“You’ve got to be a bit ruthless, I think, to write a biography.”

—Peter Cameron,
The City of Your Final Destination

“. . . be versatile, cunning, and ruthless in his pursuit—in other words, have all the attributes of a good spy.”

—Erika Ostrovsky,
Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari

The face of modern biography changed forever when Richard Ellmann published his biography of James Joyce in 1959. This widely acclaimed book set a new standard for biography of all kinds. For academics, Ellmann represented the epitome of the scholar/stylist, impeccable in his use of sources but also attentive to the story values of his art. Outside the academy, Ellmann’s penetration of Joyce’s private life extended a new license to explore the nexus between the subject’s personal and public personae.

To this day, few critics seem to realize the revolution Ellmann effected in life writing. In the ante-Ellmann period, academics tended to produce fact-filled, well documented tomes like Arthur Hobson Quinn’s incredibly boring Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941). The biography-as-reference-book approach continued, of course, in tomes like the Baker and Blotner biographies of, respectively, Hemingway and Faulkner. But après Ellmann, a new generation of academic fast-trackers appeared, spearheaded by professors like Jeffrey Meyers, who began to write clipped and candid biographical narratives. Compare, for example, Meyers’s treatment of Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, the product of Meyers’s knockdown and drag-out interview with her, with Baker’s genteel handling of Gellhorn after she had given him a good drubbing over the first draft he had sent her.

Ever the gentleman in print, Ellmann was every bit as tenacious as Meyers, but also far more circumspect. Reading his papers at the University of Tulsa is like reading the portfolio of a great spy. Slowly, carefully, he insinuated himself into the lives of Harriet Shaw Weaver, Stanislaus Joyce, and many other Joyceans. Like a gifted espionage agent, he never tried to steal too much at one time. Instead, he kept coming back for more, always in the guise of an interviewer who had just one more question that would straighten matters out. Soon he had a network of Joyceans operating on his behalf—none more important than Weaver, who began by wondering who this Ellmann character was and ended by becoming his champion. This feat was accomplished surreptitiously. Ellmann never bragged and never revealed his modus operandi. Indeed, I was struck by a letter in Ellmann’s Tulsa archive in which he begged off writing a piece about how he went about doing biography. He told his correspondent that he could not bear to explain it all.

To have explained all would have been to unmask Richard Ellmann, the biographer who quarreled with his publishers about printing Joyce’s raunchy letters, for example. Ellmann was all for it; his publisher thought the letters demeaned Joyce. To Ellmann, everything was grist for the biographer’s mill. Yet his reticence was so effective that he remains the patron saint of modern biography. Very few critics—Hugh Kenner is a notable exception—have taken Ellmann to task for his full-blown exposure of Joyce’s life.

But what of Leon Edel? Surely he has been as much of a force as Ellmann in shaping modern biography. To be sure, Edel used psychology to probe the nuances of Henry James’s sensibility in new ways, although Edel’s work marked not a new beginning but a culmination of the psychobiographical techniques pioneered by Sigmund Freud himself and Marie Bonaparte. Edel brought to psychological biography an increasing sophistication and a literary sensibility, but he refused to emulate Ellmann’s examination of his subject’s sexuality.

Edel was rather old fashioned in his deference to James’s heirs. Only when those James relatives died—and even then the process was gradual—did each new edition of Edel’s biography (he did two revisions) reveal what he knew about James’s intimate life. And Edel bridled at the idea that James’s sexuality per se was within the biographer’s purview. When asked about James’s private life at a PEN meeting in the 1960s, Edel curtly cut off the questioner, as if his integrity as a biographer had been impugned. I doubt whether many biographers today would adopt the kind of offended air Edel affected then.

If literary biography was never the same after Ellmann, other forms of biography were slower to change. Although scholarly interest in popular culture was in full swing by the end of the 1960s, when Ray Browne and others established the Popular Culture Association and a Popular Press imprint at Bowling Green State University, the gap between “serious” and sensational biography persisted. Here is the way Edel saw the chasm in 1979:

We need not concern ourselves with “camp” biographies or daubs, the ephemeral figures of movie stars, dope addicts, Boston stranglers; theybelong to certain kinds of life histories by journalists in our time. They belong in a wax works. They are documentary and often vividly mythic; they are more related to the photographic, the visual moment, the changing world of entertainment or crime, the great and flourishing field of interminable gossip disseminated by the media. This is quite distinct, as we know, from serious artistic biographical and pictorial quests to capture the depths and mysteries of singular greatness.

I especially like that parenthetical expression of utter confidence Edel employs, thereby including his audience (a gathering at the Library of Congress) in the righteousness of his observations. No doubt Edel distrusts the “interminable gossip disseminated by the media” because it fragments his cherished interest in “singular” greatness, dislocating what should be the biographer’s concern with the permanent constituents of culture.

Might it not also be true, however, that this “interminable gossip” has always been with us, and that the media have simply forced us to confront how our grand sense of ourselves has perennially been ground down and dissolved by tittle-tattle, by what was called “table talk” in an earlier age? How many different photographs do we have of Norman Mailer? Suppose we had only five painted portraits of him, like the five Joshua Reynolds did of Dr. Johnson? Would Mailer’s greatness seem more singular? Would Dr. Johnson’s uniqueness suffer from various replications of his likeness in photographs?

