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Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the controversial first lady of 28th president Woodrow Wilson, had some impressive predecessors. There was women’s rights advocate Abigail Adams, wife of second president John Adams and mother of sixth president John Quincy Adams. During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison, wife of fourth president James Madison, rescued the nation’s treasured artwork from a burning White House. Edith was also followed by trailblazers, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, whose looming legacies have sometimes left Edith in history’s shadow. With Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson, historian Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives Edith her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Edith has no match.

Like several other first ladies, Edith had little formal education. She came from a Virginia family who had been dispossessed after the Civil War and grew up in a crowded apartment above a general store, which she eventually left for Washington, D.C., where a tall, striking beauty like herself could better shine. When she married Norman Galt, a jewelry business owner, she became his helpmate; when he died, she became a working widow. 

Woodrow lost his first wife, Ellen, soon after taking office in 1913. When he was introduced to Edith, he promptly fell in love. He shared with her every aspect of his work, soon darkened by the looming threat of a world war that many Americans wanted no part of. During those early years of her marriage, Edith knew her place—and how to get around it. When women were not allowed at important White House meetings, she hid in drapes to watch. When a stroke left Woodrow incapacitated shortly into his second term, Edith quietly took over, deciding which pieces of news wouldn’t be too stressful for him, who could visit and how to keep everyone, especially his political enemies and the press, from seeing the truth of the president’s condition.

Untold Power brims with details, from the colors of the signature orchids Edith wore to the troubled corners of Woodrow’s mind after his stroke. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge is there, bent on destroying the president’s obsessive quest for a League of Nations, and sheep populate the White House lawn (one of Edith’s successful—and profitable—wartime ideas). This well-told history, based on sources that are often at odds with Edith’s own memoir, also begs the question: How could so much in the White House have gone unseen and unknown for so long? And, chillingly, could it happen again?

With Untold Power, Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives first lady Edith Wilson her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Wilson has no match.

March 14, 2023

Meet America’s first female president—plus three other fascinating figures in new biographies perfect for Women’s History Month

Four nonfiction books about notable American women illuminate their groundbreaking influence on literature, science and politics.

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In 1767, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston via a slave ship at the age of 7. In the years leading up to the start of the American Revolution in 1775, she became famous across New England and in London for her poetry. For all her talent and influence on the issues of her day, such as abolition, emancipation and revolution, the details of Wheatley’s life are still unknown to many. Award-winning historian David Waldstreicher sets out to change that with his in-depth, engrossing biography, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence.

At a time when enslaved—and free—Black people were regarded by many colonists as barely literate “barbarians” and possible threats to Massachusetts’ rebellion against England, Wheatley earned her fame with words. Recognizing her unique ability, Wheatley’s wealthy, white enslavers gave her the time and privacy to write. Her poems, such as “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” were metered, not free verse, and spoke to the intellectual and impassioned Christian beliefs of her times. Wheatley’s elegies for the dead were distributed as broadsides at funerals, and her poems—which managed to praise British soldiers as well as American patriots and abolitionists—were published in newspapers on both sides of the churning political divide. Waldstreicher includes the text of many of Wheatley’s poems, explaining them well for those less familiar with the classical forms she used.

When an enslaved man fled his captors while they were visiting England, the ensuing public and legal controversy revealed the hypocrisy of a group of colonies seeking freedom while allowing slavery to persist. Within this context, Wheatley’s own position was precarious. She often had to prove that a young enslaved Black girl could indeed be a brilliant poet. In 1773, she achieved her emancipation with the help of her many patrons in Boston and England after the publication of her first book—at a time when very few women could get published.

Waldstreicher documents the long, tortuous journeys toward independence for both the poet and the American colonies in The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. Along the way, the likes of Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams cross Wheatley’s path, and events like the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre feature prominently. This account of Wheatley’s life adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.

David Waldstreicher’s engrossing biography of the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.

In 1999, author Kate Zernike, then a reporter for The Boston Globe, broke an enormous story: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had admitted to a long-standing pattern of discrimination against women on its faculty. Zernike, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, tells the full inspiring story in The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.

