Big 10, Chapter 2: Best-selling biographers share what they learned about their subjects | News


Picking up where we left off last week, we asked the authors of best-selling biographies: What’s the one discovery you made in the course of your research that you found most impressive, inspiring or intriguing?

Mike Royko

Mike Royko

DOUG MOE says: “I think what most impressed me about Royko as a columnist was his range and longevity across more than three decades.

“In a given week, he could write a humorous column about his fictional alter-ego, Slats Grobnik, or perhaps the Cubs — the famous ex-Cub factor that doomed any team that employed too many former Cubs. He could follow up with a hard-nosed piece on a corrupt politician from the Daley machine or a celebrity who had abused an underling. The next day could bring a bit of Chicago history, like his ode to the Riverview Amusement Park, followed the next day by a surprisingly tender story about, say, Charles and Diana’s wedding.

Mike Royko

“Day to day, you never knew — only that it would likely be the best thing in that day’s paper, with a needle and a touch of class in the prose.

“So many columnists are one-trick ponies, and few if any wrote four to five a week, for 30-plus years.”

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris spent a year of her youth in C-U, where the family moved for dad Donald Harris’ first job in higher ed — an associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois.

DAN MORAIN says: “I never sought to become friends with subjects when I worked for the LA Times and Sacramento Bee, and so I rarely asked personal questions. That was the case when Vice President Harris was San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and U.S. senator.

“As a biographer, however, I wanted to know more about her human side. She did not grant an interview for ‘Kamala’s Way.’ But numerous of her past associates did speak with me. That’s where I found what I viewed as telling stories.

“One example: Laura Talmus, her first political fundraiser, told of volunteering to help elect Harris as district attorney in 2003. She’d bring her daughter, Lili, then 9, on Saturdays. Lili was a smart, perceptive girl. She also had Apert Syndrome, a malformation of her facial bones.

Kamala Harris

“On those Saturdays, Harris would make a point of talking with Lili, asking her about her week. Fast forward to when Lili is 15. She had become isolated in junior high school, when appearances matter more to kids. Her parents had sent her to a boarding school in Iowa, where she was thriving. One night, she had a seizure, and died unexpectedly.

“Harris was away on a weekend get-away with a friend. Upon learning of Lili’s death, she dropped what she was doing and returned to the Bay Area to sit shiva with Laura and Lili’s father.

“In the years since, Harris has made a point of calling Laura on important days — Mother’s Day, birthdays — to make sure she knows Lili is being remembered.

“To me, that shows a level of empathy. I found several other similar examples and write about them throughout ‘Kamala’s Way.’ It is, I believe, one facet of Kamala’s way. After what we’ve lived through in these past few years,  having leaders with heart and empathy matters.”

Hugh Hefner

STEVEN WATTS says of the 1949 UI grad: “When I met Hugh Hefner and launched the several years of research that produced my book, I was most surprised to learn how the movies dominated his life. Since childhood, he adored films and as an adult they literally shaped the daily calendar of his life.

“Hefner screened movies at the Playboy Mansion, without fail, four evenings a week for guests ranging in number from a dozen to a hundred — for a small group of longtime male friends on Monday, classic movies on Friday and Saturdays, and new releases on Sunday.

“For the classic films, he prepared and presented a talk to the attendees on the making of the movie, its actors and director, and its significance. He had a collection of American films numbering around 20,000.”

Satchel Paige

LARRY TYE says: “Among all the riddles about Leroy Satchel Paige, the one that I found most alluring and revealing was how old he was.

“It was the most-argued statistic in sports. The answer depended on who was asking and when. In 1934, the Colored Baseball & Sports Monthly reported that Satchel was born in 1907. In 1948, he was born in 1901, per The Associated Press; 1903, per Time; 1908, per the Washington Post, New York Times and The Sporting News; and 1904, per his mother.

“The Cleveland Indians hedged their bets after signing him in 1948, writing in their yearbook that Satchel was born ‘on either July 17, September 11, September 18 or September 22, somewhere between 1900 and 1908.’ Newsweek columnist John Lardner took him back further, saying that Satchel ‘saved the day at Waterloo, when the dangerous pull-hitter, Bonaparte, came to bat with the bases full.’

Satchel Paige

“The mystery over Satchel’s age mattered because age matters in baseball. It is a way to compare players, and to measure a player’s current season against his past performance. No ballplayer gave fans as much to debate about, for as long, as Satchel Paige. At first he was Peter Pan — forever young, confoundingly fast, treacherously wild. Over time, his durability proved even more alluring.

