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Choosing a biographical subject

When you think of all the people who have lived on our planet, or even the ones who have achieved some modicum of fame, it may seem that a biographer has a dazzling array of choices. In fact our choices are restricted in a number of ways.


Most obviously, there is little point in embarking on a biography of someone who has left few traces. Without a sizable number of surviving documents and news reports it's hard to see how a life can be reconstituted on paper. 


Then there are problems of access: the widow won't allow you to read the journals; the bulk of the correspondence is in the attic of someone who can't be bothered to unearth it; the subject's archive has embargoed the papers until 2060; none of the colleagues or relatives are willing to be interviewed. 


A biographer also needs to consider whether the life is sufficiently eventful, at least during the period of the subject's major achivements. While a great writer can make sitting in a room and thinking sound fascinating, most of us depend on the ebb and flow of life events—including shifting relationships with lovers, children, friends, and people in power—to make our narratives come alive. 


Another roadblock is the tyranny of trends in publishing. If you are writing about an obscure author whose books are out of print, it's highly unlikely that a trade publisher will accept your proposal, though you might have better luck with a university press. But if your forgotten author wrote about women or people of color in ways that are now considered offensive, you will have a hard time convincing an editor that the world needs to read about him—no matter how otherwise significant his books are, or how seriously you intend to discuss his failings.


If you choose to write about someone famous, the burden is on you to prove that you have a fresh angle, usually the result of a newly discovered trove of papers. Historical subjects require familiarity with current scholarship; specialized fields such as art demand a working knowledge of the language used by practitioners. 


Most discouraging is the roadblock that appears after you already have done a great deal of research but before you have secured a publishing contract: the publication of another book on your subject. Unless you can figure out a way to enlarge your topic or otherwise drastically alter your approach, the only thing you can do is move on.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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Critical reactions to other biographers' books

Granted, there are many ways to approach the writing of a biography. But I am always perplexed when a critic complains about the inclusion of details that I find interesting and relevant. In a new biography of a poet, the author describes the woman going to a cafe for coffee at 10 a.m. and tea at 3 p.m. The review I read complained that this material was extraneous. Yet details about the poet's daily habits are clues to a certain temperament and including them helps to paint the picture of her era and her milieu. 


What I look for in biography is the story of a life. I want to be as close as possible to the subject (preferably inside her head, with references to journal entries and correspondence) as she deals with success and failure, love and loss, and all the daily stresses that people must cope with. I want to be alerted to her changes of outlook and mood, and her fluctuating relationships with the people in her orbit. I want to know what her days were like—and her nights, too, if she was that sort of person. I don't want to pick up a biography only to discover that it is really literary or art criticism, organized thematically, rather than a chronological narrative that aims to give us the whole person—the life as well as the work.


I recently read a biography that has been widely acclaimed as a riveting account of two artists. Their work is fascinating and in this book it has been amply illustrated and skilfully placed within the context of their epoch and their urban and rural settings. But, no doubt because vital records (letters, mostly) are missing, I looked in vain for a sense of their inner lives, a feature that is all-important to me in biography. I also wanted much, much more about their daily habits and the repercussions of their lives (the man had fled his marriage and much later returned to it; the woman later met and married someone else) on the people in their circle. 


When I closed the book, I had learned a lot about the art they made and the homes they lived in. But I didn't know enough about what made these people tick.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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Approaching Biography as a Former Journalist

As a former arts journalist, I began writing biographies because I wanted to tell the story of an accomplished person in the arts who seemed to have led an eventful life. Rather than starting with a thesis (why close down the possibilities with some arbitrary point of view?), I wanted to keep an open mind as I learned about this person.


Accustomed to suddenly being called upon to write about people and situations I knew little about, I was not deterred by having to start from scratch. I was motivated by my need to be the first biographer—the first to share with readers the ways the life and the work intertwine, as they inevitably do.


A journalist is a writing machine, expected to be able to corral hundreds of words into readable form in a few hours, if necessary. As a biographer, as soon as I have a few facts to rub together, I'm keen to begin writing; this is the only way I can discover what I still need to know.