Zernike begins by focusing on molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins’ life and career path. In the spring of 1963, Hopkins, a Radcliffe junior, became so enthralled by a Harvard lecture on DNA by Nobel Prize winner James Watson that she sought work in his molecular biology lab. But like other women then and now, Hopkins faced difficult choices as she weighed the demands of science against marriage and potential motherhood. Zernike situates the tensions that led to the end of Hopkins’ first marriage within the broader context of the women’s movement of the 1960s. Eventually Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971, and by 1973, she had accepted a position at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research.

While the biographical sections are intriguing, Zernike’s narrative picks up speed in the later portions of the book, which delve into the ways male colleagues appropriated Hopkins’ work and used it for financial gain. By the 1990s, Hopkins realized that “a woman’s work would never be valued as highly as a man’s. It had taken her twenty years to see it—she’d understood it about other women before she’d realized it was true for her, too.”

Hopkins’ revelation led her to reach out to female colleagues, resulting in a letter by 16 women at MIT compiling evidence of discrimination, including unequal access to research resources and pay. The women spent the next four years doing fact-finding as a committee, and by March of 1999, they had compiled a report. Although it was only scheduled to appear in a faculty newsletter, news of the report reached Zernike’s ears—and when Zernike’s article appeared on the front page of the Globe, the story took off. Hopkins arrived on campus the next day to camera crews, and she received emails from women across the world. Overnight, MIT became a “pacesetter for promoting gender equality,” and other universities soon undertook similar efforts to examine their biases.

Zernike closes her narrative with updates on Hopkins’ continued successful career, short bios of the 16 women who signed the original letter and an examination of the progress for women in academia—and the work still to be done. These women’s efforts—and the subsequent impact this revelation had for women across academia—make for a gripping, page-turning read.

Kate Zernike’s impeccably researched book about MIT’s discrimination against its female faculty members is both enlightening and inspiring.
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Everyone should know the story of Ellen and William Craft, the subjects of Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom. In 1848, Ellen, a light-skinned Black woman, disguised herself as a wealthy, young white man in a wheelchair. William, her husband, accompanied Ellen as an enslaved man, tending to his “master’s” needs. Together they traveled in disguise from the mansion in Georgia where they were enslaved to freedom in the North. Every step of their journey depended on them keeping their wits about them, especially for Ellen. Ship captains, train conductors and even a friend of her enslaver were fooled by Ellen’s ability to perform a role that transformed her demeanor in every conceivable way—from woman to man, Black to white, slave to master. Their self-emancipation was a triumph of courage, love and intelligence.

Yet the Crafts’ story is more than a romantic adventure, and Woo does an excellent job of providing historical context for the dangers they faced without losing the thread of a terrific story. The Crafts’ lives were not magically transformed merely by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Woo explains. The North, while free, was still hostile territory for self-emancipated Black people, with rampant bigotry and racism even among abolitionists. However, the greatest danger to Ellen and William was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required everyone to return formerly enslaved people to their enslavers and forced the Crafts into exile in England until after the Civil War.

The real strength of Master Slave Husband Wife comes from Woo’s exploration of how Ellen was perceived and treated after her spectacular escape catapulted her into celebrity. Woo, whose earlier book, The Great Divorce, explored another convention-defying 19th-century woman, makes the excellent point that Ellen’s method of escape was not only brilliant but transgressive, defying conventions of gender and race. Even the fair skin tone that allowed her to pass as white was the product of generations of rape, giving the lie to myths of the “happy slave.” With empathy and admiration, Woo details Ellen’s quiet refusal to conform to the racist, classist and sexist expectations of her enemies, benefactors, supporters and even her husband. Thanks to Woo, Ellen is finally at the center of her own story as someone who heroically challenged America’s myths of equality and freedom.

Ilyon Woo tells the remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who came up with an ingenious and daring plan to emancipate themselves from slavery.

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Four nonfiction books about notable American women illuminate their groundbreaking influence on literature, science and politics.

Geniuses seem to inhabit a world apart from mere mortals like us. But they don’t, as the irreverent and entertaining Edison’s Ghosts makes clear. Debut author and science writer Katie Spalding has mined history, biography and psychology to turn the cult of genius on its head, shining a sassy light on the idiosyncrasies of some of history’s greatest minds. People traditionally held up as geniuses, she demonstrates, still fit under the heading of “everyone is an idiot.” Although, “Maybe it’s just the apparent contrast between what we expect from these figures and what we get.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, whom Spalding compares to a modern child star with an extremely pushy stage dad. After a childhood under his father’s thumb, Mozart turned out to be “kind of a handful.” Spalding unearths unusual bits of trivia about the musical prodigy, including the fact that Mozart apparently never outgrew a juvenile sense of bathroom humor, and that he believed babies should be fed on water. (Only two of his six children survived to adulthood.)

As for the title essay, “Thomas Edison’s Lesser-Known Invention: Dial-a-Ghost,” it turns out the prolific inventor had a formidable PR presence. “Basically, you can think of Edison as a sort of proto-Elon Musk,” Spalding writes. But unlike the Tesla, the rubber never met the road on Edison’s “Spirit Phone” for communicating with the dead. That didn’t keep Edison from claiming that the device would operate solely by scientific methods, however. And while he was ridiculed during his life for this idea, and biographers later claimed he couldn’t have been serious, Spalding unearthed a French version of a book of Edison’s writings that includes actual sketches for his design. 

Edison’s Ghosts can certainly be read from front to back, but you may find yourself so intrigued by some of the chapter titles that you decide to skip around. For what burgeoning philosopher can resist plunging right into “Confucius Was an Ugly Nerd With Low Self-Esteem”? Likewise, biology enthusiasts will hardly be able to resist turning first to “Charles Darwin: Glutton; Worm Dad; Murderer?”

Spalding includes chapters (and hilarious footnotes) about many other historical figures, including Leonardo da Vinci, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud. While the essays are tongue-in-cheek, they’re also well researched, informative and absolutely fun. Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover with a sense of humor.

Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover as it illuminates all the stupid things that famously smart people have done throughout history.

“On December 5, 1955, a young Black man became one of America’s founding fathers. He was twenty-six years old and knew that the role he was taking carried a potential death penalty.” With these riveting opening sentences, journalist and author Jonathan Eig pulls readers into King: A Life, his vibrantly written biography of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This monumental book takes King down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.

King: A Life draws on recently released FBI documents, as well as other new materials, including audiotapes recorded by Coretta Scott King in the months after her husband’s death, an unpublished memoir by King’s father and unaired television footage. In cinematic fashion, Eig follows King from his childhood through his seminary and graduate school days, his marriage and his steady insistence on the reformation of a society broken by racism. As Eig points out, King developed a rhetorical style and shaped a new moral vision when he spoke to the crowd gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church to rally in support of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. “On this night, King found a new voice,” he writes. “He discovered or sensed that his purpose was not to instruct or educate; his purpose was to prophesize. With a booming voice and strident words, he marked the path for himself and for a movement.”

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King felt that the work he had begun in Montgomery was validated, but he recognized that the movement would be incomplete if it remained confined to the South. King desired to “root out racism” all over America, Eig writes, in all its “hidden and subtle and covert disguises.” He also began to turn his attention to issues beyond civil rights for Black Americans, focusing on poverty and the war in Vietnam. By the time he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support the sanitation workers’ strike, King was exhausted, wondering whether the “arc of justice would not bend toward freedom.” In spite of his fatigue and the lack of broader racial reform in the U.S., King refused to give up hope. On the last day of his life, he thundered in his “Promised Land” speech, “I may not get there with you. But . . . we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

Eig candidly asserts that “in hallowing King we have hollowed him.” King: A Life makes him a real human being again, one who had affairs, smoked and drank, got angry and even plagiarized. But Eig encourages readers to “embrace the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King” if we are to achieve the kind of change King himself preached in America.

