1998, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 154.
New York Review of Books, December 20, 1979, Robert Hughes, review of Being Bernard Berenson, pp. 19-29; January 13, 1994, Martin Filler, review of Frank Lloyd Wright, pp. 28-33; February 10, 2000, Brad Leithauser, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway," review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 35.
New York Times, January 8, 1985, John Gross, review of Kenneth Clark: A Biography, p. 23; July 21, 1998, Mel Gussow, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. B7; November 12, 2001, Bill Goldstein, "A Song in His Head If Not in His Heart," review of Somewhere for Me, p. E7.
New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998, Benedict Nightingale, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 7; November 18, 2001, Gerard Alessandrini, "The Sound of His Music," review of Somewhere for Me, p. 7.
Notes, June, 1999, Linda Barnhart, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 946.
Opera News, October, 1998, Patrick Smith, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 82.
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1985, John F. Baker, interview with Meryle Secrest, pp. 73-74; May 4 1998, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 193; October 1, 2001, review of Somewhere for Me, p. 45.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), December 9, 2001, John Gross, "An Unmusical Soul."
Times (London, England), March 3, 1980; September 5 1998, Roger Watkins, "Sorrow Full," p. 19.
Times Literary Supplement, October 9, 1998, Rupert Christiansen, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 23.
Wall Street Journal, June 5, 1998, Terry Teachout, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. W12.
Washington Post, August 1 1999, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 10; November 18, 2001, Louis Bayard, "The Sound of Music," review of Somewhere for Me, p. T08.
Wilson Quarterly, autumn, 1998, James Morris, review of Stephen Sondheim, p. 103.
Canoe, http://www.canoe.ca/ (August 23, 1998), Yvonne Crittenden, review of Stephen Sondheim.