Last week I went to two events honoring the writing of biography. The first was at CUNY, the City University of New York, where Gary Giddins, himself a distinguished biographer, interviewed Phyllis Rose, author of the award-winning group biography Parallel Lives, as well as lives of Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker (an unlikely duo). Alsoon the platform was Zachary Leader, who has written a vast biography of Kingsley Amis and also the first volume of an even bigger work, the authorized life of Saul Bellow.
When Rose published her life of Woolf, in 1979, it was the first real study of the iconic figure so many of us admire. ‘People didn’t think she was important. It was only afterwards that the whole Bloomsbury industry got going.’ As for Zach Leader, one day he contacted Andre Wylie, Bellow’s agent, hoping he might be allowed to edit Bellow’s letters. They met, and Wylie said, ‘I’ve contacted the estate. They’re happy for you to go ahead.’ Only gradually did Leader realize that Wylie had come to the meeting thinking that he wanted to write the authorized life — an opportunity Leader immediately grabbed with both hands. It was a nice story.
I was interested to hear him, as I had been Amis’s editor for The Old Devils, and later published a biography of Amis, by his friend Eric Jacobs. Well into the publishing of the novel — which went on to win that year’s Booker Prize — I was summoned by my company’s chairman, Anthony Cheetham. ‘Kingsley doesn’t want you to continue as his editor,’ he told me. ‘He says you don’t listen.’ I said I was surprised, as Kingsley was notoriously self-centered, and I had listened to him for hours at boozy (on his part!) lunches and even when he had come to dine at my home, when he monopolized the conversation, even though both Charles Moore and John Keegan were also there.
I must have looked surprised at Kingsley’s attitude, because Cheetham added, ‘I don’t think it’s to do with you. I think he’s anti-semitic.’ Was he right? I still don’t know, with nothing really to go on either way. Kingsley continued to be perfectly affable, and I was at the Random Century table at the dinner when he won the Booker. It was all very odd.
But back to those biography sessions. The second was an evening to celebrate Jon Segal, the longtime Knopf editor, a good friend who has built up a wonderful stable of authors. Four of them had been brought together at the Temple Israel on East 75th Street (not a place Kingsley Amis would ever have visited) to talk about ‘How Great Biographies Are Made, and Why They Matter,’ Kate Buford, author of a bestselling biography of Burt Lancaster, was moderator, along with Paul Hendrickson, who has written on Robert McNamara and Ernest Hemingway, and is now engaged on a life of Frank Lloyd Wright; Eric Lax, Woody Allen’s biographer; and T.J. Stiles, whose life of Cornelius Vanderbilt won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
They were meant to talk on the evening’s chosen topic, which they did, very entertainingly, but inevitably they also wanted to talk about Jon. He must have been alternately cringing and puffing out his chest as the tales rolled out, and that was not all. He was to receive the 2015 Editorial Excellence Award of the Biographical International Organization, and Carl Bernstein, another of his authors, gave a wonderful speech about how tough Jon could be in his determination to get his writers to produce their best work. Then it was Jon’s turn. He spoke of his early years on the New York Times, and of the day he was in charge of the headline for a certain story. It was a busy night, and Jon was in a rush to put the page to bed. The next morning he woke up to see what he had allowed to pass into print: ‘Man Kills Himself Then Shoots Wife.’ His superiors were very understanding, and he kept his job. Those were the days.