St. Louis. I’d never been there until my husband’s recent business gave me a chance to check it out. Funny I should have missed it over the years, as I attended the journalism grad school at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I remember piling into into a car to go eat catfish at a tin-ceiling hotel in Booneville, and traveling to Kansas City for barbeque at Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin made famous in a 1972 piece for Playboy.
Even though I would have driven through St. Louis coming and going to Columbia from parts East, I don’t remember stopping in.
This time, I went with a mission in mind. I was looking for traces of Eliza Scidmore. Early in her career, she wrote frequently for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, then one of the most influential papers west of the Mississippi.
“A sense of place.” Like master biographer Robert Caro, I think it’s crucial to understanding the influences that shape an individual.
Scidmore wrote for the paper from Washington. But did she spend much time in St. Louis? That’s what I hoped to find out. Continue reading
In Boston with Gayle Feldman, awards committee chairman, who presented me with BIO’s Hazel Rowley Award for my book proposal for a biography of Eliza Scidmore (Photo: James McGrath Morris)
My book project on Eliza Scidmore was awarded the 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given by the International Biographers Organization (BIO) for the best proposal for a first biography. I received the award May 20 at BIO’s conference in Boston.
BIO was born around the time I started my book project, and the organization has been a terrific resource for a novice biographer like me. The members, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners to beginners, offer a wonderfully democratic network of encouragement and support.
The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951-2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States.
Hazel Rowley was an enthusiast of BIO from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other.
Before her untimely death, she wrote four distinguished books: Christina Stead: A Biography, a New York Times “Notable Book”; Richard Wright: The Life and Times, a Washington Post “Best Book”; Tȇte-à-Tȇte: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, translated into 12 languages; and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, an NPR pick.
Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington
I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.
The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.
Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington a few years ago. He talked about the importance of place and setting.
[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character …
The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.
I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found a letter that helped me resolve a question that turned up when I was doing research in Japan.
At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.