There is also the matter of style. In the forefront of a journalist's mind is the need to grab fickle readers at the outset. That's why coming up with a catchy lede (the first sentence or paragraph of a story) is so important to us. The prologues of my books are my way of hooking the reader with the most dramatic aspects of my subject's story.


I think journalists-turned-biographers are pleased if our books are said to resemble fiction, despite their scrupulous reporting. We know that it is pointless to view any biography as definitive—new facts are likely to be uncovered; new emphases often develop, based on changes in the culture. So it makes sense to omit details that don't fit comfortably in the narrative of the life. The narrative is paramount; it is what makes a book enjoyable to read rather than simply a dumping ground for information.


© Cathy Curtis 2022

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Separated by a Common Language

Most educated American know that the British have different words for everyday things. (Our car "trunk" is their "boot"; our "elevator" is their "lift.") But few of us probably realize how many of those things are known by different words and phrases. This has been brought home to me recently whlie reading novels written by British writers of the postwar period. 


For example, "pavement" in British English is the equivalent of "sidewalk" in American English. A "verge" is the grassy area between the pavement and the road. A "plaster" is a Band-Aid. The "first floor" is our second floor (the entry floor is the "ground floor'). An undershirt is a "vest." Women's underpants are "knickers." A "biscuit" is a cookie. "Chips" are fries (and "crisps" are potato chips). Tea is a hot beveage, of course, but it is also a light meal eaten between lunch and supper. In a theatre, the "stalls" are orchestra seats. 


Colloqual speech is redolant with local flavor (or "flavour"). Rich people are "toffs." If you're "knackered," you're tired. If you're "pissed" or "legless," you're drunk. If you disparage something as "rubbish," it's the equivalent of "garbage," since that's what the stuff in the bin (not the barrel) is called. If you "knock up" someone, you've simply tried to get them out of bed in the morning.


You know the song, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow"? Well, I've been wondering if the difference between the American version ("which nobody can deny") and the British one ("and so say all of us") reveals a difference in national identity — the Americans, boastful; the British, warmly inclusive.


In another vein, it seems to me that American novelists include few British characters in their works, whereas Americans have a way of popping up more often in British novels, at least the ones from earlier decades. The results tend to be hit-or-miss. Most baffling to me is that British writers inevitably fail to realize that Americans (unless they are attempting to appear over-refined) never say "shall." We say, "I'll go there," not, "I shall go there." 


© Cathy Curtis 2022

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Why the First Biography of a Little-Known Subject is Different

Three of my four published biographies were the first ones about their subject. (The other book was the first to focus on the woman's life rather than only on her marriage to a famous fellow artist.) Perhaps because reviewers are frequently not biographers themselves, I have found that they—and other readers—fail to understand what's involved in making a maiden voyage as a biographer.


Many biographies published today are about someone famous who usually has been the subject of multiple books. Because previous biographers bave established the chronology and the facts (as each writer perceived them), the new biographer is free to write in a more experimental way. She can choose to deal only with a certain period of time in the person's life, quarrel with information presented in other books, present a new theory, focus on the work at the expense of the life, or experiment with style.


First biographies about people who are not widely known are obliged to hew more closely to the pattern of "traditional" biography. A responsible biographer presenting a subject to the world for the first time must cover the entire stretch of that life in a way that presupposes no prior knowledge on the part of the reader. The first biographer strives to present the subject as completely, truthfully, and seriously as possible, with the fullest possible awareness of the standards and mores of her era.


This means restraining the impulse to add fanciful suppositions or strained attempts to be "relevant." It means not writing in a style intended to imitate or compete with the cleverness of the subject, and not allowing a theoretical construct to overshadow the narrative of the life.


For these reasons, a first biography may strike members of the coterie already familiar with the subject to contain too many quotidian facts at the expense of theoretical commentary and witty asides. Yet there is still plenty of room for elegant writing, thoughtful conclusions, and the kind of precise descriptions and well-chosen quotations that make the subject come to life for the reader.


(c) Cathy Curtis 2022


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Why the Money Matters

In journalism, there is an old saying, "Follow the money." This is a proven method of tracking malfeasance in politics.


