Biography

  • ⇢Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson


    Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf). 

    From the Publisher:  Book Four of Robert A. Caro's monumental The Years of Lyndon Johnson displays all the narrative energy and illuminating insight that led the Times of London to acclaim it as "one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age.  A masterpiece." The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career — 1958 to1964.  With a singular understanding of Johnson's heart and mind, Caro describes what it was like for this mighty politician to find himself altogether powerless in a world in which power is the crucial commodity. For the first time, in Caro's breathtakingly vivid narrative, we see the Kennedy assassination through Lyndon Johnson's eyes, and we watch Johnson step into the presidency.  The Passage of Power is not only the story of how Johnson surmounted unprecedented obstacles in order to fulfill the highest purpose of the presidency but is, as well, a revelation of both the pragmatic potential in the presidency and what can be accomplished when the chief executive has the vision and determination to move beyond the pragmatic and initiate programs designed to transform a nation.  

    Simone Tyrell, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  The Passage of Power is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2012 NBCC awards. 


    What do you know about LBJ? Most people know that Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th president of the United States, who assumed his position after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963. Many would say that Lyndon Baines Johnson is best known for this fact. But did you know that LBJ brought electricity to the hills and championed the cause of civil rights for African Americans' right to vote? Before LBJ, African Americans had the right to vote, but were not encouraged to exercise this right. As president, LBJ ensured that this inconsistency would no longer be perpetuated, and African Americans were allowed to actively participate in the political process.

    Who knows more interesting facts about Lyndon Baines Johnson? Robert Caro does. He has been studying the American political power structure for over thirty years, and he can tell you anything you need to know about LBJ. In fact, Mr. Caro has written four sizable books on President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

    Robert Caro's The Passage of Power : The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is a thorough examination of American political power in the twentieth century. With keen insight and overwhelming research, Caro has fully embodied the spirit of LBJ.

    Lyndon Baines Johnson was a shrewd strategist, who would overcome failure and stark opposition to attain his lifelong dream of becoming the President of the United States. He understood the power dynamic of the American political system, thus he mastered it. By rising through the ranks of the House of Representatives, to the Senate, to becoming JFK's running mate, and finally the White House, Johnson has proven his mettle.

    In reference to LBJ's fortitude, Robert Caro delineates, "In part, this book is the story of the five years — from late 1958, when Johnson began campaigning for the presidency, to November 22, 1963 — before that flight from Dallas to Washington: a story of how a man who all his life had yearned for the presidency failed in his great chance to attain that goal, of how to a large degree because of aspects of his character that crippled him in his efforts to attain it, he allowed the prize for which he had planned and schemed and worked (worked with a tirelessness that made an ally say 'I never thought it was possible for anyone to work that') to be snatched away from him. It is a story of not only failure but humiliation; of how, after he had lost the presidential nomination in 1960, he had taken a gamble — giving up the Senate leadership to accept the vice presidential nomination — because he felt that was his only remaining chance to achieve his goal, and of what followed after he became Vice President."

    The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a masterpiece of a book. It reads quite well and Caro's candor is refreshing; the facts speak for themselves. Robert Caro cast no judgement on Johnson, nor does he attempt to reinterpret the past. He masterfully relays the facts and tells them in a way that intrigues and beguiles. How could LBJ be so fascinating, you will ask yourself. He is, and you will be taken on a thrilling journey through the political life of one of America's most powerful politicians.


    Simone T. Tyrell is a first year MFA graduate student at The New School. Her area of study is in non-fiction. In addition to writing, Simone has a background in finance and archives.

  • ⇢ Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives


    Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

    From the Publisher:  Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write — a painful failure and yet a kind of achievement. The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta had intimate friendships with the legendary actresses and dancers of the twentieth century. Her ephemeral legacy lies in the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to honor the feelings they inspired. An icon of haute couture and a fashion editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland held bracing views on dress that drew on her feminism, her ideas about modernity, and her love of women. Existing both vividly and invisibly at the center of cultural life, she — like Murphy and de Acosta — is now almost completely forgotten. In All We Know, Lisa Cohen describes these women's glamorous choices, complicated failures, and controversial personal lives with lyricism and empathy. At once a series of intimate portraits and a startling investigation into style, celebrity, sexuality, and the genre of biography itself, All We Know explores a hidden history of modernism and pays tribute to three compelling lives. 

    Susan Marque, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, profiles All We Know: Three Lives, which is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2012 NBCC awards:  


    Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are names most people have heard of, even if they haven't read their work.  Stories of their spirits live on in our culture.  Lisa Cohen has extensively researched three women who lived at the same time as Fitzgerald and Stein, and were in the same circles.  These three women were lesbians and involved in an underground gay community; all three women had families with money; all three women had short marriages to men.  In All We Know: Three Lives, Cohen collects her investigations into a single volume, offering an argument about the creative posterity of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland. 

    The structure of the book is unique, as each biographical subject has her own section and is touched on in the other sections, as the three women did know each other.  The shortest biography is of Mercedes de Acosta, the original star stalker, who was also a hoarder of personal and professional memorabilia.  De Acosta's collection of items, now housed at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, included a blank card that arrived with flowers from Greta Garbo, who Cohen postulates may have been one of Acosta's female lovers.