“After a full career in the Negro Leagues, he broke through to the majors in 1948, helping propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series at the over-the-hill age of 42. He still holds the record as the game’s oldest player, an honor earned during one last go-round at an inconceivable 59. He started pitching professionally when Babe Ruth was on the eve of his sixty-home-run season in 1926; he still was playing when Yankee Stadium, the ‘House that Ruth Built,’ was entering its fifth decade in 1965. Over that span, Satchel Paige pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any player in history.

“With kids who watched Satchel getting to watch him a generation later with their kids and grandkids, it was natural to wonder how old the pitcher was. Satchel obliged with tales that grew more fantastic with each retelling. Proof of his birth date was in the family bible. Unfortunately, his grandfather was reading that bible under a chinaberry tree when a wind kicked up, blowing the Good Book into the path of the family goat, which ate it. His draft record showed he was born September 26, 1908, his Social Security card had August 15, 1908, and his passport file indicated February 5, 1908. The three dates shared one thing: all were supplied by Satchel.

“The truth was simpler and more complex. Pinning down Satchel’s date of birth should have been a straightforward matter of checking public records in his native Mobile, but in the post-Reconstruction Confederacy it was easier to track the bloodline of a pack horse than of a Negro citizen. Until 1902, descendents of slaves in Mobile were included in neither the city census nor the city directory. Even when they finally did enter into the accounting, it was with caveats. Like Satchel and his eleven sisters and brothers, most blacks were delivered not in an operating room at the hospital but in a bedroom at home, so health authorities had to rely on the family filing notice of the birth. Recordings that did make it into the official directories were accompanied by a ‘B’ for black or ‘C’ for colored.

“All that might have made Satchel doubt whether Mobile officials ever got word of his birth and accurately registered it. Or it might have until he signed with Cleveland in 1948, and owner Bill Veeck did what Satchel could have done — and may have — years earlier. Veeck traveled to Mobile to get to the bottom of the elusive age issue. He contacted Satchel’s mom Lula, who dispatched Satchel’s nephew Leon Paige to accompany the Indians owner and his entourage to the County Health Department. ‘They saw his birth certificate,’ Leon says. ‘They knew (Lula) had twelve children and they knew when they were born.’ In Satchel’s case, the registry was clear: the baby was a boy, his race was Colored, and his date of birth was July 7, 1906.

“So why the ruses? Satchel knew that, despite being the fastest, winningest pitcher alive, being Black meant he never would get the attention he deserved. That was easy to see in the backwaters of the Negro Leagues but it remained true when he hit the majors at age 42, with accusations flying that his signing was a mere stunt. He needed an edge, a bit of mystery, to romance sportswriters and fans. Longevity offered the perfect platform. ‘They want me to be old,’ Satchel said, ‘so I give ‘em what they want. Seems they get a bigger kick out of an old man throwing strikeouts.’ He feigned exasperation when reporters pressed to know the secret of his birth, insisting, ‘I want to be the onliest man in the United States that nobody knows nothin’ about.’

“In fact, he wanted just the opposite: Satchel masterfully exploited his lost birthday to ensure the world would remember his long life.”

Alan Shepard

NEAL THOMPSON says: “Among dozens of other small surprises about the first American in space and his remarkable life, I was shocked to learn how sick Shepard was during the mid-1960s.

“While his peers kept flying closer and closer to the moon, including newer astronauts a decade younger than him, Shepard was sidelined for years by an inner-ear disease called Menieres.

“I found it remarkable that he stuck with the program, grudgingly took on the role of running the astronaut office — which he likened to being babysitter — but then found an experimental surgical cure for his debilitating disease and elbowed his way into contention for Apollo 13.

“NASA administrators decided he needed a little more time to train and gave the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission to Jim Lovell. Shepard got Apollo 14, and reached the moon at age 47 — the fifth and oldest man to walk the lunar surface.

“One side anecdote that always stuck with me: Shepard was always in a hurry and often walked in a straight A-to-B line to get wherever he was going, often veering off sidewalks and paths to walk across lawns and over hedges.

“I’ve tried to adopt this tactic myself. I’m sure I’ve saved many minutes of time over the years.”

Ronald Reagan

H.W. BRANDS says: “Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon was his closet pragmatism.

“In political speeches, he was always the uncompromising conservative, but in legislative practice he was willing to take what he could get.

“Chief of staff and later Treasury Secretary James Baker learned the Reagan secret by heart, saying, ‘If Reagan told me once, he told me 15,000 times, ‘I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying.’”

