On September 17, I drove from Houston to Rockdale (northeast of Austin), where Dana Andrews grew up during World War I. Cell phone reception was poor, but I just kept loading my youtube book trailer and turned on my pocket project. About 20 minutes later, just as I was reading a section about Dana's Baptist minister father, who prayed lugubriously and ended his sermon on the sorry state of the world with the words Oh Lord!, my book trailer loaded and started to play. It was a miracle, I told the audience--one that they would be telling to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren about the day that Carl Rollyson came to town.
Thanks to Will Swift, who is writing a biography of Pat and Richard Nixon, I was invited to give a public lecture, entitled “Adventures of an Outlaw: A Biographer at Work,” kicking off the Biographer’s Festival on September 29, sponsored by the Columbia County Historical Society at the Dutch Reformed Church in Kinderhook, New York. The interview with the Register-Star (see the link above) is a good summary of my talk.
On December 9 & 10, I enjoyed a weekend devoted to Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews on the Silver Screen Oasis Forum. I answer many very good questions and has an opportunity to add a few details that you won't find in my book. A biographer always has these afterthoughts and discoveries, and I'm grateful to Moira Finnie for giving me the opportunity to talk with so many people interested in Dana Andrews.
On January 22, I spoke at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park about my biography of Dana Andrews. This was a very special event because Dana's daughter, Susan, joined me and the Club screened Laura, the film that made Dana a star.
On January 24, at Columbia University, myntalk focused on how I wrote the chapter on Laura.
On February 6, I appeared at Left Bank Books in St. Louis to give a talk about my biographies of Dana Andrews, Sylvia Plath, and Martha Gellhorn (a St. Louis native). I was gratified to meet longtime St. Louis residents who still remember Gellhorn and the contributions her family made to the city. I pointed out that three of my subjects were exiles who wanted to engage the world in ambitious ways even as behaving in ways shaped by where they came from.
Other speaking engagements:
February 15: Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA, talk and signing, for American Isis
Diary: 2pm: I'm in the Boston-Cambridge area visiting bookstores. Met my wonderful agent, Colleen Mohyde, at the Porter Square bookstore cafe at 7 am, then she drove me to the Brookline Booksmith, after which I walked to the BU B & N, then to Prudential Center B & N, ending up here at the Harvard Coop. I was given ten copies of American Isis to sign by a clerk who was taught by Plath's impressive high school teacher, Wilbury Crockett. Altogether I signed 30 copies and will sign more tonight at the Harvard Book Store. 9:30 pm: Just got back from the Harvard Bookstore talk and signing. Good crowd, lots of books signed. I had one obstreperous response from a man who attacked me for making the Plath Monroe comparison. But afterwards he came up to me and apologized, saying I handled his outburst very well. Another person who wanted a book signed said those who objected to my Marilyn Monroe references know nothing about Monroe. Quite true.
February 20: Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, noon talk about Hollywood Enigma Also at Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA - (323) 466-3456. 6:30 pm book signing and talk (introduced by Susan Andrews) followed by a screening of Laura. Diary: Feb 21 started yesterday with a wonderful walk in the gardens of the Huntington Library. Talked at noon about Dana Andrews, and I was gratified to meet staff members of the Pasadena Playhouse, where Dana got his start. You won't believe this, but I'm at a Starbucks across the street from the USC campus and the theme from Laura is playing. Rosemary Clooney is singing it Last night at the Egyptian Theatre I introduce the film joined by Dana's daughter, Susan. Also present Dana's daughter Kathy and her daughter Abigail. Lots of book signing and conversation with Beverly Gray, esteemed Roger Corman biographer, and Charles McGraw biographer Alan Rode. Thanks to Jeff of Larry Edmunds Bookshop for arranging this fantastic night. And thanks to Jeff for those Marilyn Monroe images I will be using for my revised biography of her that will appear as part of the University Press of Mississippi's Hollywood Legends series.
February 23: In Las Vegas at the Far West Popular Culture Association: "Hollywood Legends." I gave a luncheon talk about the ways different ways of becoming a Hollywood star. I think I recruited at least one writer to who want to make a contribution to the University Press of Mississippi series on Hollywood Legends.
