Memoir of Jewish intellectual life and universal history alike, told through a houseful of books, their eccentric collectors, and the rooms in which they dwelled.
Chimen Abramsky (1916-2010) and his wife, Miriam, were easily overlooked people who made a long life in a brick house in North London. But they were giants of a kind, for what a house it was: sprawling and ramshackle but jammed to the rafters with books and papers, serving as “one of left-wing London’s great salons.” In this entertaining, deeply learned book, Sasha Abramsky (Writing/Univ. of California, Davis; The American Way of Poverty, 2013, etc.) adds materially to Chimen and Mimi’s 20,000 volumes. On another level, the book, like that grand library, is a narrative of the broad sweep of Jewish diaspora history. Chimen was a collector of useful books. For him, that doctrine of usefulness embraced the works of Karl Marx in explaining how the modern world works, Charles Darwin in explaining how life evolved, Maimonides in explaining how life should be lived, and so forth. Chimen had a sticky mind that remembered everything, and he made connections among all the things stored within: Abramsky the grandson remembers marveling when, as a very old man, Chimen, who “had almost certainly never once kicked a ball,” was able to discourse smartly on David Beckham’s career prospects simply by virtue of all the oddments he had collected about him. As the story unfolds, we follow Chimen and Mimi from room to room, most of them colonized by the former as the children grew up and moved out, and we hear their stories: of Chimen’s angry annoyance when someone said Hitler was crazy, which “gave Hitler and the Germans a free pass,” of the couple’s rich minds and witty conversations, and of the thought of vicariously “touching a book that Marx had owned and commented on.”
If you finish this brilliantly realized book thinking you need to own more books, you’re to be forgiven. A wonderful celebration of the mind, history, and love.
F. Scott Fitzgerald never invented a Jazz-Age seductress as bold, brash, and devastating as Henrietta Bingham (1901-1968), the author’s great-aunt. A biographer and historian, Bingham (Mordecai: An Early American Family, 2003, etc.) discovered a cache of love letters sent to Henrietta by two ardent suitors. One was John Houseman, not yet a noted director and producer. Most of Henrietta’s lovers, though, were women: Mina Kirstein (sister of ballet impresario Lincoln and lover of Clive Bell), who had been her teacher at Smith College; Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington, who experienced “ecstasy” in Henrietta’s arms; Wimbledon tennis champion Helen Jacobs, with whom Henrietta had an affair lasting several years; actress Beatrix Lehmann, sister of novelist Rosamund and Hogarth Press editor John; and many others. Henrietta was, apparently, irresistible; she “could beguile brilliant and creative people,” the author notes, but her affairs, which “began passionately…rarely held her attention….With one lover after another Henrietta acted skittish and immature, ambivalent and distant.” Her behavior was likely shaped by her relationship with her wealthy and powerful father, emotionally, but not physically incestuous, characterized by “mutual obsession and dependency.” He repeatedly offered her careers that would have ensconced her in her native Kentucky, and she repeatedly refused. Yet when he was made Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, Henrietta reveled in aristocratic life and often served as his hostess. The “seductiveness and ambivalence” Henrietta felt toward her father contributed to a lifetime of neuroses, which she sought to alleviate through treatment with Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, who became her mentor and confidant and who freely shared details of Henrietta with Mina, also his analysand. As she aged, Henrietta succumbed to drink and assorted pharmaceuticals, suffering more than a dozen breakdowns in the decades before her death. Throughout, the author ably illuminates the character of her great-aunt, who “took freedom as far as she could.”
Deeply researched, Bingham’s engrossing biography brings her glamorous, tormented ancestor vividly to life.
Esteemed music scholar Szwed (Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, 2010, etc.) offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim.
More than any other vocal artist of her era, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to capture the attention of historians and critics. The grim details of her life are, by now, well-known: how she emerged from a background of poverty and prostitution and, for the remainder of her years, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, abusive relationships, and racism. Szwed does not gloss over these facts, but neither does he dwell on them, instead centering his account on Holiday’s enigmatic persona and its relationship to her art. He calls the book a “meditation” on Holiday rather than a strict biography and assumes that readers will have some familiarity with her life story. The first part of the book, “The Myth,” is a fragmentary but detailed exploration of how Holiday’s persona developed outside of her recordings, focusing on her controversial autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (especially what was edited out of the manuscript) along with her film and TV appearances. The second part, “The Musician,” which takes up more than half the book, is an erudite blend of cultural history and musical insight that examines the historical context of Holiday’s career, placing her in a lineage of female singers that reaches back to the 19th century. Szwed also takes a close look at Holiday’s innovative vocal approach, reminding us that although she had no formal training, she possessed a remarkable gift for improvisation and interpretation, often reshaping melodies to the extent that she essentially rewrote them according to her own idiosyncratic visions.
As with the best of Holiday’s music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.
Monumental life of the president whom some worship and some despise—with Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, 2012, etc.) providing plenty of justification for both reactions.
At least some of Ronald Reagan’s (1911-2004) perceived greatness, suggests the author, came about as a gift of historical accident. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker “squeezed the inflationary expectations out of the economy and put it on the path to solid growth” in the middle of Jimmy Carter’s recession-plagued presidency, just in time for Reagan to harvest the praise when things did turn around. Some came about because the man, though actually distant, expressed a warmth that made people think he cared about them, a good talent for a politico to have. Some came about because, though Reagan had an ideology, he was also a pragmatist who understood that the reason to enter government is to govern—something so many of his followers have forgotten. Brands, a lucid, engaging writer, traces interesting connections between Reagan the politician and Reagan the actor: he was typecast early on as a good guy who played the law-and-order type against more compelling villains, and he learned from Errol Flynn’s blacklisting for left-wing views that conservatism was a safer bet. Brands gives Reagan full honors for realism and hard work, as well as a grasp of the need to do sometimes-unpopular things like raising taxes: “American conservatives…disliked taxes but disliked deficits even more.” Given the timidity of later politicians to own up to unpleasant facts, there’s fresh air in all that, even when it had bad or mixed results—the “most sweeping revision of the tax code since World War II,” say, or Iran-Contra, which, by Brands’ account, was a phase in Reagan’s long war against his “ultimate target,” Fidel Castro.
An exemplary work of history that should bring Reagan a touch more respect in some regards but that removes the halo at the same time.
Acclaimed scholar and biographer Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, 2013, etc.) brings decades of study to this analysis of William Blake’s art, poetry, religion, and philosophy.
Those with little experience with the 18th-century poet will probably benefit the most from this fascinating work. As the author writes, Blake’s poems are undeniably strange, and his genius has always challenged the focus of his readers (he was overlooked during his lifetime). Especially difficult is tracing the complications of the unpublished poem “The Four Zoas” and their feminine emanations. Blake’s outlooks on the divine, which is contained in all nature, and institutional religion, which he loathed, show in his invented symbols and unique myths. He sought the incarnation of the divine spirit of the human in the everyday, and he looked at conventional marriage as institutionalized prostitution and conventional religion as theatrical performance. In “London,” nothing is sacred as Blake indicts church, law, monarchy, property, and marriage. He produced his own engravings and writings, and those who bought them tended to ignore the text. The author’s study of the man and clear style make this much easier to read and tempt readers to seek out more. Blake was a complicated man, given to visions and paranoia, and he often heard voices, and Damrosch guides us through the paths of Blake’s mind to ease our journey. Blake’s poems and art were used to challenge and inspire, never to preach, and his first works had a social message. His long prophecies were not epics, however; a better analogy is music, as they resembled oratorios with key changes and tempo contrasts. Damrosch expertly navigates Blake’s “question imagination,” which “has never ceased to startle and inspire.”
General readers looking for a challenge will love this book and will dive into Blake’s work. Many will find him just too far off the beam, but they, too, will enjoy the many color illustrations included in the text.
An eloquent work on the life of Joan Didion (b. 1934), fashioning her story as no less than the rupture of the American narrative.
