"... I must see the purpose of biography as not just to record but to reveal." Meryle Secrest
Meryle Secrest has been writing biographies for about thirty years. Readers find art historians, artists, architects, and musicians, living or deceased, among the subjects of her first nine books. In Shoot the Widow, she tells about meeting her subjects and interviewing their families, friends, enemies, and other associates. As you might imagine, many of these people have been more interested in their reputations than in honesty.
One of her most interesting projects was writing Kenneth Clark: A Biography. She first interviewed Clark when writing her first two books, biographies of the artist Romaine Brooks and of the art critic/dealer Bernard Berenson. When she asked to write about him, Clark seemed receptive and granted many interviews over several years. His sons and wife, however, tried to limit her access. As his health slid toward his eventual death, he became less reliable. She found herself often in the uncomfortable position of accepting hospitality from the Clarks while knowing they would not approve of what she was writing.
To avoid repeating her difficulties with the Clarks, Secrest did not plan to meet Salvadore Dali, but the invitation came and she felt she could not refuse. On the day of her visit (it can hardly be called an interview), she was told not to tell the bed-ridden and mostly listless Dali that she was writing about him. She practiced an elaborate French greeting, which fell flat. She tried to limit the conversation to safe topics, but the meeting ended quickly when she mentioned Dali's recently deceased wife.
Frank Lloyd Wright had been dead for several decades before she started a book about him, but his family and students were just as difficult as those protecting living subjects. She began her book about Leonard Bernstein the day he died. Writing this book led to writing about Stephen Sondheim, who was mostly cooperative but sometimes challenged her actions.
Throughout the book, Secrest questions her own methods, trying to find the fine line between ethical and unacceptable behavior for a biographer. Readers interested in the issues involved in the writing of books will enjoy Shoot the Widow. Readers in search of good stories will be entertained, too.
Secrest, Meryle. Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject. New York: Knopf, 2007. ISBN 9780307264831