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A Life Story Well Told Is a Story Worth Reading

Biographies of the famous and not-so-famous give meaning to everyday life

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His sophisticated music incorporated a wide range of influences, transforming them into something unique. "Lush Life" looks at the man, his music, his colorful, sometimes menacing world in which he lived as an openly homosexual black man in the days when even the most prominent black celebrities could not stay at many hotels and when few homosexuals of any color identified themselves publicly. While Hajdu brings Strayhorn out from under Ellington's shadow, he does not go to the opposite extreme of claiming the lion's share of musical credit for Strayhorn. He offers instead a balanced portrait of a truly successful musical partnership.

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Admirers of the venerable New England poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) were shocked by Lawrence Thompson's three-volume biography of a cantankerous, mean-spirited egotist that was published in the decade 1966-1976. Thompson, who started out as a devotee, came to resent the man the more he got to know him.

Now, redressing the balance, Robert Frost: A Biography, by the prolific biographer Jeffrey Meyer not only reexamines Frost in a more compassionate (though still critical) light, but also examines the circumstances that led to Thompson's reaction. Both men, Meyers divulges, were involved with the same woman, Frost's amanuensis, Kay Morrison, and Thompson, under pressure from the lady, hid the nature of her relationship with Frost in his otherwise warts-and-worse biography.

Along with this revelation, Meyers's biography displays a keen appreciation of Frost's achievements as a poet. It also provides lively accounts of his views on culture and politics and his relationships with other writers.

A poet who, like Frost, went his own way regardless of literary fashions, Robert Graves (1895-1985) not only produced some of the century's most striking love poems, but also wrote such memorable prose as his autobiographical "Good-bye to All That" (1929) and his brilliantly inventive historical novels "I, Claudius" (1934) and "Wife to Mr. Milton" (1943).

Graves's eccentric study "The White Goddess" (1948) celebrated the mythic feminine muse figure whose modern incarnations he avidly sought in a series of real-life wives and mistresses. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985 is the third and final volume of a searching biography by the poet's nephew, Richard Perceval Graves, who brings to his task a winning blend of dedication, hard work, and imaginative empathy.

Although readers should read Volumes 1 and 2 for full accounts of Graves's experiences in World War I and his tempestuous involvement with the poet Laura Riding, the biographer has included enough background in this final volume to enable it to be read on its own. (Available in the US through book distributor Trafalgar Square.)

The independent-minded middle daughter of a wealthy Jewish-American family, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) plunged into the thick of the avant-garde scene in 1920s Paris and became one of the major collectors and champions of 20th-century modern art. She supported notably diverse movements: abstractionists such as Brancusi, Clader, and Duchamps; European surrealists such as Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst (who became her second husband), and later, newly emerging American artists like Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollack.

Peggy Guggenheim: A Collector's Album, by Laurence Tacou-Rumney, is not the first biographical treatment of her flamboyant life. But Ms. Tacou-Rumney, a French jour- nalist who is married to Guggenheim's grandson, effectively combines a copious selection of photographs (some by famous photographers) with a succinct, yet remarkably complete account of a frenetic, often superficial, but influential life.

Rainer Maria Rilke, perhaps the greatest poet of our century, was born in Prague in 1875 and died in Montrieux, Switzerland, in 1926. "You always travel. You live nowhere," wrote the exiled Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, finding in this rootlessness a symbol of one whose vision and artistry transcended national boundaries.

Ralph Freedman's Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke is certainly not the first biography of this major literary figure. But it provides an exceptionally fluent, perceptive, and insightful account of Rilke's life and art, which, as Freedman unobtrusively yet uncontestedly demonstrates, was truly a life dedicated to art.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.