Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Shoot the Widow
  • Written by Meryle Secrest
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307497864
  • Our Price: $16.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Shoot the Widow

Shoot the Widow

Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject

Written by Meryle SecrestAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Meryle Secrest

eBook

List Price: $16.99

eBook

On Sale: June 08, 2011
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49786-4
Published by : Knopf Knopf
Shoot the Widow Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Shoot the Widow
  • Email this page - Shoot the Widow
  • Print this page - Shoot the Widow
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

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.
Meryle Secrest|Author Q&A

About Meryle Secrest

Meryle Secrest - Shoot the Widow

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and now lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of nine biographies and is the recipient of the 2006 National Humanities Medal.

Author Q&A

Q: Congratulations on winning the National Humanities Medal. I understand that you have a previous connection to this award—what exactly is it?
A: I was working as an arts reporter for the Washington Post in 1965 when President Johnson signed into law the Act that established the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. So, imagine, it was all a bit surreal to actually be receiving the Medal.

Q: How did you decide to write a memoir about your biographies?
A: I set out originally to draw portraits of my parents and their very humble backgrounds—my grandfather on my mother’s side died destitute from Tuberculosis and no portrait of him exists. At the same time I wanted to invoke a vanished age, the way of life surprisingly intact, of the 18th century town of Bath, and then write about my emigration to Canada, and the improbable career path that I followed with no money and no contacts. My editor at Knopf liked it a lot but thought it had no future, so I left it for a year and came back with the idea of telling the back stories about the books I've written. The irony is that people are now asking why I didn’t tell more about myself!

Q: Of the nine biographies you’ve written, who was your favorite subject? Why? Least favorite?
A: Frank Lloyd Wright is by far my favorite subject, since like the other great heroic figures of the nineteenth century, one can hardly believe one man could get into so much trouble and still triumph. He left a lucrative practice in Chicago in 1909 to run off with a married woman (by then he himself was married, with six children of his own). After he built them a country house in Wisconsin, she, her two children and four others were murdered by a demented servant. Then his house burnt to the ground. He survived bankruptcy, jail, ignominy, law suits and much else before eventually becoming the most important American architect of all time. If that isn't a life of operatic dimensions, I don't know what is.

My least favorite is Richard Rodgers, because I never could develop the sympathetic appreciation for the person himself that I think every biographer needs. I am sure it was a failing in me.

Q: When was the first moment you thought of yourself as a biographer? Would you consider that your career?
A: I never did think of myself as a biographer. In my dreams I am still working at my desk at the Washington Post, only they don't know it.

What I mean to say is, so many techniques one learns in journalism can be directly applied to the way contemporary authors uncover the stories about their biographical subjects. It’s a process of investigation and whenever I uncover something new the instinct is there to put it in print.

Q: You speak quite fondly about your first writing job, as a woman’s editor at the Hamilton News in Hamilton, Ontario. How did this experience prepare you for your later work reporting at the Washington Post and then writing books?
A: In a way my first job was my best. I was hired at nineteen to be the Women’s editor of the Hamilton News, a tiny Canadian paper in Hamilton, Ontario, and thrown into life as a journalist at an admittedly shallow end. I had just emigrated to Canada with my parents, there was a staff of four, we were hopelessly pitted against a large and prosperous daily, and our only goal in life was to scoop them. Whenever we accomplished this almost impossible task, we all went out and got drunk. Nobody read the results except, of course, my mother.

Q: For your title, you take Justin Kaplan’s first rule of biography. Where in your work did this first come up? Do you recall any moments when this particularly resonated?
A: Justin put the idea into my head early in my career and it burned itself onto my brain after the horror of trying to tell the honest truth about Kenneth Clark. The biggest problems with the Clark biography centered around the fact that his wife, Lady Jane Clark, rejected her first-born son Alan. (The subsequent twins, Colin and Colette, were less affected.) Her attitude towards Alan was particularly damaging; he hated her and it affected his whole life. All three children wanted to, and did, talk at length about their mother’s addictions to drugs and alcohol. But when I quoted them they had fits of remorse and wanted everything removed. Poor Kenneth Clark, who had never faced the subject even though his wife was said to have “fallen down in more embassies than any woman in London,” never recovered from the shock of seeing his children’s blunt opinions in print. I should never have written the book.

Q: Any words of advice you’d like to impart to aspiring biographers? Besides “Shoot the Widow,” of course.
A: I could write a book about all the things I’d like to tell the young biographer. Most of all I’d say, believe in yourself and tell the honest truth.

Getting back to my title, the central problem of biographical writing is that one is constricted on two fronts: first, the law of libel and second, the widow, metaphorically speaking. Libel is the tough one. You won’t be protected by your publisher, to whom you will always be an independent contractor. So what you can say about the living will be guided by legal constraints. On the other hand, being free to draw your own conclusions is crucial, and you, the author, must have your editorial independence. However, not everything that could be said needs to be said. This is where an acceptance of our human frailty needs to come in or, as Kenneth Clark used to say, “Our old friend, judge not.”

Q: Which figure proved to be most difficult for you to write about? Was anyone particularly accessible?
A: Each biography was beastly to write in its own way. Perhaps the most beastly was the Leonard Bernstein, which was written with no access and overt hostility. It was one of my best, and the New York critics attacked it. Being a biographer is hard. On the other hand, my portrait of Sondheim is another book I am proud of, and that was one of the easiest to write and got tons of compliments. So you can’t tell.

Q: Do you have plans to write any more biographies? Is there anyone you've ever dreamed of writing about?
A: I’m working now on a portrait of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. He lived the flamboyant life of the Bohemian in Paris at a seminal moment alongside Derain, Soutine, Utrillo and Picasso. Modigliani also died young, aged 35, of Tuberculosis, just like my grandfather. He was also destitute, a fact that no one seems to appreciate—Modigliani is always portrayed as a shambling alcoholic. His life is dramatic, tragic and curiously, and almost completely misunderstood, despite all the biographies and films. So naturally I can’t resist it.

And then there is another pet project of mine that I want to write and have for years. But until I get a contract on that one I’m not talking, because as everyone who publishes appreciates, you can’t copyright an idea.


From the Hardcover edition.


Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: