I can't see Edmund Morris clearly yet. But this is because I've got a particular point of view.
The 59-year-old author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan is sitting two rows in front of me in the elegant, high-ceilinged library of the Smithsonian Castle. Morris, who's waiting to be introduced to the 75 or so fellow biographers, would-be biographers and biography fans assembled here on this autumn evening, is the first speaker in a six-week Smithsonian Associates lecture series called "Reading People's Lives: The Art of Writing a Biography." From the back he looks lean and slightly hunched, with a bald spot parting a head of shaggy, graying hair. His suit is dark and nicely tailored, and if I were a different kind of narrator -- say, Edmund Morris himself, who knows and cares about clothes -- I'd be able to describe it more precisely.
The introduction proves redundant. We already know who Morris is. He's the Biographer Who Made Stuff Up.
He steps up to the lectern and starts to tell us how he arrived at the point where, to write what he believed to be the truth about his inscrutable subject, he had to create a fictional "Edmund Morris," one who'd known Ronald Reagan from childhood and could "give flesh to my biographical mind."
The real Edmund Morris, he says, got his start writing menswear advertising "for translation into the Zulu." This was in South Africa, where the Kenyan-born youth attended university. He tells us about moving to New York, and getting fired from a series of advertising jobs, and transitioning to "freelance hack work," and getting inspired to write a screenplay about Theodore Roosevelt. He explains how the screenplay morphed into a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, and how the biography came to the attention of the newly elected Republican president, and how Reagan seemed "bland" and "uninteresting" to him at first, a man with execrable taste in weekend sportswear.
He describes the exact moment that he decided to cast off these biases and sign on as an in-house biographer. It was in the spring of 1985, the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and the president's handlers had committed him to a ceremony honoring Germany's war dead at a military cemetery in Bitburg. Amid the furious and predictable outcry that followed, his schedule was revised to include a visit to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. There he gave what was, in Morris's view, the greatest speech of his presidency. Watching on television, seeing Reagan's stricken expression as he emerged from Bergen-Belsen's Dokumentenhaus, and hearing, just before the speech began, a skylark's song echo through the TV screen, the writer thought to himself, "I should be chronicling this."
I've encountered this story a number of times already in the swirl of press around Dutch, and I find it oddly revealing; it's as if Morris, without quite understanding what he's doing, is projecting his own emotion onto Ronald Reagan. I've been trying to repress that judgment, though, because I haven't yet read the book.
But Morris isn't through.
The Bergen-Belsen chapter "is done entirely in shades of white," he explains. The imagery is white, white, white, with just a touch of green at the climax, then it's back to white as the beaming American president, with his ordeal behind him, dines with his German hosts in white tie and tails. As he was researching the dinner, Morris tells us, "I said, `Please God, make Mrs. Reagan be wearing white.' " When he checked the photographs, his prayer was answered.
I write this down.
Because the telling of a human life may seem like a simple concept, but it's not simple at all. And if one is to consider the role of biography in American culture, in these the waning days of the 20th century, then the fictional impulses of Edmund Morris -- and his longing for color coordination -- seem to me as good a place as any to start.
As Dr. Johnson might have phrased it, the age is running mad after biography. Besides the colorful profusion of biographies themselves, we have television shows, magazines, websites, and entire bookstores devoted to presumably important lives.
-- Ron Chernow, author of Titan:
The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
Biography is everywhere, but it's nowhere, too. It's our most widely shared way of understanding our common humanity -- yet it lacks an intellectual home base.
Is it history? Well, of course. But it's a poor relation, and many "real" historians look down their noses at it. Is it journalism? Not exactly, but the two are clearly cousins of a not-too-distant kind. Is it literature? Well, sometimes. Depends what you mean by literature. Or is it, in the end, just a highfalutin form of backstairs gossip -- the commercially motivated invasion of privacy on an epic scale?
