sister, sister

(16 december 2010)

i am still writing letters. and, blessedly, getting letters in return. it is a struggle to comprehend that these letters are, in fact, progress. i put that down to the fact that they inevitably arrive in my life at points of extreme banality.

it is 6 p.m. on a tuesday. i am wearing a nightgown and kneesocks waiting on pasta to boil when i notice the sister has written me back.

oddly, it is news that i keep to myself for several days.

it’s a measure of how spoiled i have become that, upon receiving this letter, i assume it is from the daughter. that it is from the sister is somewhat of a surprise.

thanks to the myriad scope of things one reads when searching for the addresses of famous people on the internet, i know that the sister routinely takes upwards of six months to return autographed photos to her fans. since my letter went out into the world sans a zip code and to an unverified location that was an odd conglomerate of an address the step-brother had given me and one mistyped on fundrace.org, i expected that it was being sent forth into an abyss, never to be heard from again. but just twelve days later, here is a response.

a response that says very little, mind you, but a response nonetheless. the only thing of particular note being that the sister says i am right.

i have explained my project to the sister and she has said, “i think you are certainly right.”

while i kind of already knew that- it being generally accepted historical fact and all- it’s a tremendous relief to have it acknowledged. it feels terribly good to be right, for certain.

i immediately imagine how this can be best incoroporated into my letter of introduction.

voilà!

i gently set this letter from the sister atop the pile of important papers on the floor, approximately six inches from the liter box. satisfied, i hike up my kneesocks and take the pasta off the stove.

the sister

(17 november 2010)

writing biography is like being blanche dubois. you’ve nothing except the kindness of strangers upon which to rely.

you hope they will remember. that they will talk. to you. that they will not die and take their secrets with them.

i’m writing a letter to the sister. the brother and the sister did not get along and the brother does not have the sister’s address and so i am sending this letter to the sister to an address the brother gave me at which the sister’s daughter may or may not still live in the hopes that it will reach the sister’s daughter who will then pass my letter along to the sister and the sister will then write me back.

that’s a whole heap of contingencies. particularly for a letter on which i forgot to include a return address.

i’ve written the sister before. seven years ago, i wrote her about this very thing. with my letter i included a list of 27 questions, most of them featuring separate bullet points. i pray she does not remember that. at this point, 10 seems a brazen liberty to take with someone’s time.

the sister is endlessly fascinating. she inspires an admixture of slight pity and extreme awe.

i do not expect she will write back. but i’ve gotten rather accustomed to the receipt of famous mail and there’s a part of me that’s getting cocky, spoiled by the people who have written back, even if only to say they don’t remember.

i want her to write back because she’s The Sister and she may have biographically important things to say and blah blah blah.

but mostly, i want her to write back so i can have a piece of paper with that handwriting. the handwriting that is just a few genetic degrees removed from jackie’s, which i know better than my own.

oh yeah.

(8 november 2010)

I am meant to be researching a Jackie book. I forgot this. Like, seriously, for a full week it was wiped from my mind.

I’m pretty sure this would not happen to a real biographer. No real biographer would be so engrossed in writing blog posts for an audience of 12 and reading Cold Mountain that she would completely forget about a project that has been rolling around in her head for the last 10 years.

It is hard not to be discouraged.

Because I need to go to Newport and yet I have no questions to ask once I get there. I have impressive letters. I am authorized(ish). And yet I have nothing.

An email from The Famous Artist’s wife has sat for two weeks in my inbox. They are waiting to answer questions. Sadly, I have none.

I am writing about something about which no one has written. Something no one who was involved and is still alive seems to remember.

I am tempted to call The Brother just to chat. He told me she loved parades. I know her so well and I did not know that.

I have written a book. Way back in 2004. I was 23 and didn’t know any better. I worked all day and would go home and write from 5 to 10. I remember nothing about living in Memphis beyond sitting before a 1999 Dell Dimension XPS T500 and a pile of magazines.

This was back before I had friends and parties and Chicago and wine.

That is why I did not want to do this. Writing is great, but living is so much more fun.

And I wonder sometimes if there is no point.

In 1949, Jacqueline Bouvier went to France. She lived at 76 avenue mozart. She was seen riding a motorcycle. She dated a diplomat’s son. She later said of the experience, “I loved it more than any year of my life.”

This is what we know. And maybe that’s enough.

we real cool

(1 november 2010)

the pile of important papers that i keep less than six inches away from the liter box is the organizational equivalent of my physical response to being a biographer.

a friend pointed this out the other day. look at you, trying to play it cool, she said.

i’m pretty sure it’s a bad act. i’m pretty sure she could see. i was totally busting out on the inside.

the problem is that while i know that what i’m trying to do is cool, and while most everyone i know who knows what i’m doing knows it’s cool, i don’t want everyone else knowing i know, because then they’ll know and i’d rather they not know in case it doesn’t pan out. if only i know i know how cool it is, only i will know how badly it blew up. you know?

you may have noticed how cool i was up there. in my use of the intransitive verb. my stubborn refusal to admit that i’m actually already doing this thing i say i’m trying to do.

it’s hard. being this cool.

