Category Archives: Biographies

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox – Lois Banner

Lois Banner’s exhaustive study of the life of Marilyn Monroe reveals details of her fractured childhood, multiple foster homes, early sexual abuse, family mental instability and the fragile sense of self she parlayed into international stardom. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is not a pretty story. It begins in illegitimate hardship, burns periodically into iconic photographs and celluloid and ends in a confusion of drug addiction, cover-up and possible homicide. In between, a passably pretty girl with no prospects or education launches herself at Hollywood, determined to become the biggest possible star.

What Marilyn paid to purchase her unstoppable celebrity is difficult to evaluate. She grew up in an era when child rape was unreported and untreated. She had no stability at all throughout her entire life, birth to death. She turned herself into a hot pin-up, blonde bombshell, babycakes-come-hither seductress and she perfected that persona in real life and on film. It seems as if real life wasn’t any more real than the films to her. She was ambitious, canny, smart, savvy, fighting an uphill battle against a misogynist society and an even more sexist Hollywood system, using the only coin she had–her body and her mastery of the lens–to scale the heights.

Banner writes parts of this account in an irritating “I did this” and “No one else has ever uncovered that” style that is somewhat reminiscent of a research paper and somewhat just plain distracting. But most of the text seems meticulously referenced, assertions are extensively footnoted and the story is very readable–Marilyn is still good copy. The marriages to DiMaggio and Miller, the affairs with nearly everybody, including Sinatra, Yves Montand, several women and a couple of Kennedys, the brushes with overdose, the manipulative behavior on movie sets–it’s all in there in detail. So are the acts of kindness, memories of a bubbly, funny and winning personality, the perfectionism, the hunger to learn that drove Marilyn to read, study classics, music and art, the obsessive acting, voice and dance training  that helped her to become an accomplished performer, the numerous physical problems, personal slovenliness, casual nudity and strategically unleashed scandalous behavior. 

This Marilyn orchestrated much of her life and success, even as she was helpless to defeat the dark depressions, nightmares and insecurities that kept her restless and frightened. Was it fame or was it Norma Jeane Baker who was cracked? Did she ever have a prayer of overcoming her demons? Was she so far ahead of her time that she was destined to fail? Did she blaze a new trail for women or did she succumb to the endless traps set for people who challenge the status quo? And, most intriguing, what really happened the night she died? Banner has come up with evidence, copious but not definitive, that Marilyn Monroe may have paid with her life for crossing paths with the deadly Kennedy brothers.

There is certainly enough to question in the official accounts of her death and enough motivation to make the case for a possible hit. But there isn’t much in her life to argue for a happy ending in any case.  She knew every angle of the camera and tilt of the head that would ensure her immortality as an image. In the end, an image is all we have, part or wholly mnaufactured from the bits and pieces that Marilyn assembled and reassembled all her life to create her most enduring character, Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox   Lois Banner | Bloomsbury  2012

Lives of the Novelists – John Sutherland

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Okay, I did not read every single one of the 294 lives profiled in this 797-page book. But I read a fair few and was fascinated. John Sutherland has selected an historical sampling of major and who-was-that? authors who write in English. (I think that was the criteria–didn’t read any whose work is translated into English.) He claims that these writers have produced work that holds up for at least a century–but the brief bios are not uniformly enamored of the mad, disorderly, drunken, colorful, retiring, religious, impecunious, imaginative lot. Lives of the Novelists is a good read, to be attempted in a marathon or savored in bits over time. I would love to add it to my bookshelves to peruse at leisure.  Sutherland has saved us a lifetime of research and pulled aside a curtain on novels and writers who might have been forgotten.

