Archive for May, 2011

Biographers Unite

A decade ago when I was writing “Millicent Fenwick: Her Way” I was doing so in relative isolation from other writers, simply because I knew none. My only connection to the non-fiction world was through C-Span’s Booknotes and BookTV.  The authors that appeared in my living room courtesy of C-Span were my virtual mentors.

Today I’m writing among a community of biographers. That was evident last weekend when the Biographers International Organization (BIO) hosted its second annual conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and 250 biographers showed up in full force. Pre-conference activities were held at the Library of Congress, National Archives, and a reception at Kitty Kelley’s lovely Georgetown home. Among the highlights was her bathroom. Word quickly spread through the crowd that you couldn’t leave the party without seeing it. And, what a sight it is. The red walls are plastered with framed comical gems depicting Kitty, her books, and the controversies they unleashed from Frank Sinatra to the Royals.

Kelley was among the many biographers who attended the BIO conference last Saturday, May 21. Others included award winning author and BIO President, Nigel Hamilton, Pulitzer-Prize Winner Debby Applegate, BIO Executive Director James McGrath Morris, BIO Vice-President Charles Shields, Ken Ackerman, David Stewart, Barbara Burkhardt, Kristie Miller, Stephen Grant, Jonathan Eig and more. Authors Jane Leavy, Jack Farrell, Will Haygood, Anne Heller, Ray Boomhower, and Greg Daugherty all made my job as a moderator easy and relished the audience with insight about writing and their subjects, ranging from Mickey Mantle and Sugar Ray Robinson to Ayn Rand and Clarence Darrow. Wil Haygood shared how he settled on his first subject, “It was about who I wanted to come home and sit on the couch with – Sammy Davis, Jr. or Nelson Rockefeller.” Sammy won.

Speaking of winning, Robert Caro was the recipient of the 2011 BIO Award for his contribution to the art and craft of biography.  In his keynote address he emphasized the importance of creating a sense of place. For him, that meant moving to the Texas Hill Country to get a better understanding of the place LBJ called home. And later, to get a better understanding of LBJ’s place of work, Caro discovered the Capitol building at sunrise as Johnson did, with the early morning sun reflecting off the marble.

Stacy Schiff, the closing speaker, surprised the audience by sharing her introverted nature, which was not at all apparent as she was interviewed by Jamie Morris. Some say writing attracts introverts, but as Schiff and Caro demonstrated the art of biography attracts both introverts and extraverts. I’m somewhere in between.

Now that the conference is over, I am reenergized and going to put my extraverted self on the shelf in favor of putting pen to paper.



Although Millicent Fenwick has been dead for nearly twenty years, her words of wisdom are not. This week the Huffington Post featured Dr. Mardy Grothe’s new book “Neverisms: A Quotation Lover’s Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget” (HarperCollins, 2011). Among those quoted is Millicent Fenwick, “Never feel self-pity, the most destructive emotion there is.”

Fenwick could have harbored feelings of self-pity over the tragic loss of her mother when the Lusitania was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915, killing more than a 1,000 innocent victims and leaving 5-year-old Millicent motherless. Or she could have pitied herself when her husband left her with two young children to raise and accumulated debt she knew nothing about. Or she could have felt sorry for herself when she woke up on November 3, 1982, and learned that Frank Lautenberg would be New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator, not her.

But each time she soldiered on rather than wallow in the destructiveness of self-pity, always moving forward not back. And that’s just what she did when she lost her first election at the age of 72, “It has been a wonderful battle but we lost,” Fenwick said. “I’ve just got to admit it and take it in good spirits and go on to work for the good of the state.” Despite the defeat, praised poured in as did a presidential appointment. Within a year, Fenwick found herself representing the United States as the first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Not a bad consolation prize.