Meryle Secrest was wearing a tunic and tights, resembling a female Robin Hood, when she arrived to interview Lord Kenneth Clark at the castle he and his wife shared outside Hythe, England.
“I could not have looked any more out of place if I had been carrying a bow and arrow, but Lord Clark, his manners always faultless, rose above it,” Secrest writes in her latest book, Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject.
Clark, art historian and star of the BBC show Civilisation, did more than rise above her outfit. He came on to her, embracing her in his study, professing a love felt since the moment they met back in Georgetown.
By the time Secrest took on writing Clark’s story, she had already completed two successful biographies—one about portrait artist Romaine Brooks and her second, Being Bernard Berenson, which was a Pulitzer finalist in 1980. But the encounter in “K’s” study proved Secrest still had more to learn about figuring out her subjects.
Now in her 70s, the former culture reporter for the Washington Post has nine biographies behind her—from Salvador Dalí to Stephen Sondheim to Frank Lloyd Wright—and, in Shoot the Widow, she digs into the backstories behind them. She knits those tales together with her own story about being a girl from Bath, England, who emigrated to Canada, got a job writing the “women’s pages” of the Hamilton News, and ended up in Northwest, where she lives with her husband, composer Thomas Beveridge.
Secrest, who in 2006 won the National Humanities Medal, wanted to write a straight memoir and sent a proposal off to her editor of 20 years. “But she said, ‘Nobody knows who you are,’ and she was absolutely right,” says Secrest. “So I left it for a year, and then I realized I had all of these stories about the people I had written about. So that’s how I did it.”
The title is an homage to Justin Kaplan, who famously chronicled the life of Mark Twain and wrote that the first rule of writing a biography is to “shoot the widow.” Family involvement, even when it means access and inside stories, can drain the life out of a biography. With Clark, says Secrest, “there were so many people I was afraid of offending. I was so exasperated by the end that I basically said ‘eff off,’ you know, because I couldn’t put up with it anymore.”
Secrest did not have a torrid affair with Clark, but she did discover—and wrote about—both his penchant for girlfriends and his wife’s alcoholism, a fact he had not really faced before the book was published, according to Secrest.
In the course of writing others’ lives, she learned about Dalí’s strange masturbatory fantasies—though she chose not to include them in her book—and discovered that Wright’s carefully tended grave was empty (the architect’s ex-wife had had him exhumed and cremated). Currently, Secrest is working on a biography of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who, she found out, had a girlfriend who was eight months pregnant and committed suicide within 48 hours of his death. Secrest has made contact with her heirs, “so I think I will soon have a new perspective,” she says.
She expects that at some point, as she has with all of the subjects of her biographies, she’ll fall a little in love with Modigliani. It’s necessary, she says: “You don’t want to spend all that time with someone you don’t like very much, do you?”