As a seasoned journalist, Secrest has a background in research and interviewing “tough customers,” which served her well as a biographer. She was assigned interviews of major public figures during her tenure at the Washington Post. Shoot the Widow is as much a primer on what Secrest learned about the “baffling…venture to trace someone else’s life” as it is a fascinating mixture of autobiography and tidbits of information about the subjects of her biographies. As she had done with each of her previous books, in Shoot the Widow, Secrest “rejected the boringly chronological approach to biography,” showing us instead, in somewhat random order, the essence of biography: “the complex nature of an irresistibly engaging and paradoxical personality.” (She does not take us as far as her most recent biography, that of art dealer Lord Joseph Duveen.)
She begins with, and focuses a great deal of attention on, her biography of art historian Kenneth Clark. Although she had already been nominated for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Renaissance art authority Bernard Berenson, she learned with Clark many of the important lessons that would inform her future writing. Among them was true understanding of Mark Twain’s biographer advice to “shoot the widow.” By the time Secrest finished dealing with the Clark family’s post-publication fault-finding, she was inclined to expand the suggestion to shoot the widow “along with…anyone else you can think of.”
Secrest had already experienced criticism by her subject’s family and friends when Between Me and Life, her biography of American artist Romaine Brooks, came out. Relatives upbraided her for revealing too much of the personal information they had supplied. For Secrest “it was an early lesson in the equivocal position in which any biographer is placed; in order to borrow material, one needed to ingratiate oneself with people who were quite likely to detest one’s work” when it was done. It would happen to her again with Somewhere for Me, her book on musician Richard Rodgers, because the details about the “miserable reality” of his life were in contrast to the public facade maintained by his family.
The Clark experience also taught Secrest that a living subject, especially one she got to know very well, could also reproach her for the same reason. Secrest’s quest was always to get behind the veneer, to penetrate the “smokescreen behind which a man was hiding.” She and the “infinitely endearing” Clark wrangled over her editorial independence—how much could she reveal and how much content would he dictate? She knew that secrets could help humanize her biographies, yet her subject had created the facade for a reason and, as in the case of the subject of another biography, Salvador Dali, wanted to “control every aspect of his self-generated myth.”
Secrest went on to write biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. One of the most pleasing features of Secrest’s easygoing writing style is her liberal use of tiny, illuminating details that she collected in her research. She waxes poetic about her own childhood in Bath, England, sharing even the minutest details of the furnishings of her family’s semi-detached home. In the same way, she injects real life into her biographies, not merely to record, but to reveal, “examining every scrap of information…for a hidden meaning.”
As a writer, I’ve enjoyed being allowed to peer behind the scenes of another writer’s adventures in telling stories. Book lovers and writers alike will take pleasure in this memoir for the same reason Secrest writes biographies: the completely selfish enterprise of the joy of discovery.