Didion’s works of fiction, nonfiction, and journalism relentlessly probed the times in which they emerged. In this wonderfully engaging biography, Daugherty (English and Creative Writing/Oregon State Univ.; Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, 2011, etc.) wisely sticks to Didion’s near obsession with making sense of an increasingly incoherent narrative during the tumultuous decades of the waning 20th century. Showing the “construction of persona” of the California-raised author, Daugherty examines Didion’s exploration of the concept of the Western-moving pioneer, resilient and stoical in the face of any calamity, a trope underscored by her mother’s somewhat depressed motto, “what difference does it make?” The author also discusses Didion’s journal keeping, which fed her penchant for eavesdropping; her early stylistic training under Berkeley instructor Mark Schorer and his “channeling of [Joseph] Conrad; her “frailty” and devotion to being the outsider; and her maddening “elisions,” first honed from reading Hemingway. Didion’s early pieces of New Journalism for Vogue—where she spent her early formative years, until the mid 1960s—reveal the “helter skelter” process that shaped her work: the contingency and chance, rather than the deliberation that critics assumed. In book reviews, movie-star profiles, and political reporting, she was struggling to find an “effective American voice.” Enter Time writer John Gregory Dunne, whom she married after the publication of her first novel, Run, River, in 1963, and with whom she moved back to California to work in the more lucrative industry of TV and film. Daugherty devotes much of the later pages of his biography to their remarkable literary partnership, which ended with his sudden death in 2003—an event that inspired her haunting memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2003).
A dogged biographer elicits from Didion’s life much more than tidy observations of “morality and culture.”
In this biography of Robert Bunch, the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina, at the beginning of the Civil War, Daily Beast foreign editor Dickey (Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD, 2010, etc.) illustrates how an outside observer can understand more about a situation than the parties involved.
The years leading up to the war were vitally important for the British to understand the feelings and actions of that hotbed of secession and slavery. The British and Americans banned the slave trade in 1807, but the Americans added a proviso of a 20-year delay. Bunch’s great talent was in convincing Charlestonians to see him as being on a friendly mission. They revealed their plots, plans, and hopes to him, which he used to compose invaluable dispatches to Britain’s virulently anti-slavery government. The author thoroughly understands the point of view of the South regarding the slave trade. Cotton was king, and England was its largest customer. While the production had grown 3,000 percent, the slave population increased only by 150 percent. As new states entered the Union, hopefully as slave states, even more workers would be needed for the labor-intensive industry. Virginia and Maryland, states where cotton had depleted the soil, now bred and sold slaves to the new markets, and some argued that the price of long-standing slaves had grown so much that new “stock” would devalue them. Dickey’s comprehension of the mindset of the area, coupled with the enlightening missives from Bunch, provides a rich background to understanding the time period. Bunch’s work in Charleston helped guide Britain’s decisions regarding the cotton-export ban, the blockade, and whether to recognize the Confederacy.
A great book explaining the workings of what Dickey calls an erratic, cobbled-together coalition of ferociously independent states. It should be in the library of any student of diplomacy, as well as Civil War buffs.
The lives and legacies of two influential environmentalists.
Gessner (Creative Writing/Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington; The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill, 2011, etc.) weaves together biography, cultural criticism, travel and nature writing in this engaging record of a journey to discover the American West and two of the region’s most prominent celebrants: Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) and Guggenheim Fellow Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Besides reading the two men’s published works, Gessner visited the places in which they lived; interviewed family, friends, co-workers and students; and mined their manuscripts. Although both men felt passionately about the West and their commitment to environmentalism, they were starkly different: “Saint Wallace the Good” was the “intellectual godfather” of Western writers, “the man of order, the man of culture.” He taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard, founded Stanford’s creative writing program, patiently sat on environmental committees, and was a devoted husband and father. “ ‘Radical,’ ” Gessner discovered, “was a word he came to despise.” Abbey, scruffy and combative, was the “the man of wildness, the counterculturalist…serious about his anarchism,” who carried out—and incited—acts of environmental sabotage. Married five times and a desultory father to five children, he was “more beatnik than cowboy…right down to the jugs of wine and many women.” Yet for all their differences in style, they converged in recognizing the increasing vulnerability of the West to drought, fires, fracking and overwhelming tourism. They both battled romantic Western myths of cowboy culture and rugged individualism. Those myths and a “lyric celebration of nature,” Stegner argued, undermined effective environmentalism, which should be focused on practical steps for ensuring responsible land use.
