Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Biographer's Art: A Visit with Margot Peters

Margot Peters

Margot Peters has had a distinguished career, both in academia and as a biographer.

 Her subjects have included George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and poet/icon May Sarton.  Her latest book is a biography of poet Lorine Niedecker, Lorine Niedecker, A Poet's Life, available now from University of Rochester Press.

I was interested in how a biographer begins her work, and whether of not views of the subject change over time.

Margot Peters spoke to me on the phone from her home in Wisconsin

CP: What does it take to be a biographer?

MP: An organized mind. And the ability out of the million facts that you get, to see patterns.
And you have to have a narrative sense, to carry the reader. But if you can see patters out of all your research, that's when it begins to become a biography.

CP: How long does it take to find those patterns?

MP: I know that I have it when I tell myself, even if I discover things about his person, they won't surprise me. They will fit in.

CP: Many of your books deal with the theater
MP: Yes!
CP:  I know the theater is a passion of yours. The first book of yours that I read was your book on Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I had heard then name but didn't really know much about her. What inspired you to go to her?

MP:  I had written a biography of George Bernard Shaw. It's called Bernard Shaw and the Actresses-bad title!-it should have been called Shaw and the New Woman.  He wrote wonderful roles for women. He was very involved with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. He was in love with her. After I was finished with Shaw and the Actresses, which dealt with many actresses I thought, Oh-there's not a good biography of Stella Campbell. I think there should be. She's witty. A Wonderful snob, She was a great-some people say-actress, and she had a colorful life.

CP:  Could you tell strictly from your research what kind of actress she was?

MP:  I think so. There were lengthy theater reviews in those days. We're talking the 1890s--1910-1920s, Theater reviews went on and on. They'd describe the tone of voice, timbre, action, how she turned her back at crucial moments in a play. They really described very thoroughly. I think I think I have a sense of how she would have acted. The films did not help me very much. She was older, she had let herself go, she was unused to film as a medium. It was good to see her on film, but I think I grasped her acting as a young actress.

CP: When you're researching a subject do you start with one mindset about them,  then through your research change your mind?

Stella Patrick Campbell 1865-1940
MP: I think all biographers-or many of them-change their minds.  Shaw was an absolute hero to me. For his socialism, for his feminism, for his brilliance. But he was not very nice with women. He was a philanderer when he was young. He could be cruel. I had to make all kinds of adjustments in writing that book. I had to reconcile this true feminist who wrote great roles for women, with a sometimes  nastily behaving man towards women. That was a problem. He tore some actors apart. He was out for Sir Henry Irving. He felt Irving was behind times, he wasn't current with the new drama. He just ripped him apart. Later Irving said, "I'd be glad to pay for this man's funeral!"

CP:  You have reintroduced Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne to the public. Tell me who they were in context of their own times

MP: Lunt and Fontanne are a genius, as one critic said. Together-and the seldom performed separately-they created absolute magic. Their timing was perfect. Their sense of humor, their comedy. Alfred I think was the far better actor. But after he hitched up with Lynn, Lynn had to have wonderful women's roles. I  think he would be the greater actor.

CP:  Some of the plays they did were not very good. Without them they would not be performed. Was that deliberate on their part?

MP:  Noel Coward was their closest friend. One of the plays he wrote for them, Quadrille, is not good. I suspect it was one of these friendships, you did it to be all involved together. Yes, they were in some bad plays, but they had good roles--for them.

CP: Why do you think they so seldom worked separately?
MP: They started separately. The acted together after they got married. Then, I think, as this sounds really petty, I think that she was horribly jealous of his leading ladies.Helen ?Hayes was in love with him. Lynn didn't want anyone with Alfred except herself.

CP: As far as I know, only one of your subjects was living at the time you were working with them, and that was May Sarton.
MP: How true! Never work with a living subject!
CP: Will you ever do it again, after that?
MP: Never
CP: What's the difference between a subject living or not living.
MP: I did the living subject because I was interested in her, and her feminism and I thought it would be interesting to talk with a live person. But there quickly grew a battle between us. She wanted to talk to me, and yet she wanted to control her own life. She wanted to read and then control what I said.  She fired me twice!

I told my husband, "She's going to bury me!" She was so difficult, I really thought I could never do this. I was able to publish the book after she died.  It's a very blunt biography, but she told me most of it....all of her affairs, all of her philandering was incredible. And her temper. She was fascinating, but I would never work with anybody alive again.

CP: It a blunt biography and I know you've had some criticism
MP:  I got death threats!
CP: But people were so attracted to her. If you're into her you're really into her, you're really into her. Like Wagner.

MP: She had fans. She didn't have readers, she had fans.

CP:  Why were people attracted to her?
MP:  The vitality. I used to show a film of her to my students, called A World of Light. I taught a class called Women's Voices Women's Lives, and in that film she is incandescent. She is so vital, so alive, I thought what a wonderful woman! And it turned out she was almost empty. No, she couldn't be empty, but she had so little self.

CP: She was an actress

May Sarton (1912-1995)
MP: She was.  She overwhelmed these audiences with her beautiful voice and her poetry. She was a huge success.
CP: I  think the bluntness of the book reflects her very well. She should not have been surprised .
MP: No! She told me all of this

CP: If she read the book herself she may not have liked it but he could not have been surprised. I don't appreciate her work any less. I don't think she was a great writer

MP: I don't either

CP;  That's why I was really curious why she had such a fan base

MP: Some of her novels are good. Some of them are quite good, but that's the most you can say. Some of them are very bad. Her poetry has appeal, especially when she would read it aloud. I was interested in her because of her journals.  I said to myself, it doesn't matter that she's a lesbian, well it certainly did!

CP: In what way?

MP: Not being lesbian myself should I be writing this person?  But no, it doesn't matter. She's a human being. But she was so lesbian, she was so involved with so many women. Her promiscuity bothered me.
But it would bother me in a heterosexual.
CP: She seemed predatory about it

MP: Yes, she was predatory. Yes.
Lorine Niedecker

CP: Finally I'm intrigued by your latest book about a poet I didn't know .

MP: Lorine Niedecker. A wonderful poet. A hard, hard life. Poverty. Living alone on Blackhawk island that flooded frequently. There was loneliness. Then she makes a connection with a poet in New York and that gives her energy to publish. She had only four books published in her lifetime.  She is a wonderful poet. She's a wonderful human being.

CP: A little different than May Sarton.
When you speak of poets working alone Emily Dickinson always comes up. but if you've been to
Amherst you know there's a difference between splendid isolation and really living alone .

CP: Any final thoughts for a would be biographer? Make sure they're dead.

MP: Make sure they're dead. Number one. Don't write about anyone living. Don't choose a living celebrity. you have to split fifty-fifty with them. You can't say what you want. If the person's living, you don't gt an honest biography. Very few subjects would allow that. Do lots of research. Looks for the pattern always. I use psychology but I don't broadcast it. I don't go in to long psychological  analyses. Write well!



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