Spoto, Donald 1941–
Spoto, Donald 1941–
Born June 28, 1941, in New Rochelle, NY; son of Michael G. (an advertising executive) and Anne (a public relations aide) Spoto. Education: Iona College, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1963; Fordham University, M.A., 1966, Ph.D., 1970. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT, assistant professor of theology and humanities, 1966-68; College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, NY, assistant professor and chairman of religious studies, 1968-74; City University of New York, New York, NY, assistant professor of classics, 1974-75; New School for Social Research, New York, NY, professor of humanities, 1975-86; University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, adjunct professor, 1987-90; writer. National lecturer, American Film Institute, Washington, DC, 1979-82; visiting lecturer, British Film Institute, National Film Theatre, London, 1980-86; board of directors, Human Rights Watch, Death Penalty Focus, and the Youth Law Center.
Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1984, for The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock; citation from Death Penalty Focus, 2000, for "selfless contributions and passionate dedication to ending the death penalty"; shortlisted for literary award for research nonfiction, PEN, 2003, for Reluctant Saint.
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976, revised edition published as The Art ofAlfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, 2000.
Stanley Kramer, Film Maker, Putnam (New York, NY), 1978.
Camerado: Hollywood and the American Man, New American Library (New York, NY), 1978.
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983, revised edition with new introduction, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1999.
The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.
Falling in Love Again: Marlene Dietrich, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.
Lenya: A Life, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Laurence Olivier: A Biography, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Diana: The Last Year, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Hidden Jesus: A New Life, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY) 2000.
Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, Viking Compass (New York, NY), 2002.
In Silence: Why We Pray, Viking Compass (New York, NY), 2004.
Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, HarperSanFrancisco (New York, NY), 2007.
Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates, Hutchinson (London, England), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was adapted by Tina Andrews and others as a Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television miniseries, 2000; Reluctant Saint was adapted into the documentary film Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi, produced by Pamela Mason Wagner, 2003.
Trained as a theologian, Donald Spoto has written several books on the Christian saints. He has also found considerable success as a biographer of entertainers, artists, and celebrities, particularly those involved with film and theater. "The biography per se hardly constitutes a new or noteworthy addition to literary tradition," noted John and Carl Bellante in Bloomsbury Review. "In contemporary times, however, perhaps no one has elevated this particular genre to higher or more scrupulous standards than Donald Spoto…. Unlike other writers who specialize in celebrity exposes … Spoto combines the discriminating eye of a literary sleuth with the finely honed sensibilities of a discerning critic."
Spoto discussed his approach to biography in the Bloomsbury Review: "I'm deeply intrigued by how creative people interact with a larger society. Clearly everyone has a private life, and that's terribly important in understanding how a person lives." He added: "Most biographies are simply chronicles or almanac entries. Then he went here, then he did this or that. But our real life, of course, is how we react internally. How we grow or don't grow. How we assess and develop values. How we respond, how we love, how we fear."
In his book Stanley Kramer, Film Maker, Spoto discusses the art of the film director noted for making social-interest works such as Judgment at Nuremberg. Spoto followed that volume with Camerado: Hollywood and the American Man. He had first produced The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (revised as The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures), an analysis of works by the film director celebrated for his mastery of suspense.
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock prompted Spoto's agent to recommend that he undertake a biography of the filmmaker shortly after his death in 1980. "My agent said to me, ‘There's your next book,’" Spoto recalled in Bloomsbury Review. "I'd been two years without a project. ‘You're the logical one to do the Hitchcock biography,’ she said, but I replied, ‘I don't know anything about how to write biographies!’ She looked at me. ‘You're a writer. A scholar. You have a Ph.D. You know how to do research. You're doing the biography!’ In two weeks we had a contract."
In The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Spoto combines historical perspective with interviews, film studies, and anecdotes. Richard Grenier, writing in the New York Times Book Review, deemed the book "absolutely compulsory reading" for "those who consider Hitchcock a dark genius." Time reviewer John Skow, meanwhile, hailed the volume as "a knowledgeable and revealing biography," and Gregory Peck, who appeared in Hitchcock's Spellbound and The Paradine Case, endorsed Spoto's book as "a biography of unassailable integrity." The Dark Side of Genius received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Spoto's next biography, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, concerns the late writer whose acclaimed plays include The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In researching the biography, Spoto gained access to Williams's private papers. In addition, Spoto conducted interviews with Williams's family members. In a review for the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley stated that Spoto "has many calm, judicious things to say about his subject." Michael Church, meanwhile, wrote in the London Review of Books that The Kindness of Strangers constitutes "a richly detailed study," and Dan Sullivan affirmed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that The Kindness of Strangers is "possibly the best [biography] of an American playwright since Louis Sheaffer's two-volume study of O'Neill."