Jonathan Eig’s monumental biography takes Martin Luther King Jr. down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.
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In 2018, a group of protestors demanded the removal of a statue in New York City of J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology.” Sims was given this title for inventing a surgery in the mid-1800s to treat vesico-vaginal fistulas, holes between someone’s vagina and bladder or intestines (or both) that are usually caused by difficult childbirth. He developed his technique through horrific experiments performed on three enslaved women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, without either anesthesia or meaningful consent. Anarcha endured at least 30 experiments, but her condition never improved, mainly because Sims’ approach was ineffective—and frequently fatal. Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health is Guggenheim fellow J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of Sims and Anarcha.

Sims, a shameless self-promoter, provided Hallman with an ample record to work with. His memoirs, articles and newspaper notices (written primarily by Sims himself) make it clear that he was dangerously, violently misogynist and racist. Cloaked by his medical degree and bolstered by a system that transformed human beings into disposable property, Sims was able to perform acts of brutality on Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha with impunity. And they were not his only victims: After perfecting his “cure,” Sims and his adherents maimed or killed women of all classes, from enslaved people to countesses.

Hallman’s greater challenge was reconstructing Anarcha’s life. The structure of chattel slavery ensured that the few references to Anarcha in the historical record merely reflected her status as property, leaving Hallman with the dilemma of how to tell the true story of a woman whom history had almost entirely erased. Historian Tiya Miles confronted a similar issue in All That She Carried, a brilliant reconstruction of the life of another enslaved woman and her descendants. Like Miles, Hallman uses the technique of “creative fabulation”—consulting various oral and written histories from Anarcha’s lifetime to creatively fill in the gaps within an archive distorted by racism and misogyny. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic speculative portrait of a woman who would otherwise remain anonymous.

Double biographies are fairly unusual and tend to be about people who were linked together in the minds of their contemporaries. But Anarcha was not associated with Sims in the public mind because Sims took great pains to ensure that she would not be—not because of any shame he felt about exploiting an enslaved woman but because the recurrence of her fistulas belied Sims’s narrative. Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care.

Say Anarcha is J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of the so-called “father of gynecology” and the enslaved woman he experimented on without anesthesia or meaningful consent.
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New York City-based book publicist-turned-writer Amelia Possanza dedicates her book “to all the queers, ordinary and extraordinary, whose names have been destroyed by history, and to the rosy-fingered custodians of the queer archive.” Possanza is one such rosy-fingered custodian, a queer person attracted to the archives not just to understand history but also to understand her own story. “I was certain that if I uncovered enough lesbians in history, they would reveal a message or a lesson, a blueprint of how I might build my own life,” she writes.

Possanza’s debut book, Lesbian Love Story, is part archival research and part memoir. It includes seven chapters, each of which historicizes a lesbian love story. While the chapter on Sappho harkens back to antiquity, the other six span the 1890s through the 1990s, offering a lively lesbian mix: golf star Babe Didrikson Zaharias, groundbreaking memoirist Mary Casal, Chicana activist and writer Gloria Anzaldua and others. Possanza digs into the details of their lives with passionate engagement, frequently turning the narrative from the archival subject back to herself and exploring personal topics vis-a-vis these historical women: gender identity, the vagaries and politics of cross-dressing, the insidious narrowness of second-wave feminism, friendship, power dynamics in relationships and, most of all, obsessive love.

“In case it isn’t obvious yet,” Possanza writes in a late chapter, “I am an unforgivable romantic. I love love. Not as a means to an end, a steppingstone on the path to marriage and children, but as a surrender to passion, even when it’s surely doomed. Obsessive, selfish love that feasts on its own ruin.” As she unearths these romantic stories, Possanza also identifies the gaps within them, the moments when she wants to know more. To fill these silences, she imagines the scenes she longs to see, engaging with history not as a disembodied historian but as a young lesbian who wants answers, who wants to find her people. Though a blueprint does not, and cannot, neatly emerge from this sea of stories, Possanza does find the space, movement and complexity provided by a multifaceted past to buoy her ongoing becoming.

Amelia Possanza weaves her own memories through seven moving lesbian love stories from the archives in her debut book.

