For anyone who believes that biographers relish picking through other people's idiosyncrasies because they have lackluster lives of their own, we offer these two words of corrective: Meryle Secrest. Born in a medieval English village, survivor of a harsh war, immigrant twice over -- to Canada, then to America -- married to a sculptor and then to a musician, this woman has had a life, and it has been rich with incident. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before the pen would turn on its mistress. After nine biographies of cultural titans -- Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers and, forthcoming this fall, art mogul Joseph Duveen -- she is now at work on a subject that needs no research: a honey-voiced, steel-brained Boswell. The story of herself.
Secrest grew up in Bath, England, when it still took four days for a Londoner to reach the town's restorative waters. Although she grew up "on the wrong side of the town, looking across the valley to the villas," it was an Arcadian existence, marked by Roman marble, sweeping landscapes, gardens. Her father was a tool and die maker, her mother a tailor. Many years after their deaths, she discovered that they had to get married. She tells this with all the delight of a biographer, trotting out the family secret.
As a child, she read books, frequenting the town library, reveling in the greenness of the hills, until that day in 1942 when German bombers roared overhead, leaving craters in the ancient roads and scars in the countryside. When Germany surrendered, her parents, wanting to put the horror of war behind them, began talking about emigrating from Bath to Ontario. Secrest was 16 years old, dabbling with paints, bicycling all the way to Oxford to hear Kenneth Clark's mellifluous lectures, dreaming of a future in art. Months later, she was across the ocean, in a strange land, with that ambition a dim memory.
Although she "tried desperately to be a Canadian teenager," she grew into adulthood quickly. At 19, she got a job at the Hamilton News and set the stage for her future in journalism. In a career that has spanned more than half a century, she was a feature writer for England's Bristol Evening Post, an editor and writer for the Columbus Citizen in Ohio; she was among the founding writers and editors of the Style section at The Washington Post.
She specialized in celebrities, interviewing such personalities as Marc Chagall, Jacqueline Kennedy, Katherine Anne Porter, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber and Cecil Beaton. When she published her first book in 1974, Anais Nin reviewed it for the New York Times; when she published her second, Sir Harold Acton reviewed it for The Washington Post. As a biographer, she has been called "remarkable," "spellbinding," "penetrating." The finest praise, however, after the memoir she is working on is finally published, might be for a critic to say (as was said of one of her biographies): "So honest in the warts-and-all sense that one might assume her subject is dead! Thank God she isn't."
-- Marie Arana