Every once in a while it pays to look not just at the most recent book a favorite author has written but also at the author’s whole body of work. I will be doing that soon with the works of John McPhee, Princeton’s prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author. And I am doing it now with the works of Mary S. Lovell, the best-selling British biographer whose most recent book, “The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High Society,” has just been published in the U.S.
Whether you are writing about McPhee or Lovell, the first temptation is to admire the writing. Even though they are both constrained by the harsh realities of the facts in their nonfiction works, they deftly arrange and re-arrange those facts into a compelling narrative. It all seems effortless, as if the finished story had been there all along, just waiting for someone to pick it up and put it down on paper.
Lovell’s “Riviera Set” requires a deft touch. Lovell is writing the biography not of a single person but rather the life and times of a house, an elegant chateau on the French Riviera, through which an international set of the rich and famous engage in all manner of activities from 1920 to 1960, “the golden years of glamour and excess.”
Lovell pieces together, for example, the details of one small gathering in 1958 at the Chateau de l’Horizon, when it was owned by Aly Khan, the celebrated playboy and politician. Relying on the autobiography of William Douglas-Home, British politician and playwright, Lovell presents the scene:
One night in September, soon after Aly returned to his villa he and all the house-guests at Chateau de l’Horizon dined aboard the Christina. Aly arranged this with Onassis after Jack Kennedy expressed a wish to meet his hero Winston Churchill. Winston, 83 years old now, was aboard the yacht for a few days after he and Clementine had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. . . Aly’s party joined the yacht at Monte Carlo and Jack wore a white tuxedo, a garment much frowned upon by Winston, but Jackie, deeply tanned, dressed in a simple white A-line dress and speaking fluent French during dinner, charmed both Churchill and Onassis. Jack was disappointed that he seemed to make no impression on Churchill, and when he said so to Jackie as they disembarked, she replied crushingly: “I think he thought you were a waiter.”
Douglas-Home also recalled listening to a conversation between Michael Canfield and Jack:
Michael: “I just can’t understand why you want to be President.”
Jack: “Well, Mike, I guess it’s just about the only thing I can do.”
Name dropping, yes, but skillfully executed by the biographer, whose subjects have also included Amelia Earhart (turned into a movie starring Richard Gere and Hilary Swank); “The Mitford Girls” (including Jessica, the social activist and author of “The American Way of Death,” the expose of the funeral industry); and “The Churchills” (Winston being but one of a cavalcade of characters). Not surprisingly, four of Lovell’s books have been optioned for films.
You can marvel at the writing in any of them. But in considering the works of Mary Lovell, as well as those of John McPhee, you might also marvel at the reporting that uncovered all the raw material.
Betty Pack, the subject of Lovell’s 1992 biography, “Cast No Shadow,” had a life story that would have made her an international celebrity in most circumstances. She was a beautiful American, married to a British diplomat, who was a witness to many of the pivotal events leading up to and during World War II. But you wouldn’t find the alluring details in any newspaper or magazine accounts of the day. Betty Pack was a spy, working first for the British and then for the Americans. Her M.O.: seduction.
Gathering information required some sleuthing. “Little did I realize the murky water I was getting into,” Lovell says. “I soon hit quick-sand. First, all files on British espionage groups were sealed for 50 years after the end of the war, and when I approached people I knew to have been involved from Betty’s handwritten memoir they met me readily enough but fed me red herrings.
“However, I had a significant breakthrough when I wrote to an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC, whom I had met the previous year when researching Amelia Earhart. He suggested I might find quite a lot of detail about British espionage in the diplomatic files at the archives, which were now open but not necessarily catalogued (then). So it was a long slog. I was referred across the street to the FBI archives, where I applied under the Freedom of Information Act and got, after about 10 months, some censored agent reports on Betty, which were very useful.
“I spent about two months there, finished the research, went home, and wrote the book. It was published a year later in the U.S. and I then submitted it to my English publisher for publication here. The following week I was summoned to London — I thought to agree to terms. Not a bit of it. Apparently I had named names that shouldn’t be named, and generally had I published it here about 30 former agents would have been in fear of their lives.”
In “A Rage to Live,” Lovell’s 1998 biography of Sir Richard Burton, the daring adventurer of the 19th century, and his equally intriguing wife, Isabel, Lovell uncovers material in Isabel’s papers, which were believed burned after her death, as well as other previously unpublished sources.
Lovell’s biography of Jane Digby, another 19th century adventurer whose fourth marriage was to a Bedouin nobleman 20 years her junior who became the love of her life, required multiple trips to the Middle East. “It was hard because of the language,” she has said, “and I had to go back again and learn some Arabic.”
For “Bess of Hardwick,” published in 2006, Lovell time traveled back to the 16th century to chronicle the life of a woman who was widowed for the first time at 16, married three more times, and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in England’s history — all at a time of violent political upheaval when England was ruled a by succession of capricious women who made it a hazardous a time for an ambitious woman.
Lovell’s primary sources: journals, letters, court reports, and inventories and books of accounts.
Books of account? The last thing any writer wants to pore over. Most reporters’ eyes glaze over, as well.
Not Lovell, who came to writing after several decades working as an accountant and company director. In 1981, at the age of 40, she suffered a broken back in a horseback riding accident. To kill time she wrote a history of her hunt club, then celebrating its 200th year. Lovell enjoyed it and wrote another book before returning to work.
In the late 1950s and 1960s she and her first husband, Cliff Lovell, flew a collection of vintage aircraft and allowed one, a De Havilland Gypsy Moth, to be used in the film “Out of Africa.” Through that connection Lovell met Beryl Markham, the famous aviatrix who in 1936 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. When Markham died in 1986, Lovell plunged into her biography, “Straight on Till Morning.”
Researched and written in less than a year, the book became a best-seller in England within days and ended up on the New York Times best-seller list for 12 weeks. Lovell never looked back at accounting, and turned her attention fulltime to reporting, researching, and writing, with annual interludes in Barbados.
Which brings me to a full disclosure. My significant other, Nell Whiting, sponsored a lecture by Lovell in New York for the book “Bess of Hardwick.” Whiting later met up with Lovell at her home in England and went on two trips that Lovell led to Syria to follow the path of Jane Digby, the subject of her biography “A Scandalous Life.” Whiting introduced Lovell to me and we have stayed in touch, especially during winter sojourns in Barbados.
We rarely see Lovell in action in Barbados. She may be editing proofs during our visits, but, as she recently explained to an interviewer for a Barbados publication, “I write non-fiction and I need my library of reference books and research notes (which run to many thousands of pages — impossible to bring with me).” So heavy duty working is “not ideal.” When she is in research and writing mode, she often works from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week — “a very anti-social process.”
So what’s next for Mary Lovell? On her website (www.lovellbiographies.com), she says that her books “have historically taken me about four years to produce — two years for research, a year or so to write, and a year for photo research, obtaining permissions and copyright, plus any number of copy edits. As I am now 76, and with indifferent health, I have decided not to take on another biography, and instead I have turned to historically based fiction — I will stick closely to fact, but without the meticulous research required for a biography.”
And I have one more idea for her: John McPhee’s latest book, “Draft No. 4,” is essentially a memoir of his writing career, one that keeps his personal life still private. Mary Lovell could produce something in that vein. She has all those adventures involved in gathering her source material. It’s been there all along, just waiting for someone to pick it up and put it down on paper. Or so it seems.