There are quite a few women included–yay!–but not nearly as many as men. Lots of white guys, of course, but not exclusively the pale and privileged.  You could argue forcefully for those left out and fill another volume with them–if you had years to devote to the task. You could also just enjoy the story of Aphra Behn–free spirit, spy, playwright, novelist of exotic fiction set in locales like a Surinam slave plantation. You could relish the dish about all the du Mauriers–a made-up patronym that replaced the pedestrian surname Busson and allowed the family to give itself airs about forced exile, until the fabrication was exposed. James Joyce studied medicine in Paris but left after a year, considered becoming a professional singer and abandoned that idea, too. Ian Fleming wrote a James Bond book each year after the publication of the first, Casino Royale, until his death. He also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Alice Sebold was brutally raped while in college and her memoir Lucky and her novel The Lovely Bones are now staples of university classes on victim fiction. Sutherland doesn’t think much of her subsequent writing.

These very short “lives” are a glimpse of the person behind the fiction–some glimpses are mere sketches because so little is known. But it is compelling to see what formative years and experiences were like, who was influenced by whom and which motivation drove writers to the long labor of producing a book. For a very large number of them the inspiration was cold hard cash–not much has changed in nearly 400 years. Market forces determined what would sell; talent turned more than a few of those scribbles into art. Great classics languished unsung for years. Potboilers made their authors rich but were soon forgotten. Writers published any way they could: good connections, serialized in broadsheets, self-published, slipped through under a nom de plume. A messy business for messy lives, and often messy books.  Somehow, that’s reassuring.

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives   John Sutherland | Yale University Press   2012

The Master’s Muse – Varley O’Connor

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Varley O’Connor has produced an odd paean to Tanaquil Le Clercq, George Balanchine’s fifth wife, who danced exquisitely and to international acclaim until she was stricken with polio at the age of 27 on the New York City Ballet’s European tour. She never walked again but she survived and rebuilt a life for herself, a life with Balanchine and her own indomitable spirit at its core. The slightly surreal sense you get reading the book is because there is a vibrant, first-person character telling the story who feels absolutely true. The fictionalized Tanny seems like someone it would be refreshing and delightful to know–sophisticated, observant, wry, funny, caring and brave. She isn’t a diva about the tragedy of her useless limbs and lost career, her celebrity, and the people who fawned over her as long as she lived. She is in love with Balanchine, crushed by his eventual public infatuation with Suzanne Farrell, reluctant to divorce him, resolute about getting on with her life.

The dialog is so good I wished it wasn’t invented–although O’Connor lists prodigious research that included many interviews and remembered conversations. The insights about Balanchine, the artist and the man, are so compelling that I hoped they were true. Jerome Robbins is a major character and a fascinating character study. It was a page-turner, not in the sense of constant crisis, although there was that, but as an interesting recollection of lives lived large and in service to great passions. In short, Tanaquil Le Clercq’s life makes a fabulous story and I wanted to be sure the impressions of her I got were the truth. I suppose some were and some weren’t.

But read this book, if you have any interest in the world of classical dance and the process of making performing art. And take away from it that people can survive their most vivid nightmares with grace and determination–and find large and small reasons for gratitude and good humor every day. The cat is a winner. The details of what it is like to deal with even the simplest daily tasks with a disability is instructive. The inspirations for making dance read like the real thing. Pretty good book about a woman who was poised to become one of the biggest and most enduring stars the world of ballet had ever seen–and then matched the demands of that world, and the towering Balanchine, with her energy when her body could no longer keep up with her spirit.

The Master’s Muse: A Novel   Varley O’Connor | Scribner   2012

Clover Adams – Natalie Dykstra

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Clover Adams, born Marian Hooper in 1843, came from a relatively prominent and well-to-do Boston family beset by an operatic excess of tragedy. She was the baby of the family and her mother’s pet—her mother gave her the nickname Clover. But even the charms of a bright and beloved child were no match for the tuberculosis that claimed her life when Clover was only five. That was the first of the child’s major losses—throughout her life, a number of parental figures and family members died unexpectedly or committed suicide. When she was nine, her aunt, who had become a mother-figure to Clover after her mother’s death, separated from her husband and killed herself by drinking arsenic. Each loss stripped away more of Clover’s sanity and security. Natalie Dykstra examines those losses and Clover’s “gilded” life in her wonderfully researched biography Clover Adams.

