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Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subjectby Meryle Secrest
Synopses & Reviews
The first rule of biography, wrote Justin Kaplan: "Shoot the widow."
In her new book, Meryle Secrest, acclaimed biographer ("Knowing, sympathetic and entertainingly droll" — The New York Times), writes about her comic triumphs and misadventures as a biographer in search of her nine celebrated subjects, about how the hunt for a "life" is like working one's way through a maze, full of fall starts, dead ends, and occasional clear passages leading to the next part of the puzzle.
She writes about her first book, a life of Romaine Brooks, and how she was led to Nice and given invaluable letters by her subject's heir that were slid across the table, one at a time; how she was led to the villa of Brooks' lover, Gabriele d'Annunzio (poet, playwright, and aviator), a fantastic mausoleum left untouched since the moment of his death seventy years before; to a small English village, where she uncovered a lost Romaine Brooks painting; and finally, to 20, rue Jacob, Paris, where Romaineâ€™s lover, Natalie Barney, had fifty years before entertained Cocteau, Gide, Proust, Colette, and others.
Secrest describes how her next book — a life of Berenson &3151; prompted Francis Steegmuller, fellow biographer, to comment that he wouldn't touch the subject with a ten-foot pole.
For her life of British art historian Kenneth Clark, Secrest was given permission to write the book by her subject, who surreptitiously financed it in the hopes of controlling its contents; we see how Clark's plan was foiled by a jealous mistress and a stash of love letters that helped Secrest navigate Clark's obstacle course.
Among the other biographical (mis)adventures, Secrest reveals: how she tracked Salvador DalÃ to a hospital room, found him recovering from serious burns sustained in a mysterious fire, and learned that he was knee-deep in a scandal involving fake drawings and prints and surrounded by dangerous characters out of Murder, Inc....and how she went in search of a subject's grave (Frank Lloyd Wright's) only to find that his body had been dug up to satisfy the whim of his last wife.
A fascinating account of a life spent in sometimes arduous, sometimes comical, always exciting pursuit of the truth about other lives.
"'To explain the homicidal title first: it's an axiom coined by Justin Kaplan, the distinguished biographer of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and it refers to one of the main hazards we practitioners of the genre face. I instantly recognized its provenance: Kaplan, the first professional biographer I ever knew, used to warn me about the obstacles that spouses of dead subjects can strew in a prospective biographer's path: permissions withheld, archives closed, requests for interviews denied. On the one hand, you need their co-operation to get the job done; on the other, they tend to get in the way. Maybe Secrest's title should have been: 'Obtain the Widow's Papers, Then Shoot the Widow.' A career biographer, Secrest has nine biographies under her belt, among them Leonard Bernstein, Kenneth Clark and Salvador Dal. It's an eclectic mix — not an altogether reassuring sign. The greatest biographers — Michael Holroyd, Richard Ellmann, Leon Edel, Edmund Morris, Richard Holmes, to list a few at random — have imposed on themselves a mandate to enter as deeply as they can into another's mind and character: in Holmes's word, to 'haunt' their subjects. The job can take a lifetime.Secrest doesn't haunt as much as insinuate. Her method is pragmatic. 'Deciding on a subject is mostly a cold-blooded business of weighing the subject against potential markets, timeliness, the availability of material and the likelihood of getting the story, the kinds of factors publishers have to worry about.' Sometimes she's authorized; sometimes she's not. Sometimes the matter of authorization is left ambiguous. She shares with us, perhaps unwisely, John Guare's telling anagram for her name: Merely Secrets To her credit, Secrest is a lively storyteller — better than she knows. She puts herself down as 'a nosy parker,' a 'boring' stylist who finds the whole process 'baffling.' But she's too hard on herself. Arriving at Lord Clark's ancient country manor, she finds the venerable art historian 'sitting in the living room, his mouth half open, looking flustered and vague. He had had a coup de vieux, he said.' It's a touching moment — portrait of a great man on his way out. Maybe Secrest should write an autobiography. The glimpses she offers of her own life — her English childhood in Bath; the revelation, blurted out in passing, that she was an 'unwanted child' — are tantalizing. She tearfully confesses to one of her subjects, Stephen Sondheim, the 'years of self-examination' she's undergone. Tell us more. 61 b&w photos. (June 7) James Atlas, the publisher of Atlas Books, is the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A bundle of letters turns up in an attic; a widower waits behind a cobwebbed window; a note falls out of a dusty book. This is how we like to think