Spoto turned to singer-actress Lotte Lenya as the subject of his next biography, Lenya: A Life. Lenya was the widow of composer Kurt Weill, who collaborated with playwright Bertolt Brecht on the operas The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera. After gaining fame for her interpretations of Weill's music, Lenya fled Europe in the mid-1930s and came to the United States, where she continued to promote Weill's work until her death in 1981. A London Times reviewer was impressed with the book, lauding Spoto as "an exact and atmospheric biographer who succeeds in recreating the fevered discord of the German Twenties."
Spoto followed Lenya with Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, which concerns the filmmaker responsible for such celebrated comedies as The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. In Madcap, Spoto chronicles the director's unconventional childhood, which took place in an environment that might have inspired some of Sturges's more fanciful films. His mother, for instance, was a dilettante who became a disciple of the occult figure Aleister Crowley, leaving the teenage Sturges in charge of a thriving cosmetics business when he was only sixteen. Patrick Goldstein, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called Spoto "an able, informative biographer," and affirmed that he is "at his best describing Sturges' impossibly exotic upbringing." Village Voice reviewer Katherine Dieckmann found Spoto's descriptions of the director's private life "far more to the point than Sturges's [autobiography]."
In ensuing biographies, Spoto has written about actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ingrid Bergman, and he has chronicled actors such as Laurence Olivier and James Dean. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography won praise by a New Statesman and Society reviewer as "noteworthy for its lack of sensationalism and its willingness to portray the movie star as an intelligent, yet deeply frightened woman." Similarly, Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich was praised by Washington Post Book World reviewer Quentin Crisp as "a genuine attempt to understand this mysterious, self-created and, to some extent, self-deceived woman." Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean also gained acclaim, being lauded in the Boston Globe as "a well-written and researched biography."
A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, according to a writer for Publishers Weekly, is "at once scathing and sympathetic." Spoto presents the iconic star, who earned critical acclaim for such films as National Velvet, Butterfield 8, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as a passionate but self-destructive individual who has struggled throughout her life and career to compensate for feelings of emptiness. The result, according to the Publishers Weekly contributor, is a "revelatory portrait" of the star.
In addition to writing about film figures, Spoto has produced works on members of England's royal family. In Diana: The Last Year, he reports on the late princess's exploits prior to her demise in an automobile accident in Paris, and in The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor, he provides a history that ranges from the time of Queen Victoria to the present. People reviewer Clare McHugh, acknowledging the current generation's scandals, contended that Spoto "persuasively argues that the current crisis is a natural souring of decades of careful image-building." A Publishers Weekly reviewer, meanwhile, summarized the book as an "entertaining and informative tour of a dynasty."
In Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life, Spoto depicts the widow of both President John F. Kennedy and Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. People reviewer David Cobb Craig concluded his review by contending: "Bottom Line: Jackie O, so-so." But Library Journal critic Maria C. Bagshaw welcomed the volume as an "expansive and well-documented biography," and Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper concluded her assessment by calling Spoto's account "a lovely, even gracious story." A Publishers Weekly critic was also impressed, declaring that Spoto "does a masterful job of capturing—and explaining—the complex personality of a woman who was arguably the most important icon of American womanhood in her day."
Among Spoto's other biographical volumes is The Hidden Jesus: A New Life, in which he considers the life of Jesus Christ. "The book is written from the perspective of faith," Spoto told Publishers Weekly. He disclosed to a Writer's Digest contributor Stephen Boisson, furthermore, that the book is intended to "present a new way of understanding biography," and he described that new approach as "a process that demands a response in the reader." In the book, which is based on the Gospels, Spoto recounts Christ's life, but he also provides insights into social and religious aspects of life in Biblical times, and he reflects on subjects such as anti-Semitism and the Resurrection.
Upon publication in 1998, The Hidden Jesus won praise as an impressive biographical achievement. Library Journal reviewer George Westerlund noted the volume's "intimate and sobering" approach, and he hailed the publication as "a probing work." Another reviewer, writing in Publishers Weekly, noted the book's "impressive clarity and pace," and Booklist critic Ray Olson observed that The Hidden Jesus "explains Jesus' context, interprets his meanings, and ponders the implications."
