Outtakes From a Biographer’s Life

SHOOT THE WIDOW: ADVENTURES OF A BIOGRAPHER IN SEARCH OF HER SUBJECT
By Meryle Secrest
Alfred A. Knopf, 242 pages, $25.95

Biography is the perfect occupation for the scholar-squirrel, assiduously storing lists of the guests at every dinner party, the word count of every rough draft. But it’s also tailor-made for the passive-aggressive, someone who gets to define and characterize somebody else’s life, passing judgment on their motives and meaning while hiding behind a façade of objective truth-telling.

Meryle Secrest’s Shoot the Widow—the title derives from Justin Kaplan’s first rule of biography—offers cautious chapters of autobiography scattered amidst other chapters devoted to dinner-table anecdotes about the difficulties that Ms. Secrest encountered in researching and writing her books (well-regarded volumes on Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein, among others).

Ms. Secrest has traveled an interesting road, from her native Bath, England, west to Canada, where she got a job with the Hamilton, Ontario, paper, then south to newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.—then on to biography. She styles herself as a recovering journalist, but she’s not as recovered as she likes to think; biography is really an extension of journalism with, one hopes, a literary patina.

That said, the most interesting material in this book doesn’t involve Kenneth Clark’s compulsive duplicity, Stephen Sondheim’s compulsive game-playing or Mary Rodgers’ compulsive protectiveness of her dead father. It’s the baseline anecdotes from Ms. Secrest’s days as an ink-stained wretch—a business, she accurately reports, that relentlessly exploits youthful energy. “Why don’t you write less and think more?” snapped one editor friend during her newspaper days, which is a perfectly appropriate piece of advice for any journalist, if only their editors didn’t want them to think less and write more.

 

WHAT MS. SECREST REVEALS is a combination of the expected and the unexpected. The living are cautious about what they reveal, and the survivors are even more cautious. The emotional tension in any biography is usually the size of the gap between the subject’s public and private face, the former invariably being more dignified, more pristine, than the latter.

For reasons that elude me, Ms. Secrest seems to regard the existence of this gap as a grievously indicative character flaw. How extremely odd, then, that she’s hardly a font of revelation about her own life, skating nimbly over issues such as her first marriage, her children, etc.

Much more damningly, the lady herself is—not to put too fine a point on it—a bit of a snob. She refers to the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as “kitschy,” which brings up an obvious question about why she would want to spend years of her life writing about someone whose work she regards with disdain. Similarly, French phrases go untranslated—surely among the most irritating affectations in publishing, even for those of us who can make our way through a menu in a Paris restaurant, if not a conversation about French politics. Ms. Secrest even reports that she got huffy when a secretary at the Rodgers and Hammerstein office called her by her first name.

The effrontery!

The heart of the book is contained in quick, luscious little vignettes, such as a paragraph about interviewing Sir Compton MacKenzie for Ms. Secrest’s book on Romaine Brooks. MacKenzie was blind by then, but very much there intellectually. However, if he was forced to listen to anybody but himself, he would indicate impatience by twirling a red handkerchief at an ever-increasing rate of speed. “‘[E]xtraordinary’” she writes, “[is] the adjective one used out of politeness, when what one really meant was ‘bizarre beyond belief.’”

 

SHOOT THE WIDOW IS THE EQUIVALENT of a director’s commentary track on a DVD—not the thing itself, but afterthoughts about the thing, and what was going on while the thing was being made. As such, it’s occasionally witty, intermittently engaging, always well-written—but also basically unnecessary.

Scott Eyman has written biographies of Louis B. Mayer, John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch. Outtakes From a Biographer’s Life