Writing a Life Story

Good books about music legends, strong women, presidents, and more—plus how local biographers get inside people’s heads.

By: William O'Sullivan

"Washington is a reader’s paradise for biography,” says National Portrait Gallery director Marc Pachter. “Newspapers are filled with profiles. We see the world in terms of individuals more than social forces. There’s a passion to make sense of life through the experience of individuals.”

Pachter calls the portrait gallery—to reopen in July after a long renovation—a “biographical museum.” For almost 20 years his avocation has been leading the Washington Biography Group, a monthly gathering of authors to talk about their craft. The group has helped spawn more than 40 books about subjects ranging from Rachel Carson to Robert Frost to Carmen Miranda.

Pachter says a biographer’s task is “to create something that’s readable yet subject to the discipline of the truth. Traditional biography—academic biography, 19th-century biography—didn’t have these narrative aspirations. Trying to write something as compelling as a novel but based in research is difficult.”

One of the group’s main purposes is to lend support. “Biographers have this strange other relationship besides a family member that they want to talk about,” Pachter says. “It really is a relationship with another life.”

Falls Church author Kenneth Ackerman is a member of the group. His Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York came out last year. Ackerman says of the author-subject dynamic: “It’s almost like being married. You get to see the world through their eyes.”

When working on a biography, he avoids going to his subject’s grave “because I like to think of them as a living, breathing person.” He broke his rule with his latest book. In Brooklyn on a speaking engagement, he visited the cemetery where Tweed is buried: “It was like visiting a relative—seeing who was there, which cousins were in the same plot.”

What biographies has Ackerman enjoyed reading? Among recent ones, he names Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands. “I’m hooked on presidential books,” Ackerman says. “Both writers managed to find compelling new angles.”

Two of his favorite older ones—out of print but available used—are David M. Jordan’s Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate, about a powerful politician, and W.A. Swanberg’s Jim Fisk: The Career of an Improbable Rascal, about a financier: “Conkling and Fisk are two of the most entertaining figures of 19th-century America, almost utterly forgotten and worth getting reacquainted with.”

Pundit and Newsweek writer Evan Thomas has written or cowritten five books chronicling prominent lives, from Robert Kennedy to Edward Bennett Williams to John Paul Jones, his most recent. Due in November is War at Sea, about two American and two Japanese World War II naval commanders.

“At Newsweek we can get into depth sometimes,” Thomas says, “but often not week to week. Biography gives me a chance to spend three to four years getting into someone’s head. It has a depth of feeling you just can’t equal in weekly journalism.”

He recommends a book by Joseph J. Ellis—not Ellis’s better-known Founding Brothers but Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. “It’s written in a nonlinear fashion,” Thomas says, “but if you want to get a sense of how one of the Founding Fathers thought, it’s just great. It should be read with David McCullough’s John Adams, which is a different approach. Together you feel like you know everything about Adams.”

Thomas recently reread Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first volume of a trilogy (Morris is working on the third): “It’s the best ever—compulsively readable. Roosevelt so comes to life.”

DC author Marion Elizabeth Rodgers shares Thomas’s love of the Theodore Roosevelt biography, which she calls a masterpiece. Rodgers recently published Mencken: The American Iconoclast, about journalist H.L. Mencken.

She adds to her list two books by Morris’s wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris—Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady, about Teddy Roosevelt’s second wife, and Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce, about the playwright, congresswoman, and ambassador—as well as William Manchester’s two-volume Winston Churchill biography, The Last Lion: “These are old-fashioned, narrative biographies that rely on a mountain of primary materials to masterfully convey the life, times, and personalities of their characters.”

Rodgers says writing a biography “takes a neurotic personality and a masochistic one. If you’re like me, you get excited by the hunt, and there are always more things to look for—but then you have to tell yourself to stop.”

Nadine Cohodas echoes Rodgers’s caution. Cohodas’s first book was Strom Thurmond & the Politics of Southern Change. Her fourth, published last year, is Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington.

Says the District resident: “You have to be careful of becoming so enamored of detail that you forget to tell a story. If you can’t create a narrative arc, then all of those details don’t work as much as they should.”

With her Thurmond book, Cohodas says what she didn’t put in was as important as what she did: “There were speeches and speeches, but that isn’t what you’re looking for.”

She admires music critic and biographer Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, the story of the gospel and pop singer that came out last fall. “It gives the feel of what a moment is like onstage or in the recording studio,” she says.

“I would also commend anyone to Michael Lydon’s lovely Ray Charles: Man and Music. It’s full of telling detail and fine descriptions of the music and the way Ray Charles put it together.”

Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin’s new book is A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, about the three-time presidential candidate and Scopes-trial figure. Kazin recommends a book he read his first month in graduate school:

“The one that sticks in my mind is Robert Caro’s first serious biography—not his more famous ones about Lyndon Johnson but The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It’s a wonderful study of how this man, without being elected, amassed so much power. It’s a moral tale, because Caro is at first supportive of Moses and then critical of his power. It’s a political biography in the best sense, in that it doesn’t see Moses only as a political figure.”

Kazin’s second pick is Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a collection of four biographical essays published in 1918: “Strachey brought to bear the insights of Freud on figures in Britain in the 19th century. Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, General Gordon, and Thomas Arnold were heroes when they were alive. Strachey tried, in an iconoclastic way, to figure out what was driving them and as a result brought them down to size.”

Kazin says writing life stories can be both exhilarating and frustrating: “It’s exhilarating because you’re able to get under the skin of this person. With Bryan, I tried to understand why he was both as beloved and as hated as he was. It’s frustrating because you never know a lot of things you’d like to know. I would have liked to know more about Bryan’s childhood and his relationship with his wife, but those records just don’t exist. It must be even more frustrating for someone who writes about Joan of Arc or some aristocrat in the ninth century.”

More Lives

Out this month: Washington Post reporter David Maraniss’s Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, about Roberto Clemente. Maraniss previously took on Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi.

This one isn’t a biography per se but a collection of profiles by one of the best journalists in the business: Former Post writer and current New Yorker editor David Remnick’s Reporting: Writings From the New Yorker gathers his takes on Katharine Graham, Tony Blair, Philip Roth, Mike Tyson, and others.

May brings Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, Barbara Leaming’s look at JFK’s political evolution. Leaming’s previous subjects include Jacqueline Kennedy, Orson Welles, and Katharine Hepburn.

Features editor William O’Sullivan can be reached at bosullivan@washingtonian.com.