Stacy Schiff gets it. She gets people. She studies lives tirelessly and fiercely and perfectly, and when she is finished studying, she publishes works of flawlessly interpreted, beautiful and meticulously researched prose. Her biographies have reawakened my love of history, and given me the gift of feeling well-informed and eloquent when defending powerful women, dropping “did you knows?”, or nerding out about Benjamin Franklin. I can’t be objective about Ms. Schiff; I love her. And I’m pretty excellent at getting other people to read and buy her books. I dare you to read this post without ordering one or all of the these gems:
1. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America: Schiff brings to light a fascinating and critical era of Benjamin Franklin’s life that most of us know nothing about, probably because we never bothered to ask. At age seventy, and with a pretty gross case of psoriasis, Franklin is sent to France to ask a GIANT favor. Namely, that it help us win our war of independence from England. Ben is universally adored in Europe, with good reason (he just keeps coming up with amazing inventions and discoveries like bifocals, electricity, and the flexible urinary catheter), but surprisingly, his biggest obstacle is his fellow American ambassadors, most of whom hate his guts, and try to sabotage the entire mission through their pettiness. Things end in America’s favor, obviously, but only through Franklin’s masterful diplomacy, manipulation, and good luck.
2. Cleopatra: A Life: Through history, Cleopatra has been depicted as a treacherous whore by men who resented her power. In this book, Schiff gives her her due. At 21, Cleopatra reclaims the kingdom she lost to her tiny snot-nosed brother, whom she later murders. (She will definitely murder all of her siblings. It’s completely justified.) During the next 20 years, she will become one of the most powerful and successful rulers in history. She accomplishes this by aligning herself with the right powers, being a charming orator and formidable strategist, bearing the right children, and yes, by using feminine guile to its full effect. She also thinks to do things almost no other king before her bothered to do, like learn the languages of the people she’s governing. She then dies the most spectacular and dramatic death. You want to throw a rose at her—girl knows how to make an exit.
3. Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov: This is a remarkable love story of a wife’s unbreakable devotion to her husband, and her husband’s complete trust in her and need for her presence. It will turn your knees to jelly, make time stand still, and throw into question every relationship you’ve ever had. Thanks to Schiff’s painstaking research, we have insight into Véra Nabokov’s notoriously private and faithful marriage, which may have started with a mysterious meeting on a bridge, Véra wearing a black silk mask and reciting Nabokov’s poetry to him. (HOT.) The result of that mysterious meeting was fifty years of writing, editing, translating, and butterfly catching.
4. Saint-Exupéry: A Biography: This guy. Aristocrat, pilot, writer, hostage negotiator, head of Aeropostale Argentina, and desert plane crash and dehydration survivor, to name but a few of his achievements. He was also a philanderer who lacked ambition and suffered from bouts of depression. But no one who met him ever forgot him. At the age of 44, during WWII, he disappeared in his plane on a reconnaissance mission. As an editor, Schiff found the author of The Little Prince so fascinating, she started writing his life story herself instead of passing it on to another biographer. It was her first biography, and she researched and wrote it old school: libraries, towers of dusty books, dim lamps, no internet, pen and paper, Diet Coke.
Don’t wait to pick one of these up. (Side note: no one makes me reach more frequently or willingly for a dictionary than Stacy Schiff. I am eternally grateful, and I try to use words like “bilious” at least once a day. It’s surprisingly easy.)