Some years ago, I came upon a book titled “The Quest for Corvo” and, for some reason, I picked it up and read it. Written in the early 1930s, the book, by an Englishman named A.J.A. Symonds, started out as a biography of a little known (to me, unknown) English author, Frederick Rolfe, who called himself Baron Corvo. But the book ended up as more than a biography of a hard to track down writer. It ended up as the story of Symonds’ search for information about Corvo (hence the “quest”), so you learned about Corvo, you learned how a biographer goes about his or her task, and you learn more than a little about the biographer himself. It might have been the first book that followed this trajectory.
When I read this week Meryle Secrest’s “Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject”, I should not have been surprised to see Secrest’s reference to “The Quest for Corvo”. While researching her book on critic Bernard Berenson, it was recommended to Secrest that she read Symond’s book, which she did.
“Shoot the Widow” has many parallels to “The Quest for Corvo”, as it is the story of how Secrest went about gathering information for her several biographies (Romaine Brooks, Kenneth Clark, Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers and others). But her reference to Symonds in the chapter dealing with Berenson has an additional parallel – Symonds made a number of surprising discoveries about the life of his subject, most of which were very unflattering. Secrest’s conclusions about Berenson were equally surprising and unflattering.
I have read a couple of Secrest’s books, and enjoyed them. I would like to read others. Her subjects have been in the world of the arts (art, literature, music), and she has written about subjects who were living and supportive of her efforts (Clark and Sondheim for example), and subjects who were deceased. It is easier, she says again and again, to write about deceased subjects, where you don’t have to worry about embarrassing someone unnecessarily or hurting their feelings. In fact, she says, it is best if not only the subject is deceased, but also the late subject’s wife. Hence the title, “Shoot the Widow”.
No matter who Secrest is researching, she always comes up with findings that would tarnish the reputation of her subject. Kenneth Clark, while extremely devoted to his first wife (who was quite ill for a period of years before she died), had a number of liaisons with others. Bernard Berenson was really a poor Jewish kid from Boston, no matter how he attempted to put forth himself has a paragon of culture, and he was not above a little “cheating” in assessing art work above its market value, when he had a financial interest in the results of his appraisals. Salvador Dali was not nearly as weird as he liked to appear. Romaine Brooks, an avowed lesbian, seemed to have had at least one hidden, early heterosexual relationship that she never forgot. Frank Lloyd Wright turned out to be totally unlikeable, no matter how hard she tried to find something positive in him. Pretty much the same with Richard Rodgers, although at least he was personally charming.
I think the Secrest tried to be honest in her biographies, whether or not the subjects (when living) or their heirs (widows or children) approved the final result. But she makes it clear that it is certainly easier to write what you want, if no one reading it will take it personally.
Perhaps for this reason, her last subject (written after this book was published) was the Italian-Jewish artist Modigliani. No heirs to worry about here. But Modigliani was her first subject who was not an English speaker, and I am interesting to see how this linguistic limitation might have affected her book.
“Shoot the Widow” is a very interesting read, and I recommend it highly.