Mailer’s Marilyn (1973) was as much a breakthrough in popular culture biography as Ellmann’s was in the literary kind. Edel seemed to sense as much because he felt compelled to comment uneasily: “And Norman Mailer, whatever his motivations, revealed a proper sense of biography when as a novelist he sought to capture a figure as elusive and delicate as Marilyn Monroe. Even if we judge his work a failure, we must praise his undertaking.” Mailer treated Monroe as a historical figure with Napoleonic ambitions—the first biographer to do so. Just compare the books before and after Mailer; the stunning change in approach to Monroe is palpable. No longer is she passive, a Hollywood victim, but a complex person whose life verged on tragedy, not pathology.

In the controversy over Mailer’s appropriation of Monroe (culminating in a disastrous interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes), Mailer’s contribution to biography was not even noted, let alone explored—a misfortune that I tried to rectify in a piece I wrote in 1978 about Mailer’s Marilyn in the journal Biography. Realizing that much more needed to be explored about how her dedication to acting shaped her persona, I embarked on my own biography, only to find that as an academic I was in no man’s land. There was not then a single biography of a film star published by an academic press, only biographies of directors written in the heyday of the auteur theory, when professors felt justified in treating filmmakers like literary authors.

In effect, I wrote a book that reified what Sidney Skolsky, a Hollywood columnist and Monroe confidant, asserted: Marilyn Monroe knew more about making a Marilyn Monroe movie than any of her directors or co-stars. An editor at Doubleday wanted to publish the book but her editorial board rejected my manuscript because it “fell between two stools”; it was attempting to appeal to both a scholarly and popular audience, and Doubleday had no experience selling such a book. Well, no one did, and in the end I had to settle for a small press publication, although the book was resold and sold well here and in the UK.

It is a different world now, Leon Edel, one in which University of Chicago Press has published a biography of Liberace, and literary biographers like Kenneth Lynn and Jeffrey Meyers have turned out biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart—not to mention Kenneth Silverman (a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Cotton Mather biography), who has published a powerful biography of Harry Houdini.

Seen from another perspective, ours is a world that has returned to the ethos of Samuel Johnson, who would have been perplexed by the modernist notion (slowly subsiding but with vigorous adherents hanging on inside and outside the academy such as Joyce Carol Oates’s jeremiad against “pathography”) that it is somehow undignified to dwell on the personal side of writer’s lives. Here is Johnson’s comment on writers’ lives in his exculpatory biography of his friend, the rogue poet Richard Savage: “The heroes of literary as well as civil history have been very often no less remarkable for what they have suffered than for what they have achieved.” This is the Johnson who also noted:

There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection; we therefore see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyric, and not to be known from one another but by extrinsic and casual circumstances. “Let me remember,” says Hale, “when I find myself inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pity due to the country.” If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.

Which returns my argument to the epigraphs of this essay, the first from a novel by Peter Cameron, The City of Your Final Destination (2002), the second from biographer Erika Ostrovsky’s Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari (1978).

Despite his decorous 18th century prose, Johnson is urging biographers to be ruthless. Somehow this kind of unblinking, unvarnished treatment of real people, especially literary figures, can still invite outrage from critics, while those same literary figures, skewering their family and friends in novel after novel, take refuge in high art. It is their privilege as novelists to cut real lives loose from their moorings in biography, even as biographers fret about libel laws and suits over invasion of privacy.

I’m not sure what Richard Ellmann would have made of the current climate, in which biographers regularly appear as villains in novels (a vindictive lot much tougher than James’s remorseful biographer in The Aspern Papers). I am sure that he would not be pleased that I have blown his cover. And he might say I’m giving his Joyce biography too much credit for introducing a new level of candor and intensity to biography.

But think of it this way, St. Richard: You are the only biographer, I believe, who is actually revered by modern readers, and that is because you pretended to preserve the niceties while excavating what Joyce himself and certain of his friends would not have wanted to surface, let alone figure in what many regard as a definitive biography. You wanted it both ways: to be scholarly and popular, to reach an educated audience beyond the precincts of your peers. And you succeeded, which meant your methods—if not your demure prose—would be applied to more than literary subjects, because your literary audience also watched movies and listened to contemporary songs. Of course, they still profess adherence to the pieties of what pass for reviews of biographies in benighted organs like the New York Times Book Review, in which unauthorized biographers (more often than not) get a drubbing, even as reviewers yearn for the integrity of an Ellmann. But you were ruthless, in your own way, a kind of double agent straddling the divide between the reputable and disreputable aspect of your business, like Johnson tracking his scoundrel sidekick Richard Savage. Biographers everywhere should gratefully acknowledge the ruthlessness of your tradecraft.

Carl Rollyson is professor of journalism at Baruch College at the City University of New York. He is the author of Biography: A User’s Guide (2008) and of several biographies.