Most art thefts are simply for financial gain. The thieves, often opportunistic crooks and rarely art connoisseurs themselves, view their stolen masterworks as loot to be fenced. Stéphane Breitwieser is different. Growing up in the Alsace region of France, he fell in love with art and artifacts under his grandfather’s tutelage, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had begun to steal compulsively from museums, auction houses and even churches. In eight years, often aided by his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine, he filched more than 300 irreplaceable works—including small oil paintings, silver chalices, ivory sculptures, tapestries and a historic bugle—estimated to be worth billions. When he was ultimately caught, Breitwieser said his sole motivation for stealing was to surround himself with beauty. He never sold anything he procured but instead displayed it all in a cramped attic room he and Anne-Catherine occupied in his mother’s house.

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by journalist Michael Finkel is a fascinating account of Breitwieser’s crime spree that attempts to understand the mind of this criminal aesthete. This proves a herculean task, since Breitwieser’s singular condition has defied clear-cut diagnosis by a passel of mental health experts, but Finkel’s re-creation of the thief’s nefarious activities is nonetheless a riveting ride. As the only American journalist who was granted interviews with Breitwieser, Finkel spent some 40 hours with him, even accompanying the now ex-con on visits to some of the museums and churches from which he once stole. From this personally reported material, as well as other interviews and documentation, Finkel has fashioned an engrossing true crime narrative—mostly told in present-tense prose to heighten the drama—that takes readers along on Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine’s daring robberies, quite often carried out in plain sight. 

The Breitwieser whom Finkel deftly portrays is a social misfit, a virtuoso of stealth, an inveterate moocher and, most of all, a self-deluded hero. (He claims he is protecting and preserving the art by stealing it.) Anne-Catherine seems a complicit accomplice—a lovestruck Bonnie to her cultured Clyde—until Breitwieser is caught and the tables turn. Breitwieser’s enabling, much-in-denial mother, meanwhile, alters the course of events in a way that will shock and disturb art and history lovers. Obsessive crime, dangerous beauty, ill-fated love: The Art Thief is the stuff of noir fiction, made all the more compelling and audacious for its authenticity.

Stéphane Breitwieser stole more than 300 irreplaceable artworks. Journalist Michael Finkel now attempts to understand why this criminal aesthete hoarded those treasures in his attic.
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“The woman who emerges from these pages is as riveting as her books” (The Wall Street Journal) in this Edgar Award–nominated celebration of the famously private V.C. Andrews—featuring family photos, personal letters, a partial manuscript for an unpublished novel, and more.

Best known for her internationally, multi-million-copy bestselling novel Flowers in the Attic, Cleo Virginia Andrews lived a fascinating life. Born to modest means, she came of age in the American South during the Great Depression and faced a series of increasingly challenging health issues. Yet, once she rose to international literary fame, she prided herself on her intense privacy.

Now, The Woman Beyond the Attic aims to connect her personal life with the public novels for which she was famous. Based on Virginia’s own letters, and interviews with her dearest family members, her long-term ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman tells Virginia’s full story for the first time.

Perfect for anyone hoping to learn more about the enigmatic woman behind one of the most important novels of the 20th century, The Woman Beyond the Attic will have you transfixed from the first page.

This Edgar Award–nominated celebration of the famously private V.C. Andrews features family photos, personal letters, a partial manuscript for an unpublished novel, and more.

Patti Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life is the first comprehensive biography of the great American playwright, who died 18 years ago at the age of 60. Hartigan, a theater critic and arts reporter who knew Wilson professionally, has done her homework in parsing Wilson’s complicated story from many layers of half-truths and myths, some of which were propagated by the legendary raconteur himself during his lifetime. The result is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.

An autodidact who learned to read by age 4, Wilson was born Freddy Kittel and grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the largely Black neighborhood that he would immortalize in his plays. Wilson’s father was white—and for complex psychological reasons still left largely unexplored in this book, Wilson spent his life convinced he had a different white father than his siblings. However, Wilson identified exclusively as Black. His mother arranged the best education she could for her brilliant son, but he repeatedly faced skepticism and racism, and he never finished high school. Aspiring to be a poet, Wilson dove into the nascent Black arts scene in Pittsburgh, where his writing talents were put to use in local theater productions. Confident in his abilities and focused on his ambitions, he began sending unwieldy scripts to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

When he was finally accepted with what was at the time a four-and-a-half-hour version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson quickly took the theater world by storm. Just a few years later, he was on Broadway and had won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. The playwright, known for his powerful and poetic monologues, soon embarked on a daunting project: a 10-play cycle that would hold a mirror up to the experiences of Black people in 20th century America, decade by decade. He finished the last play just months before his premature death.