Reflecting on his choice of subjects, Spoto stated in the Bloomsbury Review interview: "As far as how I choose my topics … I don't pick them. They seem to pick me. I don't mean to sound like a bogus mystic, but somehow the subjects emerge. I'm offered exclusive access to papers or someone puts an idea into my head." He added that he would rather write unauthorized biographies because they do not hinder his objectivity. "Writing an authorized biography can in itself be a hindrance," he explained. "You get friendly with people, and you withhold." Spoto concluded that when writing biography, "I believe in the Chekhovian approach. You have to know more than you tell."
Spoto's biographies of Saints Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc received several admiring reviews. Booklist contributor Ray Olson called Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi a "serious, thought-provoking book" that illuminates the saint's "fabled gentleness, courtesy, and faith." In Library Journal, David I. Fulton noted the book's contemporary feel—which he felt created a rather "staged" effect—but commended its readability and insight. First Things critic Russell Hittinger also commented on the book's modern sensibility, concluding that "Spoto imposes a modern type on the story of a late-medieval soul. We should be surprised if it were otherwise. But he gives us only one aspect of that ‘type,’ namely the drama of life-affirming suffering threatened with defeat at the hands of law and restitutions. The other aspects, including the ambition to create a new order among brothers, and Francis' curious but unwavering reliance upon law and international authority to create such an order, are not given their due."
Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, is an "engaging and at times gripping biography" of Joan of Arc, the French peasant teenager who, believing she had been instructed to do so by God, led a military campaign late in the Hundred Years War to free France from English control. She became a heroine of her country, only to be accused of heresy soon afterward and burned at the stake. Critics admired Spoto's ability to present Joan's humanity and to explain the complexities of church and state politics of the time. Margaret Flanagan, writing in Booklist, observed that Spoto "breathes new life" into a subject that has attracted numerous biographers over the years.
A more contemporary icon serves as Spoto's subject in Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn. The popular film star, who was raised in the Netherlands and almost starved to death there as a teenager during the Nazi occupation, delighted American audiences in such roles as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Hepburn spent her later years working as a special ambassador to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); she died of cancer in 1993. In Enchantment Spoto depicts Hepburn as an immensely charming and determined, if sometimes vulnerable, woman who achieved success in Hollywood but less happiness in her domestic life. Though Variety writer Diane Garrett felt that the book "delivers plenty of dish but far too little insight," other critics found it fresh and engaging.
A contributor to Publishers Weekly described it as a "sparkling, fawning" account of Hepburn's life, while Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist, hailed the book as "elegant." And in New York Times, Liesl Schillinger wrote that Enchantment is an "intimate, respectful and nuanced portrait of this avatar of glamour [that] reveals her human frailties and remarkable strength of character." Spoto, wrote Frederic Raphael in Spectator, is "very nearly spot-on."
Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates drew high praise from London Observer critic Vanessa Thorpe. The biography, as Thorpe described it, shows that in his personal and professional life Bates thoroughly "embodied the vital cultural revolution of the 1960s, with its emphasis on truth, complexity, and the ‘real’ world." Bates, who died in 2003, began his career on the London stage, appearing in plays by, among others, John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He went on to star or co-star in several major films, including Far from the Madding Crowd, Zorba the Greek, and Women in Love. Spoto sheds light on Bates's early relationship with Peter Wyngarde, described by Thorpe as the actor's "secret boyfriend," as well as his marriage and his later career. "The actor who emerges in this biography," wrote Thorpe, "is a compassionate man who was drawn to troubled souls, who disliked the passivity he detected in himself, but was capable of communicating and understanding psychological subtleties."
Spoto once told CA: "The writer's vocation is extraordinarily simple, and simply extraordinary—and at the same time a positive joy. It is nothing less than the constant attempt to make order out of chaos, first within himself, then with words, for the healing of the world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Biography, winter, 2007, Linda Griffiths, review of Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, p. 137.
Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1993, John and Carl Bellante, "Interview with Donald Spoto," pp. 20-21, 25-26.
Booklist, April 1, 1995, review of Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, p. 1354; July, 1998, Barbara Baskin, review of Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, p. 1899; August, 1998, Ray Olson, review of The Hidden Jesus: A New Life, p. 1920; December 1, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life; September 1, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, p. 25; October 1, 2004, Donna Chavez, review of In Silence: Why We Pray, p. 306; July 1, 2006, Ilene Cooper, review of Enchantment, p. 5; October 1, 2006, Margaret Flanagan, review of Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, p. 31.
Boston Globe, May 17, 1996, review of Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean, p. 58.
Entertainment Weekly, November 3, 1995, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor, p. 60.
Film Quarterly, spring, 1977, review of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, p. 57; summer, 1979, review of Stanley Kramer: Film Maker, p. 62; summer, 1986, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 35; winter, 1992, Gregg Rickman, review of Laurence Olivier, p. 61.
