SHOOT THE WIDOW: ADVENTURES OF A BIOGRAPHER IN SEARCH OF HER SUBJECT
Knopf, $25.95, 242 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
In the middle years of the 20th century, John Gunther’s “Inside” series (“Inside Europe,” “Inside Africa,” etc.) were such a phenomenon that he actually wrote a book called “The Story of the Inside Books.” Although Meryle Secrest is not nearly as famous an author as he was, she has carved out for herself a certain niche as a biographer over the past three decades and I was reminded of Gunther’s inside look at his own career when reading “Shoot the Widow.”
Apart from the obvious reference to the title, the fake bullet holes in its cover seem to suggest an inside look behind the scenes of a biographer’s life and career and Ms. Secrest certainly delivers this in her spirited, revealing memoir.
Most striking in this book is its author’s gusto, the immense fun and pleasure she has had over the years researching and writing her biographies. They have taken her far afield from her straitened upbringing in wartime Bath in the west of England and liberated her from a parlous life trying to earn her living as a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.
Getting hold of painter Romaine Brooks’ papers for her first biography took her to Paris, writing about Kenneth Clark to his bona fide castle in Kent, interviewing Stephen Sondheim to his cluttered Turtle Bay townhouse in New York. But more satisfying than the geographical roamings were the entrees into so many fascinating circles and milieus.
Ms. Secrest seems to have relished these opportunities, although they were not without peril. Sometimes the peril was legal, having to do with obtaining permission to use copyrighted material from subjects or their heirs, or the very real fear of libel suits resulting from Britain’s draconian laws.
But a couple of times, it was decidedly illegal, as when Ms. Secrest’s investigations into the art market frauds of Salvador Dali resulted in a veiled death threat and her questions about Richard Rodgers’ connections with the Mafia in the days of his Broadway collaboration with Lorenz Hart produced a more pointed one. Who knew that the make-believe world of musical comedy could be so fraught with actual danger?
The injunction to a fanciful, if all too tempting, act of violence that provides Ms. Secrest with her title comes from fellow biographer Justin Kaplan and she goes still further:
“I was reminded of what [he] called the first rule of biography: ‘Shoot the widow.’ Along with his literary executor, his publisher, his agent, his offspring and anyone else you could think of.”
In her biography of art historian Kenneth Clark, best known for the masterly television series “Civilisation,” Ms. Secrest at first found herself dealing with a live — and very wily and manipulative — subject, plus alcoholic wife and three children all too anxious to talk about their parents.
By the time she actually published her book, his wife had died and so had he, but not before marrying again and leaving the writer with a widow armed with an agenda all her own. Those talkative Clark children taught her a hard lesson when they wanted to exercise control over what went into their father’s biography:
“What eventually emerged was that, in exchange for the approval of direct quotes, the family wanted veto power over the revised manuscript. After a year’s battering I was in no mood to show them anything else. I told them to go to hell.”