In her five-year-long excavation of August Wilson’s family history, Patti Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories the celebrated playwright created and the actual past he never fully knew. 

The man Hartigan profiles is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a generous, congenial companion who could at times seethe with rage; a lover of women who often gave them short shrift in his plays; a storytelling seer who made well-drawn specifics of the Black experience speak to audiences across racial barriers. August Wilson: A Life is a worthy and overdue first biography that will trigger new conversations about a magnificent playwright and the origins of his talent.

August Wilson: A Life is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.
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“Marriage is so unlike anything else,” writes George Eliot in Middlemarch. “There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” By the time that novel was published in 1871, Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was 17 years into her partnership with George Lewes, himself an author and member of the mid-19th-century intelligentsia. Lewes was already married when he met Eliot but had long been estranged from his wife, who by that time had given birth to multiple children with another man. Eliot and Lewes determined to form their own sort of marriage despite being unable to marry legally; they even set off on a honeymoon to Germany. That excursion led to a lifelong union that became the complicated scandal of Eliot’s life, making her “unfit” for drawing room visits and causing her family to shun her, even as she penned wildly successful novels.

It’s impressive how King’s College London professor Clare Carlisle (Philosopher of the Heart) finds her way inside this deeply intimate partnership in The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life. Though Lewes was more exuberant and extroverted, Eliot guarded her private life closely. She had a deep desire for acceptance and love, which possibly led her to gloss over uncomfortable problems in her partnership with Lewes. On the one hand, Lewes was Eliot’s first cheerleader, encouraging her through her professional endeavors and proudly promoting her work in the literary sphere. On the other hand, Lewes could be difficult in ways that were typical for a Victorian husband. For example, the immense earnings from Eliot’s work were deposited into Lewes’ bank account, and he availed himself of them freely. He could also sometimes be controlling, according to Carlisle’s narrative, basking a little too much in Eliot’s reflected glory.

Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of Eliot’s novels and verse, Carlisle examines what marriage has been historically and what it is today, noting that it is as sticky and complex as ever. In many ways, Eliot’s relationship was thoroughly modern: an unsanctified union with a female breadwinner who struggled to balance the demands of parenting with the time and space she needed to work. Carlisle demonstrates that Eliot’s thoughts on marriage were reflected in her work as she picked through romantic joys and frustrations, ruminating over the what-could-have-beens that haunt every long partnership.

There are no neat answers to Eliot’s marriage questions—“whether to marry, whom to marry, how to live in a marriage, whether to remain married,” as Carlisle summarizes it. Instead, The Marriage Question is a deep examination of long partnership—how it affects us, how it is negotiated—through Eliot’s deliciously thoughtful prose and reflective journal entries. Carlisle has written a book that seems to tell us a story about others but instead deeply informs us about ourselves.

Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of George Eliot’s novels and verse, Clare Carlisle examines the sticky, complex concept of marriage.
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Patti Hartigan was a self-described “baby theater critic” when she met August Wilson in 1987. The two were chatting at the National Critics Institute at the famed O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and Wilson asked if Hartigan had seen his play Fences, which was then the talk of Broadway. “Being green and subsisting on a freelancer’s pitiful wages,” she recalls in her debut book, August Wilson: A Life, “I blurted out, ‘My mother saw it, but I can’t afford a ticket.’ The minute I said it, I wished I could take it back.” But the next day, Hartigan received a note that two tickets would be waiting for her at the box office.

This act of generosity toward a fledgling critic was emblematic of Wilson, Hartigan would discover. After landing at the Boston Globe as theater critic and arts reporter, she built a rapport with Wilson over the years, talking with him whenever he opened a play at the city’s Huntington Theatre. Then in January 2005, with Wilson poised to complete his monumental 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle—one play about Black life in America set in every decade in the 20th century—Hartigan flew to Seattle to interview him for a celebratory piece. Neither she nor Wilson yet knew that a fast-spreading cancer would lead to his death just a few months later. He managed to complete the final play, Radio Golf, under great physical and mental strain, and when he died in October 2005, the world mourned the loss of a voice that had changed the landscape of the American theater.

