In the skillful writing of biographer Nigel Hamilton, history is a living thing, something you can see and hear, reach out and touch. History has an immediacy for him that has come to life in more than 25 books.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 6 years old,” he said, and his devotion to his craft is unflagging.
The British-born Hamilton has worn virtually every literary hat — he’s been a bookseller, a publisher, a writer of histories, criticism and biographies, a journalist, a maker of BBC documentaries. With the final volume in his trilogy about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “War and Peace: FDR’s Final Odyssey, D-Day to Yalta, 1943-45,” due out this week, Hamilton is thinking about the years that went into that work, as well as training his attention on his own life for a memoir, and considering the standards of professionalism that should apply to the craft of biography.
He settles into the porch swing overlooking his backyard garden in Marigny, his dog Harvey at his feet. Hamilton and his wife, singer Raynel Shepard, divide their time between Boston and New Orleans, and he is quick to sing the praises of his adopted hometown.
“I’ve found community here,” he said. “That’s not so easy to do in Boston. But here, I just step outside my front door, walk Harvey over to the river, and who knows who I’ll meet, what conversations will begin.”
Hamilton has been coming to New Orleans since the late 1980s.
“I came to see Ambrose at the University of New Orleans Eisenhower Center,” he said. “It was interesting because of course, he was writing about Eisenhower, and I was writing about Montgomery, and we both had our differing points of view.”
He came to New Orleans after Katrina, which is when he met Nick Mueller, director emeritus of the National World War II Museum. Hamilton himself has been an independent historian at the Imperial War College Museum in London, and he has nothing but praise for the New Orleans institution.
When Nick Mueller walks through the D-Day section of the National WWII Museum, it’s not the wall-sized picture of the German defense structure…
“It’s the challenge of museums, the educational challenge of keeping the general public interested," he said. "And it all started with the Higgins boat.”
Hamilton’s long and distinguished career has included a multivolume biography of General Bernard Montgomery, as well as biographies of Bill Clinton, Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich, and his best-selling “JFK: Reckless Youth,” which was made into an ABC miniseries.
Another new book, “The ABC of Modern Biography” written with Dutch colleague Hans Renders of the University of Groningen, provides guidance to biographers that is equally useful to all writers. Utterly charming and insightful, it offers food for thought, as in: “E is for Ethics.” “O is for Obituary.” “S is for Sex.” One particular sentence seems to capture the secret of Hamilton’s success: “If storytelling is the heart-pump of biography, then quotation is the lifeblood. The reader of a biography is curious about a person, an individual — a real individual.”
That’s how FDR emerges from this latest volume. He's a real man, both smart and charming: a leader who is laboring to conduct a war in a challenging alliance with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin; a man who is trying to maintain his presidency while concealing his physical deterioration; a married man trying to have a love affair with dignity.
So how does Hamilton feel as this project comes to an end? “I’m sad, but it’s also a relief. I’ve lived with him for 10 years, and I do believe he was the greatest American president of the 20th century.”
He has given long, hard thought to his profession and its practitioners. “Like so many early writers of biography, Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Edmund Morris, David McCullough — we were making up the biographical form as we went along, using the great examples of Dr. Johnson and Lytton Strachey,” Hamilton said. “I felt that there should be a way for writers to learn the craft and the business.”
To that end, he founded BIO, the Biographers International Organization. And here in New Orleans, he founded a Nonfiction Writers Group which has been meeting for several years.
“You turn toward the field inspired by curiosity,” he said. “And it becomes an obsession, an addiction even. I spent 10 years on General Montgomery. And you find you can’t let it go. Writing is a lonely occupation. We don’t share our work, but we do support each other.”
“You look at biographers — Ron Chernow is interested in finance, Robert Caro in power, Edmund Morris is interested in the landscape of his subject’s time,” Hamilton said. “I’ve always been interested in leadership. We learn so many lessons about the society we live in and where we’re going as a society. And we learn from mistakes as well as victories in stories of leadership.”