Literary Notes: So many beans spilt, they spilt the lot

BIOGRAPHERS ARE haunted by two nightmares. The first, being blocked from crucial information; the second, discovering a second biographer at work.

With Kinsey I had both. Within three weeks of

arriving in Bloomington, Indiana, in June 1995, I discovered that a Texan, James Jones, had been working on Kinsey since 1972. Should I stop? I had done six months reading; besides, quite a chunk of the generous advance had already vanished into my overdraft. I thought - he's been at it 23 years, why not 33? Anxious, I pressed on.

More serious was the very reluctant co-operation from the Kinsey Institute. All essential documentation is held there. But there was an extraordinary atmosphere of distrust. William Masters once said it was impossible to do sex research for 25 years and not become paranoid. The Kinsey Institute had now had 60 years to become paranoid. Everything was locked.

The cleaning "female" who, in her innocence, is allowed everywhere, comes with a vast bunch of keys swinging at her belt like a medieval gaoler. All the senior figures clank about with those enormous bunches of keys. The most junior, on the other hand, biographical researchers for example, wait for tens of minutes or longer to be let in or to pass briefly into some inner sanctum.

The same was true of the family - their co-operation was reluctant. Kinsey's son Bruce has only spoken once publicly since his father died in 1956, when he made a short speech in praise of his mother. Both he and the daughters, Anne and Joan, had refused to speak to Jones. They also refused to speak to me. Bruce remained adamant but gradually the daughters were won over. The same was true of the people at the institute. Correspondence files, soon all files, sprang open. By August I could see what I liked.

What had they been frightened of? Certainly, I noticed odd lacunae. Why were so many of the writer Glenway Wescott's letters missing? Why, come to that, had all the letters of Alice Dent, a sexually highly responsive gynaecologist Kinsey consulted, simply vanished? But there was nothing of substance to be found. It was as if some terrible scandal had once taken place there. All traces had vanished, no one now even knew what had happened - but the desperate need to be secret remained, like the after-glow of the Big Bang.

Eventually hard evidence of ancient explosions was uncovered. Kinsey was clearly bisexual. Wescott and his friend Monroe Wheeler had both been his lovers. Kinsey's whole team, the wives included, his wife included, had had sex together. There was much else besides.

My fears by this time had reversed. Where before it was anxiety about too little information, now it was about having too much. I did not dare tell the daughters or the institute in case they cut me off. If I didn't tell, was I not betraying the trust I had spent so much time building?

I gave up all idea of racing my fellow biographer. I decided I would have to use my new information, but would try not to upset the living. By September 1997 I had completed the first draft. Jones came out that same month.

I flew to the US in November 1997, and saw again the informants we had both used. So many beans had been spilt they thought they might as well spill the lot. I learnt still more (Kinsey had had sex with Alice Dent, for instance).

The institute had indeed known nothing. But the saddest thing was the daughters. They too had known nothing and these two elderly ladies were shattered. I admired Kinsey a good deal, but I had had strong reservations. To these, I now add this last. I saw why he hadn't, but I wished he could somehow have been able to tell his adult children the truth about himself.

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's biography of Kinsey, `Alfred C. Kinsey - Sex, the Measure of All Things', is published by Chatto and Windus (pounds 20)