At a conference I attended recently, a panel focused on two kinds of projects: writing a memoir and writing a biography. Moderated by Cara De Silva, the panelists were memoirists Elissa Altman, Mark Russ Federman, Madhur Jaffrey; and biographers Laura Shapiro and Anne Mendelson.
I zeroed in on Anne, author of Stand By the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking. I had met her decades ago at a Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier. She clutched her typewritten address and read it to the crowd. It was an insightful and wry essay about her experience. She was the biographer of the mother-and-daughter team of Irma S. Rombauer and her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, the authors of the Joy of Cooking. It seemed like writing the biography nearly killed Anne. But as they say, she persisted.
Later I asked Anne what she was going to do with her written speech. “Nothing,” she said. So I asked if I could publish it on my blog, where you could have the pleasure of reading it.
Keep in mind that Joy of Cooking has sold around 19 million copies. People often give it as gifts at weddings and to young people moving away to college or into their own homes.
Here are Anne Mendelson’s witty tips on what could be in store, should you want to write a biography of a famous food person or two:
Four or five years ago, I had a phone call out of the blue from a California movie producer. He was inquiring about rights to my book Stand Facing the Stove, a biography of the mother and daughter who wrote The Joy of Cooking: Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.
This idea rapidly fell through when Simon & Schuster, the current publisher of both my book and Joy, realized that the poor man had some half-baked notion about the title Joy of Cooking. He wanted a household watchword from which he could cobble together a warm and wonderful story about how cooking brings families together in the kitchen.
Now, trademarked titles can’t be casually borrowed by people with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. And the real story is anything but warm and wonderful, or big on family togetherness blossoming in the kitchen.
But I have to say that when I started out to write Stand Facing the Stove, I didn’t know much more than this guy. My only ideas at the outset were (a) 90 percent of what I knew about cooking came from The Joy of Cooking, and (b) some quality in the book made me want to meet the women who’d created it, even though they were no longer on this planet. They sounded like real people. They were tangible personalities who were somehow talking to me as a reader-cook, in a way that cookbooks just don’t do.
Well, I was right about that. Otherwise I was flying blind. And looking back, it seems to me that flying blind is a necessary condition for beginning any biography, culinary or other. So, if you decide to write a biography…
1. You have to form a relationship with the people you’re writing about.
That’s because you will meet them in many different contexts as your research proceeds. You can’t know in advance how smooth or bumpy the ride will be.
2. You’re going to find out things about these people that you never expected to find — maybe disconcerting things.
I was a bit unnerved to discover that Irma had had a half-brother who was one of the age’s most notorious mail-fraud artists.
3. You may encounter real tragedies.
It was devastating to realize that Irma’s husband, Marion’s father, had killed himself at the outset of the Great Depression. He left almost nothing in the way of an estate. Irma somehow scraped herself off the floor. She decided, to the surprise of her family, to write a cookbook.
4. There may be things that you can’t properly interpret without immersing yourself in matters that are outside your expertise.
I never foresaw, for example, grappling with the complex detail-by-detail logistics of how publishers had to plan for editing humongous cookbook manuscripts and getting them into production. This was all while fending off the authors’ eagle-eyed lawyers 50 or 60 years ago.
5. Don’t be surprised if you also run into tensions between people, or outright battles they get mixed up in.
If so, you’ll have to referee every situation as fairly as you can, taking nothing for granted about rights and wrongs. Certainly there were minefields that I had to navigate painstakingly, without snap judgments or partiality. I’ll mention just two examples:
One dilemma that couldn’t be escaped was emotional and psychological: Irma and Marion were not any model of the happy mother and daughter. Irma was a lady of birth and breeding. She was chock-full of charm and wit and adorable qualities. I gradually learned that she was also a holy terror chock-full of punishing anger. Nobody was more the butt of it than Marion.
And yet in other ways, they were lifelong best friends who couldn’t have loved each other more. (If you think those two facts can’t be reconciled, you don’t know much about real people.) Marion was one person who could stand up to Irma. They complemented each other, throughout many disagreements about the direction of the book, like the monarch and the prime minister.
Between the two of them, they created a kitchen bible filled with a humanity and humor unlike the tone of any Joy competitor. They also packed it with solid information, much more than any competitor. Irma had been the one to infuse some inimitable spark of joie de vivre into the book. Marion was able to preserve this while turning Joy into a one-volume reference work. It certainly had no equal when I was learning to cook. (And probably doesn’t, even today.) As I figured out very soon, while getting to know them, Marion was a faithful but firm-willed daughter and no carbon copy.
The other imbroglio I had to do justice to was financial. Irma and Marion were convinced that their publishers, the Bobbs-Merrill Company, had systematically robbed them blind over decades. (They couldn’t go to another publisher because Irma had ignorantly surrendered copyright at an early stage.)
It was a world-class war. I had access to tons of papers held by the family presenting the case from the authors’ viewpoint. Bobbs-Merrill, however, refused to answer my requests for information. So I had to comb through some fascinating but incomplete company records at the Lilly Library of Indiana University. I supplemented these by seeking out all surviving Bobbs-Merrill staffers who agreed to be interviewed. (Luckily there were plenty of them still alive.)
To present only one side of this bitter, prolonged tooth-and-nail feud at the heart of the Joy story as if that took care of everything would have been easy. But it also would have been completely dishonest. I’d be surprised if anybody could write a decent biography without digging their way out of similar unforeseen booby-traps. Sorry, but that goes with the job.
You may have to – as I did – divide up your narrative between a chronology of your subjects’ life or lives, and other chapters completely dedicated to the culinary context. There’s no one right way to do the thing.
I can say that you must move heaven and earth in any way you find necessary, in order to come face to face with your people. Secondary sources, no matter how good, will never bring you face to face. I was lucky to have mountains of primary material to work with, even though the sheer volume of it was, at the time, terrifying.
6. One little tip that I suspect will hold good for everybody.
You can expect to spend an awful lot of time thinking, “Why did I ever get myself into this mess?” Well, you the writer are the only one who can get yourself out of it gradually, one inch at a time. You will be feeling your way into a subject-and-biographer relationship that’s neither idolizing, belittling, naively partisan, coldly disconnected, nor tailor-made for Hollywood.
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