Flesh and blood

A w e e k I N B O O K S
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The biographer's worst headache is not the legwork or the pursuit of facts or the lack of co-operation by the subject's friends. It is The Family. As many life-writers have discovered, hell hath no fury like the relicts of a dead celebrity who have an escutcheon to protect.

The publishers of two new books are suffering from outbreaks of family pride. Last week should have seen the launch of Black Ice: The Life and Death of John Curry by Elva Oglanby; but on 22 March the publishers, Victor Gollancz, recalled all review copies.The trouble, it seems, is not with the biographer's presentation of John, but with John's conversational picturing of members of his family as bullying, drunk, abusive and homophobic. The author may object that the source of all the details in the book is John Curry himself. But since he died last April, this argument may not stand up in court.

A more straightforward row is said to be brewing among the family of Charlie and Oona Chaplin because of a projected life of the latter by Patrice Chaplin, her daughter-in-law. The book, Hidden Star, to be published by Richard Cohen Books in July, reveals in detail the widow's alcoholic decline and names two film stars who became her lovers after Charlie's death. Members of the family, including Geraldine Chaplin, the actress, have expressed passionate disapproval of the work; and their rage was not soothed by a newspaper article that misrepresented the book's sexual content.

The Chaplin family had turned down two other would-be biographers of their mother before offering the commission to Patrice (who is a distinguished novelist as well as an in-law). But, by an all-too-familiar trajectory of family involvement, their enthusiasm began to wane when uncomfortable details began to surface. Every biographer has stories of family flame- keepers, who "authorise" a book, offer the writer unlimited access to private papers and journals, but expect a discreet trade-off: strategic silence in return for total access. This simple pact is not supposed to break down; and when it does, only the lawyers can straighten it out.

The John Curry book represents something more problematic: the reputation of a family. It seems inconceivable that none of the Currys spoke to the biographer Ms Oglanby; but the Acknowledgements make no mention of them. They are now confronted by an odd phenomenon: that of being condemned by their own flesh and blood, in a book which issues from that bourn from which no

litigant returns . . .