Tender Shepherd

As award-winning biographer David Kaufman savors the publication of Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin, Isa Goldberg gets the author to tell all.

David Kaufman should be singing “I’ve Gotta Crow.” After all, the Drama Desk board member's book Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, garnered the LAMBDA Literary Award for Biography, The Theatre Library Association Award for Outstanding Theatre Book of the Year, and a New York Public Library Award, among others. Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, Kaufman’s second biography, became a New York Times bestseller. Now, his latest work, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin, is being published to fanfare by St. Martin’s Press in July 2016. Here, Kaufman confesses a few trade secrets.

 

DRAMA DESK: Tell us about the steps you take in writing a biography, from honing in on your subject to finding a publisher. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but are there cases where you’ve jumped in, wrote the bio, and then shopped it? Or how do you proceed?

DAVID KAUFMAN: In each case my interest begins with a genuine enthusiasm for—and a curiosity about—my subject. With both Charles Ludlam and Doris Day, I was also motivated by the conviction that each of them had been underestimated by the culture—albeit, in very different ways. In writing my current biography of Mary Martin, who was, indeed, revered during her lifetime, I’ve set out with the premise that she has been, for the most part neglected ever since her death, in 1990; and also that her story has never really been told from an objective point of view. Like Doris Day, Mary Martin wrote a credible, estimable autobiography. But neither could offer an outsider’s perspective, which their mutual iconic stature so richly deserves. There are other remarkable similarities: Day and Martin each had a son whom they abandoned as infants for the sake of their careers. They both married their managers. They also never carried any money on their person: they were American Royalty, for whom everything was free.

There were, earlier on, other subjects I considered. In the case of both Neil Simon and Ruth Etting—both of whom I pursued possibly writing about in the late1980s—I had an agent who was interested in representing me for each of those projects—separately, of course. In both instances, I wrote a proposal and my agent shopped it around to various publishers. As far as I recall, no one would touch the Neil Simon because he was still a powerful influence who would have put up obstacles or, worse yet, sued over some aspect of what I would write about him. In the case of Ruth Etting, the feeling was that her lack of name recognition meant it would be a hard sell (i.e., no one would buy the book).

In answer to the second part of your question, I have never written a biography and then tried to find a publisher. In every instance, however, I steeped myself in extensive research for the sake of writing the proposal.

How can you evaluate the likely success of a biography prior to investing years of research and writing?

The likely success is predicated on the agent’s enthusiasm—or lack of same—and then, even more significantly, by the publisher/editor’s enthusiasm. It’s also dependent on uncovering unknown information about your subject’s life or bringing a new and unusual angle to your investigations. Such “breakthroughs” become instrumental in promoting the book. But before anything else, you learn a lot by running ideas by friends and colleagues in your field who know a thing or two about what’s already out there and what needs to be explored and investigated. Being a biographer is, first and last, being a detective.

What are the differences, if any, in the research and writing process when writing an authorized biography versus an unauthorized one?

There are enormous differences. The question of being authorized versus unauthorized determines the kind of biography one will write more than any other single factor. If it’s written in accordance with your subject’s wishes and approval, it’s going to severely limit what you can say. If it’s unauthorized, which has always been my preference, you then rely on the “kindness”—not of strangers, but of insiders. What I’ve discovered over the years is that many people, who are part of someone else’s story, are eager to cooperate because they want their own story to be told. Also, once intimates or people who are closest to your subject realize that you’re going to publish the book with or without your cooperation, they are more inclined to provide help.

I have been fortunate because I befriended certain people who were close to each of my subjects early in the research process, and they became collaborators in a sense, putting me in touch with other relevant sources and guiding me down paths I might not have known about otherwise. In the case of Doris Day, Liz Smith devoted nearly an entire column to my biography three years before its publication date. This opened the floodgates, and people I never even heard of started approaching me, to tell me their part of the story. That’s when you know you’ve arrived as a biographer and you’re on the right path.

How do you go about organizing the mass of information, research, and interviews you collect?

Try as I might to put articles, interview transcripts, and copious pages or copies from library research into folders, it’s always a sprawling nightmare that overtakes my living environment. I am eternally grateful to my partner for putting up with it, since the clutter and the mess are all encompassing.

Do you have a vision of the chapters at the outset?

Absolutely not. I write things down as I discover them. Eventually, chapters take shape and come into being. But it’s all rather amorphous as it unfolds. What forms as a chapter at some point will almost always change: beginnings and endings of so-called chapters inevitably are altered as more material or information comes in to view and as the arc of the “story” takes shape, allowing you to make it read more like a novel—all the while remaining true to the facts.

Describe your process, aims, and goals in transcribing an interview.

As I tell everyone I interview, my goal is to be as thorough and accurate as possible. I had an inadvertent lesson about transcribing interviews in 1989, when I was approached by Interview Magazine to do a piece on Charles Ludlam. It was to be published in conjunction with Harper & Row bringing out The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam later that year. (It was my doing this piece for Interview, which led to my writing Ludlam’s biography, and not the other way around. But that’s another story.) It was the first time that a publisher offered to have all my interview tapes transcribed, by someone they hired to do the job. I remember my glee and gratitude. I had finally arrived as a professional journalist. Well, the transcriber typed out every question, every “ah” and “um”—not to mention every answer—of the taped conversations. As I recall, I had interviewed a dozen or so of Ludlam’s closest friends and colleagues, and there were hundreds of pages of transcripts, which were unruly and cumbersome to work with. The lesson is, when you transcribe your own interview tapes, you begin to make choices and selections of what to potentially include in your piece or book.

How do you ensure that the publisher will keep their end of the deal?

That’s built into the contract. With each of my three books, things changed radically—both the length and the number of pictures were increased dramatically, from what the publisher had originally planned on or committed to. My guess is that for most authors, the publisher’s contractual obligation is something of a moving target: publishers —and editors—make their ultimate decisions based on the manuscript that’s delivered, and not what was originally conceived. How can any biographer know how long the story must be before discovering all its complexities? That only happens in the process of researching and writing, when you’re being taken down many paths you didn’t even know existed.

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Theater reporter and former Drama Desk President Isa Goldberg has interviewed playwrights and celebrities for many venues, including Reuters Television, The Advocate, and The Jerusalem Post. In addition to David Kaufman, Isa's favorite conversationalists include Edward Albee, Bernadette Peters, Terrence McNally, Jules Feiffer, and Isabella Rossellini.

The official publication date of Some Enchanted Evenings is July 12, 2016. Three notable events follow: on July 15, at 2:00, Foster Hirsch will have a conversation with David Kaufman about Mary Martin and the book at the 92nd St. Y in New York. On July 18, at 7:00 p.m., Tom Santopietro will host a discussion with the biographer at the Barnes & Noble on Lexington and East 86th St. On July 20, Foster Hirsch will interview David Kaufman at the Coffee House on West 44th St.; cocktails begin at 6:00, the interview at 6:45. 

David Kaufman: "Being a biographer is, first and last, being a detective."