March 2012

Character Witness

A far cry from staid desk jockeys, biographers regularly court ecstasy, terror and obsession in illuminating their subjects

TOM
NOLAN

ILLUSTRATION: SHOUT

Biography, a literary form as old as the Romans and as current as Barack Obama, has gotten its share of knocks over the years—mostly from people wary of becoming its target. “Tomb-breakers,” Willa Cather tagged would-be biographers—and destroyed many of her personal papers, lest they fall into such scholars’ hands. “Birds of ill omen,” Gore Vidal called the cradle-to-grave chroniclers—and made a point of personally writing his memoirs so as to have the first, if not final, word on his own life.

But most of the thousands of writers (including this one) who persist in producing such books—some of whom will be discussing the genre at the Biographers International Organization’s third annual Compleat Biographer Conference May 18–20 at USC—have quite a different view of this craft and (dare we hope) art.

“I think it’s a terrifically noble calling, actually,” says Southern California author James Curtis, whose recent Spencer Tracy: A Biography follows earlier well-received works about Preston Sturges, James Whale and W.C. Fields. “It’s not my job to make you like or love my subject—or to hate my subject. It’s my job to illuminate the subject and the things he or she was up against: the way in which they achieved what they achieved, their philosophies, insecurities, gifts, shortcomings and ultimately the price they paid to be who they were.”

Curtis’ book on Tracy weighs in at 1,001 pages, an impressive rebuke to the oft-heard complaint that even the most interesting life can be covered with adequacy in less than half that length. He, however, scoffs at the notion, citing the time the powers-that-be at MGM were asked, “How long should a film be?” and the answer came back, “How long is good?”

“[Length] doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, so long as what you’re continuing with is valid and germane,” Curtis says. “The challenge to me in writing a book seems to be that you’ve got to be able to offer and accomplish something that cannot be done on the Internet. I think that’s one of the reasons the [Tracy] book ended up being as long as it is. We were striving for something you couldn’t easily get in another package.”

Cal State Long Beach professor Stephen Cooper’s 2000 biography of Los Angeles novelist and screenwriter John Fante, Full of Life, clocked in at a more common length of 400 pages (including notes and index), but it, too, reflected a heartfelt wish to do what had not been done.

“I’d been carrying the torch for Fante’s work for so many years,” says Cooper, who had not previously written a book. “I had, I suppose, absorbed his writing into my DNA, so to speak...[Still,] since his writings were to some important extent still an unknown factor in American letters—but for the [Fante] cult, which had been there for some years—I did feel I’d be introducing him to the world.”

To write a proper biography, Cooper felt, it was key that he gain the trust and cooperation of Fante’s widow, Joyce. “I went over [to the Fante house in Malibu] for several preliminary meetings when she was sort of sizing me up,” he recalls. “We would have coffee at first out on the patio. Eventually, she invited me into the dining room, and after several such meetings, she looked me in the eye—she had these really piercing, pale blue eyes—and said, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I hadn’t prepared an answer to this. I said, ‘I want to tell the truth about John Fante.’ That was the moment that persuaded her.”

Joyce Fante granted the novice author extensive interviews and unlimited access to her late husband’s archive: “By the end, I’d heard her crying: for the way he hurt her, for the way she loved him so deeply, for the way he grew so old and ill and suffered so terribly toward the end of his life. I think it’s fair to say I came to a fairly three-dimensional appreciation for a fairly complex person who was also, at his best, a great writer.”

Joyce Fante granted the novice author extensive interviews and unlimited access to her late husband’s archive: “By the end, I’d heard her crying: for the way he hurt her, for the way she loved him so deeply, for the way he grew so old and ill and suffered so terribly toward the end.”

Cooper labored for five years on his Fante book while working full-time as a college teacher and part-time as a UCLA Extension instructor. “It was a consuming project in all senses of the word,” he says. “I was ecstatic at times to have such a fierce focus in my life, and at other times, I wished there were larger worlds to inhabit...There were times I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to finish it.”

