NEW YORK -- The affair between retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and author Paula Broadwell is but an extreme example of the love/hate history between biographers and their subjects.
Even before their outing led to Petraeus’ resignation as CIA director, Broadwell had been criticized for the rosy tone of “All In,” which The Associated Press described in 2011 as “part hagiography and part defense” of his strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as long as biographies are written by and about human beings, scientific precision will remain an ideal. The stories of famous women and men often are colored by rapture and disenchantment, confusion and bias.
“As with psychiatrists, same with biographers, you shouldn’t sleep with your subject,” Blake Bailey, the prize-winning biographer of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, said with a laugh.
“The ideal case is to have no assumptions. ... But it is possible to write a great book and have strong opinions. (‘Eminent Victorians’ author) Lytton Strachey, the father of all modern biographers, had a very distinctive voice and a very distinctive perspective—a person looking down from the world at a great distance, quite disparagingly, but with vast humor that informs every word.”
Broadwell conducted extensive interviews with both critics and supporters of Petraeus, but the finished story was overwhelmingly positive. She is far from alone in allowing personal or professional regard to shape a biography, especially when the subject cooperates. Flattering books come out all the time, whether a biography of Dick Cheney by Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes or Chris Matthews’ “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”
Years spent together, as Broadwell had with Petraeus in Afghanistan, can make the biographer’s experience intensely personal, whether sexual or not. Walter Isaacson did not avoid the unpleasant side of Steve Jobs, but acknowledged he had bonded strongly with the dying Apple CEO. Doris Kearns Goodwin was an aide to Lyndon Johnson who sometimes took notes while the ex-president lay in her bed, a relationship that she called platonic and described in her book on him, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.”
Some relationships end in court. Jimmy McDonough spent years working on an authorized biography of Neil Young, only to have Young withdraw support and attempt to stop publication, leading to mutual lawsuits and delay in the release of “Shakey,” which came out in 2002. Some biographers seem energized by perceived sins, like the late Albert Goldman and his takedowns of Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Others use scholarship to build up or pick apart a figure from the distant past. Jon Meacham’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson praises him as a subtle and effective politician, while a competing book, Henry Wiencek’s “Master of the Mountain,” faults Jefferson as a calculating slave holder who tolerated brutality.
David McCullough has likened the biographer’s choice to picking a roommate, one you must live with for years. McCullough himself abandoned a Picasso book out of distaste for the painter’s private life and chose men he related to for his two Pulitzer Prize winning presidential biographies, Harry Truman and John Adams. Former JFK aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. won a Pulitzer for “A Thousand Days,” his book on the Kennedy administration. But his reverence for the late president led Gore Vidal to dismiss “A Thousand Days” as a “political novel.”
Biography often is the art of reconciling opposites. Robert Caro, the prize-winning biographer of New York municipal builder Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, has taken on men who have both inspired and dismayed him. A former investigative journalist, Caro sees his job as collecting as much information as possible and only then forming opinions. There is no such thing as “objective truth,” he says, but there are enough “objective facts” to bring you close.
For his Moses and Johnson books, Caro has relied upon countless documents and interviews. He has labeled his Johnson series, begun soon after the president’s death and still going, as a narrative of darkness and light, of the basest cruelty and the noblest achievement. His Moses book, “The Power Broker,” was another epic of greatness and destruction and even more complicated to write because he actually interviewed Moses.
“You were awed by seeing the scope of his vision as he talked about it to you and explained it to you. You see him standing in front of this map, with a yellow pencil and sharp point, just gesturing toward this tri-state area that he sees as one entity and has a vision for it,” says Caro, whose book was harshly criticized by Moses, but won the Pulitzer in 1975 and is now standard reading.
“But I was simultaneously talking to the people he had displaced, hounded them out of their homes. You have to show both of these things, his genius and its effect on people.”
Authors have followed paths they never imagined before starting a book or encountering the subject. Edmund Morris was a prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, but the chance to write about a living president led him to take unusual license. Granted years of access to Ronald Reagan, Morris was left so mystified that he inserted a fictionalized version of himself into the book, “Dutch,” as a way of making sense out of the president.
Jane Leavy, author of a well-regarded biography on Mickey Mantle, said she had a hard time starting the book because of her childhood worship for the New York Yankees star. She decided the best way to move ahead was to acknowledge up front her memories, and map out the life of the flawed and troubled man she came to know and to hear about.
“He was multidimensional and far more complicated than the hagiographic biographies I read in school or the dark stories about him being a womanizer and an offensive drunk,” she says. “No one is one way or another. The fact he was horrible to his wife doesn’t invalidate his skill. So the task became why he treated people the way he did. And that’s the biographer’s job.”