By Hillel Italie
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow was honored by his peers this weekend and in turn shared a few tips about his craft.
Chernow, a Brooklyn Heights resident, received the BIO award from the Biographers International Organization, a nonprofit established in 2010. During a lunchtime gathering Saturday at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Chernow spoke about some of his most famous subjects, from John D. Rockefeller to George Washington, and how their public reputations often concealed a far more interesting private person.
"Once upon a time, biography was a very formal, straight-laced affair," said Chernow, a Pulitzer winner in 2011 for his Washington biography. "But nowadays we all expect the enterprising biographer to ferret out that hidden self."
The BIO award is given for making a "major contribution" to the field of biography. Previous winners include Robert Caro and Arnold Rampersad.
A former business journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal and other publications, Chernow said he learned a humbling lesson while researching "Titan," his 1998 biography of Rockefeller. Going through the oil baron's papers, Chernow had expected to unearth "sordid tales of collusion with the railroads, the bribing of entire state legislatures, the coercion of small retailers." Instead, he found only thousands and thousands of "cryptic little business letters" that avoided proper names and specifics of any kind, as if Rockefeller feared what he wrote would end up in the hands of "a prosecuting attorney or a Senate investigative committee."
Back home, he expressed his dismay to his wife, Valerie, who in response was "not only smiling. She was beaming."
"I said to her indignantly, 'What are you smiling about?'" he remembered. "And she said to me ... 'You were looking for a typical business tycoon, and what you've been given instead is a true original.' The lady, as always, was absolutely right. I was frankly pursuing a cliché. I was looking for this cartoon, whereas fate had handed me something much rarer and infinitely more interesting."
Chernow's advice: Prepare to change your mind. He confided that while working on "The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance," he had been charmed by Thomas W. Lamont, the suave counterpart to the volatile J.P. Morgan. A partner at J.P. Morgan & Co., and an adviser to presidential administrations of both parties, Lamont was regarded as a Wall Street liberal and an enlightened patron of the arts. Chernow said Lamont, a master of reinvention, had another, more troubling side: friend to fascists in Italy.
"By slow and subtle steps, he was being turned into a shameless apologist for Mussolini," said Chernow, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for "The House of Morgan."
Chernow, currently working on a book about Ulysses Grant, said the biographer was ideally a match for even the most evasive subject. Washington's austere facade, a facade that Washington himself had ably constructed, was upended by the letters and journals of close aides that documented their leader's seething temper. Correspondence between George Washington and Mary Ball Washington revealed that the father of his country was also an exasperated son.
Chernow came to know Washington, body and soul. He explained that Washington had just one tooth, a lower left bicuspid, by the time he became president and that the bicuspid fell during his second term. The tooth was gone but not forgotten. Washington's dentist kept it inside a glass charm that was attached to his watch chain. Centuries later, Chernow was allowed to see the tiny relic at the New York Academy of Medicine.
"In the final analysis," Chernow said, "as Washington's tooth shows, there are few, if any secrets carried to the grave. In the end, the truth always will out."