“He didn’t want to be the first. But certainly, in carving out room in American theater for Black playwrights . . . he paved the way.”

But “time passed and there was no biography,” Hartigan says in a video call. “I decided someone has to do this, and because I knew him, I decided to jump in.” The first-time biographer spent five years researching and writing August Wilson: A Life, an accomplished work that not only takes full measure of the playwright’s career but also delves into his childhood and ancestry to unearth a family history that Wilson himself did not fully know. Hartigan would even climb a mountain in Spear, North Carolina, where generations of Wilson’s strong-willed antecedents were born. Wilson himself never undertook that journey, saying that he wrote from “the blood’s memory” rather than doing research. Yet again and again, Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories he created and his family’s actual past.

Patti Hartigan

Wilson is largely associated with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, specifically its Hill District, where he set all but one play in his monumental cycle. The Hill is where his mother, Daisy, and others in the family settled during the Great Migration, and it’s where Wilson was born in 1945 and grew up. His singular intelligence was apparent from an early age, and Daisy made sure he was educated in the best parochial and public schools. But his intelligence could not shelter him from endemic racism, and after being belittled and undervalued at school, he dropped out at just 15. (Years later, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh awarded the autodidact a high school diploma, an honor he cherished alongside his two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards.)

Read our starred review of ‘August Wilson: A Life.’

Wilson’s earliest literary aspiration was as a poet, which Hartigan says is hardly surprising given the soaring poetry of his monologue-driven plays. His move into theater was both accidental and serendipitous, coinciding with the politically fueled Black literary movement of the 1970s, which played out in neighborhood theaters in Pittsburgh. Wilson was driven, and when he learned about the O’Neill Conference—arguably the preeminent play development opportunity available at the time—he began submitting a play each year. He was met with rejection after rejection until 1982, when he received the coveted telegram from artistic director Lloyd Richards. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had been selected.

Richards was perhaps the most influential Black theater maker of the age—he was the first African American to direct a play on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun—and “a presence like no other,” says Hartigan. He took Wilson under his wing and played a major role in the playwright’s progress. When asked if she thought there would have been an August Wilson without a Lloyd Richards, Hartigan admits there is no way of knowing, but probably not. “The two of them fed each other. August would come with a play that was four and a half hours long, and Lloyd could cut it down and streamline it and ask the right questions,” she says. “But the relationship was key for both men. Lloyd’s career had a resurgence when he began working with August.” The professional falling-out that came later, which Hartigan thoughtfully chronicles, was painful. “Both were right and both were wrong, and it’s a tragedy. Yet you can praise the relationship that was.”

Hartigan, clearly a great admirer of Wilson and his work, is nonetheless forthright in her appraisal of both. She does not shy away from portraying the playwright’s flaws as a man, a husband, a father. More than once she addresses the frequent observation that, with a few notable exceptions, Wilson’s female characters are weak. “I think the criticism is warranted,” she says. “Yet I’ve seen later productions where the women are painted in by just the direction [of the play]. So I think there might be a little more to the women [in Wilson’s plays] than we initially thought.”

The August Wilson Estate declined to grant permission to Hartigan to quote from his intimate letters or from some of his early writings, a decision she regrets because “paraphrasing just can’t do him justice.” Yet she manages to capture Wilson’s voice well. “He didn’t want to be exceptionalized,” she says. “He didn’t want to be the first. But certainly, in carving out room in American theater for Black playwrights—and the subject matter that he was able to bring to the stage—he paved the way.”

Patti Hartigan spent five years researching and writing August Wilson: A Life, an accomplished work that takes full measure of the playwright’s career and life.
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Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was Hollywood’s first great Chinese American actress. At 15, she had her first starring role in a silent film. Shortly thereafter, she played opposite film legend Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (at 5 feet, 7 inches, she was taller than him). She was a friend, and perhaps a lover, of Marlene Dietrich. A brilliant student of accents and languages, she successfully made the fraught transition from silent film to “talkies” and, later, to television.

