- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

English biographer Gerald Martin worked for 17 years on his massive biography of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life (Knopf, $37.50, 650 pages, illus.), and he claims that the effort was rewarding despite the impossibility of separating fact from myth in his subject’s life.

“Even when you can be sure that any particular anecdote is based on something that ‘really’ happened,” says the author in his foreword, “you still cannot pin it down to a single shape because you find that he has told most of the well-known stories about his life in several different versions, all of which have at least an element of truth.” Mr. Garcia Marquez, for his part, eventually endorsed Mr. Martin as his “official” biographer, which the author interprets to mean “his only officially tolerated biographer.”

This long, meticulously researched book is not an easy read, but it is about as clear and sympathetic as any biography of such a “magical” writer could be, linking biographic information with the products of the writer’s imagination and trying to sort out the mix. What emerges, primarily, is a sense of how very Latin American Mr. Garcia Marquez is. He seems able to tolerate Colombia itself only in his imagination, having absorbed all the family lore and liberal politics poured into him by his doting grandparents, with whom he lived for most of his early years, before he began to write, first as a journalist, then as a storyteller.

As a youth — born in 1927 the eldest of 11 children (there were some half-siblings too) — he was perpetually poor, in fact, “close to indigent.” His adored grandfather, the Colonel, died when the boy was 10. His grandmother told him tales of the supernatural as if they were true. Much of Mr. Garcia Marquez’s subsequent education came from extensive reading (Kafka was a favorite) and travel. He abandoned law school to write for newspapers; at age 28, he left for Europe and stayed for four years, traveling as far as Hungary and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After abandoning his Parisian girlfriend, he returned to Colombia to marry the patient Mercedes Barcha. He worked as a journalist in Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico, as well as in Colombia.

It was in Mexico, when he was 41, that his fiction-writing career took off with the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” composed in about a year. Says Mr. Martin, “Why was he now able, after so long, to write this book? He had realized, in a lightning flash of inspiration, that instead of a book about his childhood he should write a book about his memories of his childhood. Instead of a book about reality it should be a book about the representation of reality. … He should say farewell to Aracataca [the town fictionalized in his work as Macondo) by [EnLeader] putting into the novel everything that had happened to him, everything he knew about the world, everything that he was and that he embodied as a late-twentieth-century Latin American.…” The book’s success was instantaneous.

In 1966, Mr. Martin notes, Mr. Garcia Marquez wrote an article about writing: “Writing books is a suicidal profession. No other demands as much time, as much work, as much dedication, by comparison with its immediate benefits.… After this grim assessment of misfortunes, it is elementary to ask why we writers write. The reply, inevitably, is as melodramatic as it is sincere. One is a writer, simply, as one is a Jew or a Black.” He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

This biography will explain much about the writings of Mr. Garcia Marquez to his fans, but as the author says, “He has always wanted to control the version of his life that would be told — or tell several versions so that no one version can ever be told — as if to cover over forever the feelings of loss, betrayal, abandonment and inferiority that came to him from his childhood.”


According to social historian T.J. Stiles, if Bill Gates had liquidated his entire fortune in 2006 he would have taken out one dollar of every $130 circulating in the American economy. By way of comparison, had railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt liquidated in a similar manner at the peak of his career he would have received one dollar out of every $9 in circulation.

Greedy, power-hungry and gross, “Commodore” Vanderbilt epitomized the excesses of the Gilded Age. His extensively researched biography by Mr. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf, $37.50, 752 pages, illus.) is the picture of man driven by economic ambition, who, it would appear, gained little enjoyment from his immense wealth.

Born on Staten Island in 1794, young Vanderbilt found employment in the ferry trade around New York harbor. He gradually assembled a fleet of ferries, gained control of much of the shipping business in the harbor, and in the process gained the honorary title of Commodore.

Vanderbilt’s success in the shipping business led him to turn his attention to railroads at an age when most of his contemporaries were retiring. Beginning in the early 1860s, he acquired a series of short lines and merged them into the New York Central, which operated out of the first Grand Central Depot on East 42nd Street. By 1873, he had extended his line to Chicago.

About that time, Vanderbilt set out to seize control of his main competitor, the Erie Railroad, and thus to establish a rail monopoly between New York and the Midwest. For once, his reach exceeded his grasp. The Erie was controlled by financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, and in a series of stock manipulations these robber barons led Vanderbilt to overpay for watered stock. Vanderbilt reflected that “This Erie has taught me that it never pays to kick a skunk.”

Unlike some of his wealthy contemporaries, Vanderbilt had little interest in charity. However, one of his daughters urged that he support a small college in Tennessee, which, after receiving $1 million from the Commodore, changed its name to Vanderbilt University. This was an aberration. When a friend suggested he might put some of his fortune to good use, Vanderbilt shook his head, replying, “What you have got isn’t worth anything unless you have got the power.”

A broad-shouldered, handsome man with a fringe of whiskers, Vanderbilt for some time dabbled with spiritualism. Twice married, he had 13 children but was notably unfaithful to both wives, one of whom he had committed to an institution.

For Mark Twain, Vanderbilt represented everything that was wrong with the Gilded Age. “Pray do not be deceived by the laudation you receive,” Twain wrote in an article. “More of it belongs to your millions than to you.” Other members of the literati, including Henry Adams, were as offended by Vanderbilt’s oafish manners as by his predatory business practices.

It is tempting to compare Vanderbilt with our contemporary rogue entrepreneurs, but the railroad baron operated in a time when there was no pretense of government regulation. Mr. Stiles concludes that Vanderbilt “epitomized the commercial, individualistic society that emerged in the early nineteenth century, and contributed to the creation of a culture in which competition was a personal, economic, and political virtue.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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