Twelve years ago, I signed with Random House to write a biography of Bennett Cerf, its cofounder, who lived a big life and changed American culture. My first book was a cancer memoir. I had journalistic experience, but had no idea what I was doing when I took on a biography. Nor, I suspect, did Mark Whitaker, another journalist who published a memoir—on his biracial heritage—and chose an iconic father figure as subject for his second book.
The controversy surrounding Cosby: His Life and Times, published by Simon & Schuster in September 2014, is a painful headache for Whitaker, and a footnote to the sexual abuse allegations that shadowed—and have now erupted into a PR disaster for—Bill Cosby. It was the confluence of the book, the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show, and the prospect of a new Cosby TV series that prompted comedian Hannibal Buress to resurrect the allegations in a stand-up routine that went viral.
Whitaker’s choice not to address the claims from 13 women (more have come forward recently) and the decade-old media trail calls attention to the underlying issue: how do we understand the responsibilities of biography and those who write it?
Life writing is awfully hard work. It requires humility; determination to tell the truth; an alchemical bond of insight, empathy, and critical distance; the ability to live with a second person in your head; and passion to see it through.
Catherine Drinker Bowen, who won a National Book Award in 1958, called biography “a long and difficult task, during which one is possessed not by dreams of glory, but by anxiety.” The best practitioners embody Desmond McCarthy’s definition: “The biographer is the artist under oath.” Still, biographers are human. They make mistakes. I will, too.
At the City University of New York in December, Whitaker said that when he began work on the book, Cosby refused to be interviewed and give access to friends, but later agreed; in biography-speak, he “cooperated.”
Sometimes cooperation occurs without a written agreement or the subject having the right to vet material prior to publication. However, if the biographer wants to cite or quote from letters and diaries, she usually has to obtain permission from the subject or heirs, or from the archive where the documents are held. Most biographers use lots of stuff from many archives, and routinely must get permission for material that they want to quote (it’s a happy occurrence when papers are “open” and permission not required).
Cooperation is different from “authorization,” which generally involves a written agreement. Some agreements make the biographer write to the requirements of the subject, who may have the right to approve or reject the manuscript before publication. In other arrangements, as Blake Bailey, the authorized biographer of Philip Roth, explains: “We signed an agreement” wherein Roth gives “exclusive cooperation.... He promised not to cooperate with others. In exchange, he gets to vet my manuscript for factual accuracy.... He cannot dictate interpretive content, however.”
There is no indication that Whitaker had to show Cosby anything, although Cosby can be intimidating and does not lack for lawyers. Whitaker stated at CUNY that he “never intended [to write] a tell-all. I was interested in Cosby as social figure. I was leery about printing [allegations], wanting to stand by everything I wrote.”
Yet when Cosby began cooperating, the book’s scope changed. It became much more than “an appreciation.” Likely Whitaker didn’t take on board what a full biography entailed.
Biographers make sins of commission and omission. For example, Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book, a “biography” about the effort to publish Ulysses, reduces my subject, Cerf—who showed courage in mounting the court case that allowed Joyce’s masterwork to be published legally in America—to a “sordid” playboy. Birmingham saw in Cerf’s diaries repeated use of the word Deal. Cerf “scheduled trysts in his little black books as ‘Deals,’ ” he tells readers. But Birmingham made a very misguided leap. Deal is a seaside town in New Jersey that Cerf visited on weekends—it’s not a sexual code word. Birmingham’s is a sin of commission.
Whitaker wanted to “stand by everything” he wrote, but is also responsible for not writing about something as serious as the sex-abuse allegations. That’s a sin of omission.
Cosby was a personal hero for Whitaker, who says he “didn’t want to write hagiography”—and he did not. But it seems it was too painful to venture into the deepest shadows of a man so embedded in his heart.
Tom Stoppard wrote, “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.”
Robert Massie said, “Biography is the ‘why’ of life.”
Unfortunately, Whitaker did get it wrong, leaving us to try to figure out a big “why” in the life of Bill Cosby—a lesson biographers should take to heart.
Gayle Feldman, the New York correspondent of the Bookseller, is a former senior editor of PW.