“Every woman is a mystery to be solved,” according to Johnny Depp in the title role of the 1994 film Don Juan DeMarco. “You inhale her. You taste her,” the legendary fictional seducer is known for saying, describing a process that sounds an awful lot like that of a biographer. In setting out to understand his or her subject’s deepest desires, needs, and drives, a biographer must pay close attention and listen actively. And what, after all, is more sensual than being truly seen and heard?
As the recent resignation of General David Petraeus highlights, there is also a certain vulnerability in being observed so closely. After his extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell was made public, the C.I.A. director was all but forced to step down. As in all intimate relationships where there is a stepping into someone else’s world, the initial bliss of appreciation, admiration, and even adoration can eventually lead to shifting power dynamics. When a biographer delves into the life of a living subject, there is a seduction and a surrender, and often a reversal of those roles between the entwined two.
Whether the life being chronicled is that of a military commander-turned-C.I.A. director, a world-class athlete, or a convicted criminal, there is an intimacy required by the process of researching and writing a biography: a total immersion into a life’s most personal details and artifacts, often in the form of letters, diaries, and dreams. To some writers, research lapses almost imperceptibly into voyeurism.
Over long hours spent together, an authorized biographer focuses on what makes the subject most special or interesting, often with his or her guidance. As the saying goes, it's lonely at the top, and since many of the movers and shakers being profiled have achieved a certain level of worldly success, they must find particular relief in being held in the close companionship provided by their biographer. Sometimes, they even discover parts of themselves they may have forgotten.
Paula Broadwell, author of the 2011 book “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” first met her subject at a speaking engagement at Harvard University. Soon after, she asked permission to use him as subject of her doctoral dissertation, later proposing that she expand the dissertation into a book. Broadwell and Petraeus bonded during interviews she conducted on six-mile jogs the two shared; over time, the relationship deepened, eventually turning sexual. In light of the news of his resignation, here we take a look at some other instances in which the lives of biographer and subject have become entangled by the potential for lust, or even love.
During the six years Truman Capote researched his genre-defining nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood,” he developed a friendship with Perry Smith, one of the two ex-convicts who killed four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Over visits to the murderer in his jail cell, Capote developed a mysterious and deep connection with the young man -- possibly even an erotic attachment -- leading up to Smith's execution by hanging on April 14, 1965.
As a young woman, the acclaimed historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote the groundbreaking book "Lyndon Johnson and The American Dream,” an intimate portrait created through a blend of biography, history, political science, psychology, and even memoir. As a student at Harvard, she first encountered President Johnson at a White House dance in the spring of 1967, eventually becoming his personal confidante. Although rumors and speculation about the extent of their relationship have never been confirmed, she admits that LBJ liked to climb into her bed for interviews and told her that she reminded him of his mother.
In 2002, Suzy Wetlaufer (now Suzy Welch) was forced to resign from her post as editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review after admitting to an affair with the then-married Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, while profiling him for the magazine. Soon after, the two married; in 2005, they published their co-written bestseller "Winning," and have collaborated on many professional projects since.
When the American tennis pro Alexandra Stevenson was twenty-seven years old, she received a phone call and heard the words, "Hi, Alexandra, this is your father." The deep voice on the other end of the line belonged to Julius Erving, four-time NBA Most Valuable Player and father of the slam-dunk, who had a relationship with Alexandra’s mother Samantha Stevenson, one of the first female journalists to report from a men's locker room, in the late 1970s. In Vincent Mallozzi’s 2009 book "Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving" the story of Dr. J’s love child, which became public when Alexandra reached the 1999 Wimbledon semifinals, is revealed in a chapter called "The Ghost of Samantha Stevenson.”