Stegner and Abbey “are two who have lighted my way,” nature writer Wendell Berry admitted. They have lighted the way for Gessner, as well, as he conveys in this graceful, insightful homage to their work and to the region they loved.
A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.
Celebrated music historian Guralnick (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2005, etc.) recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books, including a two-volume Presley biography (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ’n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history.
A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.
The extraordinary life of Karl Marx’s feisty feminist youngest daughter told with passionate sympathy and conviction.
The relationship between her committed socialist parents forms the key to the vivacious life of Eleanor “Tussy” Marx (1855-1898), as portrayed chronologically by British writer Holmes (African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus, 2007, etc.). Exiled from Germany and France after their participation in the failed democratic revolutions convulsing Europe in 1848, the Marxes relocated to London. With only three surviving daughters, they scraped by largely thanks to colleague Frederick Engels’ generous subsidies. While the two elder daughters enjoyed some formal education, Tussy was mostly schooled at her parents’ knees, imbued with their firebrand ideals of collectivism and internationalism and their advocacy for the proletariat and the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association, and she aided her beloved father in his research for his opus Capital at the Reading Room in the British Museum. Having watched her mother’s intelligence and ambition subsumed by her father’s work, then seeing her two older married sisters shackled by motherhood and household drudgery, Tussy chose free love with talented older men and an autonomous life earning her own wages as a tutor, translator and writer. Indeed, writes Holmes in this consistently illuminating biography, she was the “apple of [her father’s] eye” and later became his executor. She channeled her high spirits first into the theater (she and her father had recited Shakespeare together as a way for him to learn English), translated Madame Bovary into English, among other works, and eventually set up house in London with the “reptilian” fellow actor and intellectual Edward Aveling, who never married her despite his 14-year promises. Holmes is absolutely outraged by Aveling’s betrayal and Tussy’s horrifying, untimely death—a tragic tale of a brilliant light eclipsed by the stifling patriarchy of her age.
A full-fleshed, thrilling portrait, troubling and full of family secrets.
The author of The Life of Kingsley Amis (2007) returns with the first installment of a two-volume biography of Saul Bellow (1915-2005), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Leader (English/Univ. of Roehampton) is a believer in the hefty biography (Amis’ nears 1,000 pages), and his new volume—which takes us to the publication of Bellow’s Herzog—will bend a hardwood shelf, as well. The research underlying the text is formidable. Leader certainly read everything, talked to everyone relevant who would talk with him (not everyone would), and visited numerous significant sites. Throughout, the author expresses his gratitude to the (few) Bellow biographers who have gone before, occasionally pausing to disagree—especially with James Atlas, although Leader later provides some praise in source notes. In structure, this volume is traditional. After an introduction that praises Bellow, he takes us to Russia (Bellow’s ancestral home) and then marches steadily forward chronologically. In many places, the author stops his narrative to explore fictional analogs among Bellow’s actual experiences, friends, and lovers. This occurs in every section and sometimes goes on for quite a while, occasionally trying even an indulgent reader’s patience. But what a busy life Bellow had. He taught at the University of Minnesota, Bard College, the University of Chicago, and at other venues, including Puerto Rico, where he found the heat oppressive. Among his students were William Kennedy and Donald Barthelme. Bellow also traveled around Europe, and he hung out with Ralph Ellison, partied with Gore Vidal, dined with Marilyn Monroe, attended a Kennedy White House tribute to André Malraux, had sex with myriad women—but was stunned to discover that his second wife had been having a long affair with one of his friends, writer Jack Ludwig. Some violence ensued. The volume ends with some pages about Herzog, the novel that propelled Bellow into celebrity.
Will now stand as the definitive Bellow biography.
The former executive editor of Sports Illustrated explores the idea that Tyrus Raymond Cobb (1886-1961), perhaps the greatest player in baseball history, was also a violent, racist, roundly hated person.
Leerhsen (Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500, 2011, etc.) began his journey through the life of Cobb accepting the conventional wisdom. The intentional spiking of opponents, the ugly accounts of racism, the overall dirty play—these and other conceptions have, as Leerhsen shows, infected much of the writing about the Hall of Fame player known as the Georgia Peach. But throughout his text, the author reveals that he found a very different Cobb, and he does not hesitate to slam those writers (principally biographer Al Stump, whom he brands a liar) who have created and passed along those odious tales. Leerhsen charts Cobb’s rise from his Georgia boyhood to the summit of professional baseball to his becoming a millionaire, through endorsements and investments. He praises his work ethic, study of the game, and inventiveness. And, yes, he finds plenty of evidence about fistfights and a fiery temper. However, Leerhsen does not accept either the intentional spiking stories or the racism, pointing out several times that Cobb was an outspoken advocate for integrating professional baseball. Although informed and often eloquent about Cobb’s hitting and spectacular base running, he seems less interested in Cobb’s defensive prowess, and he does seem to prefer the pro-Cobb interpretation in controversial incidents, like a late-career gambling charge. But why not? Others have assumed the worst; now Cobb has an advocate, one who’s actually read all the old newspaper clippings (some of which flatly contradict common “knowledge”), visited the terrain, and interviewed as many relevant people as he could find.
Cobb was indeed a bruised peach but, as the author shows convincingly, not a thoroughly rotten one.
Mary McGrory’s life (1918-2004) as a Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington columnist is so interesting that it’s hard to understand why there hasn’t been a book about her until now. Enter Norris (The Disaster Gypsies: Humanitarian Workers in the World's Deadliest Conflicts, 2007, etc.) with this balanced, page-turning biography.
Despite the subtitle, it seems McGrory might have been the last queen as well: in her regal bearing and imperious manner, her influence on politicians and journalists, and her manner of getting others to do her bidding. Early on, it seems a little off-putting that so much is made of her romantic life (or public lack thereof), her attractiveness, and her gender in general. Ultimately, however, being a woman who found her voice and came to power during the McCarthy era is crucial to her journalistic singularity. McGrory may well have been a feminist icon, but she wasn’t above playing the frail female when it worked to her advantage or employing her considerable charms in ways that might undermine journalistic objectivity. She dated the future President John F. Kennedy (once), was propositioned forthrightly by President Lyndon B. Johnson (once), and had a romantic relationship with candidate Eugene McCarthy, whose campaign manager was the true love of her life. She once said, “I would have loved to be a housewife, but it just never happened that way. I want to drop dead in the newsroom.” McGrory reported more aggressively than most columnists and injected more opinion into her pieces than most reporters, making her a curious fit on the news pages of the Washington Star, which she preferred to the op-ed section. When the Star folded, she moved to the Washington Post, where her influence increased but she was never as comfortable. She could be tough, even on her friends, but frequent target Ted Kennedy proclaimed her “poet laureate of American journalism,” and this nuanced portrait provides plenty of evidence.
Norris is plainly in love with his fascinating subject, which is not only McGrory, but newspaper journalism in general.
An intimate but unblinking look at Gore Vidal (1925-2012), the gifted essayist, playwright, novelist, and public personality, who, for a time, seemed ubiquitous in the popular culture.
