There is something intensely exciting about starting to write a new book. I don’t mean starting from scratch, I mean that delicious moment when most of the research has been done and you feel it is time to pull a blank page to the fore, to pick up a pen (or keyboard) and write. Although this is my thirteenth book, the sense of thrilling anticipation and out and out terror gets stronger, not weaker. When I wrote Fearless on Everest in 1999, I do not think I had a clue about the enormity of what I was attempting to do. This time I know full well and the pressure is great. It is another biography, my third, and this time it is of a woman. Her place in history is acknowledged by a small coterie of people who understand her unique contribution to the twentieth century. Her name is Audrey Withers and it is quite likely you will never have heard of her but I plan to put that right in my biography.
As the time-frame for this book is very short, it is due to be published early 2020, I thought I would do a quarterly blog with updates as to its progress and to share some of the highs and lows of writing biography. Apart from anything else, it will give me the incentive to be honest with myself about where I am in the process.
Writing historical biography, as opposed to social history, is a challenge on many levels. Key is to keep the central character to the fore in all relationships, however grand or overpowering the other characters might be. And in my case, they are both grand and overpowering. I have Condé Montrose Nast, father of the American magazine publishing empire and one of the most powerful men in early twentieth century New York. Many people I speak to in Britain do not even realise that Condé Nast, who gave his name to the brand, was a real man. But he was. By the time he entered the era about which I am writing he was so rich that he would book a suite at the Ritz with two bedrooms and two bathrooms so that he could have a hot and cold bath in the evening and not have the inconvenience of having to wait for one to drain before refilling it.
Then I have Cecil Beaton, the society photographer who worked for Vogue for over thirty years. At the beginning of the war, when Audrey Withers had just taken over as editor, Beaton was out of favour in New York and it was Audrey who got him reinstated. She needed his brilliant eye and his satiric pen to capture wartime London for her, especially during the Blitz. After Beaton comes the brilliant, brave Lee Miller who worked as Vogue’s war reporter from 1942 and whose reportage from the continent from 1944 onwards occupied in all seventy-seven pages of the magazine over a period of eighteen months, more than that of any other writer or photographer of the era. She was Audrey’s eyes on the ground and it was Audrey’s passion for making Vogue relevant in wartime that shaped her editing of Lee’s articles.
An issue with this book all along has been that Audrey destroyed all Vogue’s archival papers and photographs from its inception in 1924 to 1942 in order to support the wartime paper salvage effort. This action, while noble at the time (I guess), has produced agonies for me and other historians of Vogue because there is nothing extant from that period. Not a letter nor a memo. Just the magazine itself, where reading between the lines has become a dark art.
I have spent two and a half years, the last twelve months full time, researching this biography. My greatest challenge has been to find Audrey’s voice. She was a private person who did her best to cover her tracks in life – and with some degree of success I might add – but I have been able to unearth more than I thought I would thanks to a key find in the archives of Condé Nast in New York in October. Of that more anon.
Most of my research is stored in carefully labelled folders in Drop Box. For biography I order it in character files. Audrey has a folder which contains subfolders on her early life, her education, her employment, her parents, her marriages (a very thin one at present), her official personal details such as birth, death, marriage certificates and the 1939 National Register. Within that folder there is also a file of obituaries and letters, by date, from people who knew her and who have written to me. Beaton has a folder, as does Condé Nast, Lee Miller, Edna Woolman Chase (editor of Vogue worldwide) and so on. Then there are folders with general archive material and these are listed by date and then character. Old editions of Vogue are précised month by month and copy by Audrey highlighted where relevant.
In addition, I have three notebooks full of interviews, observations, pencil notes from my visits to the Tate Archive, the National Archives, Vogue House, Condé Nast, Somerville College and visits to private individuals who worked with Audrey. Those sit on my desk, indexed thanks to the foresight of the designers of Leuchturm 1917. In all it comprises about 500,000 words.
Most of this material will never make it into the book but it serves as background material, a sort of historical tapestry against which Audrey’s life was set. The challenge is to make sure that she is always to the fore and the material does not swamp or obscure her.
On Thursday 3 January I tidied my office in preparation for beginning work on Monday 7, accidentally polishing my desk with oven cleaner rather than furniture polish. The smell was appalling but the desk is thankfully undamaged.
My plan is to write the first draft of 110,000 words by 28 March 2019 then take three days off to walk in the Lake District, write another blog and brace myself for the next three months which will be editing what one of my fellow writers calls the ‘shitty first draft’.
If you are interested, please look out for my next update in a blog on 4 April 2019.