Even I sometimes wonder but am consistently reminded why. As a biographer, researcher, art critic and writer, tedious as tracking these things can be, it’s worth the effort. A case in point is Romaine Brooks and her vague connection to the Bonapartes’ family tree. The question as to which branch comes up in her memoir and now — suddenly — in a Barney letter that is for sale on eBay. One path leads to another entirely.
Independent of the Bonaparte question, tracking down the connection becomes more interesting when you consider that it will establish a date for when Natalie was in Nice visiting Romaine. It requires re-reading of other biographers to see if they are aware of the resulting dates. After that, there’s the cross-referencing of information as the pieces of various puzzles begin to fall into place. And then it’s back to re-checking my chronology of Brooks’ life to see if everything fits.
This is why the small details count in the larger picture of reconstructing a subject’s life and understanding how they lived it as much as anyone removed from a life can.
If you want to read a fictionalized adventure in biography, try Possession. For added enjoyment, see the film.
I never started out as a biographer. It was always about how I took in the picture before me, tasted it, rolled it over, let it sit in my sensorium, and savored all its flavor — appreciating the artistry of the maker; composition, color, execution, emotions. In short, I was able to follow along when an artist grabbed me with just one look and took me to places both familiar and strange.
From childhood, even as a small toddler, I’ve had this uncanny ability to experience words and pictures in the most intense way. It was one of these experiences (as I write in my introduction to Romaine Brooks: A Life (forthcoming from University of Wisconsin press in 2015) that set me on a 44-year course of investigation. I left me with a need to know so intense that throughout my academic and teaching career I felt compelled to follow the elusive trail that Beatrice Romaine Goddard (Brooks) had forged.
An Intriguing Subject…and Audience
It began with the first scholarly/critical article to be written in America on Brooks’s intriguing, chromatically painted portraits. I followed up with a lecture that garnered the attendance of an ACLU representative from Florida International University. This was, after all, the early 1970s, and I was an out lesbian dealing with an out subject and painter of lesbian and gay subjects. Over the years I continued to write critical commentary on any Brooks articles and/or essays that appeared.
Finally, in 2000, after reading yet another essay sidestepping the problems of Brooks’s complicated relationship with D’Annunzio and right-wing conservative politics of the period, my frustrations propelled me to deal with the issue head-on. I then published two more articles to set the framework for an in-depth look at Romaine’s fascist aesthetics in my new book.
Thus, the Accidental Biographer
In order to unearth the truth of Romaine’s life, I had to become an accidental biographer. That determination set me on a course I never intended to take. If you truly want to understand the real nature of the biographer’s art, you’ll have to read my introduction as to how this studio/art history/philosophy student was compelled to become a reluctant biographer by default.