Books of a Lifetime
NOVEMBER 30, 1998: In Sight-Readings, Elizabeth Hardwick's recent collection of literary criticism, she offers the opinion that, "Sometimes very fine writers and scholars undertake biographies, and their productions have at least some claim to equity between the subject and the person putting on the shoes. Others hope to establish credentials previously lacking by hard work on the abounding materials left by a creative life. In any case, a biography appears to be thought of as a good project, one that can at the very least be accomplished by industry."
If biographers work industriously, readers respond enthusiastically -- purchases of biographies and autobiographies are steadily growing; in 1997, 38 million biographies and autobiographies were purchased, compared to 32 million in 1996 and 30 million in 1995, according to The 1997 Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing. If the flurry of biographies that have recently arrived at the Chronicle are any indication, the increase in purchases may simply be due to the abundance of bios out there. Just this fall, biographies of Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Diego Rivera, N.C. Wyeth, Max Lerner, Henri Matisse, Charles Lindbergh, Isaiah Berlin, and Stephen Sondheim, among many others, have been published. And KLRU's Mary Beth Rogers' Barbara Jordan: American Hero will be out soon. And -- oh yeah -- don't forget Jesus Christ (The Hidden Jesus by Donald Spoto) and Moses (Moses: A Life by Jonathan Kirsch). --Claiborne Smith
Dawn Powell: A Biographyby Tim Page
Henry Holt and Company, $30 hard
"Who really makes the jokes that Dorothy Parker gets the credit for?" asked the critic Diana Trilling in a 1942 review in The Nation. According to many of the New York literati of the Thirties and Forties, it was Dawn Powell, a writer Ernest Hemingway claimed was "the best comic novelist writing today." Though Powell was respected by her peers and impressively prolific, she never achieved a reputation to rival Parker's. When she died, all but one of her books was out of print. But starting in 1993, a Dawn Powell revival began when The Washington Post's classical music critic, Tim Page, was intrigued by one of Edmund Wilson's reviews of Powell. Page's enthusiasm led him to initiate a successful campaign to return Powell's work to print. Now, with the publication of Dawn Powell: A Biography, he has also provided the first full-length biography of this long-neglected writer.
Powell arrived in New York City from the Midwest at the age of 21 and never left. Her childhood in Ohio was painful; her mother died when she was seven and her stepmother would have horrified the Brothers Grimm. From an early age Powell was determined to be a writer and she never wavered from this ambition. She found her perfect subject -- the New York bohemian scene -- and proceeded to write wicked satires of this milieu until the end of her life. Powell believed good novelists functioned like journalists and she eagerly threw herself into covering her beat. Her favorite haunts were Greenwich Village bars like the Breevort, the Lafayette, and the Cedar Bar, and her friends included John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Crowley.
Powell's personal catastrophes would have daunted any aspiring writer. Her marriage to Joseph Gousha went from passion to genteel estrangement. Their son, Jojo, was born autistic, and required expensive care throughout his life. Money was such a problem that upon Gousha's retirement, they were evicted from their apartment for non-payment of rent and lived in a series of seedy hotels until a friend rescued them with a generous endowment. On top of these hardships, Powell suffered from a host of painful physical ailments which required numerous hospitalizations and operations. Yet she continued to produce a new novel every two to three years as well as short stories, plays, book reviews, and articles. However, she turned down a stint at screenwriting in Hollywood, not because she shrank from the industry it would require but because she felt it would distract her from working on her novels.
Dawn Powell is an affectionate and readable biography. But it is worth noting that some of Page's commentary about Powell's work has appeared before in Steerforth Press reissues of her books. There are also many excerpts from her diaries, which were published in 1995 and were edited by Page. But Page proves himself an adept and devoted chronicler of Powell's life. He is also one of those most responsible for rescuing Powell's posthumous reputation.
The fate of Powell's literary estate was seriously jeopardized for years because of an indifferent executrix. Unlike many writers, Powell was eager for her papers to be made publicly available and had herself recommended that her diaries be published. For 30 years, publishers, critics, and students had asked the estate for access to Powell's voluminous collection of manuscripts, diaries, and letters without any response from the Powell estate. Page joined the remaining Powell relatives in requesting removal of the executrix in order to gain access to the papers. Tactfully evading a libel suit, Page does not explicitly name the various factors that prevented the now former executrix Jacqueline Rice from performing her duties. But it is obvious her negligence was not due to malice but insurmountable personal difficulties. Fortunately, no nasty legal battle ensued and Powell's work is now available.
As with any engaging writer, the best portrait of Powell emerges from her own work. Nobody can read The Wicked Pavilion, The Locust Have No King, and The Golden Spur without appreciating her intelligence, wit, and spirit. Her Midwest novels -- Dance Night, Moon Over Serranto, and My Home Is Far Away -- reveal a compassion and empathy surprising in such an established satirist. Through her diaries readers can experience the relentless curiosity and industry of a creative writer, ready to commit her experiences to the written word. While Page's biography is a welcome addition to the work currently available about Powell, the greatest tribute one can give her is to read her own work.
