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Splendors and Miseries of Literary Biography

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992

Samuel Johnson’s belief, “There has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful,” has prevailed from his time until our own. But choosing a subject can be nearly as arduous as writing the biography itself. Since nearly all promising subjects have either been “done” or are apparently “taken,” it is both tempting and intriguing to write the life of a figure who has never been done before.

Despite the increasing number of writers pursuing a diminishing number of subjects, there are still some unravished authors: Robinson Jeffers, Arthur Waley, L.P. Hartley, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Lawrence Durrell and Olivia Manning, for example—though they are certainly not easy subjects, and energetic rivals may be beavering away at them this very moment. Waley demands a knowledge of Oriental languages, Hartley’s family does not want to publicize his homosexuality, Trilling’s wife—working on a memoir of their life together— has restricted access to his papers at Columbia University, Durrell has been “claimed” by a scholar who edited his correspondence, Manning is bespoke by the literary executors who control her papers.

Promising first subjects, who take on an independent existence and themselves seem worthy of a full-length study, may appear when you are working on a biography of a major figure. When writing the life of Hemingway, I became absorbed in the character and career of “Chink” Dorman-Smith, whom Hemingway met in Milan on Armistice Day, 1918, and who became one of his closest friends. Another dazzling military hero was Gustavo Durán, a composer who became a Loyalist general in the Spanish Civil War and was generously praised—as no other contemporary was ever praised by Hemingway—when Robert Jordan is inspired by thoughts of Durán’s achievements in chapter 30 of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Lavinia Graecen published a life of “Chink” in 1990, and a German scholar is now working on a life of Durán.

Perceval Gibbon, who reported the Boer War, wrote several books about South Africa, and was an intimate friend of Joseph Conrad, and Jane Anderson, the wild and beautiful American journalist, who had a love affair with Conrad in 1916 and became a traitor in World War Two, both obsessed me (as “Chink” and Gustavo had done) when I was writing the life of Conrad. Though Gibbon’s papers were secreted by a South African who has been “working” on him for half a lifetime, I managed to reconstruct Anderson’s life (now being written by an amateur sleuth in Georgia) in considerable detail. John Peale Bishop and Donald Ogden Stewart, each of whom had a significant impact on the life of Scott Fitzgerald, merit biographies but have not yet attracted an author.

Commercial considerations also have a powerful influence when one is choosing a first-time subject. Publishers, harboring grave doubts about whether books on minor subjects will sell, will only pay acceptable advances for well-known figures with clear commercial prospects. One must be fortunate indeed to secure a contract for a subject as trivial and obscure as Siegfried Sassoon’s lover, Stephen Tennant, or to find the kind of treasure-trove that enabled Hugh Trevor-Roper to explore the hidden life of Sir Edmund Backhouse in The Hermit of Peking. Yet good biographies could be written about significant but little-known figures like the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, and Colonel John Henry Patterson, who built the Mombasa-Nairobi rail-road, wrote two good books on Africa, and inspired Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

There are significant differences between writing a fresh biography and following in the footsteps of a predecessor. An untapped archive is certainly desirable, if not essential, when writing the first life of a subject, which can also be pieced together from many different sources. Instead of reworking familiar material, there is the constant excitement of new discoveries and the gratifying possession of knowledge that no one else will have until you reveal it. There is also the pleasure of telling an entirely new story instead of searching for what has not been done in previous lives. There is a crucial difference between depending on the work of earlier scholars for the essential facts and framework of the life and establishing them yourself for the very first time.


My two attempts to write first biographies—one completed, one aborted—illustrate some of the problems involved in choosing a subject, bringing the project to a successful conclusion, and fulfilling the goals of serious biography. I chose to write on Wyndham Lewis because no one had ever written a biography about him. Ambitious projects have high casualty rates, and many writers who had staked their claims to Lewis had never hit pay dirt or finished their books. Roy Campbell’s brief study of Lewis was printed and announced by Chatto & Windus for their Dolphin series in 1932, but it was never published and has disappeared without a trace. (I made strenuous efforts to find this lost book, finally discovered it in 1982, and published it with the University of Natal Press in South Africa in 1985.) Biographies of Lewis were projected and abandoned by Walter Allen (who recounted his memories and lent me his books on Lewis), by Martin Seymour-Smith and by Catherine Dupré. And Victor Cassidy, who began research in 1970, has still not published a word. I was encouraged when a friend, who had read a draft of Cassidy’s opening chapter, assured me that he was not a serious threat. Sam Hynes warned that I would begin to hate Lewis and never complete the work. But I found him increasingly attractive, and my biography, which brought The Enemy out of the shadows and revealed him as more sympathetic than menacing, was the first and only one to appear so far.

Lewis’ longevity, secrecy, complex books, and varied careers as a vital and versatile painter, novelist, philosopher, poet, critic, and editor made the exploration of his life rather difficult. He lived to the age of 74, wrote 50 books and 360 articles, and was also among the most important English painters of the 20th century. He passed through a number of distinct physical, temperamental, and artistic stages in his life, and his capacity for change and development was one of the most fascinating aspects of his character. Books like Tarr, The Art of Being Ruled, Time and Western Man, The Apes of God, Self Condemned, and The Human Age were massive and complex. Lewis, intensely secretive about his private life, hid behind a series of masks and personae. The editor of his Letters has rightly observed: “The scholar concerned with the data of Lewis’ life has found himself lost in a fog of rumor and half-proved fact, of conflicting statements and pure fantasy.”

Since Lewis had died as recently as 1957, most of his correspondence remained unpublished, and many of his friends were still alive, The Enemy was extensively based on letters and interviews. The survivors were distinguished by their impressive intellects and their fierce loyalty to his memory. His scholarly disciples formed a close-knit phalanx; and some of them even imitated the brusque style, harsh mannerisms, and reactionary politics of the Master. I, too, found that I had, like Lewis, a large physique, volatile temperament, dislike of publishers, capacity for hard work, and commitment to intellectual life. But I had never done any scholarly work on Lewis’ closest friends and had to master the more experimental forms of modernism.

