Acclaimed biographer Hazel Rowley dies at 59

Hazel Rowley's most recent project was a 2010 book exploring the complicated marriage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor.
Hazel Rowley's most recent project was a 2010 book exploring the complicated marriage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor.
By Emma Brown
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 11:13 AM

Hazel Rowley, an acclaimed biographer of wide-ranging subjects - from "Native Son" author Richard Wright to French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre - and whose last published book explored the complicated marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, died March 1 at a hospital in New York. She was 59.

The cause was complications from multiple strokes that were caused by a bacterial infection, according to Della Rowley, Dr. Rowley's sister.

Dr. Rowley held a doctorate in French studies but left the academy to write for a general audience. Born in England, she spent most of her life abroad in Australia and the United States.

She said she was drawn to writing about outsiders, and she found perhaps her widest audience by examining unconventional love lives. In 2005, she won international attention for her account of the relationship between Sartre and the feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. In "Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre,"Dr. Rowley drew from unpublished letters, journals and personal interviews to create an unsentimental portrait of the couple and their romantic entanglements and jealousies.

"The result is an enthralling book, almost a highbrow Francophile edition of US Weekly," wrote Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. "But instead of Brad and Jen and Angelina, here we find an ugly, walleyed existentialist philosopher, the elegantly beautiful author of 'The Second Sex' and the Gallic equivalent of a bevy of young starlets who share the bed of one or the other - or sometimes both. Readers will turn these pages alternately mesmerized and appalled."

In "Franklin and Eleanor" (2010), Dr. Rowley again shed light on the intricacies of a famous relationship.

Dr. Rowley argued that, contrary to popular understanding, the Roosevelts' marriage did not all but end after revelations of Franklin's affair with Eleanor's secretary. Instead, the couple shaped an unorthodox yet strong partnership that endured political ambition and illness to become what the author described as "one of the most interesting and radical marriages in history."

In a 2007 essay, Dr. Rowley compared writing biographies to being in love. "Much energy and empathy goes into putting yourself into someone else's shoes; you inevitably become obsessed," she wrote.

"Finally, I finish the book. Do I feel relieved? No, I feel lost. It's the end of an affair."

Hazel Joan Rowley was born Nov. 16, 1951, in London and moved when she was young to Australia, where her father had taken a medical professorship.

As schoolgirls, she and a friend spent a summer vacation writing a novel. As a teenager, Hazel penned countless short stories and sent each off to potential publishers.

"They were all rejected, but even the rejection slips made me feel proud," she once wrote. "Real writers get rejection slips."

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