Stacy Schiff

“No one sits on the stoop when she’s a kid and thinks, ‘I want to be a biographer when I grow up,'” Stacy Schiff told me when we met over breakfast on the upper East Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago to discuss her newest book, Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff was drawn to the vocation herself by her interest in Antoine Saint-Exupéry, an attraction which exerted such a strong pull that she ultimately left her career as an editor at Simon & Schuster to compose her first book, a life of the French aviation pioneer and the author of such classics as The Little Prince and Wind, Sand, and Stars.

Schiff followed the success of Saint-Exupéry with Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Biography in 2000, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize. Despite their disparate subjects, Schiff’s books share a literary character and integrity—in addition to their meticulous scholarship—that make them both rewarding and a pleasure to read. Cleopatra is no exception, and our discussion of its composition and its contents proved to be animated, stimulating, and enlivened with her palpable fascination with the life and legend of her latest protagonist. What follows in an edited transcript of our conversation.           

— James Mustich

James Mustich: It’s been five years since your book about Benjamin Franklin, A Great Improvisation, came out. Have you been working on Cleopatra all that time?

Stacy Schiff: For the most part, if you don’t count carting kids to hockey practice. This idea had been on my mind for a long time. I spent most of the summer after the Franklin book trying to talk myself out of it, toying with more traditional and more contemporary subjects. But I kept circling back to Cleopatra, who had been an obsession even before Franklin. She’s the most compelling of subjects, and her story is without equal. I just couldn’t figure out how to write about her: was it possible to construct a straight biography given the holes in the story and the tendentious sources?

JM: It’s a different kind of subject for you. Your first two books, Saint-Exupéry and Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), were pretty firmly set in the twentieth century, and, given their literary pedigree, provided you with plenty of documents to work with.

SS: And they were legible documents too. [LAUGHING] Not moldy, and not in code, unlike the Ben Franklin material.

JM: But I imagine that even for Franklin there must have been a plethora of documents.

SS: Well, let me suggest something, and not entirely in jest. Insofar as there is an anxiety of influence for a biographer, it may be that each new book is undertaken in reaction to the previous book. There is an overload in the archives on Franklin. The French materials for Franklin’s life are about two-and-a-half times as great as those for the rest of his life put together, and that’s not counting the spy reports—the French spy reports and on top of them the British spy reports—or the voluminous records of the French foreign ministry. Even with all that, however, you still come away with basic questions unanswered. I think there was something about that, consciously or not, that made me wonder, “How about a book where the sources are scant? What would the difference be?” Sometimes, too many accounts spoil the truth. So there may have been a certain intentional wading away from another vast swamp of documentation.

JM: How do you embark on something like this? Once you decided to write about Cleopatra, did you do some preliminary scouting of the landscape to see what sources would be available and useful to you?

SS: I checked to see if there’d been a really good book published in the last few decades. Then I started with what Cleopatra would have read, asking myself, “What can we know about her education?” It turns out to be a very great deal, and bizarrely, no one had written about that before. It may seem an esoteric topic, but it tell us how she would have thought, the questions with which she would have conjured, what the themes of the day would have been. The fact that she could quote Homer, and that she knew her Euripides and her Aeschylus every bit as well as did Julius Caesar already tells you a great deal about her.

JM: The section on her education in the book is fascinating.

SS: I’m glad. I had so much fun writing that, based on some new and excellent Hellenistic scholarship.

JM: For some reason, even though people know she was a contemporary of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, there’s something about her story—I guess it’s just the Egyptian setting—that leads you to imagine Cleopatra much further back in history. But actually, as you explain, she wasn’t Egyptian; she was Greek, and had an education shaped by the same cultural ethos that shaped Caesar.

SS: Exactly. In the version most of us have in our heads, they’re opposites, exotics to each other. But the truth of the matter is that they were essentially graduates of the same elite institution. They could quote the same poetry; they had read the same books and pondered the same questions. They just happen to be meeting for the first time.

JM: Talk a bit about what the curriculum was. Homer was a big part of it.

SS: Homer was the keystone. Basically, the steady diet was Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and with them a vast training in rhetoric—how to speak, how to present yourself, how to express yourself properly. It was a speechifying culture. Which, especially if you’re being groomed for the throne, is something you would have taken seriously.

JM: And Cleopatra knew eight languages?

SS: Nine if you include Greek. We don’t know if or how well she spoke Latin, however. My guess is that she would have spoken it well, but with an accent of some kind. But that’s sheer speculation.

JM: Surprisingly, she was the first Egyptian monarch in some time who actually knew Egyptian. Right? She made a point of learning it.

SS: Plutarch credits her with being the first Ptolemy to have bothered to learn the language of the people over whom she ruled. Who knows why? Maybe her father suggested it, or maybe she was particularly gifted for languages, as Plutarch asserts. But whatever the reason, it came in handy, because she had to hire troops and to maintain peace in a country that was very restive at the time; it would have been an enormous advantage to be able to speak Egyptian. As we know, it makes a strong impression when our leaders reach out to us, and on our terms.

There’s another thing I should have mentioned when you asked me about scouting the landscape, as you put it. I once interviewed David Herbert Donald, the Lincoln historian, and we talked about how one deals with the secondary sources and the previous biographies. He said something which kept coming back to me as I worked on Cleopatra, which was: “There’s no further new material; there are only new questions.” There is a huge amount of new scholarship on, for example, Hellenistic education, and on women in the Hellenistic world, but little primary material is likely to emerge. Cleopatra’s diary isn’t going to suddenly show up in the Alexandrian harbor. [LAUGHS] But I did, however, have new questions. The first was how she conveyed herself from her desert exile back to the Alexandrian palace to meet Caesar, a question that stumped a few of the scholars I consulted.

JM: If you could have had a primary source for one incident or conversation, what would it have been?

SS: As you know, she was in Rome when Caesar was murdered. Those two facts are so tantalizing. We don’t really know all the reasons behind Caesar’s murder. We know he’s comporting himself like an autocrat, and paying little attention to the political climate. Honors are being heaped on him as if he’s some kind of deity, which rubs the good republicans in Rome the wrong way. But does the fact that he has the Egyptian Queen living across town, with his child, in his villa, have any bearing on what happens? There the silence speaks volumes; none of Caesar’s admirers had any reason to write Cleopatra into his life. And after his death, he is deified. No place for an Egyptian queen in that story.

So my answer to your question would be: she is up in his villa, he’s murdered mid-day. Someone has to hustle there very quickly to deliver the news. She and Egypt have banked on this man; everything is riding on him. What’s her reaction? It’s so frustrating not to have any sense of what that moment might have been like.

She would have been in danger at that point. And she knows she will have to start again from scratch. She has no idea what’s going to happen. The desperation must have been pretty great. She’s a woman who doesn’t usually lose her cool. How did she react?

JM: In your other three books, you clearly have a sense of your subjects’ voices, which you share with the reader through their letters and the like. There’s a literary record in each case, allied to the reader’s knowledge, at least in the case of Saint-Exupéry and Franklin, of these people outside your pages, so they are present in a way Cleopatra cannot be. With Cleopatra, you have a protagonist from whom only one word has come down to us, an approval of a royal decree: Ginestho, meaning “Let it be done.”

SS: If that. I’m pretty skeptical about it.

JM: Did this make you approach the composition differently? Because you have voices entwined in the narratives of the other books that you don’t have here.

SS: That’s a really good question. Someone asked me recently, “When did you know the book could be written?” The answer to that is, “When I finished writing it.” [LAUGHS] Seriously. After I’d written a chapter, I thought, “OK, maybe,” but only when I finished the entire manuscript was I certain. Or at least as certain as I ever get. But what made me realize it could be written were the few lines of dialogue in Plutarch, and then only after I’d gone back to Plutarch two or three times did I really see them. It’s a sultry Alexandrian afternoon: Cleopatra and Mark Antony are out fishing with their friends. To retaliate for a prank he has pulled on her, Cleopatra tricks Antony by attaching a salted herring on his line. This he delivers up to laughter all around. Then she delivers this wifely speech: “But darling, you shouldn’t be fishing; you should be out conquering kingdoms.” There was something in the voice that rang so true to me, a little like, “You shouldn’t be golfing; you should be with the kids.” I thought, “But really, we have two-thousand-year-old dialogue!” Suddenly I felt you could set a scene. You actually had a sense of Cleopatra’s coyness and her sauciness and her wit. Even from those very, very few lines, I thought you could begin to glimpse a personality.

Otherwise, the answer is: I feel as if this one required more work from the biographer, much more of the biographer’s voice. When the subject is inert, or coy, or for that matter missing from her own life, the biographer engages in a lot more legwork. I had a similar problem with Véra, where I had to spiral around an unwilling subject to animate he and coax her out. With Cleopatra obviously it was worse; you can’t get very close. The result is that there is more of my voice in this book, which is not a coincidence, as I was in the first place looking to write something looser, more essayistic, than I had previously.

JM: Were there moments when you attempted to speculate or invent a scene?

SS: No.

JM: You couldn’t even rely on geography.

SS: Tell me about it.

JM: Alexandria has changed a great deal since Cleopatra’s day, hasn’t it?