Because of his unpopular satires and right-wing political tracts of the 1930’s, Lewis had attracted more hostility than appreciation. In North America, his advocates tended to be conservative and Catholic—like Marshall McLuhan, Hugh Kenner, and Russell Kirk—who published with Henry Regnery and in the National Review. He has been ignored or attacked by the liberal, Jewish, New York literary establishment. Irving Howe, their representative spokesman, exclaimed in the Partisan Review: “When a charlatan like Wyndham Lewis is revived and praised for his wisdom, it is done, predictably, by a Hugh Kenner in the Hudson Review.” Most of Lewis’ books were then out of print, expensive, and hard to find. And he had not enjoyed the academic prestige of his contemporaries—Joyce, Pound, and Eliot—who freely acknowledged his genius. I hoped to attract new readers and restore Lewis’ reputation, and was gratified when John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press began to reprint most of his books in the 1980’s. When I visited Martin in Santa Barbara, he told me: “You’re big in this town. They love Lewis here.”

I began by slowly acquiring Lewis’ books, compiling a 900-item bibliography of criticism about him and making a detailed 14-page chronology of his life. I wrote and received several hundred letters about Lewis and was immensely gratified that eminent authors—like Laura Riding, Henry Miller, Allen Tate, and Anthony Powell—writing from both hostile and sympathetic viewpoints, would respond to my queries and provide valuable information.

One of Augustus John’s brood of squalid, cheeky children, Admiral Sir Caspar John, said the two painters had an uneasy and volatile relationship, and recalled the confused “feeling of how a child should behave to a man who at one moment was a friend of his father and the next an object of distaste.” In September 1919 the Sitwells suggested that Lewis do a set of designs for a Russian ballet with music by their young protege William Walton. But, Walton wrote: “I had hardly composed any music before the idea was scrapped. The only thing I remember of it, was an extremely vivid and wonderful sketch of a head that he had painted on the wall of his studio.” Lewis’ personality struck the young Lord David Cecil, who met him at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s home in Garsington in the early 1920’s, as “powerful, individual, self-conscious and uneasy. At the age of 20 or 21 and unaccustomed to the company of temperamental artists, I did not find conversation with him easy. But he did make a formidable and undisappointing impression on me.” Archibald MacLeish, who met Lewis in Paris in 1927, remembered the beginning of hostilities between Lewis and Hemingway that later erupted in “The Dumb Ox” and A Moveable Feast: “I took him to lunch in Paris and got Hemingway to come along. Walking back to the West Bank E.H. said: “Did you notice? He kept his gloves on all through lunch.” Since I hadn’t and since he hadn’t the question became lurid and memorable. But even as early as that Hemingway decided not to care for him.”

Alistair Cooke encountered Lewis as an undergraduate in the late twenties, “when he swept up to Cambridge in the wide black snap brim and laid down ferocious laws for the more rebellious avant-garde. I recall once how I almost shrank against the gateway of Jesus College as he whisked by, talking to, almost barking at, William Empson.” Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Nazi, remembered (in miniscule, nearly illegible handwriting) that “Wyndham Lewis came to see me often in the thirties at my house. Always a rather complicated person with coat collar turned up. He had the impression that association with me made him liable to assassination.” Lewis bitterly resented Kenneth Clark, a pillar of the English art establishment, and felt Clark had secretly conspired against him. Lord Clark recalled that he had tried to help Lewis in the 1940’s and was irritated when Lewis failed to produce a painting that had been paid for in advance by the War Artists scheme: “I hardly knew Wyndham Lewis, but greatly admired his writing. I did not know that he thought of me as an enemy—he was quite friendly when we met. I think he was a man of great intelligence, but not a natural painter. He would not let himself receive sensuous impressions.”


In May and June 1978, while this correspondence was taking place, I spent five weeks reading the 8,000 Lewis documents at Cornell University. Fortunately, the curators allowed me complete access to their collection of Lewis letters and manuscripts, and guided me through the complex task of studying them. Since only one other person had read everything at Cornell (and he had moved to Ithaca and taken a year and a half to do it), it seemed as if the long shelves and endless boxes of papers existed solely for my benefit. The considerable strain of reading Lewis’ crabbed handwriting for eight hours a day and typing the notes all evening was alleviated by the exhilaration of continuous discovery and by the perception of the larger patterns of his life as the new facts fell meaningfully into place. I left Cornell with Lewis’ stern warning echoing in my throbbing head: “When a person, who, like myself, has played a prominent part in the intellectual life of his country, in his time, comes to die, the circumstances of his life are liable, by way of biography, to be distorted and arranged according to the fancy of the biographer.”

W. K. Rose, the editor of Lewis’ Letters, who began a book on “The Men of 1914” but died of a brain tumor in 1968, left all his papers to Vassar College. Reading his correspondence with people who had died since his edition appeared in 1963 provided a good deal of new information; and his earlier letters to people I had also written to allowed me to check the accuracy of their memories and confirm their stories. I also read Lewis’ correspondence at Yale, the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library, the Museum of Modern Art, the British Library, London University Library, the Tate Gallery, and the Imperial War Museum. I gratefully received copies of letters from eight other libraries and from his publishers— Chatto & Windus, New Directions, Henry Regnery, and Ryerson Press (where I hoped in vain to discover a cache of his rarest pamphlet, Anglosaxony). His correspondence with most English publishers was destroyed, along with their offices, in the Blitz. Dora Stone and Romilly John sent me original letters to copy, a number of other people allowed me to read Lewis letters in their possession, and William Wees gave me a revealing tape-recorded interview with Helen Rowe, a model who had known Lewis before the Great War. Sam Hynes provided a copy of a precious unpublished memoir by Kate Lechmere. She had helped Lewis found the Rebel Art Centre in 1914 and frankly wrote: “During my friendship with T.E. Hulme, Lewis made himself most unpleasant. Some mornings he would arrive in a very excitable state and rapidly pace up and down the Studio calling me “a bloody bitch.”“

I traced, with great difficulty and the help of a friend familiar with the Civil Service bureaucracy, Lewis’ furious correspondence with the London County Council, which was trying to demolish the Notting Hill Gate flat of the blind old man, and was grieved to find that the entire file had been destroyed. When I first asked an Indian clerk if they kept correspondence from the 1950’s, he said he could not tell me because he was not born then.

