Writing in The Guardian in June 2008, biographer Kathryn Hughes discusses “The Death of Life Writing.” Hughes is less than pleased by the current preference for works about people who accomplished little other than celebrity-hood and/or works written by people who are youthful and photogenic. Hughes prognosticates on the future of the genre in a world where financially proven choices are becoming the norm for publishing. Her article is thought-provoking — read it and see if you agree or not.
Meanwhile, being neither youthful nor photogenic, Hughes’ article reminded me of something that bothered me. Why aren’t there more biographies of the wives and mothers of the biographees? I’m not sure if this would meet with Hughes’ approval, since these women mostly came to notice via the reflected light of their spouses and sons but still, it can provide an enlightening angle on a possibly overworked subject.
Case in point –
In November when I wrote this (but left it as a draft for some reason), I’d just finished reading two biographies/critical studies of Stanley Kubrick (by John Baxter and Vincent LoBrutto respectively), I’d love to read biographies of any of Kubrick’s 3 wives — Toba Metz, Ruth Sobotka or Christiane Harlan. Metz fascinates me because we lived on the same street in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, a few years apart. This was Shakespeare Ave. where Stanley resided briefly during his high school years. Despite the passage of some 30 years since the two divorced and Toba’s 1955 marriage to Jack Adler (a relative of the famed acting clan?), the two women remained close and the senior Mrs. Kubrick left Toba $20,000 and two rings in her will. For that matter, the life story of wife no. 2, Gertrude Perveler, would also make fascinating reading. Kubrick’s parents had moved to Los Angeles in 1965 so she had the opportunity to see all but the last two of her son’s films, and I wonder what she thought of his work?
IMO, Eslanda (“Essie”) Goode Robeson (December 12, 1896 – December 13, 1965), who was married to and at time managed the business affairs of Paul Robeson deserves a biography in her own right. After completing a B.S. degree in biology at Columbia University, Miss Goode worked at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, becoming the head histological chemist in the Surgical Pathology Dept. After her marriage she blended careers in journalism, acting and anthropology. Her career as a political activist stands on its own, not just as a reflection of her husband’s activism. Much of Martin Bauml Duberman’s magnificent biography of Paul Robeson relies on material written by or collected and preserved by Essie. Duberman credits her for her contribution but, at times, writes as though Essie kept Paul from relating things in his own words. I’d love to read a biography where Essie was the focus.