SS: Right. The Nile is in the wrong place.

JM: The Nile moved?

SS: The culture is different, the religion is different, and yes, even the Nile has moved. It’s nearly two miles further east. Alexandria is flatter today; Cleopatra’s palace, museum, library have all disappeared. The sky is the same. I went to Alexandria for two weeks, and as I sat there I thought: the weather is the same, the tides are the same, the sunsets are the same, and the color is the same. After that, all bets are off.

The one time I felt that this wasn’t true was when I went out to where Cleopatra would have been camped in the desert, in exile on account of her war with her brother, at the moment with which the biography opens. Today that spot is just east of the Suez Canal. Now, the coast isn’t in the same place as it was, and the fortress is in ruins (although it’s being excavated—it’s actually quite astonishing), but you can get a real sense what it would have been like in the first century B.C. Also, parts of the coast of Turkey remain undeveloped today and look precisely as they would have 2,000 years ago. Otherwise you’re on your own. Fortunately, many of the visitors to Alexandria in and around Cleopatra’s time wrote about it in fabulous detail.

JM: There’s one section in which you describe quite vividly the rambunctiousness of the ancient populace—the volatility with which the city reacted to its leaders’ actions or failures to act.

SS: That’s entirely from the ancient sources. The problem, obviously, is that almost every one is inimical to Egypt or to the East or to Cleopatra. So when someone writes, a century later, “Oh, those incredibly lawless Egyptians,” you have to remember that he’s a Roman officer and is by definition going to say as much. But even Alexandrian natives and others from the Greek world talked about Alexandria as people now talk about New York: a city where you got your wallet stolen at the corner of 57th and 5th, and where everyone is always talking loudly and at once. It’s precisely the way John Adams described New Yorkers in the eighteenth century. [LAUGHS]

The accounts of Alexandria are perfectly consistent. Also, they make palpable the physical details of that world. So even though we see none of it today—there’s a little bit of Roman Alexandria left, but almost nothing of Greek Alexandria—the accounts are so vivid and sumptuous that it was easy to reconstruct a city from them.

JM: “Caesar became history,” you write at one point. “Cleopatra became legend.” That seems to me to provide the split seed from which the narrative grows; it’s a narrative line in which the main trunk of events is entwined with vines of sexuality and exoticism. What an interesting historical moment, when the famously matter-of-fact Roman world meets another, which, if Cleopatra is any guide, was just as pragmatic, but has never been seen as such.

SS: Right.

JM: Perhaps it’s because the shadow of the pyramids falls over anything we think about Egypt; whatever takes place in the shadow of those mysterious monuments is exotic to us. And the sexual dimension of Caesar and Antony’s experience in Egypt certainly mystifies any simple idea of conquest. One of the things that’s compelling about the book is the way you reveal Cleopatra to be their equal as a leader and a strategist; she may have been doyenne of romance, but she was certainly a master of realpolitik.

SS: Yes. Interesting that she happened to fall in with the two most powerful Romans of the day, no? Quite a coincidence. [LAUGHS]

Much of what I hoped to thread through the book, in a way that wouldn’t interrupt the narrative if at all possible, was the idea that history comes down to us as propaganda and hearsay. The sources should always be read in that light. How history gets written is as important as what it tells us. In this case, three things unnerved the Romans: the occult, alien East; its perceived femininity, and with that a female sovereign; and Egypt’s mind-boggling wealth. No Roman ever set eyes on the palace of Alexandria without finding he was without the vocabulary to describe it; it made for an extraordinary contrast with first century B.C. Rome, primitive by comparison. Cleopatra’s personal allure aside, her rich and opulent country, her fortune, were in themselves rather compelling. Compelling and jealous-making, I should say.

JM: And anxiety-producing. There’s a wonderful line towards the end of the book: “She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient case for anxiety without adding sexuality to the mix.” The conquering Caesars may have been on the road to becoming Gods, but she was a God.

SS: She was there already. And worse, she was a woman.

JM: Confronted with her wealth and her stature and her sophistication, the Romans didn’t know how to behave. They were uncomfortable on her terrain.

SS: I was just writing a piece in which I was drawing a parallel between how the Romans felt about Cleopatra’s retinue and how we feel today in Paris or London, when that convoy of Maybachs with the security detail descend on our neighborhood café. That’s the impression that Cleopatra would have made.

Everything in Egypt belonged to her. Nothing left that country without enriching her coffers. Her corn supply is to some extent the ancient version of the Middle Eastern oil supply today. Rome stood to an uncomfortable extent at her mercy.

JM: You don’t say it quite like this, but you imply that the era designated as B.C. could as easily be called “Before Cleopatra” as “Before Christ.” I think you say you could date the modern world from the death of Cleopatra.