Though I succeeded in tracing hundreds of unpublished letters, I had severe problems with two libraries. Boston University, which owns important papers by the mother of two of Lewis’ illegitimate children, sent the least helpful letter I have ever received: “Our Iris Barry materials are restricted by the donor [Edmund Schiddel], and relative to his instructions we may not make this correspondence available for research, nor reply to queries concerning the contents of the materials.” This seemed particularly absurd in view of the fact that the contents were described in the very useful National Union Catalogue of Manuscripts, the American equivalent of the National Register of Archives in London. The total and indefinite embargo of scholarly materials was (fortunately) unique in my experience, and I did not—despite help from friends on the Boston University faculty—succeed in penetrating this sanctum. After Schiddel’s death, his executor kindly allowed me access to the Barry papers. This new material illuminated Iris’ energetic and courageous character, described the varied jobs in the first phase of her nomadic career, and increased our understanding of her friendship with Pound and her painful relationship with Lewis, to whom she remained loyal and emotionally attached long after he had lost interest in her.

With SUNY Buffalo, the second most important collection of Lewis papers and a lamentable contrast to Cornell, I had an infinitely more torturous experience. I first wrote to Buffalo asking to read their Lewis letters in September 1977, the month after my extremely pleasant and informative six-hour interview with the still beautiful Mrs. Lewis. When I took her out for lunch and a drive around Torquay, she frankly answered all my questions and described how she met Lewis and sat for him. She spoke of his womanizing, her willingness to remain hidden from his friends, her reluctant agreement not to have children, their formal marriage (after 12 years together), his tastes in food and drink, his illnesses and—despite everything—the great fun they had together. She promised to send me her notes on Lewis’ life and inscribed my copy of Rotting Hill: “To Jeffrey Meyers from G.A. Wyndham Lewis. Thanking you for a very enjoyable visit.” (She had mellowed considerably since the early 1960’s when she had nearly driven W.K. Rose mad with her criticism of his edition of the Letters.) I looked forward to meeting her again the following year.

Buffalo replied that written permission was needed to read the letters. I duly requested this from Mrs. Lewis and, after a a long delay, was shocked to hear that she had suffered a disabling stroke in October. The courts, acting on her behalf, would eventually take over the responsibility for the Lewis Estate. Until then, no one could grant the requisite permission. In May 1978 I stopped at Buffalo en route to Cornell and found the library was closed during the summer, precisely when most scholars were able to visit. In July, when I went to London to write the book, the library informed me that they would not supply copies of the letters—even if I got the necessary permission. (After Mrs. Lewis’ stroke, in the fall of 1978, the last of Lewis’ letters—his final keep—were sold to Cornell through Anthony Rota. Though Cornell and Rota were both willing to let me read these papers in London, before they were sent to America, I was prevented from doing so by a legal technicality.)

My hope for the Buffalo papers was briefly renewed in March 1979 when two of the three members of the committee advising the Society of Authors, which the courts had appointed to administer the Lewis Estate, gave permission to get copies of the letters. In April the director of the library retired, they changed their restrictive policy and finally agreed to send the Xeroxes. But Mrs. Lewis, who was 78 and had been in frail health for some time, died on April 12; and the committee’s permission was suspended until the estate was once again settled by the courts. I completed the biography on June 13, and in August finally received permission from Mrs. Lewis’ literary executors to get the letters from Buffalo. By then it was too late to include them in my book.

In order to do justice to Lewis the artist I saw a great many of his 130 paintings and more than 1,200 drawings, which are scattered in museums throughout America, Canada, Britain, Australia, and South Africa. I wrote in advance to view paintings that were not on exhibition, and found it especially enjoyable to see the Tate’s entire collection of Lewis spread out in their storage vaults for my private view. I also studied his work in Ithaca, Utica, New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Windsor, Ontario; in seven London and eight provincial museums; in several art galleries (where I found biographical material in exhibition catalogues of Spencer Gore and Jessica Dismoor); and in the major private collections of David Drey, Wyndham Vint, Walter Michel, Omar Pound, John Cullis, and Geoffrey Bridson. David Drey, who subsequently became a close friend, told me how Lewis, who nearly always took a taxi, would arrive at the house of his father, the art critic and patron Oscar Drey, tell the driver to wait, abuse Drey roundly for not giving him sufficient help— and then ask for the cab fare home. David Drey later sold me Lewis’ magnificent pencil drawing (a study for his major painting in the Tate) of another friend and patron, Violet Schiff. The Arts Council of Britain showed me a film on BLAST; and the BBC and British Institute of Recorded Sound enabled me to hear broadcasts of The Human Age and taped readings by Lewis in his rich, plummy, resonant voice.


The most interesting aspect of the research was undoubtedly the 70 interviews I conducted with people who had known Lewis—though I always had to be careful not to ask leading questions or encourage informants to say what I wanted to hear. I met three of the originals for The Apes of God (1930). The blind poet, Edgell Rickword, who thought Lewis carried on a one-sided quarrel with him and got his own back in his ironic poem “The Encounter,” was indifferent to his role as Hedgepinshot Pickwort in the satire. The good-natured Stephen Spender—who exclaimed: “Dan Boleyn is a complete idiot. But I suppose that’s me!”—was amused by his fictional image. And Sir Sacheverell Sitwell’s fury at Lewis, nearly 50 years after he had been satirized as Phoebus Willoughby, was a striking tribute to the devastating effect of the satire. Sitwell called Lewis “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and insisted: “There was no reason except envy and malice for Lewis suddenly writing that time-bomb against us.”