-- Stacy Bush
A Beautiful Mindby Sylvia Nasar
Simon & Schuster, $25 hard
What does it take to be moved by the life story of an emotionally remote, pennypinching, often snooty and cruel mathematical genius who referred to people as "humanoids" and condemned all music after Beethoven? A lot of persuasion? Depiction of the subject that tends toward the beatific when it isn't merited? John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for his contributions to game theory, is lucky to have Sylvia Nasar, a New York Times economics correspondent and biographer who doesn't resort to those tactics in A Beautiful Mind, but who nevertheless eloquently distills Nash's sad and redeeming life.
Nash grew up in Bluefield, West Virgina in circumstances that were not dire but were hardly the aristocratic surroundings he later led people to believe he had enjoyed. After graduating from Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, Nash experienced a meteoric rise as a young mathematical star at Princeton in the late Forties and early Fifties (Nasar explains Nash's accomplishments most succintly by stating that "Nash succeeded in opening the door to applications of game theory to economics, political science, sociology, and, ultimately, evolutionary biology"). During Nash's rise to prominence, events like the following seem to have been fairly routine: "On one occasion ... Nash was sketching an idea when another graduate student got very interested in what he was saying and started to elaborate on the idea. Nash said, 'Well, maybe I ought to write a Note for the Proceedings of the National Academy on this.' The other student said, 'Well, Nash, be sure to give me a credit.' Nash's reply was, 'All right, I'll put in a footnote that So and So was in the room when I had the idea.'" Sylvia Nasar has cast her net far and wide in gathering stories like that about Nash, and that's one reason the life of an academic becomes so fascinating in her hands.
After Nash moved to MIT as an instructor in 1951, he became involved with a nurse, Eleanor Stier, with whom he had a child but refused to marry. He also refused to tell any of his friends, most of whom he had fractious relationships with anyway, about Stier and his child. "Nash was leading all these separate lives. Completely separate lives," a onetime friend of Nash's is quoted as saying.
At points, Nasar portrays Nash's ability to complete a paper or get along with his colleagues as occurrences of almost epic stature. That portrayal is not unwarranted given the fact that Nash descended into schizophrenia early in his career and was, at 33, "out of work, branded as a former mental patient, and dependent on the kindness of former colleagues." In and out of a state of rationality for approximately 30 years, Nash's final reclamation of rational life is A Beautiful Mind's surprising narrative climax, and is one more reason A Beautiful Mind is something of a page-turner. "You will have to wait to find out [the story of Nash's prize] in fifty years. We will never reveal it," Carl-Olaf Jacobson, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said in February 1997. That kind of adventurous suspense is not usually what attracts readers to biographies; it's more likely the promise of insight and familiarity with previously remote figures. In the case of A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar takes it as given that the life of an academic, an admittedly unique one, is interest enough, and for that alone her biography might be salutary, but how wonderful that there are so many more qualities that recommend it.
-- Claiborne Smith
The Life and Work of Dennis Potterby W. Stephen Gilbert
Overlook Press, $29.95 hard
"Television was the only medium that mattered for Dennis Potter," writes television producer and journalist W. Stephen Gilbert in The Life and Work of Dennis Potter. He never was a household name in the United States, but Potter, who died in 1994, presided over the heyday of the British teleplay -- drama written specifically for TV.
"The poet of pain," Potter is responsible for several award-winning examples, including Pennies From Heaven, Brimstone and Treacle, Lipstick on Your Collar, and The Singing Detective. Potter often cited television as the "true national theatre." All told, he created 30 original plays and nine TV serials, and his influence -- penchant for experimentation, brutal honesty, and wild creativity -- lingers today in only the boldest television programs.
The Life and Work of Dennis Potter is short on the details of Potter's personal life, but for good reason. In the preface, Gilbert seeks "to assess Dennis Potter's work within the context of his life," an intention "in part defined by ... the executors of Potter's literary estate." Despite Potter's posthumous resistance to biographers, the book succeeds as the first in-depth critique of this master TV playwright, who was also a lifelong sufferer of psoriatic arthropathy, a rare debilitating skin disease. This hereditary affliction required frequent hospitalization, medication, and psychotherapy. While a lesser man might have been deterred, Potter became prolific in spite of his suffering. He limped, his fingers curled involuntarily inward toward the palms, and he suffered from bleeding, itching skin. Inevitably, dreams and hallucinations dominate his material, as do themes of premature death, obsession, paranoia, and breakdown. Sometimes the disease left him paralyzed and delirious. Eventually, it cost him the use of his hands, but he continued to write scripts longhand by strapping a pen to his fist.
In British media circles, writes Gilbert, Potter was a giant with whom producers and actors longed to work. But he could also be mean-tempered. To ease the depression and pain, Potter regularly abused alcohol. Critics labeled many of his later dramas the work of a "dirty old man." Regardless, he is widely recognized as one of few writers working in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties who saw -- and challenged -- television's potential. No stranger to controversy, Potter's Brimstone and Treacle became a cause célèbre after it was banned for 11 years by the BBC for its controversial subject matter, the rape of a mentally disturbed girl.