First Things, March, 2003, Russell Hittinger, "A Francis for Our Times," p. 55.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of Reluctant Saint, p. 1111; July 15, 2006, review of Enchantment, p. 717; November 1, 2006, review of Joan, p. 1118.
Library Journal, January, 1998, Gordon Blackwell, review of Notorious; October 15, 1998, George Westerlund, review of The Hidden Jesus, p. 75; October 15, 1999, Michael Rogers, review of The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock; February 1, 2000, Maria C. Bagshaw, review of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis; November 15, 2002, David I. Fulton, review of Reluctant Saint, p. 77; October 1, 2006, Anna M. Donnelly, review of Joan, p. 82.
London Review of Books, September 5, 1985, Michael Church, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 26, 1985, Dan Sullivan, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 4; May 14, 1989, "Lenya: A Life," p. 6; May 6, 1990, Patrick Goldstein, review of Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, p. 8; September 27, 1992, review of Blue Angel, p. 1; May 2, 1993, review of Marilyn Monroe, p. 2.
Nation, July 20, 1985, Gerald Weales, review of The Kindness of Strangers.
New Republic, May 13, 1985, Edmund White, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 36.
New Statesman & Society, May 7, 1993, review of Marilyn Monroe, pp. 40-41.
Newsweek, April 11, 1983, Jack Kroll, review of The Dark Side of Genius, p. 75.
New York Review of Books, April 26, 1984, Michael Wood, review of The Dark Side of Genius, p. 22; June 13, 1985, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 5.
New York Times, March 15, 1983, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "The Dark Side of Genius," p. 23; October 1, 2006, Liesl Schillinger, "An Insecure Ingenue and an Uneasy Everyman," p. 13.
New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1979, "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock," p. 43; March 6, 1983, Richard Grenier, review of The Dark Side of Genius, p. 1; April 21, 1985, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 3; April 13, 1986, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 38; April 30, 1989, review of Lenya: A Life, p. 12; April 22, 1990, review of Madcap, p. 20; August 9, 1992, review of The Dark Side of Genius, p. 3; June 11, 1995, review of A Passion for Life, p. 45; October 8, 2006, Thomas Mallon, review of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, p. 20.
Observer (London, England), June 10, 2007, Vanessa Thorpe, review of Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates.
People, January 8, 1996, Clare McHugh, review of The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor, p. 34; March 27, 2000, David Cobb Craig, review of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
Publishers Weekly, March 20, 1995, review of A Passion for Life, p. 51; October 9, 1995, review of The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor, p. 70; May 25, 1998, Dori Perrucci, "Donald Spoto," August 31, 1998, review of The Hidden Jesus; January 17, 2000, review of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis; September 9, 2002, review of Reluctant Saint, p. 61; October 11, 2004, review of In Silence, p. 77; July 17, 2006, review of Enchantment, p. 154; October 9, 2006, review of Joan, p. 51.
Spectator, October 21, 1989, review of Lenya, p. 38; October 19, 1991, review of Laurence Olivier, p. 42; May 1, 1993, review of Marilyn Monroe, p. 38; June 24, 2006, Frederic Raphael, "Her Own Worst Admirer."
Time, May 9, 1983, John Skow, review of The Dark Side of Genius, p. 85; May 13, 1985, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 74; April 23, 1990, review of Madcap, p. 96.
Times (London, England), May 19, 1983, review of Lenya.
Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 1985, review of The Kindness of Strangers, p. 685; December 1, 1989, review of Lenya, p. 1335; October 11, 1991, review of Laurence Olivier, p. 20; December 25, 1992, review of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, p. 16; May 7, 1993, review of Dietrich, p. 9; May 5, 1995, review of Elizabeth Taylor, p. 27.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 10, 1990, review of Lenya, p. 8; July 19, 1992, review of Blue Angel, p. 9.
UPI NewsTrack, September 20, 2006, "Bio: Audrey Hepburn Not Interested in Fame."
Variety, October 2, 2006, Diane Garrett, review of Enchantment, p. 127.
Village Voice, September 18, 1990, Katherine Dieckmann, review of Madcap, p. 73.
Washington Post Book World, April 14, 1985, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Kindness of Strangers, pp. 3, 7; July 19, 1992, Quentin Crisp, review of Blue Angel, p. 1, 10.
Writer's Digest, June, 1998, Steve Boisson, "Donald Spoto's Legendary Lives."
PEN USA,http://www.penusa.org/ (October 20, 2003), "PEN Center USA Announces 2003 Literary Award Winners."
Reluctant Saint,http://www.reluctantsaint.tv/ (October 20, 2003).