Biographer’s Lunch

by Thomas Beller


35 W 44th St, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

Patricia Bosworth, the author of biographies of Montgomery Clift and Diane Arbus and who has been at work on a biography of her father, Bartley Crumb, for the last 10 years, recently had the idea that it might be nice if a group of biographers could gather now and then and commiserate, perhaps over lunch at the China Bowl, a mid-town restaurant. She broached the notion to fellow biographer James Atlas (Delmore Schwartz, at work on Saul Bellow), who loved the idea of the lunch but hated the idea of the China Bowl, whose Won Ton soup had, sometime in the past, caused him grief. As a result The Biographers Lunch took place recently in another mid-town establishment, The Harvard Club. In addition to Ms. Bosworth and Mr. Atlas, the biographers gathered included James Gleick, Eileen Simpson, Jim Miller, Walter Isaacson, Jean Strouse, Alan Brinkley, Judith Thurman, Susan Cheever, Katherine Clinton, and Deborah Solomon.

After a period of listening to the conversation, which was friendly, relaxed, and filled with anecdotes and personal observations about the craft of biography, and of watching the faces of those present, one began to wonder what it is exactly that draws a person into the life of another. Mr. Gleick joked that he was at the lunch under false pretenses, because he wasn’t going to do a biography ever again. Afterwards he explained his sentiment. “My book took five years, which by current biographical standards is a blink of an eye,” he said. “But I wasn’t prepared for what happens to your psyche when you spend that long tunneling further and further into someone else’s life. Here was someone I had never met in real life, and in some ways I knew him better than I knew my wife or my parents, and yet there is so much I won’t ever know, which is frustrating. One gets taken over by this other person to the extent that I would sometimes be getting dressed for an occasion and I would think, ‘Well, what would my subject wear?’, and then I would recoil and think, ‘Wait a second, I still have a life!'”

The personalities of the twelve biographers gathered for lunch seemed well intact, and yet as the conversation went on, the individual names of the biographers blurred, while their subjects remained vivid. Perceived this way, the lunch became an answer to that overused question: If you could invite anyone in history for lunch, who would it be?

This group was a fine and eclectic one. It consisted of Henry Kissinger and also Ben Franklin and maybe even Elvis Presley (all three speaking through the voice of Walter Isaacson, who had written a book on Mr. Kissinger and arrived thinking he was at work on a book on Ben Franklin, but was cajoled into considering Elvis–not that great a leap he himself pointed out, because “They both did drugs, they’re both very sexual, and they’re both extremely popular in France.”) Also present were Delmore Schwartz, John Cheever, Colette, Jackson Pollack, Alice James, Michael Foucault, Richard Feynman, Henry Luce, Isak Dinesen, and a group of Poets In Their Youth.

As the biographers chatted one couldn’t help sensing the ghosts of their subjects hovering above them.

The topic of honesty came up very early. Mr. Atlas (Delmore Schwartz) lamented what he referred to as the “Rashamon effect.” But then Mr. Gleick (Richard Feynman) opined that, “People don’t have to tell the truth to be useful.”

Walter Isaacson (Henry Kissinger) grimly stated that “Almost every document regarding foreign policy in the American Archives was written to mislead someone,” and, as a result, interviewing is essential.

Jim Miller (Michael Foucault) replied that he prefers hard documents to interviews because “people reinvent the past.” But Judith Thurman (Isak Dinesen, Colette) pointed out that the minute someone begins to write with posterity in mind it changes everything. “That is what’s wrong with those French Diaries,” she said.

“It’s the process of turning the self into a commodity,” said Mr. Miller.

“But candor seems definitely on the rise,” said Mr. Atlas.

“Candor is not enough,” interjected Eileen Simpson (Poets in Their Youth). “If you talk about all the people JFK slept with you have to make an attempt to understand it.”

“There are some things about my family that will never be said,” stated Susan Cheever.

“Like what?” asked Mr. Atlas, with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism.

Alan Brinkley (Henry Luce) commented that “There is a difference in the value of knowing about the sex life of a creative individual versus that of a political figure.”

Ms. Thurman suggested that Mr. Brinkley title his book, “Hanging Luce.”

“But don’t inner demons create public actions?” said Ms. Cheever.

Mr. Isaacson replied: “Kissinger’s sex life with Jill St. John need not be understood to understand his public actions.”

“What about all those missile crises?” asked Mr. Atlas.

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