February 26: "Marilyn Monroe: "I Was Dreaming the Hardest," at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I plan to explain why I think there is a strong link to Sylvia Plath. I really enjoyed speaking to an audience of 450 on a cold drizzly night. Probably 600 people would have showed if the weather had been better. Although many in my audience were old enough to have seen Monroe when her films first appeared, there were young people in the audience as well, including a journalism student who interviewed me for a class assignment.
February 28: Philadelphia Atheaneum on Sylvia Plath. A very welcoming audience of perhaps a hundred people. This time I really concentrated on explaining what was new in my biography. Good questions, especially from a Plath scholar. I plan to return to the Athenaeum when my biography of Amy Lowell is published next fall.
March 14: A special event for me because I will be addressing my fellow biographers in the Biography Seminar, which meets at New York University. I'm going to concentrate on the last chapter of American Isis, where I situate my book in the history of Plath biography. I will also point out that the last chapter is my answer to Janet Malcolm—something no reviewer so far has noticed.
The day after: Nice turnout for my talk at the NYU Biography Seminar. What a joy to address a room of biographers and to dwell on how I seized the opportunity to write a biography of Plath and how my book fit into the history of other biographies, including several biographers who were ultimately unwilling to go ahead and write their books.
March 21: In Madison, Wisconsin, for a talk at the Vantage Point Luncheon at the Madison Club and then a talk and signing at A Room of One's Own, for American Isis
March 21: The luncheon talk was well received, with good questions and several books sold. I played a recording of Sylvia reading "Daddy." very powerful. At 6:30 a small but very perceptive gathering of readers at A Room of One's Own in downtown Madison not far for the Capitol. A beautiful 6000 square foot book store. Good questions and even more remarkable, almost everyone who came to the talk bought a book. But the startling development of the night came when an audience member identified himself as someone who had gone to school with Assia Wevill and had a good anecdote to share about her. She radiated sex, he said, which reminded me of one of Sylvia's classmates who said all Ted Hughes had to say was "Hello" and he was seducing you. The idea that Assia deliberately set out to seduce Ted seemed perfectly true to this friend of hers. He described her pointedly sitting across from a distinguished professor of philosophy, a man in his sixties. She just sat there, being Assia, so to speak. He grew visibly agitated, and after a few minutes, he arose, looked at her and shouted, "You bitch!" and left the room.
The next day I spoke with twenty Smith College graduates at the University Club. They had read my book, so I decided to give them a quiz. It was fun and the whole affair was like a graduate seminar. And also had time to do an hour long interview for Wisconsin Public Radio, which will air in May. I will post a link in the Events section of this website.
March 23: Just returned from Madison. Yesterday I did an hour long interview for public radio that will air April 21 and will be available online. Last event yesterday was at the University Club for a meeting with Smith alums who had read American Isis. Good reception. One reader was a little doubtful about the Isis analogy and wanted to know about how I came up with it. "My wife suggested it," I said. Another had some qualms about the Marilyn Monroe analogy. And she was amazed that the New York Times reviewer actually wanted to hear more about it. Well, I said, actually I did hold back, figuring rightly that some readers would be annoyed that I had made such a connection at all. In fact, I could have said much more and will when I get around to writing an article about the Marilyn Monroe-Sylvia Plath connection.
March 26: In Boulder, Colorado, book store talk and signing at Boulder Book Store, for American Isis
This was one of the best talks and book signings I have ever done. A responsive book store staff and an attentive audience with good questions. Several Smith College graduates attended.
March 27: In Denver, book store talk and signing at Tattered Cover, for American Isis
The only book store signing where I was given a gift (a beautifully embossed silver book mark with my name and the date of my talk) plus some good coffee. This is a huge, beautiful bookstore, famous and part of my dream come true.
I also did a talk and signing for Old Firehouse Books at the library in Fort Collins, and then I spent a wonderful evening in the hoe o a Smith College graduate addressing a group of 45 Smith College graduates.
