Marion Meade (born January 7, 1934) is an American biographer and novelist, whose subjects stretch from 12th century French royalty to 20th century stand-up comedians. She is best known for her portraits of literary figures and iconic filmmakers.
Born in Pittsburgh, the eldest of three children, Meade grew up in an academic environment. Her father, Surain Singh Sidhu, a Sikh immigrant from Amritsar, India, taught physics at the University of Pittsburgh. Her mother Mary, a Hungarian-American, was a homemaker whose hobbies included writing song lyrics and raising orchids. Meade first became interested in journalism while attending Bethel Township High School where she edited the school paper and worked summers on a localnewspaper.
She studied journalism at Northwestern University, graduating in 1955. The following year she moved to New York, earned a master’s degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and found her first reporting job as an assistant to Earl Wilson, the popular Broadway columnist for the New York Post. She subsequently worked for publications in New York and Washington, before becoming a free lancer and publishing articles in the New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic and McCall's.
Meade’s first book, published in 1973, was a direct result of her involvement in the women’s liberation movement of the Sixties. Inspired by her participation in feminist consciousness-raising groups, she questioned women of all ages to reveal how they secretly regard the males in their lives and wrote Bitching, a less than favorable review of the opposite sex.
Following Bitching, Meade wrote a trilogy of feminist-conscious works set in medieval France and featuring intelligent, headstrong heroines. Eleanor of Aquitaine chronicles the life of the powerful 12th century queen of France and England. Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard retells one of the most famous love stories of European history (a film adaptation of the novel was released in 1988). A second novel, Sybille, is about the death of literature during Europe’s first great holocaust, the Albigensian Crusade, and a 13th century troubadour grappling with her verse as her homeland collapses.
From a fictional poet of the Middle Ages, Meade moved forward to a very different time and place and a real-life 20th century poet and short story writer, Dorothy Parker, who had been one of her favorites since adolescence. In 1988 she published a biography (Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?) that revived Parker’s reputation as the wittiest woman of her generation and years later remains the definitive source of her life and work . New interest in Parker led to the making of a big-budget Hollywood film, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (1994). Meade’s connection with Dorothy Parker has continued because the poet turned up as one of four subjects in Meade’s 2004 book Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin.
In 2006 she went on to revise and edit Parker’s collected works, The Portable Dorothy Parker , updating the 60-year-old anthology with fresh material and a cache of personal letters. A bold new look for the Portable was added when Penguin Books commissioned a jacket from the well known illustrator Seth . Two years later Meade presided over a new edition of The Ladies of the Corridor , an admirable play written by Parker and Arnaud D’Usseau in 1953.
For most of the 1990s, Meade worked on recreating the lives...private and professional...of two important American filmmakers, both of whom happened also to be comics. Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase recorded the journey of Joseph Frank Keaton (his given name) from a Kansas medicine show to vaudeville headliner to pioneer of cinema’s most treasured classic films. Her 2000 biography, The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, undertook to recapture the life of a living subject whose ups and downs had brought him both accolades and derision.
Next, she returned to literary biography with the story of four women...Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna Ferber...struggling to become significant writers in the Jazz Age. Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties was named among the best books of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. Describing her intentions in an interview, she called it "a book about writers and the business of writing, about the people who follow writing as a profession and what it costs them. And the costs are plenty, especially for these women."
Her latest book is Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, to be published in March 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The joint biography recounts the couple’s brief lives against a panoramic background of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, with a supporting cast that includes many of the literary, theatrical, and movie notables of the era. One of the most imaginative novelists of the last century, West is heralded for such classics as Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. His wife Eileen McKenney was the heroine of her sister Ruth’s humorous stories My Sister Eileen, which became the basis for a Broadway comedy, two movies, and the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town.
Meade lives in New York City, in a pre-World War One apartment house on the Upper West Side. She has one child, Alison Sprague, and two granddaughters, Ashley Elizabeth Sprague and Katharine Rose Sprague.
Meade’s approach to the practice of life writing springs from her journalistic training, in which success depends for the most part on meticulous investigation, regardless of where the trail may lead. She does not believe there is anything to be gained by tiptoeing around a subject’s personal life. Only a long comprehensive gaze at a human being’s life...inner as well as outer, the messy and the glorious...can account for the person’s accomplishments.
As Meade pointed out in a 2006 interview:
Biography was traditionally written by people who had lots of money and didn’t have to do anything. Or...when I first started out...by academics. Most of these people had very strict rules for what they thought was appropriate for a biography. They thought you had to be very circumspect. You couldn’t really pry into a subject’s life, which to me sounds insane, because that is what I do: pry into people’s lives. So I am perfect for what biography has become today because there is nothing I wouldn’t investigate. That is the way biography has changed in the last 20 years. It was a kind of white glove type of writing, now it’s anything goes.
While various themes have emerged in her work, the most prominent is superior women’s lives, whether the backdrops of their stories are the shadows of Notre Dame cathedral in 12th century Paris, or the speakeasies of neon Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties. (Other female subjects were ambitious Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. President, and Madame Helena Blavatsky, the colorful Russian founder of Theosophy.) Another recurring theme is humor, and most of her subjects were natural comics. Apart from the artistic genius of filmmakers Buster Keaton and Woody Allen, they were also hilarious performers, while Dorothy Parker’s verses and sayings continue to make people laugh. Although Nathanael West is not considered a humorist, he called himself a particular kind of comic writer. His dark irreverent humor seems to be a forerunner of work produced in the Sixties by Terry Southern and the writers of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.