In 1873, in a hotel room in Brussels, the dastardly boy-poet Arthur Rimbaud was shot in the wrist, half-accidentally, by the outrageously hideous alcoholic man-poet Paul Verlaine. (Verlaine went to prison, whereupon Rimbaud shut himself in his mom’s attic, moaned his scandalized lover’s name, and single-handedly invented Surrealism.) The year before, halfway across the world in patrician Baltimore, an unusually large baby was born and christened Emily Price. She went on, as Emily Post, to publish Etiquette, the twentieth century’s most comprehensive encyclopedia of high-society tyranny (or, if you prefer, social betterment). As she was revising its second edition, a newborn version of Hugh Hefner managed to emerge from the presumably unphotographed loins of a conservative Methodist housewife in Chicago. In 1940, Hefner was just beginning high school, one of the golden periods of his life, when, during a brief lull between German air raids, John Lennon’s birth incrementally increased the wartime population of Liverpool. In 1972, as President Nixon worked up a case to deport the ex-Beatle from New York, Marshall “Eminem” Mathers was born into deeply unpromising circumstances in Missouri.
I know all of this because the American publishing industry seems to be having an extended moment of biographilia. We have seen, or are about to see, full-length treatments of Chaplin, Cheever, Naipaul, Reagan, Ol’ Dirty Bastard—and, although this hardly seems possible, an acceleration of books about Abraham Lincoln (his remains turn 200 in February). Dipping into this biographical torrent more or less at random, I recently extracted what strikes me as a promising batch of lives: Rimbaud, Post, Hefner, Lennon, and (via autobiography) Eminem—roughly 2,300 pages covering 154 years.
Rimbaud once famously wrote, in a letter to a friend, “I is another,” and the paradox seems doubly profound when you’re working your way through a small mountain of biographies. Even radically different lives, encountered in quick succession, have a way of blending. I was unaware, for instance, that Rimbaud, Post, and Eminem were all talented mimics. Or that Hefner and Lennon shared a deep love of animals: The former won a prize, as a child, for his poem “Be Kind to Dumb Animals”; the latter mourned when his cat died jumping out a window after a pigeon. Rimbaud had to be introduced to Paris literary society, as a teen, by the established Verlaine; Eminem was introduced to the world of inner-city-Detroit rap battling by the established MC Proof (“he was my ghetto pass”). Four of the five were born in October. Rimbaud and Lennon both titillated the world by writing free-associative nonsense verse while neglecting to cut their hair. (Eminem bleached his hair while high on Ecstasy.) Rimbaud, like Hefner, preferred to work in his pajamas, although instead of black silk he wore a buttonless cotton number of his own design. (Post also designed her own clothes.) Rimbaud lamented, in his biographer Edmund White’s words, “young people whose natural lust is blasted by the curse of puritanical religion”; Hefner says that “Puritan repression is really the key that unlocks the mystery of my life.” Hefner and Post were both compulsive record-keepers. Lennon, Hefner says, once stubbed out a cigarette on a Matisse painting at the Playboy Mansion.
Seventeen was, for all five of these figures, an oddly crucial year. At 17, Emily Post outshone every other socialite at an elaborate debutante ball: She wore “stark white mousseline de soie,” danced the cotillion for three straight hours, and received so many flowers from admirers it took four men to help her carry them out. The formerly shy 17-year-old Hefner became one of the most popular students at school when, having been rejected by a girl the previous summer, he consciously invented what would become his iconic persona: He put on stylish clothes, started acting suave around ladies, used “hip” expressions like “Jeeps Creeps,” and referred to himself as “Hef.” Rimbaud, at 17, became “increasingly bizarre in his slovenliness, his jerky movements, and his outrageous insults.” Lennon was just 17 (if you, you know, know what I mean) when he lost his mom in a car accident and recorded his first songs with the Quarrymen, the band that would eventually morph into the Beatles. Eminem met the woman he would one day marry, and divorce, twice.
The pop-psychological common denominator in these five lives seems to be an absent father. (As Eminem puts it, with his signature grace: “It takes a real special kind of asshole to abandon a kid.”) Rimbaud’s father walked out on his family when Arthur was 6, leaving the boy all alone to systematically outrage his unsmiling, conservative mother. (Although one of the fun revelations of White’s book is how thoroughly Mrs. Rimbaud, along with Verlaine’s mom, bankrolled their sons’ legendary rebellion.) Emily Post’s father, a seminal architect during New York’s early skyscraper boom, worked such late hours he often slept over at gentlemen’s clubs—Emily idolized him from a distance while spending mundane hours with her mother. Hefner’s father was a workaholic bookkeeper who claimed never to have masturbated in his entire life. (This is just one of many blindingly obvious foreshadowings in the Hefner story.) Lennon’s dad was a luckless merchant seaman who disappeared for long stretches, leaving the boy to bounce between relatives; in probably the most tragic scene in this entire bio-pile, 5-year-old John’s parents actually forced him to choose between them. He picked his father, then ran crying after his mother when she turned to go.
All five of these figures warmed their hands around a common fire: the public performance of morality. Fatherlessness seems to have frozen them in a kind of permanent adolescence. They answered adult questions (How should one behave?) prematurely and exaggeratedly, then stubbornly clung to those answers for life. Their careers were built entirely on bad manners—whether excoriating them, glorifying them, or reveling in them. They sacrificed their lives to oversize visions of righteous living. And while they all have their own special failures and triumphs—that’s what makes them fit for biography—the saddest figures, to me, for precisely opposite reasons, are Rimbaud and Hefner. The French poet burned through his world-stomping revolutionary phase in less time than it takes most people to finish college. By 19, he was facing a whole second lifetime of pure sad, unheroic frustration: He wound up in Africa, trying unsuccessfully to get rich, and died of very painful cancer at 37. Hefner, on the other hand, still clings to his adolescence. At 82, he brags of being a “babe magnet” and collects young platinum-blonde “girlfriends.”
Etiquette offers, as a central maxim, “Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.” As a young husband, Hefner organized strip poker with other couples, slept with his sister-in-law, and made a porn film starring himself. Rimbaud wrote “Shit on God” all over the walls of his hometown, sunbathed naked, pretended to fling his lice on people, and broke his Parisian hosts’ china. Lennon stole from charity bake sales, laughed at the disabled, and publicly excoriated former bandmates. And yet it’s fascinating to watch these figures, as they age, slide down the continuum from rebellion to convention. Rimbaud’s African co-workers knew him as “a pleasant guy who seldom speaks”; Lennon and Eminem (a surprisingly lovable figure) both proudly gave up music to raise children; and Hefner tried marriage again. (It didn’t work.) Even Emily Post had a little of the rebel in her. As a 4-year-old, enraged by getting a miniature tea set for Christmas, she took it outside, smashed it on rocks, and threw the shards into her uncle’s pool. “I is another!” one can imagine her screaming.
If you’re surprised by the barrage of new biographies, you needn’t look far for an explanation: Biographies are big business. Along with their oft-maligned subset, the memoir, biographies have a near monopoly on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list. This year, fifteen books have held the No. 1 spot, and twelve were memoirs or bios, with subjects ranging from Barack Obama to Tom Cruise; the big-name bylines Michael Pollan, Jonah Goldberg, and Tom Friedman account for the three outliers. Last week, Warren Buffett topped the nonfiction list, two spots above Dewey, the biography of a resilient kitten.
Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel
By Edmund White.
Atlas & Co. $24.
Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners
By Laura Claridge.
Random House. $30.
Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream
By Steven Watts.
John Lennon: The Life
By Philip Norman.
The Way I Am