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

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

by Meryle Secrest

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The first rule of biography, wrote Justin Kaplan: “Shoot the widow.”

In her new book, Meryle Secrest, acclaimed biographer (“Knowing, sympathetic and entertainingly droll”—The New York Times), writes about her comic triumphs and misadventures as a biographer in search of her nine celebrated subjects, about how the hunt for a…  See more details below


The first rule of biography, wrote Justin Kaplan: “Shoot the widow.”

In her new book, Meryle Secrest, acclaimed biographer (“Knowing, sympathetic and entertainingly droll”—The New York Times), writes about her comic triumphs and misadventures as a biographer in search of her nine celebrated subjects, about how the hunt for a “life” is like working one’s way through a maze, full of fall starts, dead ends, and occasional clear passages leading to the next part of the puzzle.

She writes about her first book, a life of Romaine Brooks, and how she was led to Nice and given invaluable letters by her subject’s heir that were slid across the table, one at a time; how she was led to the villa of Brooks’ lover, Gabriele d’Annunzio (poet, playwright, and aviator), a fantastic mausoleum left untouched since the moment of his death seventy years before; to a small English village, where she uncovered a lost Romaine Brooks painting; and finally, to 20, rue Jacob, Paris, where Romaine’s lover, Natalie Barney, had fifty years before entertained Cocteau, Gide, Proust, Colette, and others.

Secrest describes how her next book—a life of Berenson—prompted Francis Steegmuller, fellow biographer, to comment that he wouldn’t touch the subject with a ten-foot pole.

For her life of British art historian Kenneth Clark, Secrest was given permission to write the book by her subject, who surreptitiously financed it in the hopes of controlling its contents; we see how Clark’s plan was foiled by a jealous mistress and a stash of love letters that helped Secrest navigate Clark’s obstacle course.

Among the other biographical (mis)adventures, Secrest reveals: how she tracked Salvador Dalí to a hospital room, found him recovering from serious burns sustained in a mysterious fire, and learned that he was knee-deep in a scandal involving fake drawings and prints and surrounded by dangerous characters out of Murder, Inc. . . . and how she went in search of a subject’s grave (Frank Lloyd Wright’s) only to find that his body had been dug up to satisfy the whim of his last wife.

A fascinating account of a life spent in sometimes arduous, sometimes comical, always exciting pursuit of the truth about other lives.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Julie Phillips
… in this engaging account of the writing of nine lives, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dal�, Secrest reveals that biography in fact requires a very different set of skills. Someone, somewhere, usually knows what really happened. Her problem is to get them to tell her, or let her read the letters or allow the quotes to be published. Her most important tools are not sleuthing and spycraft but tact and sympathy.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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.

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
A famed biographer reveals the story behind getting the story. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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8 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Glass Pavilion

Before I became a biographer I used to write interviews for the Washington Post and one day I was sent along to interview Kenneth Clark. The British art historian, who was also a celebrated lecturer, author, university professor, gallery director, patron, collector, social lion and courtier, was at the height of his fame as star of the television series Civilisation. A wide international audience had, as it were, fallen in love with him. Roses were practically being thrown at his feet and further accolades would follow his disarming, self-revelatory memoir, Another Part of the Wood.

I found him in Georgetown at the home of the founding director of the National Gallery of Art. David Finley was, by then, a small, shrunken and noncommittal figure who, I would belatedly discover, had locked away forever secrets of the art world acquired during a lifetime of firsthand observation. It was 1969. Clark entered the room as if he had stepped out of a picture frame, looking exactly right. He was in his sixties and still handsome, with even features, a beautifully shaped head and an expansive brow. The amiably goofy Bertie Wooster, hero of P. G. Wodehouse’s comedies, who employs the frighteningly erudite Jeeves, was wont to explain that his butler’s brainpower came from eating fish and the way his head stuck out at the back. As I recall, Kenneth Clark preferred lamb or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to fish, and the only thing that ever stuck out at the back was his hair. For me, the essence of penetrating intelligence is exemplified by the forehead, and his was as serene and sweeping as any I had seen. I took particular note of what the British would call his keen gaze, so full of energy and expression, and the way he caressed one of his host’s delicate alabaster objets. There was something curiously familiar about him. But the fact that I had just viewed all thirteen episodes of Civilisation must explain why I seemed able to predict his movements, gestures and shades of expression.

Before Clark became a television performer and “national icon,” as David Cannadine called him, he had been Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean, director of London’s National Gallery, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, chairman of the Arts Council and Independent Television Authority, as well as the author of books on art and artists, including works on Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca, and The Nude. He talked freely and fluently and, after I sent him the article, wrote to thank me. This seemed to call for a magazine piece. I persuaded Smithsonian magazine to let me interview him again, which wasn’t too difficult. The following summer I flew to England to visit the Clarks in their castle outside Hythe in Kent.

