Love's labour found

Any biographer who labours on a book for 13 or 14 years should be pitied rather than praised, says Jeffrey Meyers, an American literary scholar and author of 50 books, including 22 biographies.

"It's just inefficient," he says. "They become resentful. I've reviewed a lot of biographies and you can tell when the author feels his life has been eaten up by his subject."

Professor Meyers, who lives in Berkeley, California, is so efficient that he researches his subjects for six months, then writes three pages a day until he finishes a 400-page biography in three or four months.

Meyers is in Australia to give the Seymour Biography Lecture. His intriguing subject is the discovery of secret lovers while researching the biographies of Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost.

The poet Frost, for example, was widowed in his early 60s in 1938 and was considered an old man whose sexual and emotional life was over.

"But I'd seen Frost read when I was a student and he was in his 70s and still a vigorous man," Meyers says. "When I wrote the book [published in 1996] I was about 60 and I asked myself, am I willing to give up my sexual life? I assumed he had a sexual life and so I asked, with whom?"

Meyers learned Frost had a 25-year affair with his married secretary and wrote many of his love poems for her. He tracked down the woman's daughter, who as a girl had watched her father drive his car while Frost sat with his arm around her mother in the back seat.

"When I went to her house she said, 'I've been waiting all my life for you to come'. She didn't want to tell the story but she was willing to relieve herself of the secret she had kept all her life."

Some of his best research, Meyers says, was for Inherited Risk, a double biography of the Australian-born actor Errol Flynn and his son Sean, a war photographer who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970.

He traced a path to a Cambodian woman who was researching missing journalists and learned that Sean Flynn had been beheaded in a Vietcong prison camp.

Most recently he published a biography of the filmmaker John Huston and a collection of letters the English novelist Iris Murdoch wrote to him over 20 years.

He puts his productivity down to experience, enthusiasm, "extreme" organisation and his wife's editing.

"We have very interesting intellectual arguments when I think one way and she thinks another," he says. "I'm very pleased with what I write and she says, 'It's a piece of crap, throw it out and start again'."

Jeffrey Meyers will lecture on The Search for Five Women at the National Library on September 13 and the State Library of NSW on September 20.

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