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.
Does Sally Berk’s About the Author page make you curious about her subject and book? Another page on her website, Wardman's Washington, features some of the best-known buildings Wardman built.
Why did you choose the subject of your first biography?