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Stone, Irving (1903-1989)

Stone, Irving (1903-1989)

A prolific, best-selling author whose entertaining biographical novels and "biohistories" have proved far more popular with readers than with scholars or critics, Irving Stone is best known for works that, in the words of one critic, are pleasing to people who like their history "a little embellished with fiction." By far his two most memorable works are a pair of books that offer monumental, sweeping accounts of the lives of two world-class artists: Lust for Life: A Novel of Vincent van Gogh (1934) and The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Novel of Michelangelo (1961). Stone also wrote a series of popular fictionalized histories of the nation's First Families: The President's Lady (1951), about Andrew and Rachel Robards Jackson; Love Is Eternal (1954), about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; and Those Who Love (1965), about John and Abigail Smith Adams. American political radicals figured in some of Stone's other works, such as Sailor on Horseback: The Biography of Jack London (1938), a book that, in translation, was immensely popular in the former Soviet Union; Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941), and Adversary in the House (1947), an account of Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs.

Irving Stone, who took his family name from his stepfather after his mother's remarriage, was born Irving Tennenbaum in San Francisco, California, on July 14, 1903 to Charles and Pauline Rosenberg Tennenbaum. As a child, Stone was a self-described "hopeless bookworm," who was inspired to be a writer after devouring the work of Jack London, Frank Norris, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Atherton. In order to continue his education after graduating from high school, Stone took a variety of odd jobs to work his way through the University of California, including saxophone player, fruit picker, meat packer, and hotel clerk. He majored in political science, graduating with honors in 1923, and taught economics at the University of Southern California while working toward his Masters degree there. But he soon abandoned his academic career to indulge his passion for writing. With ambitions to be a dramatist, he moved to New York, but few of his scripts made it to the stage. Like many American intellectuals of the period, he spent some time in Paris, where he chanced to see an exhibit of van Gogh's paintings that forever changed his direction. "It was the single most compelling emotional experience of my life," he later said, and immediately embarked on extensive research into the life of the nineteenth-century Impressionist painter. After rejection by more than a dozen publishers, during which time Stone supported himself by writing pulp-detective stories, his Van Gogh biography was finally published in 1934, as Lust for Life, and quickly became a best-selling book. (It would later be made into a popular film starring Kirk Douglas.)

Stone made one more foray into playwriting, however; but when his Broadway drama, Truly Valiant, closed after one performance in 1935, he realized he had no talent for the medium and, from then on, he devoted himself exclusively to biographical subjects with the help of his new bride, Jean Factor, who collaborated with him as an editor or co-writer. Among the works they jointly edited was Dear Theo (1937), based on the correspondence between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother. Several of the biographies Stone wrote over the next ten years were favorable portraits of progressive political figures admired by their author, including Jack London, Clarence Darrow, and Eugene V. Debs. Another book, Earl Warren (1948), featured the then-California governor and future Chief Justice of the United States. In the 1950s, Stone began using the term "biohistory" to describe his works, such as Men to Match My Mountains (1956), written for Doubleday's Mainstream of America series, a fictionalized narrative of the settling of the American West.

Next turning his attention to the life of Michelangelo Buonarrotti, Stone commissioned the first complete translation of the Renaissance artist's letters into English and spent more than two years living in Italy, near sites significant to his subject. The result, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), sold several million copies, was made into a motion picture starring Charlton Heston, and earned Stone decorations from the Italian government. Stone and his wife subsequently edited 600 of the letters into I, Michelangelo, Sculptor (1962), a first-person portrait. That year also saw the publication of Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait, which Stone edited with historian Allen Nevins. Other subjects for Stone's works have included Charles Darwin (The Origin, 1980); and Sigmund Freud (The Passions of the Mind, 1971). In a century in which popular culture appropriated politics, art, literature, and history, Stone was a preeminent purveyor of the accessible mainstream biography. Stone died on August 26, 1989.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Novel of Michelangelo. New York, Doubleday, 1961.

——. An Irving Stone Reader. New York, Doubleday, 1963.

——. Love Is Eternal. New York, Doubleday, 1954.

——. Lust for Life: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh. New York, Longmans Green & Company, 1934.

——. Men to Match My Mountains. New York, Doubleday, 1956.

——. The Origin. New York, Doubleday, 1980.

——. The Passions of the Mind: A Novel of Sigmund Freud. New York, Doubleday, 1971.

Stone, Irving and Jean Stone, editors. Dear Theo. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1937.

——. I, Michelangelo, Sculptor. New York, Doubleday, 1962.

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