Charles Darwin, subject of Irving Stone's latest biographical novel, and of the following paragraph, which opens the book, "stood before his mahogany shaving stand, stirred his brush in the white shaving bowl with blue flowers which sat on a circular shelf, added hot water from a copper jug . . ."
Charles Darwin. The name of the book is "The Origin," as in "of Species." And it's full, as in chock-full, of these minutiae and minusculeries.
Mahogany shaving stand? Blue flowers?
"Nothing is invented, it's all true," says Jean Stone, Irving's wife and editor. Irving is immured within a television set just now, as guest on "Good Morning, Washington." And Jean is waiting for him in the WJLA-TV lobby, along with the escort from Doubleday and the limousine driver. He is 77, with 27 books on the shelf, and Doubleday sends him first-class.
Why not? He writes his own ticket by writing meal tickets such as: "The Agony and the Ecstasy," about Michelangelo -- over 1.5 million sold in hardback alone. And "Lust for Life," about Van Gogh -- his first and biggest seller, published in 1934, with over 20 million sold by now in 80 languages.
What's more, it's all true, every adjective, says Jean Stone.
The mahogany shaving stand, the copper pitcher, the razor with its ebony handle?
"He doesn't make things like that up, it's research . We get to know all the furniture of the period. We stayed at Down House, where Darwin lived. Irving slept in his bed! He sat in the chair where Darwin wrote!"
But, hey, what about the blue flowers on the shaving bowl. I mean . . .
"We know all the colors of the pottery because Darwin's mother was a Wedgwood, of the pottery family, and Darwin married a Wedgwood, his first cousin . . ."
Nobody's going to catch Jean or Irving Stone off-base when the name of the game is Charles Darwin.
This is the message Irving happens to be conveying to the television audience just now. As seen on the monitor in the WJLA lobby, he is a lanky, white-haired man who blinks his eyes, licks his lips, clasps his hands and almost seems to pant with eagerness to get talking while the show's host asks him questions about his book, questions he's answered a million times about all his other books in his 77 years.
He even knows precisely what he doesn't know, to wit: "Two percent.After 2 1/2 years of research there's two percent I don't know, and to get at that my method is to get so involved with the character that I am that character. I feel the marrow of his bones and the blood in his veins. I sat in Darwin's chair, and got the board that he wrote on, and read a first edition of 'The Origin of Species.' I felt as if I were writing it myself."
Moments later he has vanished from the tube and is sitting on a couch in the lobby, talking with an interviewer.
Whenever the interviewer sits back, he sits back. When the interviewer leans forward, he leans forward.
"Listen, here's your news story," he says. "There's a man named Brackman who's trying to discredit Darwin and claiming that he conspired with Lyell and Hooker to obscure the importance of Alfred Wallace's discoveries . . ."
And so on, Irving Stone as chameleon as reporter, now, blinking, clasping his hands and glancing around with eyes moving so fast it takes 10 minutes of looking to determine what color they are (dark hazel).
It also takes asking the question twice to find out he doesn't know Brackman's first name, but that doesn't matter, he's playing the role of a reporter who should be finding these things out . . .
The interviewer shifts the conversation back to Darwin, and those tiny details.
"I sat in Darwin's chair," he says, repeating the TV spiel with the same breathless, not-to-be-contradicted enthusiasm. "I read all of his 7,000 letters . . ." And he sampled a lot of 13,000 more letters to and about Darwin, plus the streets he walked, weather he experienced, all of which is crammed into 743 chock-full pages of adjective-buttressed reality. No opportunity is lost to make the research pay off: "There, in his gig, which he had driven from Cambridge by the circuitous route of the coal fields of Wolverhampton and the fine conglomerate of Alberbury which was burnt for lime, was the redoubtable Professor Adam Sedgwick . . ."
"The small details create the ambiente, the atmosphere," he says. "In Newsweek they rarely review books (not true) but we got a whole page. At the end, the reviewer said, 'However, Mr. Stone is obsessed by detail.' You're damn right I am.!"
This guy is nonstop, no question that makes him even pause, though don't use the dread word "fiction" when referring to his books.
"Not fiction . . ."
Uh, novelistic biography . . .
He nods like a teacher telling you you're almost right . . .
"Yes, that's what they are."
And then he's off again, about how he slept in Van Gogh's bed, lived in Van Gogh's cell, a detail for everything, everything for its detail.
Who -- he is asked in the limousine on his way to his next interview -- did he like the best of all his subjects?
"I loved Michelangelo, who was only five feet tall and not even a hundred pounds soaking wet, but I would have loved to have been Freud discovering the unconscious . . ."
"But you're closer to Darwin than any of them," says Jean Stone, as the limousine arrives at American University. "Even down to the psychosomatic illnesses."
"I have a lot of the Victorian gentleman in me, yes," Stone says, and admits to having certain foods "not agree" with him, sometimes, perhaps psychosomatically.
With a great deal of "after-you" dancing at doorways, he heads for a microphone in the studios of WAMU.
Jean Stone explains the tiny details of just how she edits his writing only in the fourth draft, and: "I justify every comma I take out, I explain every change."
She says: "Many . . . no, some people write as well as Irving. But nobody researches as well."
Nobody's arguing, either.