In The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm writes: "Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house . . . and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor."
Not that biography is a bad thing, mind you. Or that the best biographers are not like burglars. Malcolm, I think, is just reminding us that the whole enterprise is . . . what's the right word? Suspect? Compromised? Or, to put a Christian spin on it, fallen?
Regardless, I was reminded of this when, over Christmas, I participated in a sometimes-kind-of-heated conversation with Albert Haim, the owner and proprietor of the Bixography Discussion Group, an online forum about Bix Beiderbecke. It all began innocently enough, with a debate over the way Bix is portrayed in Ted Gioia's new book, The Birth (And Death) of the Cool. I won't bore you with the details, but for Gioia, Bix is "The Progenitor of Cool" -- both in terms of the James Dean-style personal aesthetic and in terms of what became cool jazz. For Haim, Paul Newman in Hud is cool; Bix is not. Lester Young and Bill Evans were cool; Bix is not.
Fine. We went back and forth on this for awhile, each of us parsing the other's language like a couple of schoolyard toughs -- well, really geeky toughs, one of us being a retired chemistry professor, the other an encyclopedia editor. Hardly riveting stuff. But then the conversation turned. I brought up Bix's arrest, at the age of eighteen, charged with committing a "lewd and lascivious act" with a five-year-old girl. The charges were dropped when the girl's father refused to allow her to testify for what he said was her own well being.
Which was good for Bix, certainly, and perhaps good for all involved parties. But it leaves us, many years later, wondering what actually happened. I mean, we don't know, right? It's possible that Bix did something to that girl, and it's possible, of course, that he did not. That he was not tried and found guilty in a court of law doesn't tell us all that much about the facts on the ground. Haim takes a different view:
To me, the presumption of innocent is not just a legal phrase, but a living principle. To me, an individual who is not proven guilty is innocent, not only in the legal sense, but also in fact.
I'll admit that this assertion floored me. He is not guilty in fact? In fact?!? Perhaps I had misunderstood Haim. Did he know something I didn't? I argued that a biographer's duty was to wonder what happened that day and to collect as many facts as possible, always keeping an open mind about what those facts might mean. A biographer's duty was not to assume that Bix was innocent. Sure, if Bix were still alive, if Bix were, for instance, my neighbor, I would hesitate before poking around in a matter that was no longer before the courts. That might be, you know, rude. But Bix is not my neighbor; he's been dead for eighty years! No, my duty, I believe, is to refrain from assuming anything.
Anyway, that's when a lawyer weighed in -- granted, not an American lawyer, but still -- writing, "Bix is innocent and will it be forever [sic] . . . I find it highly problematic to even question Bix's innocence, particularly because of the fact that the criminal investigation in this case had been closed before it really began. Therefore, the documentation of it is more than just poor. It's almost nothing. As said before, not even 'new evidence' would change the fact that Bix is innocent."
I find this point of view so odd that I consulted a well-known biographer for input. Said biographer quoted Voltaire: "We owe nothing to the dead but the truth." Seems right to me. But many Bixophiles, I think, are still disturbed by the idea that seeking the truth requires a kind of burglary. I get that, and perhaps this is not such a big deal. I mean, why I care what people assume when they're researching and writing about Bix?
Here's why: because I think those assumptions have consequences. The authors of a couple of the most important books ever written about Bix actually knew about his arrest and conspired to keep it a secret. No burglary for them. But in protecting their purity, they also discredited themselves as biographers.
PS: Out of respect to Albert Haim, it's important I mention that he is actually the first person to have published the arrest documents. That was way back in 2001. They didn't find themselves on the printed page until 2005.
IMAGE: Cat Burglar by Vangobot (acrylic on canvas, 40x27 inches)