A woeful biographical flaw: ignoring other, prior works

The Argument

Christopher Byron's 'Martha Inc.' is a rare and commendable exception to a frequent failing of biographies.

Books

August 11, 2002|By Steve Weinberg | By Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Christopher Byron's biography of Martha Stewart reached the best-seller lists this year. The success of Martha Inc. (Wiley, 405 pages, $27.95) reportedly displeased Stewart, whose actions and words as captured by Byron make a lie of her wholesome homemaker image.

Many readers I know, and most of the reviewers whose critiques I read, treated Byron's revelations as groundbreaking, and some of the revelations are indeed new. But, I have been wondering, are those readers and reviewers somehow unaware that just five years ago, author Jerry Oppenheimer also reached the best-seller lists with an unauthorized biography titled Martha Stewart -- Just Desserts(Morrow, 399 pages, $24), a book revealing similar unpleasant information about the multimedia marvel?

Those who have actually read Byron's expose cannot be totally unaware of Oppenheimer's prior research. That is because Byron devotes an entire chapter in his book to the impact of Oppenheimer's biography on Stewart's life. Byron's decision to include that chapter is highly unusual. It is a decision worthy of praise, and emulation.

Many individuals whose lives are important or interesting enough to warrant a book about them end up with more than one book about them. That is true of U.S. presidents, movie stars, musicians and industrial titans. If those books appear during a subject's lifetime, the revelations are certain to affect the subject's life, as well as the subject's overall reputation. I have always thought it irresponsible of authors (and their publishers) to ignore existing books in the main text. Listing prior biographies in a bibliography and doing nothing else between the covers ignores rich material, thus cheating readers.

Byron's biography of Stewart proves the point. He takes readers back to 1997, when "clerks in bookstores everywhere were already uncrating and shelving copies of a book-length expose on Martha's life that seemed to confirm all the worst suspicions anyone had of her."

Byron illuminates Stewart's character by revealing that she "had been dreading" publication of Oppenheimer's biography, that Stewart and her public relations assistant had pressured potential sources to reject interview requests, that the normally media-savvy entrepreneur had publicly attacked Oppenheimer before publication, "which simply stirred interest in [the book] even more."

Byron summarizes Oppenheimer's account like this: "The book was everything she must have feared, and more, portraying her as a scheming, wicked person who had connived and lied her way out of the working-class row houses of New Jersey to become a Leona Helmsley-like figure in the world of business, dominating and tyrannizing all those around her. ... The publication of Martha Stewart -- Just Desserts presented a whole new view of Martha, calling into question the accuracy and completeness of much of what she had said and written about herself over the years. How could a person write, in her own magazine, a paean to honesty and its importance in life -- telling readers how comforting it is to simply tell the truth even if the momentary pain may be severe ... then lie that way about Andy [her former husband]?"

After the summary, Byron examines the truthfulness of Oppenheimer's revelations, giving him credit, for example, as the debunker of Stewart's account about why she birthed only one child rather than becoming mother to a larger brood. An author giving credit to previous authors in the text, rather than tucked away in endnotes or, worse, solely in a non-revelatory bibliography entry, is the way it ought to be.

Beyond Byron's admirable ethical rectitude, however, is a smart move. Oppenheimer's book allows Byron to demonstrate new truths about Stewart through her reaction, which includes a disastrous appearance on the Larry King television talk show and a libel suit against the National Enquirer newspaper for an article spawned by the book.

If Byron's book becomes a model for biographers treating previous biographies about the same subject as news, readers of the next Lyndon Baines Johnson life will find out how Robert Caro's awesome three-volume (and counting, all published by Knopf) controversial account is influencing the dead president's reputation. Readers of the next Marilyn Monroe biography will learn whether accusations that John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy both slept with the actress and played some sort of role in her death merit belief.

An alternative to devoting a chapter in the main text to previous books is a narrative account of the already published literature in an epilogue or a bibliographic essay. A rare and admirable example of this approach can be found in Irwin F. Gellman's 1999 Richard Nixon biography, The Contender (Free Press, 590 pages, $30) which concentrates on the future president's six years of service in Congress.

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