Poet, novelist, and biographer Parini (English/Middlebury Coll.; Jesus: The Human Face of God, 2013, etc.) met his subject in the mid-1980s, and he begins his chronicle with that encounter. They became fast friends as well as professional colleagues, though Parini continually reminds readers of Vidal’s often difficult personality. Petty, jealous, judgmental, and imperious—all applied to him. But so do others, as the author ably shows: Vidal was generous, brilliant, assiduous, and innovative. Like many other fine artists, Vidal worked until he could no longer do so. Parini precedes each chapter with a vignette, a focused memory from his own experiences with Vidal. They range from amusing to deeply moving. Parini is a wise general biographer of a literary figure. He tells us about each of Vidal’s major works (and the major reviews thereof) but never in prose choked with jargon or self-importance. The goals are exposition and elucidation, and he achieves them gracefully. Like other critics, Parini believes Vidal’s essays surpassed his other work. We learn some quirky details about the writer, as well—his fascination with Billy the Kid (and, later, with Timothy McVeigh), his fondness for celebrities of all sorts, his discomfort with academics, and his rivalries with Norman Mailer (with whom he reconciled) and William F. Buckley Jr. (with whom he didn’t). There is also a lot about Vidal’s sexuality (he preferred anonymous sex with male partners) and his drinking problems. Finally, the author examines Vidal’s sad decline and death. Parini uses detail in agile, unobtrusive fashion—though he erroneously reports that John Brown was killed at Harpers Ferry (he was hanged later in Charles Town).
A superbly personal biography that pulsates with intelligence, scholarship, and heart.
Intellectually complex life of Otis Redding (1941-1967), the doomed King of Soul.
It’s a supreme irony, at least of a kind, that Redding never lived to see his “Dock of the Bay” hit the mainstream pop charts, as it did just after he died in an icy plane crash. “Redding seemed primed to carry some sort of soul mantle,” writes Ribowsky (The Last Cowboy: The Life of Tom Landry, 2013, etc.) of the period when Redding’s star was just rising. Though it lasted just a couple of years, that period irrevocably changed the face of American pop, when AM radio played black and white music side by side, Creedence next to James Brown next to the Beatles. Redding was a slightly more countrified progeny of Brown’s who, like so many other soul singers, defied expectations and sometimes confounded fans. As Ribowsky remembers, Redding was friendly with a white supremacist sheriff who would later issue shoot-to-kill orders on blacks suspected of looting. Was that Uncle Tom–ism? Redding was so smart that there must have been a method to that particular madness, something that went along with his pointed habit of counting box office receipts after a show, pistol in waistband. Ribowsky serves up some tantalizing what-if scenarios: if Redding had not been in that plane crash, would he have drifted into jazz or soft pop—or even country? Might he have found common cause with Jimi Hendrix, who seemed so much his opposite at Monterey Pop, Redding sweaty and masterful, Hendrix “soldering generational nihilism with undefined sexual rage,” both blowing the collective minds of the audience. Ribowsky considers Redding in the context of racial justice and injustice, the civil rights movement, and, most important, popular music as it spread through a nation hungry for the message brought by the preacher’s son who “had precious little time to enjoy the air up there.”
Excellent from start to finish, demanding a soundtrack of Stax hits as background listening.
A biography of haunting fascination portrays its subject as a pawn of historical circumstance who tried valiantly to create her own life.
Canadian biographer Sullivan’s previous works (Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, 2006, etc.) often took her into the complicated lives of women artists, and in this sympathetic biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), the author has illuminated another challenging, mercurial subject. There is a parallel strangeness to the two halves of Svetlana’s life. In her early years, she grew up in the ideologically strenuous Soviet Union, with the run of the Kremlin and various dachas. She was the darling of her supreme dictator father, but before she turned 7, her mother killed herself—though suicide was not the “official” cause of death. Svetlana was also held somewhat apart in school, shadowed by bodyguards and agents, and she learned the shattering truth about her mother’s death from English-language magazines when she was 15. In the second half of her life, she walked into the American embassy in New Delhi in 1967, where she had been allowed to scatter her husband’s ashes, and defected, carrying a manuscript and abandoning her two older children in Moscow. Determined not to end up silenced as an artist, she enlisted the help of former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan and others. Svetlana had seen her family and artist friends disappear—executed or vanished into the gulags—and she had grown disillusioned and embittered by the Soviet system, to the skittishness of American officials, who were afraid of a Soviet political backlash. With great compassion, Sullivan reveals how both sides played her for their own purposes, yet she was a writer first and foremost, a passionate Russian soul who wanted a human connection yet could not quite find the way into the Western heart.
The author manages suspense and intrigue at every turn.