Jimi Hendrix

CHARLES CROSS says: “So much surprised me about Jimi’s life — his deep intellectualism, his ability to play the guitar backwards, the way he composed music in his head. But no element of his fame surprised me more than the one story in my book of when Jimi was a young guitar slinger, and when he wasn’t actually the best player in the room.

“The story came from 1963, when Jimi was in the Army but was playing in local blues clubs in Nashville near his base, trying to get attention.

“At a club one night, Jimi came up and did his best, but soon thereafter a local player named Johnny Jones went onstage. Jones’ playing — to everyone in the club, including Jimi — was more inspired. ‘The man just done wiped you up,’ was Jimi’s bandmate’s observation to Jimi after the show.

“Hendrix explained that he was trying to imitate B.B. King, and he had failed to get the right tone. It was a lesson that trying to imitate others, rather than follow his unique muse, wasn’t the right direction for Jimi.

“It might have been the last time he was ever shown up onstage.”

Johnny Carson

LAURENCE LEAMER says: “When I was writing ‘King of the Night,’ I managed to get Johnny Carson’s home phone number. I waited until the perfect moment to call, which I figured was 7 o’clock on a Friday evening.

“As a writer, I’m desperately waiting for anything to distract me and when the phone rings I pick it up right away. I knew it wouldn’t be that way with Johnny. I’d have to talk my way through a couple of people to get to him.

“So I dialed his number and somebody picked up immediately. It was Johnny, waiting for somebody to call him.”

Barbara Bush

SUSAN PAGE says: “There’s a debate today about policy and politics affecting transgender people. This was something that Barbara Bush wrestled with in 2015, at a time she was 90 years old.

“She and President Bush went out to lunch that fall with two historians, Jon Meacham and Timothy Naftali, who were visiting their summer home. During the lunch, she said she didn’t understand why the Obama White House had put out a statement announcing they had appointed the first openly trans person and an openly gay person to White House posts. They wouldn’t have announced that they were hiring a heterosexual, she noted.

“But Naftali, who is openly gay, told her he was ‘thrilled’ that the president was making the point that a person like him could be hired by the White House, and openly.

“Later, in her diary, she wrote that he had changed her mind. ‘I ended up being persuaded in my mind that after years of hiding this may be a good thing,’ she wrote. ‘Nobody wants to be born gay or transgender. They have been misunderstood for years.’

“She thought about the issue from the perspective of other people. ‘There are a world of folks born transgender who are quiet and lonely. How sad to be in the wrong body.’”

Richard Pryor

SCOTT SAUL says of the Peoria native: “Researching my Richard Pryor biography, I was shocked to discover how much he had literally improvised his way to Hollywood stardom. His first bigger movie role had been as ‘Piano Man’ in the Billie Holiday biopic ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: the character didn’t have a name because he was just part of the scenery and had only a handful of lines.

“But Pryor started improvising with his co-star Diana Ross, bringing a lightness and irony to a film that otherwise took itself very seriously, and the result was so magical that the screenwriters ended up altering the script so that ‘Piano Man’ became a major protagonist in the film — one whose death serves arguably as the film’s emotional climax.

“Likewise with his breakout performance co-starring with Gene Wilder in ‘Silver Streak’: Pryor’s character started out as one in a string of cameo performances in the film — just another kooky character that Wilder’s nebbishy character happened to pair up with. Again Pryor improvised off the script, turning the cartoonish thief on the page into a more incisive — and more hilarious — character who had a connection with his co-star, and again the director was delighted by the sparks that flew, the screenplay was revised, and Pryor turned himself from a minor character into a top-billed element of the film. 

“Pryor and Wilder would go on to co-star in a set of films that were not only box-office smashes in their own right but also set a template for the many interracial buddy comedies, from ’48 Hours’ to ‘Rush Hour’ and beyond, to follow.

“Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how Pryor improvised his way to stardom: his whole life he had ‘made a way out of no way,’ refusing the scripts he had been given. That process had begun with him, as a teenager in Peoria, refusing the life of menial labor that was marked out for a Black working-class man of his generation, and deciding that his path was the path of the artist.”

Harper Lee

UI grad CHARLES SHIELDS says: “I might have had a chance of getting Harper Lee’s cooperation when I was writing ‘Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.’ But I got snookered. Here’s what happened.

“My agent, Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management, had sent my book proposal to about a dozen publishers. We were excited when several editors said they’d like to meet me and discuss the idea. I remember we were walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when Jeff’s cell phone rang.

