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Ms. Secrest was sufficiently skilled as a writer to paraphrase without those now-unobtainable direct quotes, but she writes that:

“What astounded me was that [Clark‘s] children, who had been all too ready with their parental criticisms, should have turned on me with their point man, Alan Clark… . Peter Quennell was the only reviewer who seemed to have noticed the contradiction. He wrote, ‘meanwhile his elder son has denounced the book as “tawdry … trashy … dreadfully banal,” though junior members of the family have contributed descriptions of his family life that are, to say the least of it, astonishingly candid.’”

There were other minefields in telling Clark’s life story, including a bevy of mistresses, and by the time the book was published, the biographer had been perhaps too careful for her own good:

“The sales … were disappointing. That perceptive observer, the late Diana Menuhin, thought the problem was that my biography was ‘too discreet and courteous’ and that I was damned in some quarters for not ‘viciously exposing’ [Clark], while still adding more information that ‘he in his skillfully slippery way slid past.’”

When she started writing about Clark’s life, Ms. Secrest admits, she was seriously overconfident:

“I had written two other successful biographies, ‘Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks,’ and ‘Being Bernard Berenson.’ The latter was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. I won a Guggenheim Fellowship at the same time, and started thinking I could do no wrong. That was my first mistake.”

The problems Ms. Secrest encountered in dealing with the nest of vipers surrounding Kenneth Clark cropped up again in some of her later projects. Despite her vow to avoid biographies of living subjects, she tackled Stephen Sondheim and once more found herself saddled with someone very much alive and all too capable of making his feelings felt.

Her decision to avoid exploration of his sex life again led to charges that she was being too tame. Even when her subject was dead, his family could present a web of tangled problems, especially if she became close to one of them, as she did to Richard Rodgers‘ daughter Mary. Ms. Secrest writes ruefully that “predictably, the family was not pleased. I was back with the old conundrum I had faced with the Clarks: the private truth versus the public facade, appearance versus reality.”

Experience taught this by-now-seasoned biographer valuable lessons, but this did not necessarily lead to changed behavior. The charm of Ms. Secrest’s book lies largely in her patent enjoyment of her enterprise as well as in her dedication to what she sees as her mission in writing someone’s life.

She understands issues of privacy quite well and shows in writing about herself that she values it; her glimpses of her own biography are appropriately discreet. But then she is not a public figure, and she rightly believes that when writing about them, privacy has to be balanced by other, more germane concerns. “Shoot the Widow” shows just how much of a balancing act her career has been, but there is no doubt that for all the occasional moments of terror and despair, she has gloried in walking that tightrope.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.