Bowen, Catherine Drinker (1897–1973)

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Bowen, Catherine Drinker (1897–1973)

American author whose biography, Yankee from Olympus, was an immediate critical and popular success. Born Catherine Shober Drinker on January 1, 1897, in Haverford, Pennsylvania; died on November 1, 1973, in Haverford; youngest of six children of Henry Sturgis (a lawyer and longtime president of Lehigh University) and Aimee Ernesta (Beaux) Drinker; attended St. Timothy's, Catonville, Maryland; Peabody Conservatory of Music, Baltimore, Maryland; Institute of Musical Art, New York; married Ezra Bowen (an economist), in 1919 (divorced 1936); married Thomas McKean Downs (a surgeon); children: (first marriage) Ezra (b. 1921) and Catherine Drinker (b. 1924).

Selected works:

The Story of an Oak Tree (1924); A History of Lehigh University (1924); Rufus Star-Fiddlers(1935); Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikowsky and Nadejda von Meck (1937); Free Artist: The Story of Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein (1939); Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family (1944); John Adams and the American Revolution (1950); The Writing of Biography (1951); The Biographer Looks for News (1958); The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, 1552–1634 (1959); Adventures of a Biographer (1959); The Nature of the Artist (1961); The Historian (1963); Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man (1963); Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September, 1787 (1966); Biography: The Craft and the Calling (1969); Family Portrait (1970); The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin (1974).

Catherine Drinker Bowen, who was destined to become a highly respected biographer, devoted much of her early life to the pursuit of music, even bypassing college to play her violin. After a year of musical study in Baltimore, where her first orchestra conductor suggested that she "put her fiddle in the oven and burn it," she went on to obtain a teacher's certificate from the Institute of Musical Art in New York. She eventually abandoned thoughts of a musical career to marry Ezra Bowen, an economist at Lehigh University. Two children followed, a boy and a girl, while Catherine occupied her spare time writing articles on music and other subjects for popular periodicals including Current History, Pictorial Review, and the Woman's Home Companion. After experimenting with a children's book, a local history, a novel, and a book of essays on music and musicians, she eased into what would become her specialty—biography.

In 1936, Bowen divorced and returned to her hometown of Haverford, Pennsylvania, keeping her ex-husband's name for the sake of her children and budding literary career. (In 1939, she would marry Dr. Thomas McKean Downs and be known to her friends as "Mrs. Dr. Downs.") Bowen's first biographies centered on men of music. Beloved Friends: The Story of Tchaikowsky and Nadejda von Meck (1937), based on letters by the composer and his wealthy patron, was highly praised, especially by music critics. It became a Book-of-the-Month Club choice and was translated into several foreign languages. Her second biography, Free Artist: The Story of Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein, dealt with the Rubinsteins' relationship to the musical and political worlds of late tsarist Russia. Meticulously researched in museums and libraries in

Russia, Germany, and France, as well as through interviews with people who had known the musicians, the book was considered even superior to the well-received Beloved Friends.

Bowen found an even more comfortable niche with biographies focusing on the men who shaped American constitutional law, the first of which centered on Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. With the avowed intention "to bring Justice Holmes out of legal terms into human terms," Bowen undertook four years of research on the background, family, and career of the Supreme Court justice. The resulting book Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family (1944) was an immediate critical and popular success. The book was praised as a lively, readable account of the man, but many objected to its "fictionalized" form. Max Lerner, also an author of a book on Holmes (The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes), remarked, "the semi-fictional form becomes in itself a symbol of the effort, in the literature of recognition, to make things easy that will never be anything but hard."

Bowen too disapproved somewhat of her own literary choices, but went on to say, "without the scenes I have to create, my biographies read like children's notebooks." She next undertook scholarly, though still lively, accounts of John Adams and Sir Edward Coke, with the latter winning a prize from the American Philosophical Society as well as a National Book Award. After a study of Francis Bacon in 1963, her book Miracle at Philadelphia, which focused on the interactions and compromises necessary for the adoption of the Constitution, became assigned reading for political-science majors at hundreds of colleges.

In spite of the enormous amount of hours devoted to research and writing, Bowen also found time for both her family and her music. Reportedly, one of her greatest wishes was to play a quartet with Albert Einstein. She occasionally strayed from biography to take up the topic of biographical writing; Adventures of a Biographer (1959) and Biography: The Craft and the Calling (1968) offer readers insight into her travels, and the ups and downs of the research trail. Bowen's last book was The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin, which was published in 1974, a year after her death. In addition to exploring five periods in his life, the book contains Bowen's personal, and very positive, reflections on the American diplomat, author, and scientist.


Current Biography 1944. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Unger, 1979.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose Massachusetts