Robert Hooper was devoted to his motherless children and focused all of his energy on their wellbeing and education. Clover went to the finest schools and received an education as good as or better than most young men of her station. She moved in a privileged world of social events, horseback rides, summers in grand houses on the New England shore, dinners with the best and the brightest artists and public figures at her table. Clover was plain, unlike her beautiful mother and sisters, and never was comfortable being painted or photographed. Despite her intelligence, lively curiosity and aptitude for engaging conversation, she married much later than her peers—at twenty-eight, to Henry Adams who fell hard for her despite his illustrious family’s disapproval.

Clover and Henry took the traditional grand tour of Europe during the year after their marriage and she suffered an alarming depression while they cruised the Nile for three months. But, by the time they returned to Europe, she had recovered and the couple socialized with American friends abroad and luminaries in the worlds of the arts, letters and politics. They spent several years in Boston on their return, living near Clover’s doting father while Henry taught at Harvard. Clover was uncommonly talented at setting up a gracious home and establishing a sought-after salon, skills she took to Washington when they moved to the capital so Henry could research his ambitious American histories, the books that would make his reputation.

By all accounts, Henry and Clover Adams lived a charmed life at the center of the social whirl that was Washington. All credit for this goes to Clover who was adept at managing invitations and who consistently maintained the most popular evenings of conversation. But she was searching. She stayed very close to her father, writing him copious letters every Sunday with remarkably gifted recountings of the world around her. Clover Adams was herself a talented writer but Henry, even as he supported and relied on her, made no move to share the literary glory in the family. Clover helped with his research and created a protected space for him to write in—and kept seeking some meaningful occupation of her own.

Eventually she discovered photography and set out to teach herself how to take pictures according to the same artistic standards of the paintings and drawings she and Henry collected. When her talent became obvious and she was asked to contribute a photograph for the cover of a prestigious magazine, Henry objected and she didn’t oppose him. The couple had thoroughbred dogs and horses but no children and Clover’s very full life began to seem empty to her. She and Henry grew apart and his affections shifted to a beautiful married younger mutual friend, although he made no move to act on the attraction and sought ways to protect Clover from another bout of depression.

The death of her father, coming after suicides and deaths in her immediate family, unhinged her and she was inconsolable, gradually slipping into isolation and hopeless melancholy. In December 1845 when she was 42 years old, she drank the potassium cyanide she used to develop her photographs and killed herself. Natalie Dykstra interprets the tragedy of Clover Adams as a mix of artistic and intellectual frustration, irreparable emotional loss at a young age and the possibility of genetic mental instability in her family. It’s hard to assign meaning to her brief life and death. All motives for the suicide could be true. Clover was clearly intelligent, charismatic and talented. She moved in a dazzling world at the top tier of society. She had her share of grief and found it insupportable. What is left is a modest legacy of epistolary and photographic accomplishment. Her husband was famous in his lifetime and remains a prominent historical literary figure. Clover Adams is a nearly forgotten story, brought to life in the pages of Dykstra’s book.

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life   Natalie Dykstra | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Van Gogh: The Life – Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

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Wheat Field with Crows was not the last painting Vincent Van Gogh ever made. And he most likely did not kill himself, despite popular legend. He did suffer all his life from serious and escalating mental illness and he started out to be an art dealer, not an artist, taking his place in the bourgeois family business. Van Gogh: The Life, an exhaustive examination of the painter’s biography, uses voluminous correspondence and close scrutiny of historical materials and the paintings to explain the trajectory of a genius.

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith track Vincent Van Gogh’s maternal and paternal families, his early upbringing as the son of a local pastor in Holland, the economic and political events that affected the family fortunes, his complex relationships with his parents and siblings, and the demons that gripped him with increasing ferocity. Failure and desperation drove Van Gogh to paint, first as a way to earn a living when his attempts to work for his uncle as a dealer of fine prints were an unmitigated disaster. Later he strove to earn his brother Theo’s respect and extricate himself from financial dependence on Theo, a goal he would never come close to realizing. And finally, the feverish bursts of painting held the nightmares in his mind at bay, staving off the devastating breakdowns that triggered episodes of bizarre behavior and incapacitated him for months.