Potter was born near Wales, in a mining village in the Forest of Dean. Gilbert describes him as a shy child, raised in the home of his paternal grandparents. At age 10, Potter was molested by a family friend. In 1949 he and his mother moved to London; he was terribly homesick for the country. Educated at Oxford, he married in 1959. He and his wife Margaret had two sons and a daughter. He began writing for TV in 1960 and moonlighted as a reviewer for the Daily Herald and The Sun. It was around this time that his psoriasis took hold. In 1964 Potter ran, unsuccessfully, for Parliament as a Labour candidate, and out of that experience wrote a play, Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton.
He contributed the screenplay for Steve Martin's bleak 1981 film adaptation of Pennies From Heaven. But The Singing Detective, which the Chicago Sun-Times called "the greatest production in the history of telelvision," is Potter's intensely personal masterpiece. Aired in 1986, this six-part BBC story opens as author P.E. Marlow, severely afflicted with the same psoriatic condition as Potter, lies in a London hospital. Bitter and heavily medicated, Marlow experiences bizarre fantasies, recounting his paranoid adult life and flashing back on his troubled childhood, all while envisioning a detective caper. "It is his Hamlet, his Ulysses," writes Gilbert.
Gilbert's fascinating portrait of Potter closes with an account of a most unnerving 80-minute interview between Potter and Melvyn Bragg. Dennis Potter: The Final Interview wasfilmed when Potter was in the advanced stages of the pancreatic cancer that would kill him, and he was in a great deal of pain. Chain-smoking throughout, he had to take brief breaks every so often to guzzle champagne, black coffee, and liquid morphine. The conversation is candid and at times uncomfortable, but it serves as yet another way he dared to stretch television. A few weeks later he died at 59, just a week after the death of Margaret, his wife of 36 years.
"TV is not thought of as art but as stuff, naturally assumed by the majority of citizens as part of each day," playwright Howard Brenton once said. "It is therefore very exciting to write for; you can get straight into the public's vein." Dennis Potter would have agreed, though he probably would have found some way to argue about it.
-- Stuart Wade
Confessions of a Late Night Talk Show Host: The Autobiography of Larry SandersAs told to Garry Shandling with David Rensen
Simon & Schuster, $23 hard
Larry Sanders, whose HBO talk show went off the air in May after six years, is the latest entrant in the celebrity confessional sweepstakes. Only his Confessions of a Late Night Talk Show Host: The Autobiography of Larry Sanders is not actually a Hollywood tell-all. It's a massive cry for help.
As told to some "comedian" named Garry Shandling, whoever that is, Sanders' so-called revelations are more stomach-churning than titillating. Oh, they're still entertaining, like on page 11 when Larry, who dedicates the book to himself, says, "I felt like I wanted to run down the hall like a little girl, jump on my bed, and pound the pillows until my fists were blue," after his sage producer Artie advises him against writing his memoirs.
Sanders, whose latent homosexuality was ever so obvious on his show (especially when David Duchovny was on), covers it up by devoting most of Confessions to his heterosexual exploits, real or imagined. They include ejaculating while watching Raquel Welch on The Tonight Show at age 13, losing his virginity to a 42-year-old Scandinavian Denny's waitress, and compiling a table of conquests on page 107, including Sinéad O'Connor, both Indigo Girls, Margaret Cho, Carrie Fisher, Andy Dick, and most of the actresses currently on prime-time television.
Lest people think of him as entirely self-centered (noooo ... ), Sanders includes brief chapters on his Sanders colleagues, including Artie ("Our relationship has been more than producer-star, it's been father-daughter, particularly in the sense that after a bad show he'd spank me"), his fatuous sidekick Hank Kingsley ("The first time we spoke I opened my porthole and shouted 'Hey, I'm trying to sleep! Shove that megaphone up your ass!'"), and his loyal assistant Beverly ("She's been with me twelve years and I just recently discovered she's black").
The final third of the book is devoted to pictures of the ever-narcissistic Sanders with various guests, including Duchovny (talking about Larry's ass, much to his delight), Dana Delany, Adam Sandler, Howard Stern, Sharon Stone, Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Sting, the chimpanzee who grabbed his balls, and Chris Elliott, whom Larry wished would grab his balls. But by far the two most revealing photos are of Larry himself. The first one says "Sometimes I just stare at this picture and miss myself." The second one says "Sometimes I stare at this picture and miss myself ... sexually."
Since his show went off the air -- and since it probably took him all of two afternoons to dictate this book to this Shandling character -- Sanders has no outlet for his massive ego, which, as all seasoned celebrity-watchers know, is a recipe for impending disaster. Larry is obviously so desperate for attention he'll say or do anything to keep people talking about him. So if he takes off down the 405 in a white Bronco with Hank at the wheel, or bursts in on Jay Leno's Tonight Show audience with an AK one night, or starts dating Monica Lewinsky, remember you read it here first. And Larry, if you're reading this, it's not too late to get help. You do still have Merv Griffin's phone number, don't you?
-- Christopher Gray
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