• On Robert Caro, Great Men, and the Problem of Powerful Women in Biography

    Caroline Fraser: “Power and ambition in women are often hidden, buried, shrouded, disguised, crushed, thwarted, mocked, warped, punished, or excoriated.”

    Robert Caro is by now the most celebrated biographer alive, having won two Pulitzers for biography, two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle awards, and a host of other prizes. At work on the fifth and final volume of his magisterial The Years of Lyndon Johnson, he characterizes his new, and uncharacteristically brief, memoir—a series of vignettes, essays, and a Paris Review interview collected under the title Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing—as, in part, advice. At 83, and with a valedictory air, Caro is showing us how he arrived at the method behind his meticulously reported, almost novelistic masterworks.

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    And Working is full of sound advice, “tricks of the trade,” he calls them: When working with documents, turn every page; show rather than tell; interview and re-interview sources; and pay attention to place. While its most extreme measures (living for years in the haunts of one’s subject, for example) may be confined to those with unlimited time, financial resources, and editorial patience (i.e., Caro himself), Working may nonetheless become to journalists, biographers, and nonfiction reporters what Strunk & White has been to stylists, a handbook of common sense.

    But Caro has another piece of advice, one that’s surprising. If you want to write about power, he says, “you have to choose the right man.” Not a sloppy writer, he clearly doesn’t mean something like, “Choose the right subject” or “Choose the right person.” He means what he says, and he says it more than once: “You have to choose the right man.” It occurs in a context in which Caro appears to be both utterly frank and oddly defensive about the genre he works in, which is biography. Where that defensiveness comes from is not entirely clear, yet he seems inclined to qualify, if not disown, his role as biographer, saying, “I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man,” stressing that his books are about the exercise of political power, as if men and power are separable.

    But while Caro is no great man idolator, both of his subjects were great men. His first, in The Power Broker (1974), was Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of New York City’s Parks Commission, self-appointed to god-like omniscience in shaping the city’s highways, bridges, and tunnels, evicting half a million people in the process. The second was LBJ and his political chicanery (stealing elections), his mastery of Senate politics in passing the Great Society and civil rights legislation, and hellish descent into Vietnam. So for Caro, choosing the right man would by definition involve great men, because the 20th century—and every previous century—was nothing if not a master class in their use and abuse of political power.

    At the same time, Caro humbly acknowledges what women know and how they helped him. Working is a catalogue of such women, gifted at working around obstacles (often men). One is Mary Perot Nichols, an editor at The Village Voice who called Caro out of the blue while he was being blackballed by the power broker (who’d denied access to his papers), to knife Moses in the back, telling Caro a little secret: “He forgot about the carbon copies.” She literally gave Caro the keys to the kingdom, a key to an underground bunker where copies of Moses’ papers were stored.

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    Working may become to journalists, biographers, and nonfiction reporters what Strunk & White has been to stylists, a handbook of common sense.

    And then there’s Ina Caro, the wife who has devoted much of her life to his research, once selling their house to support them, spending years in archives, and gaining him the trust of the Hill Country women who form the heart of his first LBJ volume. Caro readily acknowledges his debt to her; taken together with his admitted squeamishness in questioning Lady Bird Johnson about her husband’s infidelities, this defines his old-fashioned, almost courtly, conventionality.

    But what to make of Caro’s assumption that power lies with men, especially if you’re someone who has chosen to write about women in the context of history? Who are the right women? A biographical subject must have accomplished something, so biographies of women have, in years past, flourished in the literary realm, with the odd Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Marie Curie thrown in. Then there are the queens, presidential wives and mothers, and suffragettes, now joined by a few contemporary power players, such as Supreme Court justices. After all, RBG is notorious because she’s a woman. Yet recent bestseller lists seem to feature more women’s memoirs than biographies.

    That may be because the political powerlessness of women over the course of human history cannot be exaggerated, and the ways in which this has been brought home to every individual woman—even those who acquired a temporary, tentative hold on power—have altered all women’s lives, accomplishments, and expression in every field. In over a dozen centuries, for example, England was ruled by eight queens, only two more women than had their heads handed to them, or were burned at the stake, by Henry VIII.

    If you think that’s ancient history, it’s not: A woman was burned alive this month, in Bangladesh. Or consider Hillary Clinton, for whom beheading might have provided a cleaner resolution, at least to the mob that continues to bay for her imprisonment, today’s proxy for blood.

    So writing about women who have achieved a modicum of influence can often feel like watching someone on a precipice: One foot wrong, and it’s the block, the pillory, or the head in the oven. This is true whether writing about a forbidding figure, such as Mary Baker Eddy, the sinister founder of the Christian Science Church, who features in my first book, God’s Perfect Child, or a model of perseverance and pluck, Laura Ingalls Wilder in Prairie Fires. It requires one to follow a more circuitous path than the one Caro lays out, leading not to the exercise of power in any straightforward way but to the subversive, often stealthy assumption of it.

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    Power and ambition in women are often hidden, buried, shrouded, veiled, disguised, crushed, thwarted, mocked, diminished, warped, punished, or excoriated. Women oriented toward ambition may have concealed such a desire even from themselves.