He wondered in his letters how much more he might have painted had he been a stable and less intense person. His fragile mind was damaged by a family that couldn’t understand or support him. His family was torn apart by the public spectacle of a drinker, a madman, a restless habitué of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. Vincent satisfied his need for female companionship with prostitutes who often posed for him and occasionally lived with him. But he longed for a successful conventional life, even as his temperament and temper pushed him farther toward the margins. He was brilliant but the world was slow to apprehend and embrace his art. He tortured Theo for attention and money, and tortured his friends with chaotic behavior and angry verbal condemnation.

The biography fills in the life behind the iconic paintings. Starry Night has a heartbreaking backstory. The irises and the olive trees are a desperate attempt to capture a way of seeing, a singular beauty that the ugliness in his skull could not touch. Everything hurt him: letters from parents and siblings; rejection by women, employers, art dealers, exhibition juries; Theo’s happiness in his impending marriage and his eventual child; the criticism of his peers and rebuffs from artists like Gauguin. Van Gogh had the miserable fortune to live when mental illness was barely recognized and could not be accurately diagnosed and treated. Compounding the tragedy were the family genes—none too healthy—and his own brilliance. He knew how badly his life and his precarious mind served him and he tried repeatedly to create a tranquil home and loyal companionship for himself.

The ear incident is precisely and horribly described and the gunshot that would kill him is examined in the light of all the evidence and lack of evidence around the event. Naifeh and Smith make a convincing case for the theory that Vincent Van Gogh was the victim of a spoiled teenage bully’s prank, not a suicide attempt. If they are right, then he died protecting two boys from a charge of murder—and maybe chose death as a merciful release from the devastating monsters inside his own head. In the end you wonder if there would have been any Van Gogh masterpieces if the boy and the man had a more peaceful and traditionally productive life. With a wife, children, a thriving business and a family that accepted him and approved of him, Vincent Van Gogh might have been content to sell art made by other people and luxuriate in the comfort of his own emotional constancy and material success.

Van Gogh: The Life   Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith | Random House   2011

And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — Charles J. Shields

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Kurt Vonnegut was a Midwesterner in a riches-to-rags family who traveled far and wide but never escaped his roots. Charles J. Shields chronicles Vonnegut’s episodic life, triumphs and tragedies, in And So it Goes, a thorough biography that benefits from Vonnegut’s cooperation and access to scores of letters and interviews that fill in the picture. Sadly, Shields only managed a coupe of interviews before the accident that ended Vonnegut’s life at 84.

The Indianapolis Vonnegut family was prominent and moderately wealthy until the Depression wiped out their investments and left them scrambling to salvage a formerly comfortable life. Vonnegut missed the heyday of his family’s wealth—he was the youngest of three children—and he always felt he missed his parents’ attention and approval as well. His mother never adjusted to life without maids, luncheons, travel and society events and ended up committing suicide. His father never achieved the distinction as an architect that was the family heritage. Neither parent had much time for Kurt; what attention they did pay to their children was lavished mostly on his brilliant older brother, a precocious scientist.

Kurt had a talent for writing but agreed to major in science as a concession to family pressure to measure up. He was a serious college journalist but not a dedicated student—eventually he enlisted in the Army in World War II rather than be drafted. It was his personal misfortune and literary bonanza to be a prisoner of war in the firebombing of Dresden, waiting out the carnage that leveled the city in an underground meat locker called Slaughterhouse-5. When he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, his most celebrated novel, many years later, he created a meta-fiction to deal with the fact that he had not witnessed the carnage—he had been underground the whole time. The aftermath seared itself into his memory, though, and his many months as a starving prisoner turned him from a class-clown, zany character into a more sober and pacifist adult.

