Biography

Hunting and working

7 July 2010 12:00 am

Why are scholars so prone to melancholy? According to the expert, Robert Burton of Christ Church, it is because ‘they live a sedentary, solitary life...

Learning to live with the bomb

7 July 2010 12:00 am

In the autumn of 1962, not more than a couple of weeks after the Cuban missile crisis and with our British fleet of nuclear-armed V-bombers still on high alert, a man called Gervase Cowell, then working in our Moscow embassy, received a phone call.

A flammable individual

30 June 2010 12:00 am

On the night of 18 October 1969, thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo, Palermo, and removed Caravaggio’s Nativity.

Schlock teaser

30 June 2010 12:00 am

The somewhat straightlaced theatre-going audiences of 1880s America, eager for performances by European artistes like Jenny Lind and solid, home-grown, classical actors such as Otis Skinner, were hardly prepared for the on-stage vulgarity that the (usually) Russian and Polish immigrant impressarios, with their particular nous for show-biz, were to unleash into the saloons and fleapits across the young nation.

More than a painter of Queens

30 June 2010 12:00 am

The last words of Hungarian-born portraitist Philip de László, spoken to his nurse, were apparently, ‘It is a pity, because there is so much still to do.’ As Duff Hart-Davis’s biography amply demonstrates, for de László, art — which he regarded as ‘work’ as much as an aesthetic vocation — was both the purpose and the substance of his life.

High priest of bop

23 June 2010 12:00 am

In the Rainbow Grill in New York one evening in 1971, according to Robin D. G. Kelley, Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California, Duke Ellington  halted his band in mid-flow and announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the baddest left hand in the history of jazz just walked into the room, Mr Thelonious Monk.'

A tireless campaigner

23 June 2010 12:00 am

Why haven’t we heard of Phillis Bottome? In her 60-year career she published 33 novels, several of them bestsellers, short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs.

A rather orthodox doxy

16 June 2010 12:00 am

‘His cursed concubine.’ That was the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys’ judgment on Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Keeping the lid on

16 June 2010 12:00 am

For all of the nine years that he worked, first as official spokesman for Tony Blair and then as Director of Communications for the government, Alastair Campbell was obliged to defend a huge lie: that all was well at the heart of the New Labour project when, manifestly, it was not.

Odd men out

16 June 2010 12:00 am

The first game played by the Allahakbarries Cricket Club at Albury in Surrey in September 1887 did not bode well for the club’s future.

Almost a great man

16 June 2010 12:00 am

Of those prime ministers whom the old grammar schools escalator propelled from the bottom to the top of British society since the second world war, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher were in many ways the most alike.

Painting the town together

2 June 2010 12:00 am

This book recounts a terrible story of self-destruction by two painters who, in their heyday, achieved considerable renown in Britain and abroad.

Golden youth or electric eel?

2 June 2010 12:00 am

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was the cleverest and the most ambitious of the gilded gang of young men who swam in the wake of the not-so-young but perennially youthful Raymond Asquith.

Mystery of the empty tomb

2 June 2010 12:00 am

John Henry Newman was an electrifying personality who has attracted numerous biographers and commentators.

Blood relatives

12 May 2010 12:00 am

The last time I saw Benazir Bhutto was at Oxford, over champagne outside the Examination Schools, when she inquired piercingly of a subfusc linguist, ‘Racine? What is Racine?’ Older and richer than most undergraduates, and as a Harvard graduate presumably better educated, she was already world famous, and was obviously not at Oxford to learn about classical tragedy.

Cherchez la femme

12 May 2010 12:00 am

The 22nd Earl of Erroll, Military Secretary in Kenya in the early part of the second world war, was described by two of his fellow peers of the realm as ‘a stoat — one of the great pouncers of all time’ and ‘a dreadful shit who really needed killing’.

Under false colours

5 May 2010 12:00 am

‘With time,’ writes David Remnick, ‘political campaigns tend to be viewed through the triumphalist prism of the winner.’ Never more so, perhaps, than in Remnick’s idolatrous new biography of Barack Obama, which presents the First Black President’s ascension to the White House as nothing less than a glorious saga.

To strive, to seek, to find . . .

21 April 2010 12:00 am

In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’ Watkins returned from an expedition to the white depths of the Greenlandic ice cap.

A bolt from the blue

21 April 2010 12:00 am

The memoirs of the Grand Duchess Olga are an entertaining record for anyone interested in the imperial family’s home life during the last years of Russian autocracy.

Our squandered national treasure

14 April 2010 12:00 am

Torn with grief, Melvyn Bragg has produced a condolence book for the South Bank Show (born 1978, died of neglect, 2010).

Anything for a laugh

14 April 2010 12:00 am

A hundred years ago, when Britannia still ruled the waves, the Royal Navy fell victim to a humiliating hoax, reports of which kept the public amused for a few wintry days in February 1910.

Scourge of the ancien régime

14 April 2010 12:00 am

Voltaire’s was a long and amazing life.

Triumph of the will

7 April 2010 12:00 am

Alistair Urquhart describes himself as ‘a lucky man as well as an angry man’.

Survival of the fittest

7 April 2010 12:00 am

When I was at Eton, many years before David Cameron, much of the school was run by a self-elected society known as ‘Pop’.

Fine artist, but a dirty old man

31 March 2010 12:00 am

I have always been sceptical of those passages in the ‘Ancestry’ chapters of biographies that run something like this: Through his veins coursed the rebellious blood of the Vavasours, blended with a more temperate strain from the Mudge family of Basingstoke.