“Someone in publishing had copied my entire proposal and sent it via FedEx to Miss Lee. As Jeff and I were blithely meeting with editors, she was already feeling grateful that some thoughtful soul had tipped her off. Her mind was made up: she would not cooperate. In fact, she had already started calling friends and asking them not to speak to me. 

“So, faced with an uncooperative subject, what could I do?

“The first thing I realized was that I would need many more interviews than I’d planned. Establishing the simplest fact — whether it was true she had smoked a pipe while attending a women’s college, for example (she did) — would require talking with several persons because Miss Lee would tell me nothing. Guesswork — an acceptable method in some cases with persons long dead who left little behind — would be dangerous when the subject was living.

“Second, I would have to conduct my research as if Miss Lee were looking over my shoulder, as indeed she was. Sometimes I was just a phone call away from her. Occasionally, someone would say, ‘Wait, let me call you back.’ Half an hour would pass, and then: ‘I just spoke to Nelle …’ Friends were helping her keep tabs on me.

“Regardless, I was always polite, even when people questioned my motives. ‘Why don’t you just leave Nelle alone?’ I made it clear that I was wanted to portray, fairly and accurately, the life and work of an important American author. Although a few times I heard mean-spirited gossip that would have thrown shade on Miss Lee’s character, I didn’t pursue it when, in my judgment, it was just that: rumor, sprung perhaps from jealousy. 

“Finally, Miss Lee’s silence compelled me to be careful about quoting from unpublished materials. In Truman Capote’s papers in the New York Public library are 150 pages of notes taken by Harper Lee, written while she in Kansas helping him research ‘In Cold Blood.’ With her permission, I could have quoted from those at length; instead, I was limited to using fair-use snippets and paraphrasing the rest. Too bad. She’s a fine writer and those notes are fascinating to read.

“I sent her a copy of ‘Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee’ when it was finished. Indirectly, I heard that she told friends and family not to read it.”

Johnny Cash

ROBERT HILBURN says: “Though I was with Johnny Cash in many of his key public moments — starting with the famous Folsom Prison concert in 1968 — the time I most treasure was a private visit in a modest, two-story wood-frame house in a quiet Virginia valley that once was home to country music’s influential Carter family.

“It was 2002 and John, at 71, was in such bad health that he had to pause repeatedly (because of asthma) to regain his breath, at one point every few seconds. But his spirit wasn’t broken. I was there to do a profile for the Los Angeles Times.

“Country music had turned its back on John years earlier, but he got a second chance to make records when rock/hip-hop producer Rick Rubin offered to produce a new album — whatever songs, new or old, John wanted to sing. His confidence was so low he couldn’t imagine why any producer — much less one known for hits with Tom Petty and the Red Hot Chili Peppers—would want to ‘waste his time with me.’

“But they went back into the studio and made a series of daring collections, the fourth and best of which — ‘The Man Comes Around’ — not only sold more than 500,000 copies but made the country music industry reverse course and honor him with the Country Music Association’s album of the year award.

“Looking back on that September day, it was hard to imagine how someone in his poor shape could have finished that album just weeks earlier. Even more striking is that John just days later recorded a video for ‘Hurt,’ a Trent Reznor song from the album. Director Mark Romanek had planned to film John in Los Angeles, but he got an urgent call on October 16 from Rubin saying John’s health had taken a turn for the worse.

“Two days later, Mark was shocked to see John in such bad shape. Rather than try to hide John’s fragile condition, he decided to show the vulnerability in the video because he believed John’s whole career had been based on truth.

“The result was a grim, but inspiring portrayal of a man reflecting on the darkness of his life — including the key line, everyone I know goes away in the end. The video was so stark that some close to Cash urged him not to release it because he looked so sick. But John over-ruled them, a decision that stands as a striking example of John’s courage and dedication as an artist.

“Where the Folsom Prison concert showed him as a young man full of energy and creative fire, the video — which has been hailed as one of the greatest music videos ever made — showed him nearing the end of his life, struggling to maintain both his health and his faith.

“He died less than a year later — a bigger hero in my eyes than ever.”

Ernest Hemingway

MARY DEARBORN says: “Hemingway wasn’t the world’s best father, so I was surprised and moved by how he responded to the illnesses and deaths of the two young sons of his friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy.

“Patrick was the sick one — he had TB — so the death from meningitis of the older one, Baoth, was unexpected and devastating. His concern for the parents brought him to eloquence: ‘It is not so bad for Baoth,’ he wrote them, ‘because he had a fine time, always, and he has only done something now that we all must do.’