As an editor and writer of magazine stories -- whose authors regularly deal, in a scaled-down way, with some of the same problems biographers face -- I've been thinking about the biographical enterprise for years. I've signed up for the Smithsonian lectures in the hope that they'll bring that thinking into sharper focus. The chance to scope out the genre's most notorious practitioner was an added inducement, of course.
Seven days after the Morris talk, I head back to the Castle for the next round. This week's speaker is Kitty Kelley, whose last three books have topped the New York Times bestseller list, as the man from Washington Independent Writers -- which is cosponsoring the Smithsonian lectures -- points out when he introduces her. But that's not all. They "merit cover stories in major magazines," which makes them "events of larger than literary significance."
This last phrase strikes me as particularly apt. Kelley's aggressively unauthorized biographies (she's done Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and the British royals) tend to arrive like incoming tactical nukes amid the ceaseless small-arms fire of celebrity culture. Kelley admirers praise her exhaustive research and laud her role as -- in her own words -- a "student of power, hypocrisy and image." Her detractors see her as the Celebrity Biographer From Hell.
Morris made polite noises to Kelley last week, but she's not in a reciprocating mood. Blond-haired, pink-topped and sporting wildly oversized glasses, she takes the renegade promptly to task. "I felt, listening to him, like I was in the Twilight Zone," she says, "and I'm coming to you tonight from the absolute opposite end of the spectrum . . . I cannot understand fabricating characters to tell someone's life story."
What she can understand is hostility directed at a biographer. "Having been bruised in print myself," she says, "I know how it feels to be depicted unfairly."
Kelley doesn't say what she's referring to, but I can think of a couple of possibilities. One is a book called Poison Pen: The Unauthorized Biography of Kitty Kelley, by George Carpozi Jr. ("She Bashed Frank Sinatra. She Trashed Nancy Reagan. Now It's Her Turn. Updated With Her Latest Gossip-Mongering.") Another is a three-part, 18,000-word profile written in 1988 by Gerri Hirshey, then a reporter for this magazine. Kelley can't have liked the part about sending her then-husband to collect the trash from Sen. John Warner's Georgetown house (she was writing about Liz Taylor at the time), or any of dozens of other unauthorized details that add up to a devastating, tables-turning portrait. Like her own subjects, Kelley chose not to talk, but Hirshey, too, shows what relentless research can accomplish.
Never mind. Edmund Morris is biography's bad boy now.
We're two weeks into the lecture series, and I'm beginning to hear an unwelcome voice in my head, the kind writers hear when things aren't going as planned. Yeah, sure, Edmund Morris is a biographer, the voice says, and so is Kitty Kelley -- but the two don't seem to belong in the same conversation. They seem to belong on different planets, if the truth be told.
Week III's speaker bails me out by bridging the gap.
Christopher Ogden is a veteran Time reporter and the biographer of Margaret Thatcher, Pamela Harriman, and Moses and Walter Annenberg. Ogden's books, which are written with a cheerful, mass-market breeziness, show no signs of either Morris's literary ambition or Kelley's adversarial intensity. He gives an entertaining speech in which he expresses gratitude for the public's biographical appetite ("We're not talking Harry Potter, believe me, but the genre is very popular"), offers a quick tour of biography through the ages ("Plutarch was quite good -- that's a line I've always wanted to use: `Plutarch! He was good!' ") and goes on at some length about Harriman's amorous exploits, which proved a much richer vein than Thatcher's political maneuverings ("That was naturally what was responsible for the difference of several zeros in sales").
At the end of his talk, he takes questions. "So you went in knowing a lot about her sex life?" he is asked.
For some reason, this annoys him.
"Have you read the book? Have you read the book?" he snaps. "If you read this book, you'd be surprised at how serious it is."
The art of biography, we say -- but at once go on to ask, Is biography an art? The question is foolish perhaps, and ungenerous certainly, considering the keen pleasure that biographers have given us. But the question asks itself so often that there must be something behind it.
-- Virginia Woolf, in The Death
of the Moth and Other Essays
"Let's not put too fine a point on it," Marc Pachter is saying. "The love of biography is for many people a guilty pleasure."