    This is reflected in archives. In researching Laura Ingalls Wilder, I too worked in a presidential archive, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. There Wilder was smuggled in on the barest of pretexts: Her papers are subsumed in the far more copious residue of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who wrote the spurious but nonetheless first biography of Hoover during her yellow journalism phase, in which she was energetically turning out celebrity biographies, including an invented autobiography of Charlie Chaplin, who sued to stop it. She too favored great men.

    Archivists at the Hoover acknowledge that Wilder’s papers have become their “most heavily used materials,” and any faint whiff of resentment over that fact is difficult to detect. I counted myself lucky to work there, because outside of the Hoover, Wilder’s other papers and materials are scattered, held in conditions that could hardly be called archival, and in places where access for researchers has been made difficult, if not impossible. The only explanation for this is the fact that Wilder, as a woman, has not been considered worthy of serious study; even worse, she was a woman who wrote for children, a class of people held in even less regard.

    That disdain became clear to me in researching my first book, God’s Perfect Child, which I termed a biography of the Christian Science Church, the religion that has always jeopardized its believers, especially children, in its rejection of medical care. Christian Science was the rabbit hole I was born in, and it took me a while to blunder my way out. But when I got an opportunity to write about it, I went back, re-entering as an adult the world I had known only as a child. Shopping a book proposal, I was asked repeatedly if I would instead write a memoir, but I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to look inward. I wanted the power of the predator, the prosecutor. I wanted the opening statement, the cross-examination, the closing argument. J’accuse.

    Of course, I was not and never could have been an unbiased reporter on the subject—which I acknowledged in the preface—yet I believed in my ability to provide “an accurate historical record,” as I put it. Indeed, the cross-pollination of the personal and historical strikes me now as a technique women may use to explore the violent power differentials in their own lives: Think of Hilary Mantel in her biographical novels resurrecting Thomas Cromwell or Fawn Brodie in No Man Knows My History, her groundbreaking 1945 biography of Joseph Smith. As a Mormon, she did know his history and made it her job to lay it out for posterity. She was excommunicated for it.

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    I wanted the opening statement, the cross-examination, the closing argument. J’accuse.

    So the research for God’s Perfect Child was never going to be a matter of calmly turning pages in archives; in any event, virtually every outside researcher was barred from the archives of the Mother Church. It was closer to reliving Alice in Wonderland, complete with the ravings of the Red Queen—Eddy herself—whose Church continues to behave as if she were still alive. For an institution riding the coattails of the women’s movement—Church leaders preen themselves on Eddy’s inclusion in the National Women’s Hall of Fame—its representatives were happy to indulge in threats and sexist intimidation when it suited them.

    Calling a Board Director, I was promised a lawsuit (“Off with her head!”); was pitted against other women journalists and biographers perceived to be friendlier to the Church (and they were); and sat through surreal interviews with Church members reassuring me that the material world was indeed “unreal.”

    These confrontations became increasingly absurd: Stephen Gottschalk, a Church publicist on the outs with his former bosses, upbraided me for doubting that prayer could heal while his elderly black lab lay farting and snoring on a rug before us, a fragrant embodiment of inescapable corporeal reality. Perched on an overstuffed couch in Boston’s Ritz, interviewing Jack Hoagland, a former CIA employee who spearheaded the Church’s disastrous investment in cable television, I watched as he suddenly arose with a Cheshire grimace and dematerialized, stalking off without a word. Virginia Harris, head of the Church’s Board, went on Larry King Live and announced, with the gravity of a Mock Turtle, that I was “sad.”

    It was sad to be faced with the uncanny amorality of true believers. But it was more dismaying to learn how many defenders Christian Science had accumulated, people who should have known better, politicians (Ted Kennedy), law professors (Stephen L. Carter), and journalists who shrugged at the human costs and blandly handed the Church religious exemptions, apologetic op-eds, and the cover of rationality.

    My most harrowing encounters, of course, were with victims, the parents who helplessly recalled children lost to a ruptured appendix, diabetes, or meningitis. Listening to them, and to grown children whose families’ fanaticism led to their being physically and emotionally scarred for life was as distressing as anything I’ve ever done, before or since. I sat frozen at a kitchen table in Spalding Gray’s apartment as he unspooled a wholly riveting stream-of-consciousness—like his famous monologues but without the sense of a hand on the throttle—about his Christian Science mother’s weirdly cheerful plans for committing suicide, which of course begat his own suicide, at 63, in 2004.

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    There are innumerable paths to power, and powerlessness, and Robert Caro has taken us down many of them, raising questions about the repercussions of political might. With other devoted readers, I eagerly await his final word on the vertiginous fall of LBJ. But as biographers explore every facet of human life—stories about being women, being black, being gay, being poor, being neurodiverse, being every kind of person—they are adding to Caro’s tradecraft new and as yet unseen skills, finesse, and nuance. Because in the whole wide world, there are subjects beyond power and other people besides the right men.

    Caroline Fraser
    Caroline Fraser
    Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the author of Rewilding the World, God’s Perfect Child, and Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. She lives in New Mexico.

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