courtesy Architectural Digest
About Gerald Clarke
Born in California, Gerald Clarke spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles, his teens in Ohio. He graduated from Yale, where he majored in English and American literature, then spent a postgraduate year traveling around Europe. "One of the best and most interesting years of my life," he calls that period. "In those days the dollar was strong, and you did not have to be rich to travel overseas. And Europe was the best postgraduate school in the world." Returning home, his sights set on becoming a lawyer, he began studies at Harvard Law School. "I soon discovered I didn't have either the desire or the temperament to be a lawyer," he says, "and I left at the beginning of my second year. But if I learned only one thing at Harvard, my time was not wasted. And what was that? I learned never to assume, never to jump to conclusions, always to examine the evidence. Just because two people pass each other on the street—to give one homely example—doesn't mean they see each other. One may be looking up or have his eye on someone across the street. The other may be looking down or may be brooding over an argument he had with his wife. Who knows? And just because two attractive people are alone in a room doesn't necessarily mean they are making love. When I read any kind of nonfiction, I expect the writer to offer proof—real evidence—for such assertions. And when I write, I try to hold myself to the same standard."
Leaving law school, Clarke turned to journalism, going first to the New Haven Journal-Courier, then to the Baltimore Sun, and finally to Time magazine. Starting out at Time as a political writer, he went on to write essays on a wide variety of subjects—from terrorism, to the dilemmas of the "Silent Generation" of the fifties, to a humorous speculation on what America would be like if the British had won the battle of Yorktown. Finally he turned to show business. "I enjoy meeting and writing about people," he says, "people who have stories to tell. In the years I was at Time writers wrote from reporters' files. They rarely interviewed or even saw the people they were writing about. The Show Business section was the only place on the magazine in which you could do both—report and write. So that's where I went."
As Time's show business writer, Clarke sat down with some of the most talented and glamorous people in the world. Female stars like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch and Liza Minnelli. Male stars like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison, Hume Cronyn and a teenage Matthew Broderick. Comedians like George Burns and Joan Rivers. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, George Abbott, James Brooks, and several remarkable Germans—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Just about anybody who was anybody in the great world of entertainment came under Clarke's microscope.
While he was at Time, Clarke also wrote for other magazines—a list that included The Atlantic, The New Republic, Rolling Stone and Esquire. Intrigued by how and why writers write, he began a series of profiles of famous writers: Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, P.G. Wodehouse, Vladimir Nabokov and Truman Capote. A full-length biography grew out of the last profile, and Clarke spent hundreds of hours with Capote, becoming a witness to—and occasionally a participant in—the unending drama of the final decade of his life. To talk to Capote's friends and enemies he crisscrossed the United States and made several trips to Europe.
In 1988, four years after the writer's death, Capote was published to almost universal acclaim. "One can't put the book down," Bruce Bawer wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Few literary biographies in recent memory have been so vivid and absorbing, so gracefully composed and artfully structured. To read Capote is to have the sense that someone has put together all the important pieces of this consummate artist's life, has given everything its due emphasis, and comprehended its ultimate meaning." The book immediately jumped on to the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for thirteen weeks—a record for a literary biography even to this day—and it was translated into eleven other languages.
"For me the story is everything," Clarke says. "I am drawn to the great dramas of gifted people, their highs and their lows. Truman Capote was one such person, and my next major subject, Judy Garland, was another. In some crucial ways Truman and Judy were, in fact, alike. Both had destructive mothers and suffered through terrible childhoods. Both gained early success. Both gave pleasure to millions. And both, traveling the same terrible circle, finally succumbed to the demons that had hovered over them since childhood. Many say they were tragic figures. I say just the opposite. They were triumphant. For many years they bet the odds. How many could have started off with such heavy burdens and yet achieved so much? Of course they died too young. But look at what they accomplished in the years they had!"
Research for Get Happy, Clarke's biography of Judy Garland, began in 1989, the year after Capote was published. It led, once again, to thousands of miles of travel, in both the United States and Europe, to hundreds of interviews, and to endless hours in various archives. For a year and a half Clarke commuted between New York and Los Angeles, home of most of his sources, as well as the major film libraries. "So much had been written about Judy that I thought my job would be easy," he says, somewhat ruefully. "In fact, it was extremely difficult, because so much that was in those books and articles was untrue, incomplete or misleading. I had to start from scratch. In Get Happy I try not only to tell the real story of Judy Garland, but also to tell the story of one of the most fascinating periods in American life—the Golden Age of Hollywood. I think—I hope—I've succeeded on both counts." Like Capote, Get Happy became an immediate New York Times best-seller. "Gerald Clarke possesses a remarkable gift," wrote Deirdre Donahue in USA Today. "He can explain both the miracle of genius and why those so blessed often end their lives mired in tragedy."
In 2004 Clarke returned to his first subject, Truman Capote, and edited a book of his letters. Too Brief a Treat, he titled it, borrowing a phrase Capote himself used to describe his own pleasure in reading the letters of a good friend. Most reviewers thought the letters were indeed a treat. "As addictive as potato chips," said the critic for the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
That year Clarke also offered help and advice to the team of gifted young film makers who were making a movie based on several chapters of his Capote biography. "I wanted it done right. I felt I owed that to Truman. It would be very easy to make Truman Capote, with his odd voice and peculiar mannerisms, into a caricature. What I happily discovered was that they—the film makers—wanted to do it right. I had long talks with everybody involved—Dan Futterman, the scriptwriter; Bennett Miller, the director; Caroline Baron, the producer; and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star—and I was not stingy with suggestions. Danny calls me the movie's godfather; Bennett refers to me as the enforcer. I prefer to think of myself as their guide through treacherous terrain—the life and times of Truman Capote. Did they get it right? All I can say is that when I watch Phil, I sometimes forget that he's an actor and not the man I knew so well. He doesn't impersonate Truman. For a couple of hours he is Truman."
Reaching theaters in September 2005, Capote won critical praise accorded few other movies. "A film of uncommon strength and insight" was how Roger Ebert described it in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Capote is a movie that doesn't pull its punches. It's a knockout," said Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. To coincide with the release of the movie, Carroll & Graf published a new paperback edition of Clarke's biography.
Though he still writes for magazines—he is a contributor to Architectural Digest—Clarke has shifted his main focus to fiction. He is now working on a novel, set in Europe and the American Midwest, about murder, terror, and the world's oldest mystery. "I am enjoying the writing of it immensely,” he says. "Most days, anyway."
Clarke now lives on the eastern end of Long Island, where he has six acres overlooking a freshwater pond. "It's as quiet a spot as you can find so close to the biggest city in America," he says, "and I never tire of watching my elegant neighbors—the swans that glide, ever so serenely, across that small but lovely body of water. That, to me, is beyond bliss."
© 2006 Gerald Clarke
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