Pachter is our Week IV speaker, the only one who's not a biographer himself. A friendly, fast-talking, Berkeley- and Harvard-trained historian who is now counselor to the secretary of the Smithsonian, he feels not the slightest guilt about his own decades-long love affair with the genre. He has taught courses in it, lectured on it, organized symposiums about it and edited a book of essays on it, called Telling Lives. For 12 years, he has led a group of Washington biographers and biography aficionados who meet monthly to discuss their work. Pachter knows and likes both Morris and Kelley, and can argue the case for either's biographical "strategy" with ecumenical sincerity.
Still, he perceives "a kind of unease" today with biography as a form.
Discomfort with its celebrity culture overtones is part of this unease -- but only part. Biography's inevitable subjectivity is another. On the one hand, Pachter says, we want more than the official line on a life, in which "the biographer has become an agent of a reputation." Yet we're at least as unhappy with biographers who judge too glibly. "We think, `God, that's intrusive! . . . How do they think they know what it is to live in another person's mind?' "
The biography-as-history question also makes us anxious, Pachter believes. We are programmed to think of History -- he pronounces it with the capital H -- as the realm of big, serious, political, social and economic themes. So the intimate life-telling he most admires "feels sometimes trivial to us."
Pachter's specific passion is the history of biography. Like Ogden, he leads off his summary with Plutarch ("The patron saint of biography . . . He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew that he wasn't an historian"). He talks about the perpetual clash between the moralizing impulse, which brought us books of saints' lives and 19th-century heroes on pedestals, and the countervailing urge to paint warts-and-all portraits of actual human beings. He drops names like Suetonius, Thomas More, John Dryden, John Aubrey and, of course, James Boswell ("the one unquestioned masterpiece -- a particular life told in all its amazing presence and force"). He calls biographers "cheaters of death" and biography "a collaboration between two lives."
When he gets to Lytton Strachey, Pachter's narrative takes on a distinctly contemporary feel. Strachey's 1918 bombshell, Eminent Victorians, melded "two strands of aspiration" into a then-revolutionary biographical technique. One was psychological portraiture, hitherto the province of novels. The other was "artistic aspiration -- the notion that to really communicate a person, you need to be literary."
Hold on a minute, I'm thinking. Aren't we getting into Dutch territory here?
Well, actually . . .
"Edmund Morris is the last gasp of the notion of Stracheyan biography," Pachter says.
The biography-loving public does not want to hear that biography is a flawed genre. It prefers to believe that certain biographers are bad guys.
-- Janet Malcolm, in The Silent
Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
The voice in my head is back. It's been whispering two words over and over -- Edmund Morris Edmund Morris Edmund Morris Edmund Morris Edmund Morris -- until I'm ready to scream.
The plain fact is, I've gotten a little obsessed. When I went into this project, I told my editors that I was really, truly interested in the broader topic -- all that role of biography in American culture stuff -- and not just in the Biographer Who Made Stuff Up. I believed this then, and I believe it now.
And yet . . . I can't stop thinking about the guy.
I pick up a used copy of Christopher Ogden's Harriman opus, but it's just going to have to wait. I'm deep in Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. "He seldom writes a predictable sentence," my historian friend Michael told me before I started. He was right, although -- as Michael also warned me -- the book is all narrative and personality, and not much on ideas.
I ask everyone I meet about Morris and Dutch. "A classic second-book crackup," says a colleague on the Metro. "Aieee. Edmund Morris," says another, by e-mail, then puts me in touch with a novelist friend who's "addicted to Dutch, can't put it down."
I read reviews and compile a greatest hits list: Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books, Lou Cannon in the Los Angeles Times, Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker. Hertzberg is by far the most sympathetic. He calls the book "this radically eccentric, thoroughly absorbing, sometimes quite stark-staring mad work of -- what? quasi nonfiction? quasi fiction? fictionally enhanced nonfiction? metapostmodernism? autohistoriography? docudramedy?" and sums up by noting that while "Morris has told us more than we knew before" about Reagan's personality, "it is fair to ask the question: So what?"