way back in the early spring, when i was working for a fellow biographer, i went strolling down dearborn with a friend. i told him about her excitement. about how she was so enthusiastic about this project. about how she said i had to do it. NOW. when he eagerly assented, i recoiled as though he’d turned the cupcakes in my hand to snakes. much to my horror (and slight amusement), months later this is still my first response.

for the last eight years i’ve wrestled with the notion of how one becomes a biographer. now i’ve reconciled myself to the idea that maybe that’s what i should be- really, what i’ve been all along- i’m having the damnedest time owning it. and i’m discovering that my unwillingness to take myself seriously has an ocular manifestation involving, quite possibly, the most devastating eye-roll of all time.

an eye-roll so spectacular that it undercuts 15 years of study, a thesis, a $64,000 education, an archive of 379 magazines plus a 242 page book to make me look like an ungracious teen.

awesome.

i do not know why i do this. i do not know why i can’t stop. maybe because i am not a proper adult or because i’m a silly girl. maybe because sincerity is fearsome and failure is worse. maybe because i cannot take risks without first elegantly draping them in the fiercest possible sarcasm. or maybe i’m just being ridiculous. it could well be that simple. i really don’t know.

in the meantime, i play it cool. i keep moving forward. i try to exert facial control.

and, as though letters from the daughters of iconic american women came rolling into my house every day, i toss everything onto the pile on the floor, approximately six inches from the liter box. the pile that the cat has taken to sitting on as though it weren’t a book in the making but, rather, a throne.

2 words, 15 letters, 6 vowels

(21 october 2010)

mail from famous people is impossibly scary to open. the simple fact that it might have been caressed by famous hands or licked by famous lips (or more likely the hands and lips of those in their employ) lends such missives a distinctive fragility. as though they were highly bruiseable, like an infant or a thin-skinned fruit.

as the recent recipient of celebrated correspondence, i’ve observed that, when given the opportunity, people exhibit an extraordinary reluctance to handle said correspondence themselves.

i should be more clear. the correspondence they will handle. it is the envelop they fear.

thus, time and again as i’ve handed a letter over for perusal, it comes sailing back to me just as quick, with a brusque no, no, you do it- as though i am somehow more adept at these matters.

i’m trying to maintain a balance here, dancing on the fine line of being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what i’m doing and underwhelmed by its actually happening. to this end, i’ve taken to storing the really really important things in a pile of papers on the floor located approximately six inches from the litter box.

so when a friend asks to see, i shove the cat from the paper pile by her bathroom and fish out the letter that has been requested. blowing off the litter dust that has lent it an antique aspect rarely found in mail less than three days old, i anticipate the no, no, you do it and slip the letter from its sheath.

i find i can only feel this- the excitement, the immediacy, the sense that things are really happening- through other people. i do not know what to make of the fact that there is so little wonder in it for me now.

and so i toss the thing to her as though it were a month-old us weekly and smile as her cupped hands catch it like a semi-precious gem.

and i watch her fingers run gently, reverently over the 15 letter name written in 11 pt., bookman old style, pantone 287 at the top.

no, no, you do it. yes, yes, i will.

the very great biographical importance of campaign finance reform

(17 october 2010)

let’s talk about campaign finance reform. because campaign finance reform is a very important biographical issue. personally, i heart campaign finance reform because i do not know how there was biography before campaign finance reform. i do not know how anyone ever found anyone- much less wrote and sent grandiose pleas to their homes- before campaign finance reform.

you see, in the interest of transparency, campaign finance reform has done this amazing thing. it has led to the creation of a database listing anyone who has ever contributed to any campaign. a database that includes addresses. thus, anyone who has made a sizable contribution since the 1970s is there in their full benevolent glory. and these addresses are now out there and they’re fair game.

privacy-wise, this is maybe not so great for those people, but biographically speaking, O.M.G.

and yes, i realize this is meant to be stamping out corruption and greed and whatnot and that really is great and all, but seriously, arrianna huffington, thank you from the bottom of my biographical heart.

process

(13 october 2010)

it’s amazing how easily people can be found. it’s easier than you’d probably ever imagine.

there is a biographer whom i need to ask a very important question. a rather famousy biographer whom i’ve admired since my mother wouldn’t let me read his marilyn monroe book because there was a nearly naked lady on the cover. thus, i had to buy it at walden’s during an unsupervised shopping trip at the cool springs galleria and read it secretly at school.

i have a very important question for this biographer but i have no idea where he is. thanks to wikipedia, i quickly establish that he is living with his husband in a small village an hour outside of copenhagen. by googling the hell out of his name coupled with danish villages i recalled from the regionstog, within 10 minutes i have not located the biographer but i have found the biographer’s husband’s work email address.

i promptly send the biographer’s husband a humble missive along the lines of “if you happen to know this biographer i am trying to reach could you please let me know how he might be contacted.” the unstated sentiment being: “dude, i know you’re married to him so come on and help me out.” 3 hours later, the biographer responds.

finding people is easier than you’d ever imagine. i now know this biographer’s hometown, wedding date, publication history, volunteer activities, sexual orientation, his stance on the death penalty and his husband’s work extension. which is funny because the biographer’s email address is his first name and his last name.

all that digging and all i needed was his names. which i had already.