Under the aegis of the 92Y
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gary Giddins joined the Village Voice in 1973. A year later, he introduced his column “Weather Bird,” which ran for 30 years during which he received six ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for Excellence in Music Criticism. He’s authored innumerable articles and more than twelve books, most biographies, most about jazz artists. “I’d chosen Duke Ellington as my next subject when we received a letter from the estate that family papers were being donated and embargoed three years while classified.”
Approached to write about Bing Crosby (1903-1977), Giddins responded that he didn’t consider the actor/crooner in his wheelhouse of interest. Besides, he thought, “there must be a ton of material out there. Why would you need another book?” The writer hot footed it to The Strand and bought everything available – which turned out to be almost nothing. Crosby’s last “real” biography was evidently published in 1948!
Giddins soon realized that existing books didn’t venture into the areas he found intriguing. For example, Crosby was ahead of his time in Civil Rights and “single-handedly financed” the advent of recordable master tape that revolutionized radio, vinyl records, and eventually television. “None of this was documented. It astonished me. I signed the contract.” Seventeen years later, there are not one, but two volumes covering 43 years of Crosby’s life, with research completed on a third.
“We’re now in the golden age of biography as a literary art,” Giddins begins crediting the internet with vastly facilitating research. He cites novelistic biographies and sanctimonious biographies (“the person you love to hate”) as two of the most popular types. “My standards are much higher.”
At the age of eight, we’re told, Giddins read a biography of Louis Pasteur, resolving immediately to become a scientist. He followed up with others, changed his career goal, and became an aspiring writer. Two books are recommended as biography blueprints: Jean Paul Sartre’s The Prisoner of Venice, a biography of the painter Tintoretto in the form of a novella-sized essay that appeared In Sartre’s book Situations and Sartre’s multi-volume biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot.
Giddins admits to never finishing the latter, but applauds the Tintoretto for inclusion of history, philosophy and criticism, a template he applies to his own work. “Pete Hamill said what he liked most about my writing was that I give a sense of the artist, not just the art.”
“A friend once told me that you have to train yourself to be lucky.” Giddins first stroke of luck was that Liz Smith put an item in her column about the upcoming book. The author took it as entrée, called her office, and spoke to assistant, later ghostwriter, St. Clair Pugh, who had a generous nature and an invaluable Rolodex. “He gave me all their numbers.”
Setting up interviews, he particularly remembers Dorothy Lamour who would answer her phone as the maid. Giddins asked Pugh about Jane Wyman and was told there was no chance, yet a lovely conversation ensued when the actress discovered he was writing about Crosby, not Ronald Reagan. Apparently Bing was her favorite leading man.
The president of a Westchester college introduced Giddins to former Judge Frances X. Smith who had two massive binders of material he was willing to pass on. At Gonzaga University in Spokane, where Crosby was raised, the author discovered the importance of scrupulously kept fan scrapbooks. Another collector had a cache of extraordinary letters he was first denied, but acquired through a Crosby fanzine when the collector died. Giddins even learned from an assistant to John Lennon that The Beatle had two jukeboxes, one exclusively Crosby.
Three hundred people were interviewed for the two books. “The idea of biography as investigation is exemplified by AJA Simmons, The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography, the mystery about who Corvo was, all the identities he created,” Giddins says. The book “is unique in biographical literature in bringing the reader in on how the biographer knows what he knows about his subject; and in owning up to what he doesn’t know or feels cannot be known.” (Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal) “ Unfortunately that kind of book is very tempting,” the author then remarks.
Giddins also tells us about Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. This author literally walked the paths of Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Shelley in Central France, Paris, and Italy, feeling mystically connected. “I took that quite seriously and walked Crosby’s neighborhood in Spokane.”
Another guide he cites typifying detective work are the books of Ross MacDonald where each person/clue leads to the next. “Of course, a lot of people lie to you, some deliberately, some because memories fail over time. Everything has to be corroborated.” Giddins tells the story of six wonderful hours spent with Les Paul. When he started to corroborate, however, the author couldn’t pin down a single story. Paul’s own biographer said she didn’t use the subject as a source because he tells you what you want to hear.
Finding a story in a biography of Grace Kelly was difficult to believe, Giddins tracked down the book’s author and was told the source was Robert Slatzer – a fantasist who once convinced a network he’d been secretly married to Marilyn Monroe. They bought a mini-series! “Slatzer would call people who were working on books and say he really knew the person. Years later, there were seven or eight biographies of Kelly, every one with the questionable story, all attributed to the same source. Don’t believe it just because it’s repeated.”
Writer/Critic “Richard Schickel was on a university panel when an audience member addressed another writer with I like your book, but there’s an error. Richard said, ‘Let me handle this. We work for years on books and double check everything, but because we’re human, we all make mistakes and there will always be an asshole like you to point them out.’”
When the first book was published, people who refused to speak with Giddins made themselves available for the second volume. He spent nine years trying to get widow Kathryn Crosby to meet. It was her son who suggested she read the book, after which the author was given carte blanche. Among the material to which Giddins was privy were a large number of letters written to Crosby by parents, grandparents and wives who lost loved ones in WWII. Last correspondence often featured descriptions of a Crosby show close to the front. “Sometimes they wrote questions about where he was in order to track down a missing body.”
He was also loaned what he thought was an address book. It turned out to be the only journal Crosby ever kept about his days in London and France. “When I enthusiastically told the editor I was doing a volume only about Crosby’s war years, he said `no, you’re not,’” Giddins tells us. His wise agent calmed him with, “by the time you’re finished, he’ll be gone, a new editor will be here.” “And that’s what happened,” the author adds.
An audience member asks about Crosby’s reputation as an abusive father. Giddins replies that a lot of that was overstated and the artist’s first wife, Dixie, was often the one to employ a switch. He does admit Crosby’s having been raised that way, however. “He didn’t want his children to feel special. He had no patience with Gary’s weight problem which was surprising because he had his own terrible issues. Bing struggled for years and often wore a girdle. Not until their teens did he publicly admit he’d made mistakes with his children. Crosby’s second family with Kathryn suffered no such rumors.
The author is then asked whether he works chronologically. Giddins refers to the jazz term “playing changes.” “You have to hit all the chords one way or another, but how you go about it is up to you. I try to work chronologi- cally, but stories overlap. If it’s a minor one, get it done. If major, you’re going to want to explore it over time…Playing the changes is a good thing to remember.”
How do you integrate criticism into biography, another audience member inquires. “I have no patience with biographers who don’t write about the art. I pick and choose songs carefully to reflect each era. What are you going to write about, family? Sex? I talk about his voice, the way songs are crafted. When I first decided to do the book, I hesitated telling people in the jazz world. The great saxophone player Jimmy Heath said, ‘Oh, man, I wanna read that book. He was the only guy that had time.’”
Gary Giddins was a film critic on The Hollywood Reporter who felt lots of people could do his job. “But I didn’t think anyone was saying what I wanted to say about jazz. By the time I got to The Voice, I realized I could do it.” He’s articulate and entertaining even about methodology.
All photos courtesy of the author.