In North America Russell Kirk asked me to stay in his eclectic Michigan mansion and described meeting the blind Lewis at the end of his life. Father Stanley Murphy, who had invited Lewis to lecture at Assumption College in Windsor in the early 1940’s, expressed great fondness for him, told me about his effective teaching, and identified the originals of Self Condemned as we looked across the Detroit River to the skyscrapers of the big American city.

I helped John Slocum, who had been Lewis’ agent in the early 1940’s and now lived in splendor on the gold coast of Newport, crack open his locked safe. Though there was no correspondence from Lewis, we found dozens of forgotten letters from Pound. I asked what he would do with them and he replied: “I went to Harvard, so I suppose I’ll give them to Yale.” When my five-year-old daughter, unaccustomed to regal residences with long driveways and caged elevators, boldly inquired: “Hey, Slocum, was this place once a palace?” he replied, in a deep and dignified voice: “My dear, it still is.”

Marshall McLuhan, a loyal friend in the forties and Lewis’ leading disciple, described Lewis, desperate poverty, his own publicity campaign for Lewis in Missouri, Lewis’ circle of friends in Toronto, and his aggressive personality: “He regarded the world as hostile, with good reason. He felt art, which provided no intimidation or income, was a feeble stick with which to beat the world. He resented moneyed people and thought they’d be well advised to support him.” Corinne McLuhan added that after she had invited Lewis to dine with them and had prepared an elaborate ham, he phoned at the last minute and asked: “What’s for dinner?” When she told him, he brusquely exclaimed: “We’ll come another night.”

While I was on my way to dinner with Dora Stone, a mad Volkswagen driver smashed into my car on the Autobahn and I never reached Innsbruck. But I saw Roy Campbell’s widow, Mary, in their crumbling villa above Sintra, and learned that Lewis’ description of their wild wedding in Blasting and Bombardiering was strictly accurate and that Campbell had considered their friendship one of the greatest events of his life. I also found Iris Barry’s last lover, Pierre Kerroux, in the Alpes Maritimes, heard about her final years and how her papers (including letters from Lewis and drawings by Picasso) had been stolen from her house after her death. Years later, when these stolen papers were offered for sale by a London dealer, I urged Iris Barry’s son to recover them. But he still felt bitter about his parents and could not be bothered to make the effort.

In London, Rebecca West (the only person I met who had known Lewis before the Great War) gave me whiskey with dinner instead of wine, called him “a magnificent loner” and spoke of the exciting era of Vorticism and BLAST while sitting beneath Lewis’ striking portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery) that reveals a keen intelligence in her strained features and troubled expression.

Paul Martin, the Canadian High Commissioner in London, made me aware of the false but damaging rumors that surrounded Lewis in wartime Canada. He was reputed to have been a conscientious objector in the Great War (instead of an artillery officer at Passchendaele) and to have been paid by Winston Churchill to leave England in 1939 (instead of going into voluntary exile). During a splendid lunch in a grand setting, the Martins deliberately spoke fractured French and called each other “Mommy” and “Daddy.” Eleanor Martin explained that the furious expression and rigid pose in her portrait was provoked by Lewis’ cynical attacks on patriotism and the royal family, on important politicians and military leaders while he was painting her.

The Dowager Marchioness of Cholmondely, a friend of Henry James and one of the richest women in England, received me in her Kensington Palace Gardens mansion, filled with stunning portraits of herself by Lewis, William Orpen, and Augustus John. I brought copies of the love letters the young Jewish beauty had written to Lewis while he was working on his pro-Hitler book in the early thirties and cheekily urged her to describe their secret meetings in his Ossington Street flat. She later summoned my editor to an audience, inquired about my scholarly credentials, and then generously allowed me to suggest that she and Lewis had been lovers.

Hugh Porteus, Lewis’ longtime friend and disciple, was my liveliest and most indiscreet informant. In three long meetings (when I inspected his three-foot-high mound of old newspaper clippings) he told me of Lewis’ keen interest in Porteus’ sexual affairs and how jealous Lewis was of his own closely-guarded young wife. When the young Porteus showed Lewis his art work, he crumpled up the drawings, threw them straight into the dust bin, and exclaimed: “I don’t want to look at that rubbish!” The first of their many quarrels occurred when Porteus refused to let Lewis interfere with his early study of the Master and Lewis complained: “When you began to piss against my leg I should have chased you away.” When Porteus was having an affair with a Jewish girl whom Lewis knew, Porteus apologetically quoted an ejaculatory passage in Tarr and said: “I only go to her occasionally to get milked.” Lewis, missing the allusion to his own novel, thought it referred to a more exotic perversion.

Henry Moore—gentle, wise, and still handsome and energetic at 80—wore a lilac shirt and, as we talked, affectionately stroked a piece of smooth-grained wood. He showed me the maquettes in his studios and the lambs grazing near his sculpture garden, and expressed great admiration for Lewis. As a young student, Moore was inspired by Lewis, whose books provided the stimulating gust of fresh air that liberated him from Bloomsbury’s stranglehold on English art and confirmed his youthful hope that “everything was possible, that there were men in England full of vitality and life.”

