Penelope Niven: Author who brought new attention to three cultural figures and co-wrote James Earl Jones's autobiography

Niven found her new calling by accident after visiting writer Carl Sandburg's home in the 1970s

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Penelope Niven was a biographer who brought renewed attention to three major US cultural figures and was the co-author of the actor James Earl Jones's autobiography. She was a high school teacher before she turned to writing and published comprehensive biographies of the photographer Edward Steichen and writers Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder.

She found her new calling by accident after visiting Sandburg's home in the 1970s. Seeing his papers in disarray, she volunteered to put them in order. She became immersed in the project, which grew to include interviews with more than 150 friends and descendants of Sandburg. She completed her book in 1991.

While working on the Sandburg book, Niven grew interested in the life of the photographer Edward Steichen, whose sister was married to Sandburg. In 1997, Niven published the first major biography of Steichen, who helped define photography as an art form and introduced the paintings of Picasso and Matisse to the US at his New York art gallery in the early 1900s.

Niven received another career boost when an agent introduced her to Jones. Though known for his booming, eloquent voice, Jones, who was born in rural Mississippi, had overcome a childhood stutter. "There were nuances of Southern life we both understood," Niven said, "that I think it would have been difficult for people in other regions of the country to detect." They worked for four years on Jones's 1993 autobiography, Voices and Silences, and remained lifelong friends.


Penelope Ellen Niven, writer: born Waxhaw, North Carolina 11 April 1939; married (one daughter); died Winston-Salem, North Carolina 28 August 2014.

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