Marriage to his college-age crush took both of them to the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and a fellowship where they studied until Jane became pregnant with their first child. Vonnegut never completed his thesis—his first topic was not approved and his first effort was rejected–and left the university without a degree. That began decades of scrambling to be a successful freelance writer, interspersed with stints of working in public relations for General Electric and taking pick-up teaching jobs to feed his growing family. He and Jane settled on Cape Cod where they added his sister’s four boys to their own three kids after she and her husband died within weeks of each other. It was a generous gesture but unconsidered. The Vonnegut house was messy, uncontrolled chaos. Jane shouldered the burden of daily care, feeding and bill-paying while Vonnegut holed up in his study, chain-smoking and collecting rejections. Throughout her life, she supported his dreams about writing and served as a first reader and critic of his work.

Kurt Vonnegut might never have written his novels if friends in high places in publishing hadn’t taken him on. Magazine articles kept the menagerie going and kept Vonnegut’s vision of himself as a successful writer alive. His earliest books garnered some critical notice, some mixed reactions and underwhelming sales. But he persevered and found an audience, a raconteur’s talent for teaching and, in time, the fame he hungered for. Along the way he began a love affair and lifelong friendship with a woman he met while teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, drifted in and out of depressions, paid sporadic attention to the kids, wrote some plays and met the photographer Jill Krementz, who would become his second wife.

Krementz is an irredeemable monster in this biography. She squired Vonnegut around New York’s artsy haute monde and took over his life. Late in their marriage, she changed the locks on his Manhattan townhouse, determined who was allowed to visit, monitored his friendships and harangued him about his personal habits, writing and everything else that met with her disapproval. Meanwhile, Vonnegut, reacting to the reception of his work by a large, college-age audience, developed a marketable persona that became his public face. The clean-shaven Midwesterner let his hair grow, sported a bushy moustache and began to resemble more and more the Mark Twain character he was compared to.

And So It Goes punctures the hot air balloons of fame that lift up a celebrated writer and deliver him to the literary pantheon. Vonnegut was a flawed man and a flawed writer. He left wreckage and a lot of colorful anecdotes in his wake. But he was also beloved, by fans, the friends he didn’t alienate, his family and his students—not always and not blindly. His story is a good story, if not a happy one. He told it, very thinly disguised, in all of his books. Shields has untangled the timeline and fleshed it out for us. The biography made me want to go back and re-read a few of the books to connect the writer with the work that embodies his sense of humor, despair at the human condition and quirky vision.

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life   Charles J. Shields | Henry Holt and Company  2011

Wendy and the Lost Boys — Julie Salamon

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I was surprised at my negative reaction to Wendy and the Lost Boys, Julie Salamon’s exhaustive biography of Wendy Wasserstein’s life, loves, laugh lines, web of lies and artful dodges. I read it nearly straight through, out of curiosity—a bit like a highbrow National Enquirer read. Wasserstein was a media darling in this town and, as is common in New York City, I know people who know people who were intimately related to her. But I never saw one of her plays so I read the biography to learn more about a celebrated playwright and the merits of what she wrote.

Oy. Almost too much information—and much of it colored by a rose gel that softened the searing heat of an unfiltered white stage light. Wasserstein came from that most usual of American origins, the dysfunctional family. Hers was adept at hiding important truths, fabricating settings and scenes and mixing nurture with emotional torture. The hidden-away mentally-impaired half-brother no one spoke of, the fact that her elder siblings were only half-siblings, again unspoken truths here, the relentless pressure to be perfect, super-hero progeny who achieved out of all proportion to the norm, married well and produced bragging rights offspring—all this informed the youngest Wasserstein’s emotional resilience and left her predictably damaged.