I have found that in writing biographies, following the money is important in a different way. Keeping track of how much my subject has made from her work and what she has spent on significant purchases helps to determine the relative smoothness or bumpiness of her life.


A biography, as opposed to a literary study or artist's monograph, is about the whole of the person's life, not just The Work. Biographers are concerned with how our subjects lived, which means researching and writing about personal matters, including the ancillary aspects of a career that depended on favorable treatment from publishers or galleries.


Few of us are able to conduct our lives without worrying about money, and the people I write about were no different. Financial concerns weighed heavily on them, at times distracting them from their work.


Describing money issues, along with my subjects' health, leisure pursuits, relationships, appearance, tastes in clothing and furnishings, and daily irritations and pleasures, makes the people I write about come alive as human beings. They may be towering figures in their fields, but in other ways they are not so very different from us. And it is on that basis that we can best appreciate how they soared above their difficulties to make the work we revere.


(c) Cathy Curtis 2022

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Journals, Letters, and Interviews

For a biographer who cannot speak to her subject—because she is no longer alive or unwilling to be interviewed—there is nothing more revealing than this person's journals. If, that is, she kept a journal, if it still exists, if it can be located, and if it can be read. (Often, such private musings are labeled as "restricted" in archives for a certain period of years.)


In the absence of a journal, letters to relatives, friends, enemies, and colleagues (often, overlapping categories) are the most intimate traces of a person. Letters are written for many reasons—to praise, to thank, to argue, to demand, to cajol, to ruminate . . . and, most tellingly, to pour out one's heart at a time of trouble.


Granted, the letter writer may be bending the truth to appeal to the recipient of the letter. But that possibility can be revelatory in itself: Why is this person being "handled" in this way? What is the writer hoping to gain?


Something that has puzzled me in certain reviews of my most recent book is that the dozens of excerpts from my subject's letters were somehow not considered to paint a true portrait. Many of these letters were written when Elizabeth Hardwick was feeling most vulnerable, when she couldn't decide whether to leave her brilliant but mentally ill and unfaithful husband. Others were written earlier, to describe her fractious relationship with her mother and impressions of earlier men in her life, or later, to recount social occasions and other events, and the progress of her writing.


These letters were not necessarily written with the same stylistic brilliance as her published writing. Someone who interviewed me wondered about this. But why would they be? Some of them are the anguished cries of a woman at the end of her tether, as opposed to, say, carefully framed remarks about women in the plays of Ibsen. The reason the letters are so vital to an understanding of Hardwick is that they reveal her quandaries, delights, and deeply personal thoughts at diverse moments of her life.


I should add, for those who haven't read my book, that I never include the entire letter, which would involve what is known as a block quote—a thicket of verbiage that stands apart from the ongoing narrative. Rather, I pluck out the most telling sentences and let them speak for the whole in order to keep the narrative moving at a good pace.


What reviewers wanted, it seems, was more interviews with people who knew my subject, who could report on what she said at a dinner party or while sitting on a literary jury. There are interviews conducted by me in the book, but few are with famous people. The main reason is that these people—notably Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books—were deceased by the time I began researching the book in 2019. (Some quoted remarks by people no longer living are from interviews conducted by other people during the lifetime of the speaker.)


Interviews, if used well, can be a useful feature of a biography—particularly interviews of the subject herself. Interviews with others can give some idea of how the subject was viewed by friends and colleagues. One type of interview that doesn't interest me, however, is with someone who recounts stories the subject told about her earlier life. Why would I trust such second-hand memories—so often actually poorly remembered or distorted by wishful thinking—when I have the letters (or, in some cases, journal pages) that provide on-the-spot documentation? 


Some biographers consider interviews as a sort of numbers game, no matter how relevant or meaningful the quoted remark may have been—and no matter whether the quoted person met the subject for ten minutes or knew him for a lifetime. (One author of a fairly recent literary biography even included in his book a long list of every single person he spoke to. Never mind whether all these folks had anything worthwhile to say.) 


I actually chose not to include some remarks uttered by people I felt were being unfair—because they had an ax to grind, or because they were not in a position to judge the situation. 