It was a Saturday morning, and Lord Clark met me at the station. Lady Clark—Jane—was having her hair done. We would pick her up and then go to Saltwood Castle for lunch. I had dressed for the occasion in my latest affectation, what James Laver would have called a Robin Hood outfit, complete with tunic and matching pants. My host met me in Scottish tweeds, a green velour hat and matching suede shoes. (Jeeves would have taken a very dim view of the shoes.) I could not have looked any more out of place if I had been carrying a bow and arrow, but Lord Clark, his manners as always faultless, rose above it.

There was a heavy summer rain, and as the wait might be prolonged we went for a quick one. Kenneth Clark pulled the Wolsey right up to the front steps of Folkestone’s largest hotel, but not before I had surreptitiously taken note of the ten-year-old car’s low mileage (6,000) and the two books inside the glove compartment: Charles Darwin and His World and The Odes of Pindar. “This is what my father used to call a beezer,” he said as we dashed inside. When he said a quick one, he meant it. He downed his whiskies rather the way Russians toss back vodka; now you see it, now you don’t. I had barely started on a martini when it was time to squelch back down the steps to the car with its dashing red interior. He had left the window open on his side. “Oh well,” he said, “I shall get a wet bottom,” and we drove off.

He was the second Kenneth Mackenzie Clark. The first was an immensely wealthy Scot, one of the Clarks of Paisley who made their fortunes in the manufacture of sewing thread, and his father had acquired more than £1 million when he sold his share of the business in 1896. That made him very rich indeed, with all sorts of fashionable addresses, but what always interested me was that he called himself “K.” My subject, therefore, always called himself “K,” and the complexities of that identification and its implications for his artistic and emotional heritage kept me awake at night in years to come. For the moment I was dazzled enough to be told, after addressing him as Lord Clark, “My friends always call me ‘K.’ ”

K and I drew up at Miss Dora Clifford’s hair salon, and Lady Clark edged into the back seat. I had seen pictures of her in her twenties, with a boyish cut, an embroidered stole flung negligently over one shoulder. It was a bit disappointing to find her wearing an entirely conventional tweed suit, her single fashion statement a pair of knit hose with a lacy pattern up the front that drew discreet attention to a shapely pair of legs. Her face seemed wider and softer. There was no trace of the piquant, almost pouting look of the early photographs. It was hard to imagine her as the bold, assertive Jane who had told her friends, in 1953, “We’ve taken a castle in Kent!” That, Diana Menuhin thought, begged for Beatrice Lillie’s retort, “Put it back at once!” Her husband led the conversation, which formed an abbreviated travelogue as we traversed Folkestone’s slick and deserted front. She spoke about the well-publicized breakup between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, whom they knew well, with a tantalizing comment that she did not pursue. In fact, much of her conversation had an oddly disjointed quality, but I attributed that to her husband’s flow of confident comments.

It was a real castle, as romantic as anything imagined by Walter Scott. Considered one of the finest examples of a small Norman fortress in England, its turrets and battlements were picturesquely arranged around a partial moat, with an expanse of faultless green lawn on the opposite side and great masses of roses climbing over broken walls. One building that now housed Lord Clark’s library was the Archbishop’s audience hall where, legend had it, the four knights of Henry II had planned to murder Thomas à Becket. Saltwood even had a ghost story of sorts; several guests, including the actress Irene Worth, had heard voices in the yellow bedroom and the sound of bells at five in the morning. Kenneth Clark had heard them himself. My own response to a building of such splendor and antiquity was mixed. I had a confused impression of stone halls, stained-glass windows, arches, huge fireplaces, silk velvet upholstery, daisies in vases, oils, watercolors and drawings by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Cézanne. Yet there was something austere, if not forbidding, about the atmosphere that the use of inviting fabrics, flowers, down cushions, tapestries and Persian carpets could not dispel. Kenneth Clark said they were building a house on one floor because, he continued, with a gesture toward an ominously long flight of stone steps, Jane tended to “tumble about a bit.” It appeared she had fallen down this flight and broken an arm; I was surprised she had not killed herself. His description of the event seemed so offhand as to be jolting.

Lunch was almost ready, organized by K, who seemed in charge of everything. There was just about time for one of his terrifyingly abbreviated cocktail hours. I got another martini. Jane asked for the same, but was not given one. As we sat down to lunch, she remonstrated weakly, “K, you forgot my martini.” He was obviously pretending not to hear. We had lamb on Chinese porcelain, with mint sauce in a silver bowl. There were raspberries and cream for dessert; it was perfection. K opened an excellent white Bordeaux, and he and I polished it off between us. Jane Clark had, at most, half a glass. Then the most amazing thing happened. Like the Cheshire cat, she was vanishing before our eyes. Almost the only thing left was the smile as she, on silent feet, glided off to bed. I would learn that she was a famous drunk, said to have fallen down in more embassies than any other woman in England. She seemed almost grateful for the idea that K was going to show me around the castle grounds, and at her suggestion we made our way to the scullery, where I was fitted out with a pair of wellies. Some time after that we ended our tour in K’s study, on either side of a fireplace. In my muddy boots and principal boy pantomime outfit I hardly qualified as a femme fatale. So I was astounded to be pulled to my feet by K, who then wrapped me in his arms and said something outlandish like having loved me from the moment he saw me. I was quite grateful to be deposited, soon afterwards, on the train back to London—something like the 4:15.

