How Close Is Too Close?

How Close Is Too Close?

While few biographers have become as intimate with their subjects as David Petraeus’ mistress Paula Broadwell, several have gotten… unusually close.

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s self-described “nonfiction novel” details the quadruple murder of Kansas residents Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their children by ex-convicts Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock. In researching the case, Capote would strike up a friendship—and maybe more, it’s been speculated—with Smith.


Thy Neighbor’s Wife
Gay Talese
For his exploration of America’s sexual revolution, journalist Gay Talese participated in orgies at a California commune and frequented Manhattan massage parlors. In the book’s closing chapter, Talese turns his biographer’s gaze on himself, writing about his extramarital experiences in the third person.

Hell’s Angels
Hunter S. Thompson
Born from an article in The Nation, Hunter S. Thompson’s first book chronicles the year he spent with different chapters of the Hell’s Angels. Though initially accepted by the motorcycle club, Thompson eventually had a falling out with several members and was severely beaten.

The Last Boy
Jane Leavy
Jane Leavy weaves her biography of baseball legend Mickey Mantle around an encounter she had with him at an Atlantic City casino in 1983 while working as a reporter for The Washington Post. A drunk Mantle, employed by the casino, first tried to bed Leavy then passed out in her lap. “Many illusions were shattered,” she said in an interview with The New York Times, “but he forced me to grow up. That’s not so bad.”

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
Edmund Morris
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris was to be the first to ever write an authorized biography of a sitting president when Ronald Reagan granted him unrestricted, no-strings-attached access in 1985. Fourteen years later Morris published this 874-page novelistic account of Reagan’s life as told by a fictionalized narrator also named Edmund Morris. The unconventional treatment caused a critical uproar; “histotainment,” the Baltimore Sun called it. Among Reagan’s family, the verdict was mixed. His wife Nancy refused to comment and his daughter Maureen said, “the author wasted an incredible and irreplaceable opportunity.” But in an interview with PBS, Morris claimed that three other Reagan children, “told me in private that this is the father they remember.” Reagan himself was in the grip of Alzheimer’s at the time of the book’s release and died a few years later, in 2004.

Fatal Vision
Joe McGinnis
Accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters, former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald offered journalist Joe McGinniss unlimited access during the trial—including shared living quarters—in exchange for a share of any book profits. Although MacDonald expected Fatal Vision to validate his claim of innocence, McGinniss ended up siding with the prosecution, as did the jury; the judge imposed a sentence of three consecutive life terms in prison. But the relationship between MacDonald and McGinniss didn’t end with the book’s publication. In 1987, the subject sued his author for fraud and received an out-of-court settlement.

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin first met President Lyndon Johnson while she was in college serving as a White House Fellow; soon after, she became his assistant. In her early 30s, she both ghostwrote his autobiography and penned this largely adoring biography of him. Kearns later admitted she took notes for the autobiography while Johnson lay in her bed but has denied their relationship was romantic. “People say he was in love with me and things like that,” she once told The Washington Post. “Partly that’s true. But it was much more serious than that.”

Robert Graysmith
Robert Graysmith was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1960s when the serial murderer known as the “Zodiac Killer” began sending coded messages to the newspaper. Graysmith became so obsessed with solving the crime that it cost him his job and his marriage. In this bestselling book—the basis for David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac—Graysmith presents his 10-plus years of research and speculates on the uncaptured killer’s identity.

Fifty Shades of Grey
E L James
Sure, it’s fiction. But if anyone can relate to Paula Broadwell it’s naïve college student Anastasia Steele, who interviews successful entrepreneur Christian Grey for her school newspaper…then follows him into the (sort of) erotic world of dominant/submissive relationships.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.







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