That’s not an uncommon feeling for biographers who find themselves two or three years into a project, as they work surrounded by cartons of research material in constant pursuit of interviews with scores of people known to their subject.

Ann Rowe Seaman, a Texas-born biographer who divides her time between Austin and L.A., felt a different sort of anxiety when writing her two books—one on evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, which won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Best Book of Nonfiction Award, and the other on atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, once labeled by Life magazine as the most hated women in America for her high-profile 1960s campaign against religion in public schools.

“What I was more scared of than anything was not getting a good story and doing a bad job,” says the former journalist and documentary-film writer, whose grandmother’s brother was editor of the Dallas Morning News for 35 years.

As it happens, Seaman—whose subjects’ real-world environments proved more problematic than those of the average cinema legend or literary icon—had cause during her research for all sorts of alarm. “When I saw some of the seedy places where I was gonna be knocking on doors,” she recalls, “I was a little worried. I ended up talking to criminals and dangerous people, as well as very, very high-minded, intelligent people—quite a contrast.”

One unique event she witnessed was the private Texas interment of murder victim O’Hair, who disappeared along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 and whose dismembered remains were found in 2001, after Seaman had begun researching her life. “It was a secret burial. There was no religious ceremony or anything, because she was an atheist, and her only surviving son, from whom she had been estranged for decades, honored her wish not to have any prayers. The son invited me ’cause I’d interviewed him several times.”

While doing both of her books, Seaman says, there were times she feared for her personal safety. In one incident, she found herself bunked overnight in a private home’s guest area with no lockable door. She awoke several times during the night to see another visitor—one she understood to be a murderer and drug addict—standing at the foot of her bed, staring at her.

“He always turned and left when I woke up. After the third visit, I opened my Swiss Army knife under the covers and decided where I would stick him if he tried to attack.” He never did; she later surmised he was after the purse near her pillow. Near dawn, he disappeared into another part of the house for good. “I fell into an exhausted sleep and then rolled over onto the knife. It stuck me in the leg. It didn’t break the skin, but I thought, Oh, my God, now what?

Having chosen a couple of potentially sensationalistic subjects, Seaman understands the wariness some feel toward potential biographers: “I do believe there are tomb-breakers out there—I’ve met some of ’em—just trying to skim the cream off the top of the story.”

But, she counters, “the biographers I know personally, the ones that are my friends, all have a sense of real responsibility. It’s an awesome task, to take on someone’s life and interpret that to the world.” She mentions something familiar to many biographers: the pleasure that comes, after extensive research, in putting all the puzzle pieces together.

“If there’s one thing that really continues to interest me about doing this sort of work,” says Spencer Tracy chronicler Curtis, “it’s going from...a kind of surface knowledge, digging down so deeply that you arrive at a point where you’re probably more expert on the subject than anyone else living. That’s the point where you take all this stuff you’ve gathered like a ravenous squirrel, and it all comes together. You go, ‘Oh, that’s what was happening!’ whether it was something of a big career-changing basis or something artistically profound that contributed to the creation of a lasting piece of work. It all kind of mixes up together, but at the end of the day you’re looking at a level of understanding that didn’t exist before.”

Diligence of effort, devotion to task, delight in revelation—all a far cry from the cliché calumnies hurled at modern-day Boswells. “I’ve never understood the blanket charge—which you hear more from pointy-headed English professors,” says Fante writer Cooper, “that biography is an intrusion, a sort of wannabe literature, and it’s unseemly and irrelevant. I’ve never understood that at all. Before I ever became a professor, and still to this day, I think biography is, at [its] best, a magnificent form.”

Nonetheless, once that maybe-magnificent book is between covers, a biographer must still endure what Seaman calls the worst shock of all: “You have to go out and promote yourself. That’s the worst! Biographers—most of us, anyway—are not the kind of people who like to get up and shuffle off to Buffalo on the stage...get on the phone and try to persuade somebody to interview us on the radio. It’s just not in my nature. I hate that stuff.”

TOM NOLAN, a freelance writer since 1966, became a biographer in 1999 with his book on Ross Macdonald. He last authored Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet.