Sedgwick, John 1954-
Sedgwick, John 1954-
Born May 5, 1954, in Boston, MA; son of R.M. (an investment advisor) and Emily Sedgwick; married Megan Marshall (a writer), July 19, 1980; children: Sara, Josie. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1976. Politics: Democrat.
Home—Cambridge, MA. Agent—Kris Dahl, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Writer, journalist, and novelist. Member of Cabot House squash team.
Night Vision: Confessions of Gil Lewis, Private Eye (nonfiction), illustrated by Terry Allen, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982.
Rich Kids (nonfiction), Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.
The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year in the Life of America's Oldest Zoo, Morrow (New York, NY), 1988.
The Dark House (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
The Education of Mrs. Bemis (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, and GQ. Contributing editor, Worth.
John Sedgwick was called a "gifted storyteller" by Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Alex Raskin. Although Sedgwick is also a novelist, in many of his books, his distinction as storyteller refers to his ability to relate the compelling life events of his real-world subjects. Despite their fanciful titles, many of his works, including the books Night Vision: Confessions of Gil Lewis, Private Eye, Rich Kids, and The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year in the Life of America's Oldest Zoo, have been true accounts.
"Even though [Night Vision] is not a novel," wrote Evan Hunter in the New York Times Book Review, "John Sedgwick's book should be required reading for any writer or reader of private-eye fiction." The Gil Lewis of the book's title is an actual private investigator in Boston. In relating Lewis's stories, Sedgwick frequently uses the investigator's own dialogue. Both Hunter and National Review reviewer Dinesh D'Souza found this particular narrative choice to be of interest. In his July 1983 review of the book, D'Souza described the author as being "weak on stylish prose but decidedly strong on telling detail." Hunter's New York Times Book Review article found the use of Lewis's dialogue to be a source for both praise and regret: "perhaps too modestly," he wrote, "Mr. Sedgwick decided to let his subject take center stage, and the result is a sort of depersonalized, softspoken journalism that illuminates the day-by-day exertions of a dedicated gumshoe pursuing the solutions to a wide variety of exciting cases."
Sedgwick's next book, Rich Kids, explores the love/hate relationship that—as Detroit Free Press contributor Bob McKelvey described them—"a collection of 20-40 year-olds born with silver, or platinum spoons in their mouths" have with their money. The book achieved considerable critical success and fared well with the public. Himself a child of relative wealth, Sedgwick delineated the paradox of inheritance in an interview for McKelvey's article: "These people all have been given these delights and pleasures, but they have them alone…. They spend their lives looking for other people they can connect with." Sedgwick interviewed fifty-seven heirs and heiresses for the book, not all of whom are named within it. In a review that was also published in the Detroit Free Press, Jeanne May declared that Sedgwick's concept was interesting and admirable. While proclaiming the author "an easy, breezy writer," however, May went on to fault him for what she saw as a lack of detail and an emphasis on gossip. A reviewer for Time also complained of a lack of depth in these subjects, as well as a reliance on gossip. The Time critic did applaud the book for providing "incontrovertible proof that money cannot buy happiness." While also wishing for a more in-depth probe of Sedgwick's subjects, Nancy Wigston of the Globe and Mail (Toronto) likened the author to "a modern Scott Fitzgerald" in his exploration of the lives of the rich and felt that Sedgwick brought "a charming manner" to his book.
For his next investigation, Sedgwick turned his attention to the denizens of the Philadelphia Zoo. Melissa Greene, writing in the Washington Post Book World, was less than enthusiastic in her assessment of The Peaceable Kingdom. Greene's concern was for what she saw as the book's lack of focus on environmental issues and its depiction of the animals as sources for humor, resulting in a work she deemed "ill-timed" given the dire situation of many animals facing extinction. Clarence Petersen, reviewing Peaceable Kingdom for the Tribune Books in 1989, was much more appreciative, asserting that Sedgwick had found in the Philadelphia Zoo "a rich collection of fascinating creatures and lore," and hailed the book as "a memorable account."
Sedgwick made his fiction debut with the novel The Dark House. Protagonist Edward Rollins is a wealthy New England financial expert. Handsome and personable, Rollins has a secret obsessive, voyeuristic habit: he likes to get in his car and follow randomly selected strangers around as they go about their day-to-day business. One of these outings results in him following a mysterious man who drives his Audi to a darkened house, where he enters without turning on the lights. When Rollins receives a strange fax at work, he believes that the Audi driver has identified him. He seeks help from coworker Marj, a practical Midwesterner. Rollins also asks Marj for help with one of his family mysteries, the unsolved disappearance of his rich cousin Cornelia ten years earlier. Soon, Rollins find his role as voyeur reversed, as the driver of the Audi begins following him around. Other tragic family secrets resurface as Rollins begins to suspect his own family in Cornelia's murder, and the man in the Audi becomes a more looming and diabolical presence. "Though overlong, this spooky soap opera methodically peels back New England's upper crust to reveal a rotten pie indeed," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
In his next work of fiction, The Education of Mrs. Bemis, Sedgwick offers an "engaging and warm if finally confounding novel," noted a Publishers Weekly writer. When seventy-six-year-old Madeleine Bemis is discovered almost catatonic and curled up on a bed in the middle of Filene's department store, psychiatrist Alice Matthews offers her aid and becomes determined to win the woman's confidence. Mrs. Bemis is a privileged and wealthy member of Boston's old-money community, and Alice is the daughter of a working-class family, but the two develop a close and tender friendship over the course of the novel. Alice slowly unravels Mrs. Bemis's story, discovering her youthful romance with a bomber copilot during World War II, the fling with a gardener that left her pregnant, the traumatic separation from her child when she gives him up for adoption, and her later stagnant and stifling marriage to the disabled pilot who returned to her after the war. In the process, Alice also recounts and confronts her own stable of personal and professional troubles. When Mrs. Bemis is unaccountably upset by the death of a local man, Alice must determine who he is and how he fits into the ongoing story of Mrs. Bemis's often tragic but noble life. Sedgwick "creates a striking portrait of Mrs. Bemis's time and place," in addition to the "likable but insecure Dr. Matthews," observed the Publishers Weekly reviewer. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "obvious and overlong, but nevertheless a well-mannered tale, narrated at a nice steady pace in the best old-fashioned way."
Sedgwick returned to nonfiction with a more personal project, In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family. Here, he "painstakingly scrutinizes his Boston Brahmin family history to reveal more than a few skeletons," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic. Though he is well off, with a thriving career and a loving family, Sedgwick is still prone to debilitating bouts of depression. In his book, he uses family research as the vehicle to understand the origins of his dark psychological affliction. He uncovers startling information about the old New England Sedgwick family and finds that depression and mental illness have been present in multiple generations. Apart from their psychological troubles, the wealthy family has also worked hard to maintain its social standing. "The Sedgwicks have long struggled with their sense of privilege and worried as much about status as about sanity," remarked Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Throughout the book, Sedgwick provides background material on individual members of the family, relating their triumphs and troubles, and reconciling how they fit into the long-term saga that has brought him to the present day. Maslin concluded that, "by and large, despite occasional overreaching, Mr. Sedgwick provides a clear, incisive view of a complicated family." Demonstrating a "writer's eye for detail," Sedgwick presents an "unflinchingly honest chronicle of an agonizing personal and familial odyssey," commented Margaret Flanagan in a Booklist review. The Kirkus Reviews contributor mused that the book is "surely one of the most exhaustively-researched attempts to exorcise personal demons."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 2002, Allen Weakland, review of The Education of Mrs. Bemis, p. 1383; December 15, 2006, Margaret Flanagan, review of In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family, p. 6.
Books, February 4, 2007, "Prominence, Privilege, and Tragedy Mark the Sedgwick Family," p. 4.
Detroit Free Press, September 8, 1985, review of Rich Kids; September 11, 1985, review of Rich Kids.
Drood Review of Mystery, September 1, 2002, review of The Education of Mrs. Bemis, p. 15.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 19, 1985, Nancy Wigston, review of Rich Kids.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2002, review of The Education of Mrs. Bemis, p. 286; October 15, 2006, review of In My Blood, p. 1060.
Library Journal, July, 2000, Craig L. Shufelt, review of The Dark House, p. 142; March 15, 2001, review of The Dark House, p. 55.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, Alex Raskin, review of The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year in the Life of America's Oldest Zoo, p. 4.
National Review, July 8, 1983, Dinesh D'Souza, review of Night Vision, p. 837.
New York Times, January 22, 2007, Janet Maslin, "Out of the Cradle," review of In My Blood.
New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1983, Evan Hunter, review of Night Vision, p. 14; August 20, 2000, review of The Dark House, p. 17; June 16, 2002, Nell Casey, review of The Education of Mrs. Bemis, p. 24.
People Weekly, September 4, 2000, review of The Dark House, p. 60.
Publishers Weekly, May 29, 2000, review of The Dark House, p. 48; August 14, 2000, Bridget Kinsella, "Harper's Reality-based Promo," p. 202; March 11, 2002, review of The Education of Mrs. Bemis, p. 50; December 18, 2006, review of In My Blood, p. 60.
Time, November 25, 1985, review of Rich Kids, p. 121.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 28, 1989, Clarence Petersen, review of The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 5; May 18, 2003, review of The Education of Mrs. Bemis, p. 6.
Washington Post Book World, February 5, 1988, Melissa Greene, review of The Peaceable Kingdom.
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (June 20, 2002), Robert Birnbaum, interview with John Sedgwick.
John Sedgwick Home Page,http://www.johnsedgwickbooks.com (August 10, 2007).