    Three Lives opens with a description of Esther Murphy: "A profusely erudite New York intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, she talked and talked, dazzling her listeners with her vast memory, her extravagant verbal style, and her inventive renderings of the past — and driving them to despair with her inability to finish the books she was contracted to write."  Esther's father, Patrick Murphy, was a famous public speaker and owner of Mark Cross, a luxury leather good company.  He boasted of her incredible mind and when her brother submitted one of her teenage poems to several magazine editors for criticism, they "pronounced it 'mature genius.'" In addition to an intellectual aptitude, Esther found herself quick to pick up the culture of drinking, smoking, and attending parties.  She was a large woman with a large capacity for socializing, letter writing, and being too busy to get work done.  She struggled financially but was carried along without being forced to find any steady employment.  "Do you know she was my oldest friend?" wrote Mercedes de Acosta when Esther Murphy died at age 65.

    Acosta's brief section, which follows, presents a different orientation to socialite culture.  Cohen: "She wanted it known that being a fan is itself a performance, individual and collective, intensely personal and outrageously public."  As a little girl, Acosta stood outside of a brownstone where the famous and well-loved Maude Adams lived, and called out "Fire!" It got her close to her crush; it got her praise and thanks from many adults; there was no fire.

    Madge Garland had a burning willfulness all her own.  Cohen describes the young Garland as " …  a tall, thin, slightly bucktoothed girl with freckles and long, straight blond hair.  Her eyes are a bit too close together, her clothes seldom flatter her, and her parents constantly remind her of her 'deficiency both in looks and in manners.'"  But Garland remade herself as a graceful, impeccably dressed and successful woman of fashion.  She was sickly but rebellious, and defiantly opposed to the meddling of her parents or social mores.  Rejecting the safety net that a traditional life of wife and mother offered, young Garland wanted the independence that a job could offer. "She loved reading, 'wanted somehow to be connected with literature,' felt 'vaguely' that she wanted to write, knew she didn't know how, and concluded that journalism seemed the place to start." Going door to door asking editors for a position, Madge finally landed a desk by showing up and asking the same man for the same chance three days in a row.  There she got her start working for British Vogue.  It would be what set the stage for the rest of her life.  She became an expert on style, fashion, and its influence. 

    In an NPR interview with Jacki Lyden, Cohen writes about why she took on this project: putting these three lives together also forced me to reflect on the genre, on its kind of constraints and its possibilities, and there was a way that each of their loves, as I say about Esther Murphy, both call for biography and suggest the futility of that genre. And I really like that paradox. I like trying to write about what's hard to pin down, what's just out of my reach.

    Luckily for us, All We Know gives us a glimpse into these women, and their time in history that is easy to grasp and appreciate.


    After years of working in Hollywood as both an actress and food coach, Susan Marque went back to school, graduating with honors from The New School in 2012 in writing and screenwriting.  She is now in the MFA program at The New School and has written for The Brooklyn Rail, Gotham Magazine, Yogi Times, and Petside.com.  She is currently working on a memoir titled Freshman at 44.

  • ⇢ Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece


    Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (A Liveright Book: W. W. Norton). 

    From the Publisher:  A revelatory biography of the American master as told through the lens of his greatest novel. Henry James (1843 — 1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography, criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James's masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel — the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer — came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James's family, the European literary circles — George Eliot, Flaubert, Turgenev — in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists. Appealing to readers of Menand's The Metaphysical Club and McCullough's The Greater Journey, Portrait of a Novel provides a brilliant account of the greatest American novel of expatriate life ever written. It becomes a piercing detective story on its own.

    Emily Jacobs, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Portrait of a Novel:  Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece with the author, Michael Gorra.  Portrait of a Novel is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13. 


    Emily Jacobs is the recipient of a Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and a Jim Lee Award in fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in All-Night Bookstore, Cellar Door, and The Nirvana Project, and she is co-editor of Hot Street. An MFA candidate at The New School, she lives in New York.

  • ⇢ Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography


    Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography (University of California Press). 

    From the Publisher:  This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919 — 1988), one of America's great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan's birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan's notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.

    Eric Dean Wilson, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus with the author, Lisa Jarnot. Robert Duncan is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted on 1/20/13. 


    Eric Dean Wilson's essays and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, The Encyclopedia Project, River Teeth, and Third Coast. Other projects include a collaboration with dancer Tavia Odinak (Meat Game) and the producer of a web comedy (Meet Norma St. Cleod). Eric graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Theatre and English, and is currently pursuing an MFA in NonFiction Writing at the New School.

  • ⇢ Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo


    Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Crown Publishers). 

    From the Publisher:  Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo  a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of literature. Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave — who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time.  Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy. Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution, in an audacious campaign across Europe and the Middle East — until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat. The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world's first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.  

    Aditi Sriram, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses The Black Count : Glory, Revolution, and Betrayal, and The Real Count of Monte Cristo with the author, Tom Reiss. The Black Count is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13.


    Aditi Sriram lives in New York City, and is an MFA student with a concentration in Fiction  at The New School Graduate Writing Program. She is working on a novel set in India, the birthplace of stories that never end. She's grateful to be a reader and writer in New York City, because she gets to meet authors far too often. She thanks Tom Reiss for being such a good sport.



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