I can't wait to start reading this thing.
And I finally do.
"Thoroughly absorbing" is an understatement, it turns out. I start scrawling down reactions right away, and it's soon clear that I could fill a notebook from the prologue alone. There's Morris's peculiar fascination with Reagan's physique ("That hard, splendid body" . . . "tall, broad, lustrous with power"). There's his constantly gratified urge to burst into French or Latin. There's his unconcealed contempt for mere plebes (he calls some Illinois churchgoers "a corn-fed lot"). These are just tics, of course, but nearly 700 pages of them will get plenty annoying.
The fictionalizing surfaces early as well. The action in the prologue is set in the 1980s, with the "real" Morris -- one assumes -- as the narrator. So it's jarring to hear him claim that "Dutch has intrigued me, on and off, most of my life."
But most revealing, I think, is a straightforward statement of what I see as Morris's deeply flawed central assumption, which is that the evocation of Reagan's personality alone is enough to sustain a biography.
He writes of a proposal by Daniel Boorstin, then librarian of Congress, "that Reagan appoint to his staff a historian trained to sense the long-term significance of events." Now Morris, as he willingly concedes, is not a trained historian, and from the evidence of Dutch, I've come to believe that he lacks the significance-sensing gene entirely. No problem. Two paragraphs later, he puts his own spin on Boorstin's idea. "Implicit in that remark," he writes, "was the suggestion that Reagan's own humanity, unchronicled, might fade faster than any other feature of his Presidency; that in the end what chiefly survives, or should survive, of any Chief Executive is the quality of his personality."
There it is, take it or leave it. And you'll have to count me in the leave-it camp, I'm afraid.
The problem isn't that Morris evokes Reagan's personality -- he does that difficult job quite well. No, the problem is that by the time he's through, he's convinced himself that this personality is an inexorable, glacier-like force, "an ever-thrusting, ever-deepening mass of chill purpose" that explains -- well, just about everything. We don't hear much about the Southern California businessmen who put Reagan up for governor, or their political and economic motivations. Morris never considers that the "mass of chill purpose" might have suffered an early meltdown if there'd been no Iranian hostage-takers to help get him elected president. He sees no problem with conveying the Iran-contra affair, which came close to halting the Reagan glacier in its tracks, "as briefly as possible, in terms of the way he heard and saw and spoke." And so on, ad infinitum.
There's a critical lack of historical perspective here.
It doesn't stop me, though. I read on, railing but still absorbed.
I'm fascinated by the cache of Reagan's collegiate prose that Morris turns up. I like being whisked inside the plot of his first movie. I can see that the chapter on the startling Reykjavik summit, which Morris didn't manage to attend, is channeling the work of my former Post colleague Don Oberdorfer, but I love the part where Morris turns the Monday morning quarterbacking about this confusing event into a sort of audio montage. And I'm starting to feel the power of the overall Reagan portrait, though I'm still wary of its authenticity. I haven't really considered the man this closely before.
There are wonderful cinematic touches, accompanied by a nagging TV news-like feeling that if Morris lacks good visuals to work with, he'll just leave stuff out. There's that strange Bergen-Belsen chapter, with its white-white-whiteness, and a series of equally strange allusions to Wagner's opera "Parsifal" and its hero, the Noble Fool. And there are repeated references to the emotional landscape of biography itself -- "The Land of Lost Things," as Morris calls it, "that vast yet well-stocked territory roamed by historians, biographers, and other refugees from reality."
"What is this mysterious yearning of biographer for subject, so akin to a coup de foudre in its insistence? Yet so fundamentally different from love in its detachment?" he writes. Later, he compares his chosen profession to colonoscopy.
Parsifal? Mysterious yearnings? Invasive medical procedures? This is way more interesting than a little dubious fiction.
I'm thinking it's time to give Morris a call.
There is no objective biography. You are judging in what you choose to describe and the way you choose to structure the story. The question is how conscious you are of your own subjectivity . . .
