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 Physics
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.
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.
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.