As Yunte Huang’s fascinating biography Daughter of the Dragon clearly shows, however, Wong’s career was consistently hampered by racist, sexist and ageist strictures. She embodied the problematic archetypes of submissive Asian women in relationships with powerful white men as well as the devious, sexually powerful Asian women often called dragon ladies. One Hollywood rule, for example, prevented women of color from kissing a white man on screen. This kept Wong from romantic leading roles, for which her talents and beauty seemed so well suited. Stalled by such barriers, Wong went to Germany, learned the language and starred in smash hits like Song. Later, after being passed over for a role in the film version of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth, despite the writer’s desire for the film to star Chinese actors, Wong went to China just to study Chinese drama, with the hopes of bringing this classical form home.

Huang, a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, offers a rich and complex view of Wong’s life and times. His book is less an intimate, psychological biography than a revealing look at Wong’s experience within the history of the era and its flow of cultural biases. Many chapters, like one on the ghettoized origins of Chinese laundries and Hollywood’s strangely enduring fascination with Los Angeles’ Chinatown, are as illuminating as they are unexpected. Huang offers penetrating descriptions of the making of some of Wong’s most famous movies, bringing to light Wong’s abilities and the prejudices and challenges she faced in trying to succeed. During her stay in China, for example, Wong was feted as a breakthrough star and also berated as an actor who presented shameful Chinese stereotypes. When questioned by local reporters, she noted that as an actor she rarely had the power to choose her parts but could only take what she was offered.

A reader is left thinking that what Anna May Wong was offered was never quite what she was worth. Wong died at 52, perhaps of alcoholism and definitely in financial distress. Of the rules that constrained her career, Huang writes, “these puritanical and overly racist guidelines became a virtual form of foot-binding for Anna May, shackling her career ambitions for the rest of her life.”

This major biography of Anna May Wong, Hollywood's first great Chinese American actress, is a revealing look at her startling talent and the limitations she faced due to racism and cultural biases.
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If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had an idle moment when they met in 1941 to hammer out the Atlantic Charter, they might have talked about Roosevelt’s stamp-collecting or Churchill’s painting. It is perhaps less likely they chatted about one big thing they actually had in common: Strong, intelligent American mothers, widowed young, who provided them with plenty of runway for political takeoff.

Not that Jennie Jerome Churchill or Sara Delano Roosevelt would have liked each other much. Although both were daughters of rich upper-class New Yorkers, their personalities were starkly different. Jennie had a reckless streak (like her father and Winston) and was prone to problematic romances, while Sara waited to marry until she found a wealthy, serious older man in her own social circle. Nevertheless, as well-known Canadian author Charlotte Gray shows in her dual biography Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons, 19th-century culture shaped both into women who believed influence was only attainable through men. 

Jennie’s life was sufficiently flamboyant that she has attracted a number of biographers; Sara was more conventional, and she tends to be dismissed by historians as possessive and overbearing. She was indeed formidable, but her real story is more complex. Through detailed historical research and scenic retellings, Gray makes a persuasive case that Franklin and Winston depended on their mothers’ devotion, influence and money.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had to battle out of what they saw as Sara’s smothering embrace, but Sara effectively raised their five children while the couple built public careers. After Sara’s death, Eleanor consistently denigrated her mother-in-law, but the children spoke of Sara with affection and gratitude. In contrast, Jennie was no grandmotherly nurturer. Aside from the important political help she provided her first husband and eldest son, her accomplishments included chartering wartime hospital ships and learning piano from a friend of Chopin.

Had they been born a century later, one can imagine Jennie as a supermodel-turned-Hollywood producer and Sara as a Fortune 500 CEO. Instead, Gray tells us, they funneled their prodigious energies into their statesmen sons, both of whom were profoundly impacted by their fascinating and formidable mothers.

Charlotte Gray paints a new, insightful portrait of two mothers who gave their statesmen sons the irreplaceable gift of total self-confidence.

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