-- Judith Thurman, author of Secrets of
the Flesh: A Life of Colette
When Edmund Morris was shopping his book to New York publishers, he told them exactly what he was proposing to do. "I want to make literature out of Ronald Reagan," he said, according to a History Channel interview with Roger Mudd that I've pulled off the Internet. He didn't use the word "fiction" -- he hadn't come close to making that decision yet -- but the statement is revealing nonetheless. And as I walk up Capitol Hill to keep a Friday morning appointment with him, I find myself parsing it in my head.
I want: That's the writer's ego speaking, and his desire . . . to make: not to find or to discover, but to create . . . literature: not history, not mere biography . . . out of: the suggestion is of a supply of raw material . . . Ronald Reagan: a historical figure, to be sure, but also a lump of clay in Morris's hands.
I arrive at his town house and ring the bell.
He comes to the door in a beige sweater and black jeans, and with a somewhat distracted air: His car is to be hauled to a garage for repairs, and the tow truck is due any minute. We go up to his spare, light-filled office to talk. By the window is a painting, done by a friend, of a blue, Reagan-like lifeguard holding a rescued woman in his arms.
I'm feeling -- what? A little of the guilt I often feel when I invite myself into someone's life for my own purposes. But I've got biographical yearnings of my own now, and I've got an hour to gratify them.
Edmund Morris turns out to be the kind of person who can look at an old photograph -- of an anguished, dying Chopin, say, or of a grinning Teddy Roosevelt on a 1909 visit to Nairobi -- and be consumed with longing. "The fact that that blood was warm, that flesh was vital, but I just can't get at it . . ."
He greatly admires the English biographer Richard Holmes, who published a book titled Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer in 1985, the same year Morris started Dutch. In its opening chapter, Holmes is retracing a solitary walk that Robert Louis Stevenson once took through a mountainous region in southern France. "He comes into this village at dusk and sees this old bridge that Stevenson crossed a hundred years before into the village, which has in the intervening century been broken, so it is now just a ruin . . . and he compares that bridge to the bridge that the biographer wants to travel over to get into the past. But the past is irretrievable, because the bridge is broken."
Since childhood, Morris has been passionate about music. When I ask if he agrees with the notion that biography is a collaboration between lives, he hesitates, then suggests the word "counterpoint" instead. "The whole thing about counterpoint is that it is built-up tensions between two narrative strands, or two compositional strands, and those strands eventually have to resolve."
And what about that Bergen-Belsen chapter, and Nancy Reagan's gown?
"I think it grew out of the fact that his inauguration was on that snowy day in January of '85," Morris says. "Snow, snow, white, white -- I was in Washington that day and I remember the whiteness." The Bitburg visit was announced "on Passover, Easter weekend, the whiteness of Easter lilies, and somehow the white built on white. And then I guess the white was a subconscious association with Reagan's innocence . . . and it's a strange phenomenon in writing that sometimes imagery almost happens of its own accord. You know, why did Nancy wear white that night? She could have really screwed things up by wearing red."
I'm still digesting this when the tow truck arrives.
We talk for more than an hour, in the end, and looking back, I'm not sure I can fairly summarize the conversation except to say that it was never dull. Morris talks about the pervasive use of sound effects in his Roosevelt book ("most writers seem to be deaf," he says). He says he got the idea for the post-Reykjavik sequence in Dutch from a Glenn Gould radio play called "The Idea of North." We discuss The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm's brilliant dissection of biographical subjectivity as applied to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
"What was so fascinating about it was the fact that she presented it as a search," Morris says. "And really, all great biographies have this element of search in them."
I don't say much about his skewed historical perspective; I've got my opinions, which aren't likely to change. I don't say much about the fiction, either, because even if I thought it worked (which it doesn't, especially -- aieee! -- in the '60s chapters), I'd still think the gross violation of readers' trust would be too high a price to pay. I do suggest that he could have written an equally subjective book, with Reagan's story still projected through the lens of a narrator/biographer, without resorting to fiction at all, and I'm somewhat surprised when he agrees. He usually says he
couldn't have written it any other way.
