B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By Brian Fitzgerald
People write biographies for the same reason they read them -- they want to learn about the subject of the book. That's why Patricia Bosworth wrote a biography of her father. He was away from home so much she barely knew him.
Bosworth's father, Bartley Crum, was a colorful, high-profile lawyer in the 1930s and 1940s, an advisor to Harry Truman, and a crusader against the infamous Hollywood blacklist until he himself became one of its victims. He committed suicide in 1959.
"I wanted to understand him," said Bosworth at a recent meeting of the Friends of the Libraries at BU. "I wanted to know why he lived a life of perpetual excitement and stress. I was a daughter of a man I really didn't know."
Bosworth, whose papers and memorabilia are housed in BU's Special Collections, has written acclaimed biographies of actor Montgomery Clift and photographer Diane Arbus. On March 20 at Metcalf Hall, she discussed these two icons and other famous figures she has met. But she talked most about her father, the man she barely knew -- until she spent 10 years doing research on him for Anything Your Little Heart Desires (Simon & Schuster, 1997). This quest led her from San Francisco to New York, to London and St. Louis, through dozens of library archives, FBI files, and the memories of people who knew Crum better than she did.
Bosworth was a model, a Broadway actress, and a journalist before she became a biographer. She is known for exploring a dark corner of the American dream in her earlier books, focusing on the tragedy of those who seemed to have it all, only to fall from grace.
She recalled meeting Diane Arbus for the first time. Arbus, a photographer of the taboo -- bag ladies, nudists, strippers, and carnival freaks -- suffered from depression and took her own life in 1971. "I modeled for her when I was a kid," said Bosworth. "Back then she was a fashion photographer. When you talked to her, she made you feel as if you were the most important person in the world. I saw her periodically later in life when I was a journalist, and I always knew that I wanted to write about her. When she committed suicide I was very upset, but it made me want to write about her even more." Bosworth's book on Arbus is currently being made into a film.
Bosworth's biography career began when she freelanced for the New York Times writing profiles for the arts section. Sy Peck, her editor, "taught me how to immerse myself in a subject through research, which meant going through endless envelopes of yellowing clippings and jotting down questions -- sometimes 50 to a 100 a subject," she said. "He hated sloppiness with facts. 'Be accurate,' he'd say. 'Be chronological.' He told me that the most important element in a story, aside from the hook, was finding the right details to characterize an event or a person. He made me understand that nonfiction -- journalism -- is about collecting facts and then imagining a form to put them in."
Peck had earlier worked for Bosworth's father as a reporter for the left-wing New York tabloid PM, which Crum took over as publisher in 1948. The paper went out of business a year later, during the height of the Red Scare. "He was the first person to explain to me what roles my father had played during the McCarthy era, the hysterical time when an unreasoning fear of communism created an atmosphere of political oppression," she said. "Sy urged me to tell the story of my father, but I wasn't ready to do that back then."
Bosworth finally felt ready to figure out what made her father tick in 1987. "I believed that my father had an unbelievable story," she said. His career encompassed defending Harry Bridges, the controversial head of San Francisco's longshoreman's union, and representing Rita Hayworth in her million-dollar divorce from Prince Aly Khan. His friends, clients, and acquaintances included Paul Robeson, John Garfield, Orson Welles, James Hoffa, William Randolph Hearst, Herb Caen, Earl Warren, and John F. Kennedy.
But his defense of the Hollywood 10 -- writers, directors, and producers accused of being communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee -- led to his being labeled subversive. He was followed by the FBI, and Bosworth described mysterious sounds on the family's phones -- they were being wiretapped. Crum felt harassed, and Bosworth said that the drugs he was taking probably exacerbated that feeling. She also said that her father's support of Bridges and other politically unpopular causes made the family's turmoil even worse.
"I mainly wanted to tell the story of my father's public life," said Bosworth. "But at the same time I wanted to give equal weight to the private story of what had happened to my family, because the choices my father made and the political positions that he took irrevocably affected my mother, my brother, and me."
Present at the creation
As a member of the Anglo-American Council on the Inquiry into Palestine, Crum became deeply involved in talks that led to the creation of the state of Israel. He was always on the move. Yet, given his public activities, his family spent long periods having only brief contact with him. "My father was away so much trying to be somebody and do something important, and the entire family suffered," said Bosworth. Her mother, in her loneliness, had affairs. Her brother, Bart Jr., committed suicide during his freshman year at Reed College.
"But I hasten to add that throughout all of this, my father always gave me this kind of crazy confidence," she said, "because he was always telling me I could do anything I wanted to do."
And Bosworth wanted to write biographies. Her newest work, a biography of Marlon Brando, will be published this year by Viking/Penguin Press. She is also starting research on a biography of Jane Fonda.
"In my books, I try not to make judgments," she said. "I just want to describe the various lives I'm trying to document."
Read the sidebar "Saying hello - and goodbye- to Monty"