Artillery Row

Biography and the perils of possessive families

Nigel Jones, a chastened practitioner of writing biographies, warns that writing someone’s life can be a dangerous venture

Do the families and friends of the famous dead have the right to decide who should write about the deceased and what should be written about them? It is a question that every biographer has to face and is one that the writer Stephen Phillips is currently grappling with.

Phillips has landed a contract with the prestigious publisher W.W. Norton to write the first biography of the controversial journalist, author, and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011. But the tyro biographer – this will be Phillips’ first book – had reckoned without Hitchens’ widow Carol Blue-Hitchens, or his literary agent Steve Wasserman.

There is a long history of families seeking to hinder publication of the intimate details of their loved ones’ lives

The pair have circulated an email saying that they have not authorised Phillips’s book, which is titled “Pamphleteer” and is due to appear next year. They accuse the author of “a coarse and reductive approach” and are asking anyone who knew Hitchens not to talk to Phillips or co-operate in any way with his project or his publisher. Christopher’s younger brother, the journalist and author Peter Hitchens, takes a rather more relaxed view. He told The New York Times that he had long felt that there should be a biography of his brother, that he had spoken with Phillips and “…as far as I can tell he is straightforward with a good record as a writer, intelligent, knowledgeable. Why not him?”

Peter Hitchens’ refreshingly open attitude is unusual. For there is a long history of spouses and families seeking to hinder, censor, or altogether prevent publication of the intimate details of their loved ones’ lives. Examples include T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, who, until her own death in 2012, did all she could to stifle biographical inquiry – forbidding biographers to quote from her late husband’s work.

Famously, the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn Hughes (who, rather oddly, controlled her hated former sister-in-law’s literary estate), perhaps understandably in the controversial circumstances of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, did all that they could to obstruct the many biographers who wanted to write about the life and death of Hughes’ former wife. The Hughes family pleaded privacy and protecting Plath’s children as reasons for their reticence; but anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of the two poets will suspect that there was more to it than that.

So notorious is the obstructionism of self-appointed keepers of the flame that Henry James wrote his fine novella The Aspern Papers about a devious would-be biographer’s bungled bid to get his hands on a literary legacy. One other frustrated would-be biographer in the real world was the poet and critic Ian Hamilton. He turned his failure to good account when he wrote an excellent book, In Search of J.D. Salinger, about his attempt to write the life of the obsessively reclusive author of The Catcher in The Rye, who took his dogged Boswell all the way to the US Supreme Court to stop him.

More often than not, those who try to put spikes in the paths of biographers act out of sheer spite

Sonia Orwell died penniless after she spent thirty years and her considerable inheritance from the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in fending off predatory biographers trying to write the life of the man she had married just three months before he died. Though reputedly “difficult”, at least Mrs Orwell was a literary lady in her own right with a legitimate claim to guard her late husband’s towering reputation; she had played a constructive part as an editor of his collected essays and journalism. More often, however, those who try to put spikes in the paths of biographers act out of sheer spite, or a desire to preserve and present a sanitised version of their dear departed.

As a biographer myself, I know whereof I speak. My first attempt at the genre (a life of the novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton) was helped, indeed only made possible, by the generosity of the writer’s sole surviving relative: his sister-in-law Aileen Hamilton. She gave me a biographer’s dream: a suitcase full of Patrick’s papers – letters, MSS and photos – that she had kept under her bed. Armed with this, I got a contract to write the biography within a week. Aileen’s motives were simple: she had hated Patrick with passion, and deeply resented his bullying domination over his amiable elder brother, her late husband Bruce, a less celebrated novelist himself specialising in detective stories. So, I finished my book with no fears that Aileen would try to stop me revealing the often-unflattering facts about my subject.

Despite the fact that Bruce had published a hero-worshipping memoir of his brother, I found among the papers an unpublished manuscript that gave a more realistic portrayal of his true feelings. It was a lightly fictionalised “novel” relating the fraternal relationship between the brothers which climaxed with the Bruce character murdering the Patrick character. Such are the dark complexities of the human heart. Sigmund Freud would doubtless have had something to say about this, and it was the great man’s grandson who provided my second biographical experience. It was not to be a happy one.

I was commissioned to write the life of the painter Lucian Freud. Although not a great admirer of the artist’s work – I preferred the rawer work of his friend-turned-enemy Francis Bacon – the advance was generous. I was living in Vienna and was thus conveniently placed to probe the Freud family’s origins and I was eager anyway to leave Austria and return to Britain. So I accepted the brief. I was blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead.

The main obstacle, of course, was that, unlike Patrick Hamilton, my subject was still alive and vigorously kicking. Not only alive, but, as it proved, fiercely protective of his privacy and equipped with unplumbed deep pockets and influence in abundance. I was aware that Freud had a lot of privacy to protect, and that even the basic facts of his life were disputed: did he have fourteen children – or forty? Or somewhere in between? The exact figure seemed as difficult to establish as the number of Boris Johnson’s offspring.

