If you looked hard enough, you could see him hiding. On Zoom calls and TV interviews, perched behind politicians, journalists and ordinary readers were often a towering copy of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of New York City’s most infamous public servant, Robert Moses. The book, which inspired a Twitter account dedicated to such sightings, was a signal that its owner was smart and knowledgeable and had the wherewithal to take on a 1,344-page behemoth. But biographies aren’t really about the people who read them.
To be the subject of a definitive biography has long been considered prestigious. Here is a writer who selects you and spends years telling the story of your life. Think of the time Caro spent on Moses or Lyndon B. Johnson; Walter Isaacson to Steve Jobs; Doris Kearns Goodwin to Abraham Lincoln. “Everyone hopes that the book they receive is Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard», Explains a biographer. “It’s the gold standard.”
But sometimes you get by Joe Hagan sticky fingersthe critically acclaimed 2017 biography of Jann Wenner in which rolling stone founder participated. Upon its release, however, its subject publicly decried the book as “deeply flawed and vulgar” and emailed powerful friends apologizing for asking them to participate.
The dance between a living subject and a biographer is complex. When you agree to be the subject of a book, “at the end of the day, you have no one to blame but yourself,” David Geffen told the New York Times around the period sticky fingers has been published. (Geffen himself would have been unhappy with the 2000s The operatora biography of him by the late Tom King.) The bottom line is that Wenner expected the Caro treatment and ended up with what he thought was Kitty Kelley’s version.
This month, Wenner will publish his own memoir. Like a rolling stone weighs 592 pages, 45 more than sticky fingers. “My experience with authorized or cooperative biographies has been disappointing,” says Wenner T&Cs. “They ended up being boring, inaccurate, and fundamentally flawed. I called it a memoir to get away from the constraints of formal storytelling and having to articulate and arbitrate various viewpoints. And, one imagines, have the final say.
It’s also a good deal. Because “people want to hear the subject directly,” says a former publishing executive, “memoirs generally outsell biographies.” This could explain a recent avalanche of mid-career memoirs (Viola Davis, Molly Shannon) and collections of autobiographical essays (Minnie Driver, Gabrielle Union). Another selling point: the author of the book can promote it, as long as he is among the living. “If Mike Nichols had written a book”, notes the director, “it would have sold better than the biography of Mark Harris.”
Promotional opportunities aside, when you write your own story, you can regulate record keeping. “The idea of having a completely flattering biography,” says Amy Odell, who recently wrote a biography of Anna Wintour“is not possible.”
This story appears in the September 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW