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A biographer, her subjects and the fun she had
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?
“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.”
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.’”
“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.
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