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Here are two stories that came from Washington Biography Group discussions early this year of how people chose the topic for their first biographies.
Ken Ackerman's story
Ken grew up in Albany, NY, politically a machine-run town. One mayor held office for 41 years, from fixing votes. Ken learned at some point that his father, a lawyer in the 1930s, tried to run for the NY state legislature, which was run at the time by the Tammany Hall machine. Ken took a job in DC, and worked for a government official accused of taking sports tickets (which had only recently been barred under federal rules), then pilloried by a special prosecutor, only to be acquitted on all charges. With all that in mind, Ken came across Boss Tweed, all that corruption resonated, and that's who he wrote about.
Read Growing Up in the Last Century—My First Taste of Politics: Getting Kicked Out of the Polls by the Albany Machine, June 1972, an interesting story, illustrated, on Ken's Viral History blog (visually delightful in its new incarnation). Fittingly, there is a Museum of Political Corruption in Albany.
In retrospect, Sally Berk realizes that she chose to write her thesis about Harry Wardman, and to continue researching him in the hope of writing a book, because in general she wanted to explain the built environment into which she was born. Were she to write more books, they would all be about the architects and developers of the first half of the twentieth-century. Wardman has been a mythical figure since Sally's childhood. Her mother loved to tell the story of having, as a teenager, danced at Walter Reed Army Hospital and at the Wardman Park Hotel to entertain World War I veterans. But it was the Wardman Park that made a lasting impression. Later, Sally learned that Wardman, who constructed more than three thousand buildings, was—more than any other developer—responsible for the tree-lined streets of row houses that, as a child, she found so enticing.
While Wardman was wildly ambitious and extraordinarily energetic, his success was also the consequence of the state of Washington DC’s built environment when he arrived in 1893. The city was experiencing an extreme housing shortage as a result of the huge growth in population during and immediately following the Civil War. Large tracts of farmland north of the L’Enfant-planned city were being sold to developers and streetcar lines were being extended to access the new developments. Wardman had little trouble obtaining financing to benefit from these construction projects.
Wardman’s career was further enhanced by a second influx of population during and immediately following World War I. But the rules of development changed in the early years of the 1920s, when zoning was introduced in Washington. This change did not, however, impede Wardman’s rapid pace of development. It was the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that dramatically impacted his career. Over-extended, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He might have eventually recovered from that dramatic setback had he not contracted colon cancer and died shortly thereafter, in 1938.
Why did you choose the subject of your first biography?
What happens when a novelist writes a novel based on a real life story but changes the main character and the arc of her life?
• Artist-Author Mary Hallock Foote and her Angle of Repose (Casey Bush, Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, 2003). "The same year that Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize, Foote's autobiography, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West was published by the Huntington Library at the urging of Foote's descendents who objected to the great liberties that Stegner took in telling her story. Straddling fact and fiction, Angle of Repose was also met with charges of plagiarism in academic circles."
• A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (by Mary Hallock Foote, edited by Rodman W. Paul)
• Angle of Repose, the novel by Wallace Stegner
• ‘The Ways of Fiction Are Devious Indeed’ (Sands Hall, Alta Online, 4-4-22) Finding current relevancy—and outrage—in the accusations of plagiarism that have long haunted a classic of the West: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. "Yet in the end, it wasn't that Stegner copied so much, verbatim, that incensed me. Nor that, in creating the Wards, he followed so precisely—for 523 of the novel's 569 pages—the trajectory of the Footes' lives. It was that, in the process, he altered Mary's character. Susan emerges as a griping, entitled, discontented 1950s housewife, nothing like the adventurous, deeply intelligent, resilient woman on whom she was modeled....Stegner didn't physically assault Mary Foote, but he abused her—her life, her writing, and, as it turned out, her reputation. And he got away with it because he was a man." Having started with material from Mary Foote's life, Stegner the novelist adds "adultery, infanticide, a destroyed marriage" and "dramatically alters the climax of that life, and, in the process, her entire character."
Hall continues: "In choosing to climax the story of the Wards in a romantic tryst gone terribly wrong, Stegner not only "warped" the Footes' story; he missed the opportunity to unfold the remarkable final act of their lives." And Hall writes of the real happy ending to the family's story, concluding: "We have a word for the theft of writing; we do not have one for a stolen life."
• A classic, or a fraud? (Philip L. Fradkin, LA Times, 2-3-08) Plagiarism allegations aimed at Wallace Stegner's 'Angle of Repose' won't be put to rest. "Stegner used the private letters of Mary Hallock Foote and additional portions of her unpublished memoir intact, edited or combined with invented material for the basic structure of his narrative. He included page-long passages and entire paragraphs unaltered, slightly changed or invented, and borrowed specific details of her life for his most memorable character, Susan Burling Ward...
"Stegner had permission to use the material and ... he acknowledged its use, [although he] altered Foote's life to fit his needs for a multidimensional novel of the American West." He told the family he would alter the story, mixing fiction with fact, but the novel implies a romantic liaison that didn't happen in real life, which the family found objectionable. In the introduction to a paperback edition of the novel issued in 2001, Jackson J. Benson, a Stegner biographer, writes about this controversy. This article is worth reading if you're planning to base a novel on a true story.
• List of fake memoirs and journals (Wikipedia) Another angle on the same theme.