Donald Spoto, author of High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly among many other biographies, reveals how he gets the interview.
You've written biographies on some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Is it difficult to get your subjects—and their peers—to speak candidly?
I've found that once people agree to an on-the-record interview and see that you're well prepared and have no hidden agenda, they are quite prepared to speak frankly.
How do you choose your subjects?
I have to be strongly attracted to someone's life and/or achievements before the notion of undertaking a biography ever occurs to me. Research is a painstaking part of the process: into the hopper go interviews; archival study of public, personal and professional papers, documents and correspondence; and very wide reading about the subject and the subject's times.
You honored Grace Kelly's wish not to write her biography until 25 years after her death. How do you think time has changed the way we view Kelly?
The years have not been kind to Grace. I think we live in mean-spirited times, and there's a tendency among some writers to fabricate reasons to destroy reputations. I have a motto: “The biographer is obliged to tell the truth—even at the risk of saying something good about someone.” Sometimes this has made me unfashionable to some critics, but I can sleep at night.
What surprised you most when you met and interviewed Kelly?
At my first meeting with Grace, I was impressed by her lack of pretense, her warmth and friendliness—and by her keen observations about Hollywood and the directors and actors with whom she worked. I was also floored by her kind offer to contribute a foreword to my first book, then in progress (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock). As I discovered in our later meetings, that sort of gesture was typical of Grace—thoughtful, helpful, generous. I hope readers will come to see her as a significant and admirable woman—and as an actress, she was one of the great exponents of high comedy.
You're one of the few writers Alfred Hitchcock invited into his select fold. Was it your original intention to write a trilogy on different aspects of his life and work?
When I was writing that book, I decided to send three chapters to him. His reply was an invitation to watch him at work on Family Plot, which turned out to be his last movie. That was the first of many long visits. I never had the intention of composing his biography until after his death in 1980, and the idea for a third volume occurred only many years later when I realized how much more credit his leading ladies deserved than they had ever received.