"It is a good practice not to write biographies of the living, unless the author openly chooses one of two opposed paths: hagiography or the political pamphlet, which diverge from reality and are not impartial. What the 'true' image of each of us may be in the end is a meaningless question." - Primo Levi
I had forgotten the late Italian writer's words until rumors about my forthcoming biography of Carly Simon began to circulate two weeks before publication.
The book was supposedly full of wild inaccuracies. Possible plagiarism. It was an unabashed clip job. These accusations started on the internet and spread to the press in New York and Boston. Suddenly my new book began to enjoy a run of publicity one couldn't hope to buy. Carly's father, who founded Simon & Schuster, knew that in publishing, there's no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they get the title of the book right.
My qualifications for writing Carly's life include a long professional relationship with her brother, photographer Peter Simon, going back 45 years. (Our work has appeared together in fifteen books to date.) I've known the Simon family for at least that long. My wife and I were friends with Carly's mother.
I've never really been close to Carly, but we did have a professional friendship. I wrote about her music in Rolling Stone, where I was an editor in the early seventies. In 1988 she asked me to interview her for the cable channel VH-1. In 2004 I interviewed her extensively when she asked me to write the booklet notes for Reflections, a compilation of her hit songs on compact disc.
So when my publisher, Gotham Books, asked for a biography of Carly, I took on the job. Carly had declined several opportunities to write her own story, and I thought it should be done while many of the dramatis personae were still alive. I wrote to Carly and told her what I was doing -- an unauthorized but sympathetic book about her life and times.
Her brother called me a few days later. Carly, he said, had a problem. There was information about her that she didn't want published, and Peter told me what it was. It seemed trivial to me, and I said I would have to think about it.
Carly called the next day. She explained it was important to her and her family that certain things remain unpublished. Again, they seemed unimportant to me, but they were clearly crucial to her. I told Carly that I would co-operate in this matter, and would hope in return that she would help me if questions of accuracy should arise while I was researching the book.
I also offered to let her read the text prior to publication. Carly was agreeable to these conditions, and -- somewhat compromised -- I began my research in early 2009. My working titled was I Believe In Love: The Adventures of Carly Simon.
Over the next two years I interviewed Carly's family, some of her old friends, musicians she had worked with in her 50-year career, neighbors of hers on Martha's Vineyard, and others who had been in and out of her life.
My researcher found literally hundreds of articles and interviews in digital archives and on microfilm. Four books were goldmines of info on Carly's life: memoirs by broadcaster Jonathan Schwartz and record executive Jac Holzman; the late Timothy White's biography of James Taylor, Carly's first husband and the father of her children; and Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller's tripartite biography of Carly, Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
Last June I had dinner at Carly's house, after which she loaned me some memorabilia and an archive of personal photographs to be considered for use in the book. She also loaned me a copy of an unpublished memoir she had worked on in the mid eighties. When all these sources combined with Carly's lyrics, her albums, her videos, plus reams of email correspondence with her, they produced a cornucopia of facts (and some guesses) that I used to produce a text that I completed last September on Martha's Vineyard.
Peter Simon contributed more than 50 photographs, some taken by his father when he and his sisters were children. Then Carly wrote to me that she didn't really believe in love that much anymore, and suggested a new title: More Room In A Broken Heart.
I thought about this. Both titles come from the same song, "Coming Around Again," one of my favorites. And the book I had just written was, indeed, the story of an artist with a broken heart. Although it was late in the day to change the title, my editor and publisher agreed, and the book went into production.
I was encouraged when a Boston Globe reporter asked Carly about the forthcoming biography and she replied, "I know the author, so there's some integrity. He's interviewed me over the years; he knows my family. He's a good guy." When the uncorrected proofs came off the press, I sent them to Carly with a half-serious note that if she liked the book, then I hadn't really done my job. This was in late November.
A few days went by. She wrote to me that the second half of the biography was less interesting than the first half. Then her sister Lucy wrote to me. Carly was upset. Although I had suppressed the information she wanted kept secret, other details -- particularly about her romantic life -- left her feeling overexposed and vulnerable. I explained that Carly used her romances (and breakups) as key sources of songs, the very stuff of her art, and of course this was important to an understanding of her career. I didn't add that some of these details had come to me from Carly herself.
Some more time passed, and Carly asked for two changes to the text. One related to her daughter, Sally Taylor; the other was a remark about someone that she wanted retracted. Then Sally Taylor wrote to me, so I tried to get this done, the managing editor of Gotham Books said it was too late for the first printing; the book had already gone to press. They would change the text in the next printing and failing a next printing, in the paperback edition.
Then things started to get hairy. A letter arrived from a law firm claiming to represent Carly, and demanding certain changes in the text. These demands were rebuffed. Then a man who blogs about celebrities accused me of "possible plagiarism" for quoting a few lines from a story he wrote 23 years ago for a magazine that no longer exists. (This guy somehow, mysteriously, knew that I had sent Carly a postcard from London a few weeks earlier.)
Another early reader claimed on a Carly fan website to detect "inaccuracies" in More Room In A Broken Heart, but couldn't say what they were. Sheila Weller opined on Facebook that my meticulously researched text was a rewrite of old clippings. These calumnies duly made their way into the papers. My 92-year-old mother told me that it wasn't as bad as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but it was still a shonda for the neighbors.
Of course, none of this bothered me -- except that Carly was upset. This is never a good thing. But I had done my best to tell an accurate story about an artist who has meant a lot to me and to a legion of fans over the course of four decades.
I thought about the plagiarism charge. "Plagiarism" is one of those witch-hunt words often used to pillory writers and taint careers. I much prefer the word "copying." To the guy that blogged about "possible plagiarism," I would respond that in my case, "probable plagiarism" was more likely in a 400-page biography covering more than a century in time.
I'm sure that somewhere, in the course of composing thousands of paragraphs, I copied some reporter or interviewer who came before me. It almost has to happen when a writer of history quotes from secondary sources. The fact is that it often can't be helped or is unconscious -- and often also makes for a better read.
So that's the story so far of More Room In A Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon. Readers can judge for themselves when the biography is published this month.
And despite Primo Levy's injunction, I still think it's OK to write a biography of a living subject as long as valorization (and not demonization) is the true intent of both biographer and publisher.