In his youth, Kenneth Clark had been a runner, and when I got to know him he was still running. It would not be too much of an overstatement to say that he could shoot out of bed, take his morning tea, bathe, be dressed and ready for action in the time it took the rest of us to stagger to the front door for the morning paper. His opening gambit when he met you at the station on the 12:10 would be an enthusiastic description of a fast train back to London at 1:50 p.m. “He terrifies me when he is in this mood,” one of his girlfriends, Margaret Slythe, said. “He’s like a train shunting us through the station.” A somewhat longer grace period was accorded weekend guests, but not by much. One visitor who was late departing overheard his host telling his dog, in tones of deep satisfaction, “Isn’t it lovely, they’ve all gone.” Yet, Margaret Slythe continued, “If they don’t come he says very sadly, ‘No one comes here now.’ ” In fairness to him, his days were so full they had to be timed to the minute, with unvarying periods parceled out for correspondence, dictating, phone calls, writing, meetings, lectures, walks, the afternoon nap, the occasional toddle along to the pub for a jug of beer, and his secret vice, girlfriends. I would learn just how much of a pouncer he was; fortunately for me, that aspect of his enthusiasm was fleeting. One had to wonder, given his passion for the stopwatch, how satisfactory he was as a lover. This charming, if mistaken, belief that whatever needed doing in life could be done in ten minutes had its drawbacks, as I would discover when I wrote his biography. By the time that all came about, I had written two other successful biographies, Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks, and Being Bernard Berenson. The latter was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. I won a Guggenheim Fellowship at the same time, and started thinking I could do no wrong. That was my first mistake.

Like Kenneth Clark, I was an only child. I was born in Bath and grew up on the slopes of the southern hills, in a new semidetached to which my parents moved when I was six years old. The street, Sladebrook Road, was in the sporadic state of being developed that was common following the Great Depression; a few scattered farmhouses built of Bath limestone clung to its rocky sides, with orchards and fields behind them. Down below in the valley, the famous nursery, Blackmore and Langdon, grew spectacular delphiniums in ideal conditions. Sladebrook Road had not been paved, a situation that continued until well after World War II, and my father would drive our motorbike and sidecar down the road, moaning about his springs. I would push my bike up the miniature hills and valleys and, daringly, take a rollercoaster ride back down again. I loved that unpaved road. One could build whole continents on its typography, with streams, rivers and lakes; a spot of oil in the water became, when you stirred it, an iridescent rainbow of colors.

The small-time builder who designed “Westhill” followed the invariable pattern of such semidetached buildings, sometimes called Metroland Suburban, and owing its origins to Charles Voysey. Its roof would be covered with tiles, and there were always bay windows, projecting gables and sometimes half-timbered façades. The front door might be decorated with a panel of stained glass depicting a ship in full sail; sunbursts were also the rage. The semidetached was the equivalent of the American center-hall Colonial. One could predict, without ever entering, the staircase running up directly behind the front door, the formal front room, less formal dining room and sparsely equipped kitchen. There would be three bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs. There was, of course, no central heating, so there were fireplaces in every room. The water pipes were placed considerately outside the walls, so that when water froze in the toilet and the pipes burst, the coagulating drips formed interesting but harmless stalactites on the outside.

Ours was a very scaled-down adaptation of the Voysey original. We did not have anything as grand as half-timbering, or even a stained-glass insert in the front door. We did have a wooden gate with a sunburst pattern and we also had Voysey-designed, heavily paneled interior doors, with handles set at chest height that I could not reach for quite a while. The fireplaces, designed for coal, were miniature, and surrounded by glazed china blocks in a muddy orange, curiously ascending in steps to form a very low mantelpiece. Everywhere, the wood was chocolate brown. The chocolate-brown picture rails would be outlined with a wallpaper border, usually some abstracted design of vine leaves or fruit, very Art Deco, under the rail and up and down the corners. Walls were papered with something the color of porridge, and the yearly papering became an event in which I learned to take part, if only to separate my parents when my mother burst into storms of frustrated tears.

Everything else was brown, buff, beige, coffee or fawn, bedrooms excepted (these were either pink or blue). The matching set of leather sofa and armchairs in the front room was brown. The mock Tudor sideboard was brown. My father’s special chair was upholstered in brown. The front-room curtains were light brown, with a silky, feathery leaf pattern. Even the barrel-shaped biscuit tin was brown, and it is no wonder I haven’t been able to look at that color since. I left the house with relief and not the slightest inkling that it would haunt me over the years. I dreamt one time that it was being enlarged at the back, with a big picture window. To my amazement I discovered on my next trip that this was the case. In my dreams I find myself buying it, and starting all over again.

From the Hardcover edition.

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