Wendy was a chubby child, adolescent and adult. Her skinny mother spent hours every day in a dance studio and never missed a chance to needle her daughter about her weight. Wendy never married. An entire not-very-funny-comedy could be written about mama’s barbs on that subject. In fact, Wasserstein did write about her mother, her own shortcomings and frustrations, her friends and their confidences–anything at all that crossed her path or tripped her up was fodder for the plays. She never bothered much with disguising the real models for her stage characters and she exposed the unpretty parts as often as the smart and humorous dialogs. Her total recall for a conversation and her trick of using it in a very public play had a dampening effect on some of her friendships. So did the reflections of the Wendy characters in her plays that were less than flattering about family and friends who were blindsided by the revelations on opening nights.

Wendy is painted as warm, empathetic, funny, engaging and magnetic company. But she seems to have spun faster and faster all her life to avoid facing uncomfortable realities like barely above-average or even average academic performance in a family of self-made geniuses, a lumpy body and a profound sense of being not-enough—not good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not celebrated enough, not accomplished enough, not loved enough. She apparently befriended half of New York City and kept all her relationships in separate orbits, confiding some things to one, other secrets to another, deliberate fictions to lovers and casual friends alike. She had an enormous need to be the sun in her solar system—not having known her at all, it was hard to reconcile the warm funny friend and the desperate, obfuscating writer into one person.

For sure, Wendy Wasserstein was blatantly dysfunctional herself. A person who doesn’t bathe, shows up at theaters for rehearsals in a nightgown, and is noticeable for an off-putting lack of personal hygiene is not an entirely well human being. So I read on, looking for the click that signaled how she managed to achieve such exalted reviews for some of her plays and such acclaim for her talent. Two things stood out and neither of them was a complete answer.

Wendy Wasserstein came from money, privilege and connections. Her second generation immigrant family rose rapidly in economic status and, after graduating from in an all-girl ivy league college, she didn’t have to scrape by in a cold water walk-up, waiting tables for rent money. In one job, she accepted subway fare for errands without a murmur and then went outside and hailed a cab. She may have wandered around unwashed but she shopped for designer labels and didn’t go hungry. Lot of pressure about the career-achievement-marriage thing but plenty of enabling for the long years it took her to find herself and turn out the work that made her famous.

One telling anecdote involves Wasserstein’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles. Her mother lost no time in telling everyone she knew that Wendy had won the Nobel Prize–only top, top prizes for Wassersteins. The talent was there and she worked it as diligently as her brother put in the hours to reach the pinnacles of the financial world. While her sister was shattering glass ceilings in corporations, Wendy was attending every rehearsal of her plays, taking copious notes and rewriting constantly to fine tune and improve the production. It was the family work ethic on display and, if she was all over the map in the rest of her life, she was extremely focused on winning rave reviews and selling out houses. She did it often enough to secure her place in American theater but never enough to banish her demons.

The end of this book is sad, sad, sad as her decade-long quest to have a child ended with the birth of a dangerously preemie daughter and Wasserstein’s own precipitous health decline. She hid both the baby’s parentage and her own illness from everyone, retreating into the family habit of denial and racing around the country and back and forth to Europe for rehearsals, openings, book signings, speeches and social events. She died in 2006 at age 55, leaving Lucy Jane, her six-year-old, in the care of her brother and his wife. The denouement of the biography traces the deaths of her mother and two brothers not long after.

I will have to read Wasserstein’s plays now to make sense of this life story. If they are remarkable and timeless, Wasserstein’s life may hold some clues to genius. If they are dated or merely good, she was a classic overachiever with a gift for collecting powerful people and a self-destructive streak a mile wide. In any case, I’m tempted to lay off the biographies for a while. It’s too easy to become jaded about all the insiders and their off-kilter psyches and the fortunes and advantages that allowed them to pursue their own dreams, or just stumble into them. It seems a bit rigged, like too much of life these days. I think I’ll revisit Stephen King’s book on writing for a reality check on how a complete outsider, with nothing but guts and an old typewriter, survived to tell his tales. That is a life as satisfying as fiction.

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein   Julie Salamon | The Penguin Press  2011