Friday, July 14, 2017

Birthday Books of the Day: Irving Stone was right- “There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”

Irving Stone (1903-1989)
Author, historian

If not the inventor of the biographical novel, Irving Stone was surely its perfector. After graduating UC Berkeley in the 1920s, he and his wife did the whole Lost Generation Thing and moved to Paris, where he churned out 17 unperformable plays.

His life changed when he saw an exhibition of Van Gogh; he became obsessed by the artist’s life, and by 1931 had produced a gigantic novelization- Lust for Life.

A dozen and a half publishers rejected the doorstop until he found a sympathetic editor who helped him trim it down; when published in 1934, Stone found himself set for a career.  

Nearly 30 books followed. Stone was fascinated by figures he considered misunderstood by history, and by the role their wives played in their public careers. Thus came biographies of Jack London; Jessie Benton Fremont; Eugene V. Debs and his spouse; the Andrews Jacksons, John Adamses and Abraham Lincolns; Freud; Heinrich Schliemann- who draped his Turkish bride in what he considered to be the treasures of ancient Troy- Darwin and Pissaro.

Stone was an indefatigable researcher; his pattern was to choose a subject, move to where the subject had lived, and ransack the archives. For The Agony & The Ecstasy- his best- remembered work today- four years’ work was needed, including two in Italy (reading it at 13, I can recall thinking there really was more information on the painting of tondos than anyone could need). Yet such was his skill in bringing musty fact to vivid life that the Italian government honored him for services to the nation.

Authoritative, and long, Stone’s novels were perfect vehicles for the post-World War II Technicolor extravaganza age in movies; Heston played Andrew Jackson and Michelangelo. Kirk Douglas chewed the scenery in Lust for Life.

In addition to his bio novels, Stone wrote well-regarded biographies of Chief Justice Earl Warren and attorney Clarence Darrow; a history of the opening of the West; and an engaging survey of men who ran for President and lost. His last book came out when he was 82; he died, surrounded by family and full of honors, four years later.

Henry Bemis Books has two of Stone’s works in stock:


Stone, Irving, The Origin: A Biographic Novel of Charles Darwin (Doubleday, 1st ed., 1980). ISBN 0-385-12064-8). The famed biographical novelist (Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Schliemann), takes on the father of evolution. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, sunning on the spine, very good condition. Octavo, 743 pp. Autographed on the half-title. HBB price $65 obo.

Stone, Irving, The Agony and the Ecstasy (Doubleday, 1961; Illustrated Edition, 1st ed., 1963). Stone’s string of biographies of artists and intellectuals extended back to 1934 when The Agony and the Ecstasy came out, but this time he hit Michelangelo’s life story out of the ballpark. By 1965 the book had been produced as a lavish Hollywood film with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison. To extend the sales of the book, Doubleday put out this slipcased deluxe illustrated edition. Our copy is in very good condition; the slipcase shows dirt and wear and the clear plastic dust jacket has a small tear at the upper right corner of the cover. A book worth having. HBB price: $35 obo.

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