September 2, 2013
TT: The line forms on the right, babe
You never know what you'll find when you go trolling through the Web in search of your own name. (Yes, I do that.) Just the other day, for instance, I stumbled upon this link from Claremont College's Drucker Archives, a reproduction of a letter that Peter Drucker, of all people, sent to me in 1994 in which he expressed tentative but nonetheless genuine interest in the possibility of having me write his biography:
I need to know a little more about you--perhaps you could tell me what kind of work you have done and what kind of work you propose to do for the "intellectual biography" you propose....I have in the past been very reluctant to have anyone do any kind of biography on me. It is not only that I am an intensely private person. I believe strongly that a writer speaks through his writings and not through his life.
Until the moment that his letter popped up on my screen, I'd completely forgotten that I once wrote to Drucker proposing that I write a book about him. I wasn't kidding--I'd long found his work fascinating, and still do--but in the end I chose instead to write The Skeptic, and that was that.
I mention this because I settled last week on the subject of what is more than likely to become my next biography. No deal has been struck as of yet, so I won't say whom I have in mind, but I think you'll be surprised.
It occurred to me that it might be amusing to invite my followers on Twitter and Facebook to take a guess, so I did so on Friday night, and was promptly flooded with responses. Ten variously plausible candidates, Steve Allen, Count Basie, William F. Buckley, Jr., Aaron Copland, Joseph Cotten, James Dean, Marian McPartland, Jack Paar, Oscar Peterson, and Charlie Parker, received multiple votes. The rest were singletons:
• Serious (I think) guesses: Herb Alpert, Fred Astaire, Isaac Asimov, Tallulah Bankhead, Jack Benny, Marlon Brando, Anthony Braxton, Johnny Carson, "Churchill" (Caryl or Winston? I don't know), John Coltrane, Merce Cunningham, Miles Davis, Clint Eastwood, Ella Fitzgerald, Slim Gaillard, Leonard Garment, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Yip Harburg, Skitch Henderson, Bernard Herrmann, Al Hirschfeld, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Vladimir Horowitz, Mick Jagger, Herb Jeffries, George Jones, Louis Jordan, Elia Kazan, Diana Krall, Steve Lacy, David Letterman, James Levine, Tom Lehrer, Oscar Levant, Norman Lloyd, Peter Lorre, Marjorie Main, Paul McCartney, H.L. Mencken (sorry, pal, BTDT!), Johnny Mercer, Ethel Merman, Charles Mingus, Robert Mitchum, Thelonious Monk, H.H. "Saki" Munro, George Jean Nathan, Barack Obama, Lorenzo da Ponte, Fairfield Porter, Dick Powell, Harold Prince, Buddy Rich, Thelma Ritter, Max Roach, Maria Schneider (presumably the musician), Budd Schulberg, Neil Simon, Carl Stalling (and/or Milt Franklyn), Roger L. Stevens, Billy Strayhorn, Cecil Taylor, Little Walter, Kurt Weill, Orson Welles, Donald Westlake, Paul Whiteman, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson
• Tongue-in-cheek (I assume) guesses: Simón Bolívar, "Cleo Birdwell" (cute), Pierre Boulez ("I know you love that guy and his tuneful music"), John Cale, Miley Cyrus, Wally Cox (that's a book I'd buy!), Dale Earnhardt, the Empress of Blandings (ha!), Totie Fields, Kenny G (he got several votes), Bob Keeshan, Sacheen Littlefeather, Ed McMahon, me (I got two votes), Philipp Melanchthon, Slim Pickens, Zasu Pitts, Wilhelm Reich, Tupac Shakur, Curly Shemp (of the Three Stooges), Arnold Stang, Lu Watters
• Sweet guesses: Nancy LaMott, my mother (who also got two votes), Mrs. T
• The shrewdest guesses, though not even remotely close: Sid Caesar, Harold Clurman, Ida Lupino, Fats Waller (Copland and Cotten were smart, too)
• The closest guess, by Warren Leight: Richard Nixon
One follower responded to all this by declaring himself to be "really fascinated by what you're getting out of this guessing game. Disparate choices, but with some common themes. Interesting list, taken as a whole. Shows what readers think are your areas of expertise? " To which I replied, "If it does, then the general sentiment must be that I suffer from multiple personality disorder."
I close with four observations born of much experience:
(1) Never write a book that's already been written--well.
(2) Never try to rewrite a bad book that's been out for fewer than five years. No one will even think of publishing it.
(3) Never try to write a serious biography of a living person. You're begging for trouble.
(4) No man but a blockhead--or a subsidized academic--ever wrote a full-length biography except for an advance big enough to make the job reasonably cost-effective. That rules out at least half of the aforementioned people, including some about whom I'd dearly love to write a book. (It also rules out Paul Taylor, whose biography I once gave more than casual thought to writing.)
Still curious? Watch this space for details....
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Joseph Cotten appears as the mystery guest on What's My Line? in 1959. The guest panelist is Dick Powell:
Posted September 2, 2013 12:00 AM