Telling Lives

Reviewed by Julie Phillips
Sunday, June 24, 2007


Adventures of a Biographer In Search of Her Subject

By Meryle Secrest

Knopf. 242 pp. $25.95

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 new memoir, Shoot the Widow. (That phrase is a quote from fellow biographer Justin Kaplan, who claimed it was the first rule of the genre.) But in this engaging account of the writing of nine lives, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dalí, 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's letters to her lover, the Parisian writer and salonnière 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."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company