Conversations with Wilder
by Cameron Crowe
Published by Knopf
373 pages, 1999
ISBN: 0375406603

The story has been retold enough that it's now familiar to almost everyone. Cameron Crowe wanted very much for the writer-director Billy Wilder to appear in his 1996 film, Jerry Maguire. Wilder declined in no uncertain terms. That first meeting between Crowe and Wilder was -- from Crowe's perspective -- disastrous. The next year, however, it led to the interview that would be the beginning of Conversations with Wilder. The resulting book is quite perfect. Conversations between "the greatest living writer-director," and the filmmaker who some would call one of the greatest working writer-directors and the whole illustrated by photographs of Wilder: on the set of The Apartment; with Audrey Hepburn while working on Sabrina; with Peter Lorre, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton, Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen: really a who's who of the Hollywood that was. Conversations with Wilder is not your usual Hollywood biography. Crowe has brought an insider's view and a journalist's style.

 

Gore Vidal: A Biography
by Fred Kaplan
Published by Doubleday
862 pages, 1999
ISBN: 0385477031

When Gore Vidal is a topic of discussion (as he so often is among bibliophiles), it's either because of his long-burning feuds (especially with fellow writers Norman Mailer and Truman Capote) or his novels, from the innovative Myra Breckinridge to the moving Lincoln to his playful The Smithsonian Institution. But now veteran biographer Fred Kaplan gives us an abundance of other Vidal vitals over which to ponder. He recounts Vidal's childhood spent in privileged circumstances; the roots of Vidal's political interests (his maternal grandfather was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma and he's related to front-running U.S. presidential candidate Al Gore); and the author's exploration of homosexuality and bisexuality. Although he says, "I prefer my subjects dead," Fred Kaplan --who also edited The Essential Gore Vidal (1999) -- has done a splendid job here of bringing his subject to life, foibles and all. This book is a necessary companion to Vidal's anecdotal memoir, Palimpsest (1995).

 

Jonathan Swift: A Portrait
by Victoria Glendinning
Published by Doubleday Canada
324 pages, 1999
ISBN: 0385256612

Jonathan Swift is as dark and intriguing a figure as English literature has produced. Best known for writing Gulliver's Travels, in his lifetime Swift was equally deified and vilified and, it would seem, certainly not understood. Celebrated biographer Victoria Glendinning has taken a gallant stab at understanding the enigmatic writer. Having written biographies of Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West, Glendinning is probably better armed than anyone on the planet to write a biography of one of literature's fondest sons. Glendinning writes, "He is a disturbing person. He provokes admiration and fear and pity. All I can assure you is that in keeping company with Jonathan Swift you are not wasting your time."

 

Hillary's Choice
by Gail Sheehy
Published by Random House
389 pages, 1999
ISBN: 0375503447

Perhaps having finally run out of Passages, (Sheehy is the author of Passages, The Silent Passage, New Passages and Understanding Men's Passages) Gail Sheehy has turned to a Choice. Hillary's Choice is, for the most part, a human and humane portrait of one of the most interesting First Spousal Units the United States has had. As a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Sheehy has honed the art of personal profile on such subjects as Mikhail Gorbechev, Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein and -- not surprisingly -- Bill and Hillary Clinton. It's a lively text, but, quite often, Hillary's Choice reads like the natural next step in Sheehy's writing career: a blend of political and personal reportage with a dollop of pop psychology thrown in for good measure.