Those disparate voices enriched my book, published in November 2005. Even those who approached me, professing to have little to report, came through with something valuable. One woman, who had been a young secretary at another Hearst publication in the protracted, agonizing period when Carmel Snow, then in her seventies, simply refused to leave her post at Bazaar, recalled how this diminished (and by then frequently tipsy) former legend had still caused rooms to fall silent as she passed through. What this correspondent gave me was just a glimpse, a mental snapshot, but it rounded out the story of my subject’s last years.
The response to my query wasn’t just about work: several old friends of mine also surfaced, longtime fans of author’s queries who were delighted to find one containing a familiar name.
Like any biographer, I worked against time, and not just the looming publication date. A disconcerting number of the people I interviewed, Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson among them, died not long after we spoke. I raced to interview as many people who had worked with Carmel Snow as I could; I wanted to hear their voices, cull their stories, before they, too, slipped away.
For more than half a century, in innumerable author’s queries, legions of writers have tried, as I did, to bring back the dead, to reconstruct their lives. Many of their projects have been forgotten by now, their subjects seemingly erased. Whatever happened to “Madeleine Smith, who was tried in Scotland for the murder of her lover in 1857,” the subject of one request? And what of the American writer Benjamin de Casseres, whom Upton Sinclair was researching back in 1957? Was he once a household name?
I knew all those years ago, curled up on a sofa on the Upper East Side in my school uniform, simultaneously full of both ambition and ennui, that I wanted to be an author. What I couldn’t have guessed was how much things around me would change by the time I became one. How relentlessly the world, reinventing itself, moves on.
Biographers will now take their queries elsewhere, and they’ll probably have to pay for the privilege—a delightful, anachronistic aspect of the Times’s notices was that they were printed free. The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement still print such queries in their classified sections. (Jumbled among other ads, these requests never have the stature that those in the Times Book Review had, where they stood alone, islands in an editorial sea. And the fact that the Book Review is contained in a newspaper seems to guarantee a broader audience.) No doubt the Internet, as it does so often, will help to fill the void. But it seems safe to say that literary projects will never again be launched with such understated elegance as they were in the Times’s pages for so long, when scores of writers, year after year, appealed for help—soberly, even majestically, and in just a few narrow lines.