Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject

Meryle Secrest, Author . Knopf $25.95 (242p) ISBN 978-0-307-26483-1

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. (June 7)

James Atlas, the publisher of Atlas Books, is the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow.

Reviewed on: 04/23/2007
Release date: 06/01/2007
Genre: Nonfiction
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