By Nigel Hamilton Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston
“The agents of reticence,” wrote the English poet Ian Hamilton in “Keepers of the Flame,” “have no truck with the agents of disclosure.”
Thwarted by J.D. Salinger as he tried to write the story of the novelist’s life, Hamilton was out for revenge when he penned this work on literary estate management and mismanagement. The title “Keepers of the Flame” was a reference to those in Victorian times who attempted to preserve pure images of the departed.
That was 30 years ago. Little has changed, as a new biography of chef, writer and television travel star Anthony Bourdain has demonstrated.
The book’s publication has moved forward despite the best efforts of Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, and other friends and family members to torpedo Leerhsen’s work. According to The New York Times, Christopher Bourdain called for Simon & Schuster to halt publication until the book’s “many errors were corrected.” The publisher refused, responding, “With all due respect, we disagree that the material in the Book contains defamatory information, and we stand by our forthcoming publication.”
As a seasoned biographer, I’m not surprised by any of this. What gets my biographer’s goat, though, is the positioning of this battle as one conducted between “unauthorized biography” on the one hand and “authorized” biography on the other – the publisher, for hinting at scandalous content by casting the work as “unauthorized,” and the aggrieved, to think they have any power to “authorize” whether the biography gets published in the first place.
No need to ask permission
Biography traces its origins back to Classical times – and to the Roman historian Suetonius, in particular.
His “Lives of the Caesars,” which recounts the biographies of 12 Roman emperors, from Julius to Domitian, offered Romans a stunning cornucopia of imperial tales, chronicling the rulers’ rise to power and their achievements, murders, assassinations, family troubles, frivolity, suicides and sexual perversions. It’s small wonder Seutonius was eventually banished from Rome.
As long as there has been biography, there has always been pushback to writers’ prying into their subjects’ lives.
Among living subjects of biography, such a response is all too common. In the 1990s, the feminist Germaine Greer, author of “The Female Eunuch,” lambasted a fellow Australian writer, Christine Wallace, for daring to try to write a biography of Greer without her permission. Greer decried Wallace as a “parasite” and a “brain-dead hack.”
Eventually, however, Greer – a professor of literature – accepted that she was powerless to prevent herself from being written about.
The lost cause of libel
Bourdain died while working in France in 2018. He was 61 years old when he took his life in the bedroom of his hotel room.
The circumstances of Bourdain’s death were bound to arouse curiosity. Given the tales of dysfunction and substance abuse that Bourdain revealed in his bestselling memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” what more secrets are there in his life that might help explain his death? What secrets might his family try to suppress?
As Shakespeare noted in “Othello,” a reputation is everything. And since good biography must critically examine its subject’s reputation, biographers are destined to find themselves on a collision course with those looking to protect the image of the subject.
If the book presents as distorted a life as Bourdain’s brother claims, could Bourdain’s family and associates go after Leerhsen for libel?
In short, no.
More than 50 years ago, Alabama police commissioner L.B. Sullivan sued The New York Times for defamation. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in favor of the Times and overturned existing libel laws, making it significantly more difficult for public figures to successfully sue for defamation during their lifetimes.
Furthermore, the protections of libel law end with death – and Bourdain is dead.
Throwing sand in the gears
Of all the other legal rights of defense, there is one that biographers most fear, whether in life or after death of the subject: copyright, or the law of “intellectual property,” which extends for 70 years after death. Bourdain’s legal heirs have the power to grant or deny use of the deceased’s written and spoken words.
For biographers, the quoting of a subject is as crucial as water to fish. How else is a biographer to bring that individual – a real individual, not a fictional one – back to literary life on the page?
Interviews with surviving witnesses are potential silver, certainly, but they will always be secondhand. By contrast, the words of biographical subjects are gold. They do not confer truth necessarily – often they confer the opposite, lies – but they do convey authenticity, without which the reader cannot judge fairly the account and portrait that is composed.
In “Down and Out in Paradise,” the “most revealing material,” The New York Times points out, “comes from files and messages pulled from Mr. Bourdain’s phone and laptop, both of which are part of the estate.”
The executor of Bourdain’s estate – his ex-wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain – could have attempted to restrict the use of this material. But for mysterious reasons, she didn’t.
Either way, copyright control confers no legal right of “authorization” for a biographer’s work – there is no requirement to obtain permission from him or his heirs, beyond copyright permissions to quote authentic words.
In a perfect world, publishers wouldn’t resort to this advertising gimmick, so that the public – especially students – won’t be misled regarding the rights of biographers in our democracy. But I won’t insist.
Life’s too short.
And I have a biography to write.
Republished with permission from TheConversation under Creative Commons License.