If anyone lifts their head above the parapet and courts public attention, then they must expect scrutiny

A tame “official” biographer was already at work: one of Freud’s circle of lickspittle acolytes who could be trusted not to write anything his master disapproved of; at least not until he was safely dead. I hoped to produce a more objective account; but I was soon made aware that a campaign was underway to prevent me from doing so. At first this was harmless enough: arranged interviews were suddenly mysteriously cancelled without explanation and so on. Then things took a darker turn. I had blithely disregarded a warning from one of Freud’s many discarded former friends, the poet and editor Alan Ross, that Britain’s “greatest living artist” was apparently a thoroughly nasty piece of work with contacts in the criminal classes who could do me serious harm.

When the phone calls started, Ross’s warning came to mind. They began with the traditional sounds of silence; then came the wheezy heavy breathing; and finally, seriously alarming threats to my life whispered menacingly down the line at 3am. I suppose that I should have alerted the police, but I must admit to having become somewhat paranoid. I left my home and camped out in the office of a small literary magazine in Hove. I was visited here by Richard Cohen, my understanding editor and publisher, who sensibly advised that my best protection would be publicity.

Richard arranged for stories of the phone persecution and my disappearance to appear simultaneously in The Observer and The Independent on Sunday, which they duly did, together with some gnomic quotes from Freud himself. The date was 31 August 1997. In the early hours of that morning Princess Diana took her fatal car ride in Paris and the subsequent deluge buried my story and all other news for the following fortnight. By that time, I had decided that no book – particularly one about a man I had come to dislike – was worth the hassle and stress that this one had caused me.

I suggested to Richard that since my advance was already spent, and given that no good book would come out of it with Freud’s determined opposition, I should turn my attention from Freud to another artist who had been safely dead for almost a century: the poet Rupert Brooke. I had long been interested in Brooke’s personality and the aura he cast over his generation; and since he had no direct descendants to protect what he would have called his “repper”, the book could safely proceed without legal or illegal problems. Once more, I was to be proved wrong.

This time the obstacle was not raised by the guardians of Brooke’s good name. The Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion and the poet Jon Stallworthy, the two Trustees of Brooke’s Estate, could not have been more helpful or supportive. A small grant tided me over the financial gap and I travelled to Brooke’s old College, Kings, Cambridge, to get to work.

Then, on the eve of the book’s publication, potential disaster struck. I received a letter from the Establishment solicitors Goodman Derrick & Co acting for an Eton College beak (master). This man had acquired the previously unpublished letters that Brooke had written to Bryn Olivier, one of the many women that he had simultaneously wooed. While writing the book, I had visited Eton and consulted the original letters which had been lodged in the college library. Their owner then offered me typewritten copies to take away without imposing any conditions on their use.

I kept the letters for a year before I decided to publish them in The Printer’s Devil (the same small magazine where I had hidden out during the Freud crisis) as a pre-publication taster for my book, in which they also appeared. The owner had got wind of their appearance in the magazine and threatened to stop publication of the biography unless I paid him £25,000! Backed by my publisher, we told him to do his worst – and heard no more – but it had been another nasty moment. The book appeared as scheduled and the beak died shortly afterwards.

Once an artist or writer puts their work on sale, the buyer then has the right to know about its pedigree

My fourth, and probably final, biographical experience came when I wrote a brief life of Britain’s fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. I secured the co-operation of Mosley’s eldest son, the novelist Nicholas Mosley, who had himself written a balanced and sympathetic two volume study of his father, whose politics he did not share. Nicholas was kindness itself and the model of good sense, and the help I received from him went some way towards restoring my faith in the worth of biography that had been somewhat shaken by my traumas with Freud and over Brooke.

So, what conclusions do I draw about the biographer’s art from my own varied experience, and what advice would I offer Stephen Phillips as he prepares to do battle to see his biography through in the teeth of opposition? My own view is that if anyone lifts their head above the parapet and courts public attention then they must expect – and even welcome – scrutiny. If they want to hide their lives from the world like Salinger or Freud then they should refrain from writing books and painting pictures.

I am well aware of the argument that it is the work that counts, not the life that gave rise to it, but once an artist or writer puts their work on sale, the buyer then has the right to know about its pedigree. I am sure that if Christopher Hitchens – no shrinking violet he – were still with us, he would be on his brother Peter’s side of the dispute rather than his widow’s. As Rupert Brooke wrote to his literary executors from the ship taking him to his death: “I MIGHT turn out to be eminent and biographical. If so, let them know the poor truths.” Or as the Duke of Wellington put it more robustly: “Publish and be damned!”

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