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Why do Biographies Always Make Me Cry?

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Karen Carpenter sang “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” but I think my crisis is more existential. Every time I read or watch a biography, I mourn.

I just finished Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star by Eddie Muller. Hunter ended life triumphantly. His father abandoned the family and his single mother struggled, but he became a teen idol, both as a singer and actor.

When the ’50s ended, Hollywood abandoned Hunter and his wholesome image, in favor of the young toughs: James Dean, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, etc. Hunter struggled financially, but thanks to John Waters, his career eventually enjoyed a resurgence. He found lasting love in his fifties, left the movie industry on his own terms, and enjoyed retirement living with the horses and the man, producer Alan Glaser, that he loved. Yet, when the book ended, I felt depressed.

It doesn’t matter if a life was happy or sad, when its rise and fall is encompassed between book covers or spanned in a 90 minute documentary, awareness of the swift passage of time hits me anew, as if I was just discovering that life was ephemeral. Autobiographies and biographies take you into someone else’s world and then yank you out of it, abruptly. You’re left standing on railroad tracks, watching things and beings, that once mattered so much, receding fast, disappearing and soon fading from memory. Over. Forever.

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Time itself is a loss. I don’t mean just the grief felt over departed loved ones or growing old. Past is painful. Life is a chain of absences, meals finished, doors closing for the last time. I wish that things wouldn’t stop being. I want J. L. Hudson’s, the twelve story department store in downtown Detroit, to still stand, as it did for 87 years. I wish fads never faded and that Howard Wagner always prized Willie Loman’s skill just as much as Howard’s father had. Biographies just bring home the point that every hope and happiness we’ve known, eventually ends. Yet, sadness somehow remains, immortal, resurrected with every remembrance. Once something is gone, good memories hurt as much as the bad ones. Memento mori.

I cherished Double Exposure, a joint autobiography by Gloria and Thelma Morgan, later known as Gloria Vanderbilt, Sr. and her twin sister Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness. I was so engrossed by the lives the Morgan girls led, with Gloria fighting to regain custody of her child (Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, who grew up to be the woman whose name was slapped on our blue jeans in the eighties) and Thelma serving as mistress to Prince Edward VIII, before Wallis Simpson snatched him up, that I didn’t want to leave their world. Biographies force you to skip to the end, when you’d rather not.

The Morgan twins were born in Lucerne Switzerland, daughters of an American diplomat. They were already traveling the globe wreaking havoc while still in grammar school. When I’m reading about Thelma’s passionate love for her stepson which blossomed in 1940, I don’t want to know that she collapsed and died walking down a New York City street in 1970, while still clutching a dog-eared teddy bear she’d once received from the Prince of Wales, in her purse.

It’s a shock to the system to walk into the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, today, when Gertrude Whitney was just founding it in Double Exposure, prior to battling for custody of Gloria Vanderbilt’s daughter. It’s startling to leave a 10 year old Gloria in 1934 one moment, to look up to see her son, Anderson Cooper, 54 years old, anchoring my television news show, the next.

I believe in reincarnation, but I’d prefer for events in this life to exist in perpetuity. Rather than being reborn and ascending, based on karma and spiritual growth, I’d rather that my soul just stagnated, so that everything that once existed, always does. They say that time is a construct, but I don’t understand what that means. If time is just a perception, why do I perceive age, change and death where they’re not wanted?

When you read fiction, once the book ends, you can imagine what happened next. But when you read a biography, you already know what the protagonist does not. That knowledge is such a burden to carry. When I turn the last page of the Diary of Anne Frank, I desperately need to think that somewhere Auguste Van Pels is still annoying Anne. My gawd, how long will the teen have to put up with that? I shall leave her there, perpetually shelling beans. It keeps happening and nothing gets better, but at least it never gets worse. I suppose I’m advocating for Groundhog Day, every day.

And yes, I would put tragic events on a recurring loop too, because when they lose their impact, we often lose our way. That’s why we say never forget. When you can no longer appreciate the suffering, it’s likely to repeat itself, anyway.

When I close the book on someone’s life story, they don’t have to have died, for melancholy to hit. Their frayed friendships, forgotten loves, and failed dreams all take their toll. Every beginning follows an end.

Bang and whimper come together, compress. Even the greatest lives seem small. Biographies don’t just leave me focused on mortality. They overwhelm me with all the mortalities. They never end well.

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