SS: There’s a punctuation point there, yes. What’s funny is that everything for which she is held up as a bad example—she’s a decadent woman who spends heedlessly and kills off relatives, who holds court in an opulent world of impure morals—all of this, of course, becomes true of the Roman Empire itself within a minute-and-a-half of her death. The fact that the Roman Republic, in its pious, pure state, pretty much ends with Augustus, which is to say with the death of Cleopatra, is telling. She leaves quite an impression on Rome after her suicide.

It seems to me that this was the first real grappling of East and West, one with which we still conjure today. Here we are two thousand years later, and the geography has changed, the division of East and West has changed, religion has clouded the picture, but the issues remain constant. There’s something still very sexualized and dissolute and primitive to our minds when we look East, while we consider ourselves forward-thinking paragons of rectitude.

JM: Also, the Romans, as we do, had a hard time imagining sophistication elsewhere.

SS: Precisely.

JM: One of my favorite passages in the book is your description of the preparations for a sea battle, during which the Egyptians built a fleet bigger than Rome’s in two weeks. Out of spare parts, more or less.

SS: To a Roman, ingenuity was a Roman specialty. It bothered him that Alexandria was such an advanced civilization, and that Rome was a backwater in comparison. That, too, will change within a minute, and that shift fascinated me. How could life have been so incredibly sophisticated in the first century B.C. in Egypt, and then how could we have lost so much of that culture for so many hundreds of years? Similarly, how could it take two thousand years for women to become independent members of society again, as they were to a great extent in Cleopatra’s day? And could we go backward again?

JM: We have a hard time thinking of the Roman Empire as doing anything other than bestriding the ancient world with confidence. But as you say, they were encountering a civilization more sophisticated, more splendid, and older than theirs. So they were kind of the innocents abroad, if you will.

SS: Well [LAUGHING], that’s why Mark Twain creeps into the book a couple of times. The reaction to Cleopatra’s world was akin to that of an American going abroad in Twain’s time, and trying to decide, “Is this barbarism or is this decadence?” They couldn’t imagine any other option, because they were so discomfited by what they were looking at.

That’s one of the reasons I had so much fun with Cicero. He never has a good thing to say about anyone. He has problems with women. He can’t stand anyone who has a better library than he does. And he has a deep aversion to wealth and to royalty. He resists an appointment to Egypt because he thinks posterity might think less of him for taking it. So you can guess how he would have felt about Cleopatra. It’s very easy to see how he would fail to take to this woman, no matter what she did to him. Cicero came as a relief, too, because with him I finally had a voice, and an immensely quotable one.

JM: Much of Cicero’s considerable interest, and not just in the case of Cleopatra, is the way his unparalleled eloquence is transporting, and yet, ultimately, no match for the blunter truths of his contemporaries.

SS: Insofar as I have a weakness for discontents, I love him. It’s just great how he always delivers that little twist of the knife.

JM: I do, too. What’s next for you? Have you decided what you…

SS: Do you have an idea for me?

JM: [LAUGHING] I wish I did.

SS: I don’t know. I’m very bad at predicting. After I finished my first book, I told myself that the second subject would have had to speak a Romance language, have as fine a sense of humor as did Saint-Exupéry, and have left great letters. Those were the three criteria, none of which applied to Mrs. Nabokov, about whom I wrote next. She had a limited sense of humor, her letters to her husband have never turned up, and she did not lead her life in a Romance language. So I wouldn’t put any faith in any prediction I make now. Well, I would venture one prediction: give me a massive archive, please. Legible, typewritten, and mold-free. And preferably within 100 miles of my front door.

JM: What do you find compelling about biography? What draws you to it?

SS: Well, it has been called gossip with footnotes for a reason. I like to read my history through the lens of a personality. I don’t think I’m alone in that. To be able somehow to view historical events through their impact on and through the eyes of an individual thrills me. Then, of course, there is always a beginning, a middle, and an end in biography. And there’s a particular gratification to the genre: ultimately you get to kill off your subject. [LAUGHS]

As a biographer, you see things that the subject never saw. Nabokov writes to his mistress using the same words that he’d used fourteen years earlier to write to his future wife. I’m sure he never realized that. But I know that. Being able to locate the thematic consistencies throughout the life, to illuminate motivations and explain decisions as the person living the life could never have done, delights. It’s a marvelous intellectual puzzle, if one you by definition can’t solve for yourself.

— October 18, 2010

[Editor’s Note: Excited about the paperback release of Cleopatra, we decided to update this interview. Also, read Stacy Schiff’s list of her favorite biographies here.]