Signatures Unite at a CUNY Conference: Catching Up With Gary Giddins

If Signature is the online hub for lovers of real life stories, the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY’s Graduate Center is the brick-and-mortar epicenter. We caught up with Gary Giddins, executive director of LLCB, in anticipation of Writing Writers’ Lives, its fifth annual biography conference beginning at 1:00 PM on Monday, March 18 at Elebash Recital Hall (365 Fifth Ave at 34th Street) in Manhattan. See below for the full interview.

The Center for Biography, focused on connecting independent and academic biographers and providing free public programming, also hosts four resident biography fellows per year. D.T. Max, author of the David Foster Wallace biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” was among the group in 2011-2012.

Highlights of next week's free one-day conference include a panel on Writing Jewish Lives, co-sponsored by the Jewish Lives series of Yale University Press; Hermione Lee (author of “Virginia Woolf”) in conversation with Giddins; and, Annette Gordon-Reed on her Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning “The Hemingses of Monticello.” Giddins, author of "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams" (volume one of two; the second is forthcoming), has also written eleven other books, including biographies of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

RSVP for the conference by email [], and if you go, tell us all about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Signature: How does the conference programming come together?

Gary Giddins: We’re thinking about ideas all the time, but we want to keep it fairly current, so we’re always looking at Publishers Weekly to see what books are coming out. The Jefferson controversy has been in the news all year, and I loved Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, so we put in a call to her, and she said yes. I was delighted to hear that Blake Bailey was writing a biography of Charles Jackson, and he happens to be in New York this coming week for an event related to Philip Roth’s eightieth birthday. There’s a lot of accidental programming. Last year E.L. Doctorow spoke about the way novelists use biographical techniques. The year before that, I believe it was about ethics in biography. In fact, we did a panel on ethics late last year after the business about Petraeus and Paula Broadwell’s book hit the news.

SIG: How do you open up the Center to the general public?

GG: All of our events are free, and we do about one event a month and try to build up a mailing list. We try to make the events of general interest, we have Q&As, and we sell authors’ books when we can. We've built up fairly loyal audience of people who are interested in biography and literature. And now a number of biographers around the country have called to express interest, and we make ourselves open to them in any way that we can. And then we have fellowship program. We give rather generous grants to four emerging biographers throughout the year, and we do workshops and have celebratory events when one of them publishes a book.

For the big Leon Levy lecture in the fall, we bring in a living master, like Bob Masssie, Bob Caro, or Hilary Spurling. That’s an event that gets a lot of attention. David Lewis, who wrote a great two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, is coming next year. Word gets around, and we’ve built up an audience.

The Leon Levy Foundation really made this whole thing possible. About six years ago, the great biographer David Nasaw and a couple other people said, let's create the first biography center in the United States. Nancy Milford was the director for the first year, then Brenda Wineapple, my predecessor, came in. We’re totally in debt to the Foundation; they’ve been incredibly generous and really allowed us to make this thing grow.

SIG: How did you end up as executive director of the Center?

GG: I was teaching courses related to jazz and American studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, and I had published three biographies.  Brenda decided she had to step down to finish her book, so I stepped in as acting director. I’ve been doing it now for two years, and it relieves me of having to do freelance writing after forty years of doing it. It’s the reward at the end of the road -- you can say no to the people who said no to you for years.

SIG: What’s the value in reading biography?

GG: As I’m constantly pointing out, this is the golden age of biography, in part because of the sophistication of research techniques that didn’t exist before, and so many archives are opening up. It’s a fairly recent art. Putting aside Plutarch, in the English language, it only goes only as far back as Boswell's “Life of Samuel Johnson.” If you were to make a list of, say, the twenty-five greatest fiction writers, poets, or playwrights of all time, you could easily make that list without any living writers, but you couldn’t do that with biography. So many of the greatest biographers, like Caro and Massie, are our contemporaries. Hermione Lee’s “Virginia Woolf” is a masterwork, and no one could have written a book like that, say, forty or fifty years ago, with that kind of access and literary savvy.

It’s always amazed me that the academy doesn't take biography as seriously as it should. Biography is an antidote to writing history, in this sense: when you write history you’re dealing with masses of people and large movements, dealing with wars, almost always focusing on the most powerful figures in any period. History is so full of barbarism and racism and all sorts of hatreds and monstrosities that it can be a pretty depressing field. Biography is a way of zooming in on people at all levels of society, whether they’re presidents and generals or heroic infantrymen. Usually when you focus on individuals, rather than on societies in general, there’s a lot more to be optimistic about. You do find heroic figures and admirable people, and it’s a way of understanding the way people work. What makes a great poet or novelist? Certain areas are difficult to penetrate, but by reading an account of their lives, we get to know the way other lives are structured, and we invariably see something of ourselves in reading the lives of other people.