My main point is that no interviews with people who knew a subject can ever hope to rival the intense immediacy of her letters and journal entries. This is where we can look for the "window on the soul" that I believe all biographers ultimately hope to capture.

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Biography versus Memoir

Based on the opinions I read on Amazon, and even in professional reviews, I believe there is a widespread confusion about what a biography can and cannot do. My sense is that this confusion is driven by the immense popularity of memoir and amplified by the twenty-first-century norm—driven by social media—of full disclosure.


The author of a memoir obviously has access to her innermost feelings as well as to every remembered detail of her life. Whether she chooses to recount them all is up to her, but the most valued memoirs are those that allow readers the most intimate and detailed perspective.


The author of a biography, on the other hand, must contend with several constraints. Most obviously, we cannot make up anything. We cannot simply imagine what is going on in our subject's mind. There must be available documentation.


If the subject is deceased and there is no letter, no diary entry, no official document, no media coverage, no remark by someone on the scene that has been preserved, our hands are tied. (A further complication: there might be an existing letter or a diary entry, but we have to be able to read it. Letters may be stored in the attic of someone unknown to us—or someone who refuses to give us access. A diary may have gone missing.)


There is also the matter of decorum and appropriateness. One of my rules as a biographer is that I do not enter the bedrooms of my subjects. Nor do I seek to discover what they might have told a therapist; such information is normally, and rightly, sealed off from public view. While I endeavor to understand my subjects' fears and obsessions, I am mindful that a biographer should not pose as a psychoanalyst.


The women I have written about made their mark as creative people. I write about them to interest readers in their accomplishments and to present a coherent narrative of their lives. Memoirs, for all their intimacy, often are sketchy about dates and places, and leave out areas their authors do not feel like discussing. A biography takes a larger, more carefully documented view.


That there is a place for both memoir and biography goes without saying. But it behooves the reader to understand these genres' different aims and constraints.

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Painting After Polio

After I mentioned to someone that I was writing a biography of a leading painter who contracted a severe form of polio but taught herself how to cope with her disability, he said, "So she painted with her feet, right?"


It seems that people have a hard time coupling excellence in art and disability without imagining some sort of freakish practice that we must look upon kindly because This Is The Best They Can Do.


The wonderful and amazing thing about Nell Blaine—whose polio attack came at age 37, during what appeared to be the peak of her career—is that the work she made afterward is far superior to the earlier paintings.


Nell, who was born in 1922 in Richmond, Virginia, and escaped to New York at age 20, was initially in thrall to the rigorous abstraction of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. But her fascination with the objects of the real world kept breaking through. For example, in Lester Leaps (1944–45), a tribute to the jazz musician Lester Young, a shape at the upper right looks unmistakably like a baton in the hand of a bandmaster. Then, on a trip to Europe in 1950, Nell discovered a new freedom in sketching landscapes in Paris and Rome.


Despite the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in New York in the 1950s, she realized that her heart was in a different kind of painting: landscapes and interiors. But first she had to figure out how to achieve a viable personal style. In many of her works from the late fifties, brushstrokes have a tentative, unresolved look, as if she was still persuading herself of the value of representational art. Even so, the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased one of her paintings, Harbor and Green Cloth II (1958) in 1959.


That was the year Nell had made enough money from her graphic design work—side jobs that she needed to earn a living—to fund a trip to Greece. She had heard that government-run studios on the island of Mykonos rented for a pittance. They did, but hers was very cold and lonely. Never at a loss for making friends, she soon found more congenial lodgings with two gay Americans, where she could paint the majestic view from the windows of her room.


In letters to fellow painter Jane Freilicher, she described her island sojourn in glowing terms. But she had begun to feel strangely weak. After a collapse, her worried friends called a local doctor, who diagnosed the flu. Fortunately, they also called a visiting German doctor, who realized that Nell had actually contracted the most severe type of polio. Near death, she was airlifted to a New York hospital, where she spent months in an iron lung. While some people stricken with polio were left with no more than a limp, Nell became paraplegic.


