In the essay “Self-Esteem, Self-Disgust,” Phyllis Rose writes, “I was born in Doctors Hospital with the fleet massing in the East River beneath my mother’s window for the invasion of North Africa.” Rose’s delight in such details reflects her work as a literary biographer; she chooses events in people’s lives that tell an engaging story. She eschews a boring compilation of facts and discounts as absurd any pretensions to objectivity.
Rose is best-known for her biography of Josephine Baker, the African American dancer who first dazzled Paris in the 1920’s and continued performing (with frequent interruptions) until her death in 1975. Jazz Cleopatra moves beyond the conventional handling of a subject’s life—the blow-by-blow account from birth to death; Jazz Cleopatra reads more like a novel. Rose gives special attention to Baker’s early success in Paris and her daring efforts as a French Resistance spy in World War II.
Rose grew up in a New York City suburb and went on to college at Radcliffe College, where she studied English and graduated summa cum laude in 1964. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Radcliffe College, her master’s in English literature from Yale University, and her doctorate from Harvard University in 1970. In 1969 she began teaching English at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she lived with her husband, children’s author Laurent de Brunhoff. Her son Teddy, from a previous marriage, sometimes appears in her essays (she teaches him to drive a car; he buys her a bag of potatoes for her birthday).
Rose has said that she “backed into” biography. As a child, she loved reading stories of women’s lives, but she never intended to write them herself. (She wanted to be a cowgirl.) But in 1978, after years of literary training, she published her first book—Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. Her intention, she claims, was to frame literary analyses of Woolf’s novels with complementary episodes of Woolf’s life story. The result was an innovative biography nominated for the National Book Award. While Woman of Letters established Rose professionally, it granted her personal insight as well. “I understood that I had used Woolf to work out issues that were urgently important to...
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