A Life Story Well Told Is a Story Worth Reading
Biographies of the famous and not-so-famous give meaning to everyday life
Lise Meitner: A Life in PhysicsSkip to next paragraph
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By Ruth Lewin Sime
University of California Press, 526 pp., $34.95
George Eastman: A Biography
By Elizabeth Brayer
Johns Hopkins University Press
637 pp., $39.95
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
By David Hajdu
Farrar Straus Giroux
306 pp., $27.50
Robert Frost: A Biography
424 pp., $30
Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985
Wedenfeld & Nicolson 618 pp., $45
Peggy Guggenheim: A Collector's Album
By Laurence Tacou-Rumney, Flammarion
176 pp., $45
Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke
Farrar Straus Giroux
640 pp., $35
Some lives seem to attract shelves of biographies. Inspiring, charismatic, or mysterious personalities like the Brntes, Marie Antoinette, John F. Kennedy, and Oscar Wilde manage to fuel endless speculation, research, and interpretation. Other lives, often just as worthy, may go unrecorded and unexamined until some venturesome scholar or enthusiast takes on the challenge of digging up the available data and transforming the facts into a coherent life story.
One of the pioneers of modern nuclear physics, Lise Meitner (1878-1968) collaborated with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman in the discovery of atomic fission. Einstein called her "our Marie Curie." Yet when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Otto Hahn in 1946, her name was conspicuously absent. In Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Ruth Lewin Sime, herself a chemist, tells the story of this woman of science, who overcame the sexist prejudices of her male colleagues only to be forced as a Jew to flee from the Nazis in 1938.
Sime's biography succeeds on a personal level, giving us a vivid picture of the Vienna-born girl, enraptured by physics, whose life experience left her deeply concerned about the dangerous potential of atomic energy. It also does a superb job of documenting the precise nature of Meitner's scientific contributions as well as her various contretemps with colleagues over political issues - such as the culpability of German scientists working for the Nazi regime in World War II.
The inventor of the Kodak instant camera, George Eastman (1854-1932) can hardly be considered a neglected figure. But he was an unusually reticent man, jealous of his privacy. The Eastman Kodak Company, guardian of his voluminous papers, commissioned several biographies in the years following his death, only to decide not to publish any of them. Finally, Elizabeth Brayer, who served as Eastman Historian at George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, offers George Eastman: A Biography, a detailed survey of a rich and multifaceted life based on the vast storehouse of available information.
Not knowing what sticking points may have prevented previous biographies from seeing the light of day, one cannot confidently proclaim this a no-holds-barred expose of Eastman's life. But it tells readers so much about so many aspects of his active and busy life, that the impression of his shy yet dynamic personality comes across, along with a genuine appreciation of his accomplishments as inventor, entrepreneur, employer, and one of the great American philanthropists.
His sense of civic pride and responsibility led him to endow the Eastman School of Music, establish dental clinics for the poor, and provided his employees with the kinds of benefits and pension plan that later served as a model for the Social Security program.
While jazz great Duke Ellington has inspired many books, his shy, introspective friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) stayed out of the limelight. Many people were unaware that he composed such memorable works as "Lush Life," "Something to Live For," "Chelsea Bridge," and the Ellington band's signature tune, "Take the 'A' Train."
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu is a sympathetic, readable account of the composer's life and work that draws on a variety of sources, including the author's interviews with people who knew Strayhorn, from vocalist Lena Horne, who considered him her "soul mate," to Medgar Evers's wife, Myrlie, who met Strayhorn through his involvement in the civil rights movement.
Strayhorn was a sensitive, witty, cultivated man whose extensive knowledge of everything from Shakespeare to botany amazed his wide circle of friends, who also praised his modesty and kindness. As a young man, his plans to study classical music ran up against racial prejudice.