The large rectangular head and white mane of hair, the leonine presence and flashing intellect of Moore’s friend Geoffrey Grigson reminded me of Norman Douglas. Since Grigson shared Lewis’ reputation for stern standards and vitriolic severity, I approached him with some trepidation. But, as he assured me of Lewis’ kindness, I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth, patience, and generosity that belied his own fierce image. He urged me to stay on through tea and drinks, and after a splendid dinner cooked by his wife, Jane (a famous chef), we walked out under the clear stars of Wiltshire, his lamp guiding our way. As he wiped the mist from my windshield, bade me safe journey, and asked me back to see him in the spring, I had to confess that I found him as stimulating and sympathetic as he had found Lewis.

The only people I was unable to find were Ida (surname unknown), the Westphalian-German model for Bertha in Tarr, who bore Lewis’ first child and then disappeared without a trace; and Alex and Ethel Lewis, Wyndham’s half-brother and half-sister by his father’s second marriage. They did not, as I had hoped, surface after the biography was published. It is vital to seek out informants as soon as possible. Besides Mrs. Lewis, Burgon Bickersteth (of the University of Toronto), the artist Edmund Kapp, the critic Ruthven Todd, the bookseller Anton Zwemmer, I.A. Richards, and Allen Tate all died while I was writing the book.

The three pillars of the biography—research, correspondence, and interviews—enabled me to clarify, for the first time, the crucial mysteries of Lewis’ life: his family background, his mistresses and children, his secret marriage, and his medical history—the illness of 1914, the four operations in the mid-thirties, and the etiology of his blindness.

The National Archives in Washington, D. C. , supplied extensive documents about the dashing Civil War career of Wyndham’s father, Charles Edward Lewis. The library of Nunda, New York, where Lewis’ father grew up, sent information about his family and a copy of his article, “Escape from a Rebel Prison,” published in the Nunda News of Feb. 18, 1865. I eventually found his parents’ marriage certificate in the Pennsylvania Department of Health and his will in the Philadelphia City Hall. Family letters at Cornell revealed that Lewis’ parents separated when he was eleven years old after his father, who had a reputation for lechery, ran off with one of the red-haired housemaids.

Lewis, a handsome man with a gift of inspiring feminine devotion, also possessed a number of attractive and intelligent mistresses, most notably: Ida, the “Rose Fawcett” of Tarr, Kate Lechmere, the bohemian South African Beatrice Hastings, the wealthy novelist Mary Borden, Augustus John’s model Alick Schepeler, the elegant Sybil Hart-Davis, probably the painters Helen Saunders and Jessica Dismoor, Olive Johnson, Iris Barry, the shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, and the devoted Agnes Bedford. From many letters and interviews I was able to reconstruct their lives and love affairs with Lewis.

Lewis had five illegitimate children with three different women between 1909 and 1920, and (like Pound) abandoned all of them. Ida’s child was born in December 1909. I knew from Lewis’ unpublished wartime letters to Pound that two other children, Raoul and Betty, were born between 1909 and 1915, but had never been able to trace them. After I had completed the biography and given it to Routledge, I could not stop working on it and went up to Manchester to see a major collection of Lewis’ drawings. The curator, Jane Farrington, had through a mutual friend been put in touch with Lewis’ daughter, who had told her about her mother, Olive Johnson, an acquaintance of Walter Sickert and Augustus John, as well as her childhood meetings with both Lewis and his mother, and the later life of her brother and herself. Fortunately, I was able to meet Betty, lucid but in a mental hospital, and add these new discoveries to the text before it was sent to press.

Iris Barry, an extraordinary woman (worthy of a biography), was an important film critic and founder of the film library of the Museum of Modern Art. She was the mother of Lewis’ last two children, a boy Robin (born June 1919) and a girl Maisie (born September 1920). Though Iris’ close friends, Sidney Bernstein and Ivor Montagu, were extremely reluctant to discuss her relations with Lewis, I found out about her life from material in the Museum of Modern Art and from interviews with other friends. Yvonne Kapp once accompanied Iris to visit her six-year-old son in an orphanage. He was a miserable and unhealthy little boy, who did not know Iris was his mother and made her feel horribly guilty.

Following up every vague lead, I telephoned a man whom I thought might be her son—a very delicate situation indeed—and he eventually agreed to meet me. A good-looking, kind, and cultured professional man, he had had an unhappy childhood and had never known Lewis. He owned two exceptionally fine (and hitherto unknown) drawings of Iris Barry and told me that his sister, in a fit of anger, had once damaged and thrown away a precious Lewis painting. He disliked Iris, who had “cold eyes,” and felt embarrassed when she tried, late in life, to compensate for the past and become motherly to her son—a middle-aged stranger. I became friends with the tall, thin, gray-haired man, who looked much younger than 59, and dined with him several times during the next few years.

It is essential, in the course of your research, to find new photographs, which help bring the subject to life. I found unpublished photos of Iris Barry and Mary Borden as well as of Lewis’ father, his literary mentor Sturge Moore, his patron Sir Nicholas Waterhouse (whose unpublished memoirs I discovered), Marshall McLuhan and his friend Felix Giovanelli, and Father Murphy. I traced the photos of Lewis by John Vickers, which the subject described as “unspeakable iconographic insults.” In the files of the London Times I unearthed two superb unpublished photos of Lewis: an early one (about 1912) of the young artist standing before his lost painting The Laughing Woman (used on the dust wrapper of my book) and a late one (1952) of the blind sage smouldering under his green eyeshade. In the Times and the Tate Archives I discovered six articles by Lewis that were not listed in the recent bibliographies by Bradford Morrow and by Omar Pound, a factual account of the Toronto fire described in Self Condemned, and two unrecorded interviews in the Buffalo Courier in 1939 and the Daily Mail in 1956.

