Ask biographers what they most wanted to be when young, and you get some telling answers: David McCullough, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, wanted to be a painter. Edmund Morris, scribbling catchy phrases for ad agencies, longed to be a pianist. Ron Chernow, hustling freelance articles, dreamed of becoming a novelist. Suddenly, you understand a few things: McCullough's eye for a landscape; Morris's musical phrasing; Chernow's penchant for drama. You realize, too, that each of Chernow's books bears the marks of a good novel: strong narrative arc, keen sense of theater, deft portraiture, careful pacing and tension. Chernow may, as he insists above, delight in research, but it's hewing all that material to a rich storyline that makes his readers happy.

He was born to a large Jewish family in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. His father owned a "store of 1001 things" in New York's Chinatown and could bark all 1001 prices in perfect Cantonese. His mother, an accountant in the garment district, was often asked to put down her pencil to show off the merchandise. Chernow graduated valedictorian of his high school and went on to Yale, the first in his family to attend "sleep-away college." He capped his degree with another from Cambridge, sure that all that knowledge would help him write novels.

But the novel he wrote, "Night-Blooming Cirius," received a flurry of rejection letters. He moved back in with his parents -- an event, he says, that tends to concentrate the mind. An old professor suggested that he send article ideas to New York magazine; if the editor liked one, he would pay $50. The editor not only liked one -- a hard-hitting expose of Chinatown's underground commerce -- he insisted that Chernow write it. When the piece was delivered, he insisted it be their lead.

Chernow wrote more on a freelance basis. "I was writing, writing," he says, "and barely able to make ends meet." It's very likely, he says with a sigh, that he is the only man who ever married a community college teacher for her money. In 1982, with a long trail of business journalism behind him, he left it all behind for a job at the Twentieth Century Fund, where he directed financial policy programs. Ironically, it was then that his career in books began. In 1990, at the age of 41, he published The House of Morgan, which won the National Book Award. Three more biographies followed: The Warburgs (1993); Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998); and the newly published Alexander Hamilton. He happily reports that his wife is retired.

Whatever happened to the youth who wanted to write novels? "I've learned something about myself: I have powerful reactions to real events the way novelists do to creations. Lucky, isn't it, to be able to put passions to work?"

-- Marie Arana