I try out a theory I have about Dutch, which is that it can easily be read as a book about biography -- that it's structured around the tension between the biographer's literary dependence on his subject and his urge to break free. No sale.
And Parsifal? How did that innocent operatic hero, plucked originally out of the Grail legends for Richard Wagner's artistic purposes, end up shaping a biography of Ronald Reagan?
"I don't know," Morris says. "I just kept hearing that Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor theme from `Parsifal' again and again when I thought of him. The Noble Fool, who never really understood the nature of evil until he directly confronted it at Bergen-Belsen."
Was the comparison a conscious attempt to give Reagan mythic status? I ask.
"Yes, I suppose it was."
You believe he truly was a mythic figure, then?
"He was dreamed into existence by the American people. And I think he represented the best aspirations of the American people."
But wait: What about that massive, glacial personality that carried all before it? The personality so powerful it changed the course of history all by itself?
"Well that's the role of mythic figures," Morris says. "They are dreamed into existence in order to shape their times."
At the point where the reader believes he can see more truly or fairly into the state of the case than the biographer himself then the very nature of the book he is reading seems to change. Essentially, the dramatic nature of the biography -- its powers of re-creation -- are fatally undermined.
-- Richard Holmes, in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
Three days later, I return to biographical reality. I'm back at the Smithsonian for one more lecture, this time by Jean Strouse.
Strouse is the author of a much-lauded new life of J.P. Morgan. She talks about her initial perception of the all-powerful financier as a "rather monstrous robber baron" and says she thought the best she could do would be a "three-dimensional portrait of a bad guy." The more she learned about her subject, however, the more she came to believe that Morgan the Evil Capitalist was as much a myth as the heroic version favored by his admirers. She spent 15 years trying to bring the real man back to life, and from what I've read, she's succeeded. But as for actually replacing that old image of Morgan . . .
I wish her luck.
Because if the history of biography tells us anything, it is that the variety of fiction we call myth is stronger than the most conscientious attempt at biographical truth-telling. And if that's the case, then the monstrous J.P. Morgan -- the one who's now part of what Edmund Morris calls "the collective folk memory of the American people" -- will outlast all attempts to see him whole.
Edmund Morris Edmund Morris Edmund Morris -- there I go again. At this rate, I'll never get him out of my head.
But at least I can see him a bit more clearly than when I began.
Human life and myth -- as both Strouse and Morris himself have shown me -- exist in a kind of counterpoint that biography must try to resolve. Conventional biographers achieve this by demythologizing their subjects, resolving the narrative tension in favor of a fully human story.
Morris has gone the other way. He has chosen, as his literary focal point, the "Ronald Reagan" long since dreamed into existence by Hollywood starmakers, American voters, Republican businessmen, Nancy Reagan, the media, Michael Deaver and Reagan his own dreamy self. Oh, the biographer reshapes the myth for his own creative purposes (nobody does Bitburg the way Morris does, which may be just as well). But he never challenges its primacy. And it is this unquestioning embrace of myth, I've come to believe, as much as the fictional sideshow Morris has created, that makes Dutch such a disturbing book. We're aware that the mythical Reagan may carry the day in the long run, but Morris -- with his providential white gowns and his "Parsifal" themes and his cult of the almighty personality -- appears to have skipped a few stages along the way.
The result is biographical vertigo. He leaves us disoriented and resentful, unsure of where we stand -- and would do so even without his infamous fictionalizing.
I've got my own particular reason to forgive him, though.
It's been a couple of weeks since the last Smithsonian lecture, and I'm still not reading about Pamela Harriman. That's because I'm under the spell of Edmund Morris's favorite biographer, Richard Holmes. Footsteps is a brilliant book, just as Morris said. It's an esoteric blend, perfectly realized: a set of linked travel stories, a collection of brief biographies, a meditation on the biographer's art.
As with Dutch, the author's voice is compulsively subjective. Unlike Dutch, every word rings true.
Bob Thompson is a Magazine staff writer.