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Shoot the Widow

Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject

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The first rule of biography, wrote Justin Kaplan: “Shoot the widow.”

In her new book, Meryle Secrest, acclaimed biographer (“Knowing, sympathetic and entertainingly droll”—The New York Times), writes about her comic triumphs and misadventures as a biographer in search of her nine celebrated subjects, about how the hunt for a “life” is like working one’s way through a maze, full of fall starts, dead ends, and occasional clear passages leading to the next part of the puzzle.

She writes about her first book, a life of Romaine Brooks, and how she was led to Nice and given invaluable letters by her subject’s heir that were slid across the table, one at a time; how she was led to the villa of Brooks’ lover, Gabriele d’Annunzio (poet, playwright, and aviator), a fantastic mausoleum left untouched since the moment of his death seventy years before; to a small English village, where she uncovered a lost Romaine Brooks painting; and finally, to 20, rue Jacob, Paris, where Romaine’s lover, Natalie Barney, had fifty years before entertained Cocteau, Gide, Proust, Colette, and others.

Secrest describes how her next book—a life of Berenson—prompted Francis Steegmuller, fellow biographer, to comment that he wouldn’t touch the subject with a ten-foot pole.

For her life of British art historian Kenneth Clark, Secrest was given permission to write the book by her subject, who surreptitiously financed it in the hopes of controlling its contents; we see how Clark’s plan was foiled by a jealous mistress and a stash of love letters that helped Secrest navigate Clark’s obstacle course.

Among the other biographical (mis)adventures, Secrest reveals: how she tracked Salvador Dalí to a hospital room, found him recovering from serious burns sustained in a mysterious fire, and learned that he was knee-deep in a scandal involving fake drawings and prints and surrounded by dangerous characters out of Murder, Inc. . . . and how she went in search of a subject’s grave (Frank Lloyd Wright’s) only to find that his body had been dug up to satisfy the whim of his last wife.

A fascinating account of a life spent in sometimes arduous, sometimes comical, always exciting pursuit of the truth about other lives.

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly Review

Apr 23, 2007 – To explain the homicidal title first: it’s an axiom coined by Justin Kaplan, the distinguished biographer of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and it refers to one of the main hazards we practitioners of the genre face. I instantly recognized its provenance: Kaplan, the first professional biographer I ever knew, used to warn me about the obstacles that spouses of dead subjects can strew in a prospective biographer’s path: permissions withheld, archives closed, requests for interviews denied. On the one hand, you need their co-operation to get the job done; on the other, they tend to get in the way. Maybe Secrest’s title should have been: “Obtain the Widow’s Papers, Then Shoot the Widow.” A career biographer, Secrest has nine biographies under her belt, among them Leonard Bernstein, Kenneth Clark and Salvador Dalí. It’s an eclectic mix—not an altogether reassuring sign. The greatest biographers—Michael Holroyd, Richard Ellmann, Leon Edel, Edmund Morris, Richard Holmes, to list a few at random—have imposed on themselves a mandate to enter as deeply as they can into another’s mind and character: in Holmes’s word, to “haunt” their subjects. The job can take a lifetime.Secrest doesn’t haunt as much as insinuate. Her method is pragmatic. “Deciding on a subject is mostly a cold-blooded business of weighing the subject against potential markets, timeliness, the availability of material and the likelihood of getting the story, the kinds of factors publishers have to worry about.” Sometimes she’s authorized; sometimes she’s not. Sometimes the matter of authorization is left ambiguous. She shares with us, perhaps unwisely, John Guare’s telling anagram for her name: Merely Secrets To her credit, Secrest is a lively storyteller—better than she knows. She puts herself down as “a nosy parker,” a “boring” stylist who finds the whole process “baffling.” But she’s too hard on herself. Arriving at Lord Clark’s ancient country manor, she finds the venerable art historian “sitting in the living room, his mouth half open, looking flustered and vague. He had had a coup de vieux, he said.” It’s a touching moment—portrait of a great man on his way out. Maybe Secrest should write an autobiography. The glimpses she offers of her own life—her English childhood in Bath; the revelation, blurted out in passing, that she was an “unwanted child”—are tantalizing. She tearfully confesses to one of her subjects, Stephen Sondheim, the “years of self-examination” she’s undergone. Tell us more. 61 b&w photos. James Atlas, the publisher of Atlas Books, is the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow.
Shoot the Widow
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  • $16.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: Biographies & Memoirs
  • Published: Jun 05, 2007
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Seller: Random House, LLC
  • Print Length: 256 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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