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Sunday, September 12, 1999
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When subjects are victims
By Manohar Malgonkar

IN a letter Martha Gellhorn wrote to her friend Victoria Glendinning on February 2, 1992, she confesses: "The bad part of old age is getting ugly." At the time, Gellhorn was well into her eighties and thus someone who might be thought to have resigned herself to the inevitable decay of the body brought about by the process of aging. But, as she tells us in the same letter: "I am sure that vanity (physical) never dies in either men or women."

But then who was this Martha Gellhorn — for, alas, she is dead — that we should bother to take her opinions seriously at all?

Well, actually she is better known as one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway, (who, as it happens, would have been 100 years old this year,) than for herself even though she too was a brilliant writer and, unusual for a woman, a famous war reporter, of the Second World War, of the Spanish war, and of Vietnam. For her part, she considered her married years, first to Hemingway and then to Tom Mathews who worked for Time magazine, her wasted years. Indeed she detested Hemingway so intensely that she could not, after their separation, even bring herself to write the name Ernest, or to pronounce it. As a young woman she is said to have been a raging beauty, but she was highly talented too, and is described as being "fiery, boozy, witty, opinionated and irreverent." Above all she was a woman who, even though attracted to men, was aggressively independent, determined to prove that she was "separate from men, with her own ideas, needs, plans, actions." In her twilight years, she went into unquiet retirement in a small village in England, where she lived as a woman of means, writing for highbrow magazines and publishers. That was when Martha Gellhorn was, as it were,‘rediscovered’ by Britain’s literary elite and lionised as being one of the major neglected writers of our times.

So, all in all, a lady whose opinions on life deserve to be taken seriously: No matter how old they are, all men and women continue to be vain; about their looks, their achievements, their personal lives.

And this is the reason why, no man or woman of mature years is satisfied with his or her portrayal, be it by camera, or painted on canvas, or even, as is common in my profession, in words.

Meaning, biographies.

It is altogether axiomatic: the subjects of biographies themselves are never pleased with them. Invariably they find flaws, inaccuracies, misinterpretations, exaggerations.

The classic example of this axiom was the book that Dom Moraes wrote about Indira Gandhi. All the signs were that it was to be an ‘authorised’ biography. Moraes was given interviews by Mrs Gandhi and access to private record. Indeed for several months Moraes was treated like a family friend to the extent that when, for some reason that never became clear, Mrs Gandhi was without a cook in her house, Moraes sent up his own cook as a badli.

Then, seemingly without reason at least from the point of view of the author, the relationship soured — soured to the extent that Mrs Gandhi would not so much as see Moraes, let alone talk to him. Moraes, for his part, made frantic efforts to meet Mrs Gandhi and resolve their differences, but the Iron Lady had made up her mind. In the end Moraes actually went to the extent of waiting for Mrs Gandhi among the devotees who daily thronged for her darshan in a barricaded enclosure near her house. He believed that he would be able to catch her eye and thus re-establish contact. All to no avail.

I think Moraes went on with his job and completed the book and had it published. But it made no waves, as it undoubtedly would have if it had the stamp of Mrs Gandhi’s approval; hundreds of thousands of her devotees would have queued up for copies if only as proof of their devotion to her.

As it was, Moraes’s book became just another of Mrs Gandhi’s ‘unauthorised’ biographies and God knows there was quite a crop of them in the wake of the Emergency.

An ‘unauthorised’ biography. As it happens, of late it has become a recognised literary form and some writers have made of it a highly remunerative speciality, notable among them being Kitty Kelly.

Here the authors are not bothered about what their subjects think of their books. Indeed, in a sense, their subjects are their victims. The whole purpose of writing an ‘unauthorised’ biography is not to portray a life so much as to sensationalise it. In their writing, freedom of expression is indulged to its utmost limits. Anything that has ever come in print about their subjects — idle gossip, casual remarks by friends and acquaintances, rude things said in friendly banter or in fits of temper, servants-quarters revelations — all are grist to their mill: Evidence.

Or evidence enough, for Kitty Kelly to cook up a romantic attachment between President Reagan’s wife, Nancy Reagan and the singer with supposed mafia connections, Frank Sinatra. Or again, in her book on the British Royals, to put across a theory calling into question the bloodlines of some of the Royals.

The aforesaid Gellhorn herself was a subject of one such ‘unauthorised’ biography written by Rollyson, nothing ever happens to the Brave — the story of Martha Gellhorn. And this is what Gellhorn herself has to say about it: "...almost a paean of hate. Hemingway (who was dead but Gellhorn would never refer to him as ‘Ernest’) would have adored it.... It has made me sick... to read it with horrid care; nothing but lies, inaccuracies... he transposes my fiction directly into my life with weird effects."

Which, after all, is the normal reaction of the subjects of such ‘unauthorised’ biographies. Horrified revulsion, helpless rage.

Helpless is the operative word. There is no redress. The dice are loaded in favour of writers and publishers, and to seek legal remedies is a self-defeating exercise because the extra publicity only helps to sell more copies of the book.

Lurid biographies are the rage, and publishers, even of the highest repute, are not averse to accepting them. In 1979, a young lady named Deborah David wrote a book called Katharine the Great which was the unauthorised biography of a socially prominent lady in Washington, Katharine Graham, who also possessed formidable clout because she was also the proprietor of the city’s most influential newspaper, The Washington Post. Davis offered the book to the well-known New York publisher, Harcourt Brace, who published it. When Graham read the book she was furious and protested to the president of the publishing firm in such strong terms that the president quickly sought to make amends by "ordering the book to be withdrawn from publication." The author, in her turn sued Harcourt Brace for breach of contract, and the publisher paid her a hundred thousand dollars to settle the case out of court.

But that did not mean that Katharine the Great remained unpublished. Over the years, two other publishers have published it !Back

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