April 8: In New York City, talk about Dana Andrews in the Bruno Walter Theater, Lincoln Center
I had a good time yesterday talking about Dana Andrews in the Bruno Walter auditorium of the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. An old friend showed up, which is always a special pleasure, and I was introduced by the director of the series, Cheryl Raymond, whose brother was named after Dana. I've been invited back to talk about my revised biography of Marilyn Monroe, which I expect to be out early next year.
May 19: In New York City, talk about Dana Andrews at John Jay College
Interviews and Appearances
Story behind the Story: Carl Rollyson’s American Isis.
Seaman, Donna (author).
First published January 1, 2013 (Booklist).
When you look at the impressive list of biographies Carl Rollyson has written over the past 25 years or so, you notice that most are about women and that they fall into two categories: writers and actors. What’s the link?
“I think the thing that fuses the writers and Hollywood people I’m interested in is that the writers had a connection with Hollywood, or they had what I would call a Hollywood personality. Writers who project themselves. Like Martha Gellhorn. She came from St. Louis, but in her maturity, she had this almost British accent. She had completely reinvented herself, just like an actress. Susan Sontag, too. She had an aura, an image, a public persona, and she maintained it even through her struggles with cancer, just like a Hollywood figure. Poet Amy Lowell, whom I’m writing about now, had an incredible interest in the theater and the ability to project herself onstage. She lived all of her adult life with a marvelous actress, Ada Russell, who coached her on how to speak in public.”
We spoke with Rollyson via phone, which was like plugging into a generator, he has so much energy. Zealous in his mission to portray “people of destiny,” he revels in every challenge biographers face. When we asked him how he managed to be so prolific, you could hear him smile.
“I have a secret weapon, my wife, Lisa Paddock, who coauthored the Susan Sontag biography. Even when we’re not writing books together, she’s a super editor. Not only does she have a PhD in English; she also has a law degree. As a biographer, I’ve gotten into lots of trouble when working with living figures, so when legal issues come up, I have my at-home attorney as well as editor.”
Rollyson heard the call to biography during the summer of 1980 when he was reading books about Marilyn Monroe in preparation for writing an academic bio-bibliography. An actor before he became a professor, he realized that none of the biographers “had any idea of how acting had shaped Marilyn’s personality, or how she prepared for her roles. They had no vocabulary for how an actress works.” Monroe became the subject of his first biography, and she provided the key to his newest book, American Isis, a biography of the iconic poet Sylvia Plath.
For two decades, Rollyson has been trying to write about Plath, but there are so many Plath books already on the shelf that agents told him to forget it. Instead, he kept searching for a new perspective and he found it in a 1959 entry in Plath’s journal: “Marilyn Monroe appeared to me last night in a dream as a kind of fairy godmother.” Marilyn gives her a manicure and invites Plath to visit her, “promising a new, flowering life.” Plath also writes, “I spoke, almost in tears, of how much she and Arthur Miller meant to us.”
Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller in June 1956, the same month and year Plath married the English poet Ted Hughes. Both couples also spent the summer of 1957 on the same Cape Cod beach. Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Monroe’s tragic death (see Lois Banner’s Marilyn, 2012). This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Plath’s infamous suicide. Both women were, in effect, punished for their brilliance. Rollyson observes, “Monroe and Plath are great transitional figures. They lived just before that second wave of the women’s movement, doing things that women 10 years later will feel more comfortable undertaking.”
While movie star Monroe brought her volume of Rilke to the set, Plath, Rollyson observes, “had the sensibility of a great actress.” He also marvels, “Here was a woman who not only wanted to be a great poet; she also wanted to write potboiler fiction for the Ladies’ Home Journal. Like Marilyn, Plath was determined to reach a much, much bigger world.”
Past Events and Interviews
March 14 NYU Biography Seminar
February 20, talk at Huntington Library in San Marino, CA and book signing/talk/film screening. April 8, lecture and book signing in Bruno Walter Theater, Lincoln Center. May 19, lecture and signing at John Jay College in Manhattan.
Susan Andrews outside a movie theater in Huntsville, TX, where her father first developed his passion for the movies