“For the wall of Patrick’s bedroom in the sanitarium, Ernest sent a mounted impala head. Given Ernest’s interests in hunting, fishing, and the like, it’s not surprising that he knew what boys liked. On his last visit to Patrick Ernest valiantly talked to the boy about fishing and promised him a bearskin for a Christmas he would never see, only to break down outside, asking, ‘God damn it, why does that boy have to be so sick?’

“Hemingway, who seemed to champion stoicism in his work, was not always so generous and expansive, so his responses to the illnesses and deaths of his friends’ sons were a sign that he was capable in real life of the emotional complexity and compassion that coursed under the surface of his fiction.”

Frank: The Voice

JAMES KAPLAN says: “I think often about the night Frank Sinatra debuted as a solo singer. Nobody, with the arguable exception of Billie Holiday, had ever done this before.

“In 1942, popular singers were just cogs in big bands; the bandleaders — Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller — were the stars. But Frank had begun to outshine Dorsey in Dorsey’s own band, the girls would crowd the bandstand, screaming and sighing when he sang, so he figured the time was right to give it a go.

“Dorsey, who had been an idol and a father figure to Sinatra, was not happy when Frank quit. His parting words to his ex-boy singer: ‘I hope you fall on your ass.’

“And for a while it seemed this was exactly what was going to happen. Even Sinatra’s two agents, working overtime, could barely get him a booking. But then they prevailed on Bob Weitman, the manager of New York’s Paramount Theater, the venue of venues, to attend a Sinatra performance at the Mosque Theatre in Newark. Years afterward, Weitman recalled sitting and watching in awe as ‘this skinny kid walks out on the stage. He was not much older than the kids in the seats. He looked like he still had milk on his chin. As soon as they saw him, the kids went crazy. And when he started to sing they stood up and yelled and moaned and carried on until I thought — excuse the expression — his pants had fallen down.’

“Weitman booked Sinatra for New Year’s Eve at the Paramount, as an ‘extra added attraction,’ billed third after Benny Goodman and His Orchestra and a Bing Crosby picture. The radio comedian Jack Benny, emceeing the show, had never heard of Frank Sinatra — but as a favor to Weitman he introduced him as if he were a close friend. And as soon as he said Sinatra’s name, the theater erupted. Bob Weitman: ‘There were about five thousand people in the theater, and all five thousand were of one voice, ‘F-R-A-N-K-I-E-E-E-E!’ They got up and danced in the aisles and jumped on the stage. One of the managers came over to me and said, The balcony is rocking — what do we do?’

“Standing on the stage, his back to the audience as he prepared to conduct his band, Benny Goodman had a different reaction as the huge sound burst forth. “What the (bleep) was that?’ he said.”

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

PETER GURALNICK says: “What I discovered with Elvis — well, most of all what I discovered, was a self-determined, self-imagined artist, someone who had an irrepressible yearning from a very early age to achieve something that he couldn’t really have defined, someone with a visionary sense of purpose.

“Here’s how I described him in the book, at the age of eleven or twelve at the conclusion of a radio talent show in Tupelo, Mississippi: If you picture him, picture someone you might have missed: a wide-eyed, silent child scuffling his feet, wearing overalls. He stands in line in the courtroom, waiting his turn to tiptoe up to the mike. His small child’s voice carries a quavering note of yearning — other children get up and do letter-perfect recitals, big burly men frail on their beat-up guitars, but Elvis cradles his like a bird.

“After the broadcast is over, as the crowd slowly dissipates, the little boy hangs around on the outskirts of the group, watching Mississippi Slim (the MC and star of the show) and the other musicians pack up. He walks out behind them onto the courthouse square, with the statue of the Confederate soldier facing the Lyric Theater, the movie house that he and his friends never go to because it costs fifteen cents, a nickel more than the Strand. He hangs around on the edge of the crowd, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, desperately sidestepping every offer of a ride back to East Tupelo. He is waiting for an invitation, and in his determination to wait he shows the kind of watchful perseverance that is the hallmark of his solitary style.”

Alex Trebek

LISA ROGAK says: “What struck me in my research was how uncomfortable with people he could be, at least when he wasn’t on camera and it wasn’t on his terms.

“He and his family lived in the shadows of Hollywood, rarely attending events that other celebrities went to at the drop of a hat, mostly for the visibility.

“Said Elaine Saunders, an in-house CBC makeup artist: ‘He’s a typical Jesuit boy, he should have been a priest. He has all those Jesuitical rigidities and can be very moody, but he’s extremely intelligent and was destined for success.’”


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