The basic dates in Lewis’ life, as listed in standard reference books like the Dictionary of National Biography and Who’s Who (which, gulled by Lewis, erroneously states that he was an advisor to the Library of Congress) are incorrect. He was born aboard his father’s yacht in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1882 (not in Maine in 1884 or 1886, as he liked to say, to compensate for the years he lost in the war). And the date of his marriage was 1930, not 1929. When Mrs. Lewis could not remember the date of their wedding, I recalled her fury when W.K. Rose asked if she had actually married Lewis and thought she might be trying to hide something from me. Though Lewis met his wife in 1918 and began living with her in 1921, most of his close friends, who were often invited to his flat, did not even know she existed. I could not locate a marriage certificate for 1929 in the records office at Somerset House, but found that a Percy Lewis (a common name in Wales) had married a Gladys Hoskyns in Bristol in September 1939. I first thought they had married just before leaving for Canada—but then realized they had already sailed when the coincidental Bristol marriage took place. A second search in the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Somerset House produced another marriage certificate of October 9, 1930, in which Lewis, who always camouflaged his private life, deliberately falsified nearly all the details. He spelled his wife’s name Hoskins and described himself as aged 44 (instead of 48), an architect living at 22 Tavistock Road, Paddington (instead of 53 Ossington Street, Bayswater), the son of an English captain in the Warwickshire Regiment (instead of a long-retired brevet captain in the Union Army). If I had not known that Mrs. Lewis’ father was a deceased florist named Joseph, it would have been impossible to verify the marriage. It is worth noting that couples do not have to provide proof for the statements they make on their marriage certificates.

The most complex aspect of Lewis’ life was his medical history, a subject often neglected by literary biographers. With the help of two close doctor friends and the Neuro-Pathology Department of Southampton University Medical School, to whom I lectured on Lewis’ case history, I was able to determine that his disease of 1914—15 was gonorrhea (not syphilis), to explain the sequence and purpose of his four operations for cystitis and urethral abscess between 1932 and 1937, and to establish the connection between the early venereal disease, the bladder disease of his middle years, and the nephritis that caused his death. I found three doctors— Millin, McPherson, and Meadows—who had treated Lewis and showed that the pituitary tumor that caused his blindness by crushing the optic nerve had no effect on his so-called “paranoid” behavior. (Even paranoids have real enemies.) Though hospital records and X-rays in England are systematically destroyed seven years after the patient’s death (and must therefore be rescued by biographers before then), I found, held, and examined Lewis’ brain—the final remnant of his mighty intellectual life. In the Pathology Department of Westminster Hospital, where Lewis died in 1957, Dr. Antony Branfoot explained his autopsy report as well as the slow growth of his massive but benign tumor, which grew down from the base of his brain (and did not, as Hugh Kenner put it, “invade vital areas of his brain”). It is entirely characteristic that Lewis’ death certificate incorrectly stated that he was 72 (instead of 74) years old and that his tumor was a cranio-pharyngioma (instead of a chromophobe adenoma).

Like many geniuses, Lewis was a multifarious man who assumed many roles, and the disparate aspects of his character could not be focused in a single convincing image. But as the self-styled Enemy emerged from obscurity, he could clearly be seen as an independent, intelligent, and courageous artist, one of the most lively and stimulating figures in modern literature. If he had not composed his damaging political tracts, had concentrated on perfecting his sprawling works, and had devoted more time to painting, his reputation would have equaled his achievement. It now seems just and proper to include him in the literary mainstream with Joyce, Pound, and Eliot—”The Men of 1914”—and, as Auden said of Kipling, to pardon him for writing well.


The difficulties of finding a suitable subject often drive the desperate biographer to search for a living author—despite the manifest dangers. Lord Bernstein, the English television magnate, promised Caroline Moorehead complete freedom to write about him as she wished. But after reading the typescript before publication, he forced her—under threat of suppression—to delete all mention of his personal relations with Iris Barry. (Lewis’ son by Iris Barry later married Bernstein’s ex-wife.) Lord Birkenhead’s biography of Kipling, commissioned and then suppressed by Kipling’s daughter, was not published until both Elsie Bambridge and Lord Birkenhead had died. lan Hamilton’s disemboweled life virtually abandoned its ostensible subject and instead focused on his futile attempts to overcome J.D. Salinger’s legal obstructions, which established the author’s right to maintain his privacy.

Mark Harris’ Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck described, with astonishing naivete, his own inept, ludicrous, and humiliating attempts to gather information for a life of Bellow. Though Ruth Miller (after many delays) has published a life of Bellow and someone else is writing one as well, neither of these authors has Bellow’s authorization. They cannot read his personal papers or interview his family and friends, and seem doomed to produce rather superficial accounts of his life.

I have a passionate desire to write the lives of two eminent living authors. They have also kept control of their letters and manuscripts, and have tactfully and sympathetically postponed my project. One of them recently compared authorizing a biography to buying a burial plot. It will inevitably come to that, he said, but he is not quite ready for it.

In 1827 Thomas Carlyle observed that “A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.” When reviewing the year’s work in biography in 1984, I listed 44 works in progress. Eight years later, nearly half of them have either been abandoned or remain unfinished and may never see the light. (Yeats now has his third authorized biographer.) Though there may be more well-written lives now than there were a century and a half ago, the difficulties of completing any biography, let alone a first one on a recently dead or still-living author, are formidable.

The great contrast between Wyndham Lewis and John le Carré suggests the kind of writer who is rewarded by our society. Lewis was a neglected, poverty-stricken genius with a bad reputation. Le Carré, far less talented and rather superficial, is one of the most successful writers of our time. Writing his biography, I realized, would present very different problems. In my book on Lewis I wanted to redefine and reclaim his role in the cultural life of his time. Writing the life of le Carré attracted me in two ways: there was the challenge of discovery and the task of relating his work to contemporary history and popular culture.

John le Carré’s father was an engaging confidence man and sometime jailbird, who lived in a manner far beyond his means. Le Carré himself is a strikingly handsome man, with considerable intelligence and a scholarly interest in 17th-century German literature. Born in 1931, he was educated at Eton and at Berne University, and took a first-class honours degree in modern languages at Lincoln College, Oxford. After his national service, he taught at Eton for two years and then entered the British Foreign Office, serving during the Cold War as second secretary in Bonn and as consul in Hamburg. During his time in Germany he also worked as a spy for the British Secret Service.

His first marriage broke up after a scandalous affair with Susan, the wife of his close Scottish friend James Kennaway. James fictionalized this affair in Some Gorgeous Accident (1967) and, after his early death in a car crash, Susan provided a commentary on her husband’s notebooks and documented her version of the liaison in The Kennaway Papers (1981). Le Carré fictionalized his version of the episode in his worst novel, The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971). The following year he remarried, and later had a fourth son.

After two early novels, which were generally ignored, le Carré achieved sudden success in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Since then his spy novels have been spectacular best sellers throughout the world. The intense, unrelenting interest in espionage as well as the popularity of the films and television series based on his books, have brought him luxurious homes in London, Cornwall, and Switzerland, and made him one of the richest, most famous, and most glamorous of living authors. A biography of him would seem in order.

But such a project would also have serious problems. The book would disturb le Carré. It would be difficult to persuade him that the benefits would outweight the disadvantages and to convince him to cooperate. He owns his letters and manuscripts (except for his correspondence with Longman publishers at Reading University) and would probably deny access to them. And any biographer would need his consent to interview his family and friends: his brother Anthony in New York, his half-brother on the Financial Times and half-sister Charlotte (the model for the Little Drummer Girl) in the theater, his two wives (Ann and Jane) and four sons, his schoolmates at Sherbourne in Dorset and college companions in Berne and Oxford, his tutor at Oxford, Vivian Green (said to be the model for Smiley), his colleagues in the army, at Eton, in the Foreign Office and the spy network, his lover Susan Kennaway, his former and present editors and agents, the makers of television programs and films, journalists who had met and written about him, and many others in his wide circle of acquaintance.

His second wife, for obvious reasons, is extremely protective, zealously guards her husband and his past, and would be reluctant to have anyone revive and reveal the scandal surrounding his friendship with the Kennaways. It would also be extremely hard, considering the fierce restrictions of the British government, to obtain concrete evidence about his career in espionage. And this is precisely what every reader would want to know. I still hoped, however, that I would be able to secure this vital information once I had made contact with his former associates in the world of espionage. I also wondered if I could summon sufficient enthusiasm about the literary quality of his popular thrillers. If le Carré objected to my project, he could refuse permission to quote from his works. Worse still, he could, when the book was completed after years of hard work, take out an injunction to prevent publication and fight through the courts till he won.

Unwilling to proceed without his permission and naïvely hoping for his help, I wrote a brief letter on Sept. 3, 1989 and sent it to him through his agent. I introduced myself, mentioned my five previous biographies, offered to send him copies, gave two literary references in England, asked if he would authorize a life to ensure it would be done by a responsible writer and suggested a meeting the next time I was in London. I was quite astonished, considering his reputation as a difficult, secretive, elusive, and intensely private man, to receive only nine days later a two-page handwritten letter giving his home address, on a street adjoining Hampstead Heath in north London. Proposing the same “neither help nor hinder” formula that Samuel Beckett had given Deirdre Bair, le Carré said he could obviously not object to my proposed biography and would not obstruct my researches. But he did not want to involve himself in my project or to authorize a biography. Since he obviously could object to my biography and certainly could obstruct my research had he wished to do so, I interpreted this to mean that he had given his tacit permission to proceed.

During the next month I compiled a bibliography and established a chronology of his life. I collected and read le Carré’s twelve books and two dozen uncollected stories, essays, reviews, and letters to the press (some of them, like “Wrong Man on Crete,” 1965, and “Spying on My Father,” 1986, were extremely revealing), the 35 major interviews with him (he was deliberately misleading in almost all of them about his years as a spy), the many books and articles about him, and several volumes on British espionage. I drew up a short list of about 30 people to interview; secured the address of his prep school (to obtain his school records), of his brother in New York and of Vivian Green near Oxford. I wrote for information to the National Sound Archive, the BBC Script Library in Portland Place, and the BBC Archives in Reading. And I saw videos of the Smiley series, starring Alex Guinness, on television. Pleased and surprised to have discovered so much material about him from printed sources, I drew up a brief proposal for the biography. On October 9 I sent it to twelve publishers in England and America, including his own, Hodder & Stoughton. I read le Carré’s original “neither help nor hinder” letter over the phone to my editor at John Murray in London and he almost immediately offered a very substantial advance.

On October 20 I wrote a second letter to le Carré saying that I had interviewed Iris Murdoch for the Paris Review “Writers at Work” series and had been asked by the editor to interview le Carré as well. I mentioned the distinguished authors (Forster, Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Huxley, Waugh, Auden, and Bellow) who had appeared in this series, described the procedure, and asked if we might meet for a few hours the following summer.

A great many people earn enormous sums through their association with le Carré and become extremely nervous about any change that might upset him. They were feasting off him and desperately wanted to continue to bathe in his golden shower. On October 20 I received a rather sharp letter from his literary agents, David Higham Ltd., who had heard about my proposal from Hodder & Stoughton and wished, on their master’s instructions, to put a spoke in my wheel. Le Carré, they stated, acknowledged that I could write what I wished. But he had not given permission, wanted nothing to do with the book, and would not cooperate in any way. He also said, through his agents on October 26, that he did not wish to join the list of illustrious authors who had been interviewed by the Paris Review.

The agents’ letters were followed by a phone call to my editor at John Murray contradicting the “neither help nor hinder” formula, stating that le Carré was coming down rather heavily on the hindrance side and was now disposed to prevent the book from being written. So much for his initial statement that “he could obviously not object to my proposed biography.” Before I had even thought about how to spend the vast sums that would be coming to me, the project began to crumble. I therefore wrote to le Carré on November 7 asking him to clarify the apparent contradiction in his attitude and let me know whether he intended to impede me or allow me to proceed.

In the course of this correspondence, I also wrote to two close and extremely knowledgeable friends whom I thought would provide good advice and fruitful suggestions. The first was an Englishman who had been in the British Foreign Office in the 1960’s, had written a scholarly article about the history of spy novels, and was now a historian in Canada. He gave me the names of four men who had served with le Carré in Bonn and suggested I seek three of them out in the Diplomatic List: James Bennett (now deceased) and “Dusty” Rhodes, to whom Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was dedicated; Sir Frank Roberts, the British ambassador in Bonn at that time, and David Goodall, who was then Frank Roberts’ secretary.

The other friend, an eminent journalist and acquaintance of le Carré, offered some shrewd counsel. By coincidence, he too had been offered a large advance to write a life of le Carré at the same time I was negotiating this project. He decided to refuse the offer, not only because of the difficulties I mentioned—a friend of le Carré’s had told him: “Have nothing to do with it!”—but also because le Carré had helped him in the past and might well be offended if he decided to write the book. But (if the original formula still applied) he urged me to go ahead: “Since you don’t know him and he has said he will do nothing to hinder you, and since you don’t have mutual friends, and since you don’t owe him as I do, you can print what you like—provided you can find it. And even then, your ability to dissect his books, to write a literary biography, will make it a bestseller anyway.”

Le Carré’s response of November 8, sent Express by Swiftair, took eight days to reach America and crossed with my last query of November 7. He also sent copies to his anxious agents in London, Zurich, and New York; one of them had rather frantically phoned me to find out exactly what he had originally written. Le Carré, alarmed at the prospect of my biography and annoyed by the numerous letters and phone calls from eager editors and trembling dependents on both sides of the Atlantic, realized that he was getting involved and became intensely irritated. He began, reasonably enough (he had, after all, been a diplomat as well as a spy), by conceding that no one could forbid a biographer from exploring the life of a living writer, if he seeks and writes the truth. But he was angry that I had conveyed the impression that he had agreed to the biography (which he had, in a certain sense, done) and found it necessary to harden his position: he would not help in any way and would also discourage his friends from doing so. His English agents followed this up nine days later by thanking me for my book about Mann and Musil, which I had sent to le Carré, and strongly suggesting I abandon the project. Realizing the formidable opposition and the difficulty, nay impossibility, of proceeding against his wishes, I decided—with a certain relief—to give it up.

But I, too, was irritated by le Carré’s suggestion that I had deliberately misrepresented the situation to publishers in order to extract a huge advance. On November 19 I told him:

When you received my first letter—from a stranger who proposed to spend several years investigating and then publishing the details of your life—you had three options. You could have authorized the biography and agreed to help; you could have said I could go ahead but you would neither help nor hinder; you could have said you were opposed to the biography and would obstruct it. Since you were not opposed to the book, and allowed me to go ahead with it when you could have stopped me, I took this to mean that you tacitly gave your permission or consent.

There was no point in trying to deceive the publishers since they obviously would—and did—check my story. When John Murray offered me a contract to write your biography, I read them your letter and then sent them a copy. They agreed with my interpretation of the letter, and did not in any way feel misled or deceived.

My final point concerns what the lawyers call “interest.” What could you possibly hope to get out of my book to make it worthwhile? I believe you would get (apart from preempting a hack from writing it) the only thing you don’t have and can’t buy: a serious literary reputation.

This episode reveals the difficulties and dangers of attempting to write a life of a contemporary subject. Le Carré had the power to prevent me from writing a serious biography. With my limited—as opposed to his inexhaustible—resources, I was not prepared to challenge him on this issue.


Both living and dead subjects, fresh or reinterpreted lives, demand the same high standards from the serious biographer. He must not only discover new facts that bring the subject to life, but also master the material and make the facts meaningful. He must select essential, convincing details, find the appropriate form, effect a strategy of presentation, and create a dramatic structure that clarifies the pattern of the life. He must possess a lively narrative style and find striking openings and persuasive summations for his chapters. He must often struggle against the subject’s desire for privacy (sometimes ensured by the destruction of papers in his lifetime) and—while dealing with the sexual and medical aspects as well as the end and extinction of life—combine lucidity with subtlety to achieve vivid realism. He should reveal how the seeds of genius flourished, how experience was transformed into art, how the writer imposed his vision on the world. He must show the changes that occur with the passage of time and the multiple lives contained within a single subject. He must balance the external events with the crucial moments of inner life and do justice to the circle of friends and to the cultural milieu. Finally, he must define the subject’s achievement, influence, and place in literary tradition, and illuminate human nature through individual character. The biographer is an investigative reporter of the spirit whose ideals should approach those of the young cultural historian, Jakob Burckhardt. On June 19, 1842 he wrote: “My own substitute [for abstract thought] is my effort to achieve with every day a more intense immediacy in the perception of essentials. By nature I cling to the tangible, to visible reality and to history. But I have a bent for incessantly looking for parallels in co-ordinating facts and have thus succeeded on my own in arriving at a few generalized principles.”

Biography is a costly, laborious, exasperating, and sometimes profitless task, which can only be sustained by a demonic devotion to the subject. At the decadent end of literary studies, when all major authors have been exhaustively analyzed, a thoroughly researched biography, which is firmly based on extensive archival evidence and presents significant new material as the basis for original interpretations, is perhaps the most valuable contribution to modern literary scholarship. But, as Herman Melville suggested, only a dead subject fulfills the ideal purpose of writing a judicious and faithful narrative: “Biography, in its purer form, confined to the ended lives of the true and brave, may be held the fairest meed of human virtue—one given and recieved in entire distinterestedness—since neither can the biographer hope for acknowledgment from the subject, nor the subject at all avail himself of the biographical distinction conferred.”


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