Told that she could never paint again, she characteristically rebelled. During the long months of her rehabilitation, Nell decided to invest the energy she would have needed to learn how to walk into redeveloping her painting skills. Her first postpolio artwork was a shaky drawing of flowers, dedicated to her nurse, with whom she had fallen in love. (Bisexual in her pre-polio life, she would rely for the rest of her life on the intimacy and all-encompassing care of the two women with whom she had successive relationships.)


In the years that followed, she trained herself to use her left arm for oil painting and her right arm for watercolor. Although Nell could no longer work on a large scale or finesse tiny details, she developed a coloristically rich, rhythmically vibrant style that gave landscapes and still lifes a unique beauty and visual intensity. Her watercolors, in particular, would rank with the greatest American masters of the medium.


During the remainder of Nell's life, her paintings were shown in leading galleries and reviewed with the encomiums reserved for outstanding work. A facsimile of her sketchbook, published in 1986, contained a tribute by her longtime friend, the poet John Ashbery. He praised "the sensuality . . . backed up by a temperament that is crisp and astringent, which is as it should be, since even at its most poetic, nature doesn't kid around."


© Cathy Curtis 2019

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Forging Her Own Path Apart from a Famous Husband

In 1943, when twenty-five-year-old Elaine Fried married Netherlands émigré Willem de Kooning, he was a struggling artist. But by the mid-1950s, he and Jackson Pollock were the two acknowledged leaders of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Although Elaine was becoming an established artist in her own right, during these years she was still best known as an incisive ARTnews writer, capturing the essence of artists past and present in witty, down-to-earth prose. Within the small, close-knit group of downtown New York artists, her effervescent personality made her the queen bee.

Elaine always credited Willem’s tutelage, and remained a lifelong supporter of his work. But she made some decisions early on that allowed her to forge her own path.

Willem (known to everyone as Bill) had dabbled in portraiture early in his career—most memorably, an immaculately detailed drawing of Elaine—but he had long since moved on to abstract painting. Even when he began to allow figures into his work, they were not of recognizable people.

For Elaine, portrait painting was a field she could rightly call her own. As the fifties progressed, she became noted for bravura images of her artist and poet friends, painted with unusual speed. When famously restless John F. Kennedy required a presidential portrait for the Truman Library, Elaine’s fast brush was her calling card. Her largest and most exuberant JFK portrait is now in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

Elaine also painted other subjects throughout her life, none of which were shared with her husband. Her early dance training, participation in sports, and visits to a family farm gave her a lifelong fascination with people and animals in motion. Over many decades, she devoted canvases to leaping basketball players, cornered bulls in the corrida, and the wondrous ballet of creatures arcing across the walls of prehistoric caves in France and Spain.

There was another facet to Elaine’s stress on self-determination. In the early 1950s, when Bill began to paint ferocious-looking, large eyed women that many observers believed to reflect his mixed feelings about Elaine—whose eyes are the most striking element in his early portraits of her—her public stance was to remain outside the fray.

She was chagrined to see that a photograph she had posed for in Bill’s studio made it look as though she were embraced by the wild-eyed creature in one of these paintings. But her critic’s eye didn’t blink: she insisted on the artistic validity of Bill’s Women. When someone pointed to what appeared to be bloody bullet holes on one of these figures as symbolic of the artist’s angry intent, she explained that the red marks were actually “very chic” stick-on rubies that Bill had seen in an issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

After Elaine and Bill separated, in 1957, she was sometimes criticized for leaning on the de Kooning name as her ticket to shows and sales. (In contrast, the painter Lee Krasner, married to Pollock, never used his last name professionally.) But Elaine signed her paintings simply as “E de K” and was temperamentally disinclined to pursue fame or financial success. When she talked about Bill—often in the context of the college studio classes she taught—it was in homage to something important she had learned from him.

In her personal life, she always insisted on autonomy, sometimes to an extreme degree. There were numerous men in her life; she and Bill were mutually unfaithful from the early years of their marriage. And while Elaine—like other leading women artists of her generation—had mixed feelings about feminism, she was too willful and idiosyncratic to see herself as beholden to anyone, least of all a famous husband.

People would ask what was it like to work under Bill’s shadow. According to her, it was the wrong question. She preferred to say, “I work in his light."


© Cathy Curtis 2017

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