biographies get written. Art so often feels like an act of concealment, and biography one of exposure, that it's easy to imagine the writer as a detective on her subject's trail. Hence the promisingly hard-boiled title of Meryle Secrest's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) new memoir, 'Shoot the Widow.' But in this engaging account of the writing of nine lives, including 'Frank Lloyd Wright' and 'Salvador Dali,' Secrest reveals that biography in fact requires a very different set of skills. Someone, somewhere, usually knows what really happened. Her problem is to get them to tell her, or let her read the letters or allow the quotes to be published. Her most important tools are not sleuthing and spycraft but tact and sympathy. Which is not to say that there are never adventures involved. Secrest was a culture reporter for The Washington Post in the late 1960s when she went to Paris to research her first book, on the American expatriate painter Romaine Brooks. To get hold of Brooks' letters to her lover, the Parisian writer and salonnihre Natalie Barney, Secrest had to smuggle them out of Barney's house on the Left Bank, under the nose of an imperious literary executor, with the help of Barney's secretary and housekeeper. Her book on Brooks appeared in 1974; its critical success encouraged more. In subsequent books, Secrest showed sympathy for subjects whose appearance and reality didn't match: Wright, who was grandiose and vulnerable, or the art historian Bernard Berenson, whose persona of intellectual authority concealed the money he had made in shady art sales. One of Secrest's most difficult projects was the dashing art historian and television personality Sir Kenneth Clark, known as K. He asked Secrest to write about him and gave her carte blanche, though he startled her at first during an interview at his castle in Kent: 'K ... then wrapped me in his arms and said something outlandish like having loved me from the moment he saw me. I was quite grateful to be deposited, soon afterwards, on the train back to London.' Yet when Secrest was frank about Clark's wife's alcoholism and Clark's own numerous affairs, Clark, and later his son, attempted to sabotage the book. Honesty gets biographers in trouble, but sometimes it can work to their advantage. When she was courting the composer Stephen Sondheim as a subject, Secrest recalls, she found herself suddenly pouring out a story about her own difficult childhood. 'As I spoke, he looked kinder and kinder. Little did I know the effect such a display would have on him, and seeing anyone in distress was absolutely the one thing he could not bear. Without quite knowing what I was doing, I had won his cooperation.' In the end, the most difficult aspect of biography is making sense of what you find. In the midst of researching Brooks, Secrest realized that 'there was no logical progression, no step-by-step unveiling of the story. It was as if the tapestry of her life were being mapped out in tiny, unrelated sections of the canvas. Certain bright colors had been laid down, but their curious juxtapositions had not, so far, formed a coherent design.' While narratives are linear, lives go in all directions. Is there such a thing as a 'life story'? What, through biographies, can we know? The one odd thing about this otherwise fascinating book is that it gives so few clues to Secrest's own motives. She was born in Bath, England, she tells us, leaving out the date. (A trip to that essential biographical resource, the library, turns up the year 1930.) A turning point in her life was her immigration to Ontario, with her parents, at 19, when she took on a new, Canadian persona and discovered the trick of self-creation. She's probably on to something here about biographers' obsessions, but everything else in her life remains hidden from us: her two marriages and three children, the childhood troubles that she told to Sondheim but withholds from her readers. Her subjects' life stories support her memoir like pillars, while she herself slips in and out between them. It may be that biographers are duller than their subjects. But Secrest (whose name was once rearranged, by the playwright John Guare, into 'Merely Secrets') gives the impression that they just have more to hide. Julie Phillips is the author of the biography 'James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.'" Reviewed by H.W. BrandsRon CharlesMarilynne RobinsonTahir ShahJonathan YardleyAnnette Curtis KlauseRobert PinskyGrace LichtensteinJulie Phillips, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Secrest's memoir discloses the backstory of her path to biographer in a fascinating manner." St. Petersburg Times
"[Secrest's] tone is humorous and self-deprecating, and the vivid portraits of those she encounters during the course of her many adventures in biography are vivid and revealing." Library Journal
About the Author
Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and now lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of nine biographies and is the recipient of the 2006 National Humanities Medal.
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