Please introduce yourself and your books.
I’m a recovering fiction writer who is now obsessed with biography. I used to write mystery novels with female protagonists at a time when that was unusual. In fact, the New York Times Book Review described me as one of the women writers who were “redefining the mystery genre by applying different sensibilities and values to it.” But now I’m writing about the real lives of 20th century women who made a huge impact on America and enjoyed some fame at one time but have somehow been forgotten.
My first biography, Popovers and Candlelight: Patricia Murphy and the Rise and Fall of a Restaurant Empire (State University of New York Press, 2018) is about a young immigrant who came to this country in 1928 with almost nothing and quickly became one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs. Like so many other young people, she had to endure a lot of disappointments, but through determination and ingenuity she turned a rundown Brooklyn eatery into a smash success. That was the first of nine Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurants in New York and Florida that became fabulously popular. A businesswoman, not a chef, Patricia kept people coming with great service, eye-popping décor, solid American fare, and endless servings of popovers, which are eggy puffed rolls. Before long, she was a millionaire with race horses and penthouses, but there was plenty of heartbreak along the way.
I have another bio scheduled for release in September, but we can talk about that later.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book?
Well, I got interested in Patricia Murphy’s life years ago when I was in an antique store in upstate New York and saw her own 1961 book, Glow of Candlelight. It was displayed face-out, and I fell in love with the cover, which was painted by Jon Whitcomb, an illustrator once famous for his paintings of so-called “glamor girls.”. He made Patricia, middle-aged at the time, look like a young Lana Turner. I had never been to a Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurant, but before Instagram, people used to mail picture postcards to brag about their trips, and my friends had bombarded me with cards from her largest restaurant – with gardens, a lake, and a petting zoo – in New York’s Westchester County. So I bought the book, which was mainly a memoir with some recipes and gardening tips. It began by describing Patricia’s thoughts as she piloted her own plane down the East Coast. I thought, wow, this woman is not only an entrepreneur but a pilot! Why are there no contemporary books about her?
But when I started to research her life, I found out almost immediately that she had never piloted a plane or even taken flying lessons. I thought, she must be a compulsive liar, and all her business accomplishments are probably exaggerated. Actually, almost the entire story of her business success turned out to be true. As for the plane, she did own one, but she hired pilots to fly it. Three of those pilots were still alive, and they became important sources, who are quoted in my biography. Like everyone I interviewed who worked for Patricia, they thought very highly of her. I think she lied about flying because it was so hard for her as a woman to get the attention she deserved.
Any other reflections about writing biography?
If I’d been a more experienced biographer, I might have abandoned my Patricia Murphy project because I soon discovered that, other than her memoir, she didn’t leave behind many letters or documents. She died at age 74 as the result of a stroke, leaving everything she owned in complete disorder. She’d been divorced once and widowed once, but she didn’t have children. So her estate went to a younger sister, who really didn’t know where to find anything among Patricia’s many residences in Palm Beach, Manhattan, and elsewhere. Some of Patricia’s descendants granted me interviews and were very helpful, but none had been close to her, so I had to work without letters or archived documents.
Luckily, Patricia had always hired publicists, some of whom became her closest friends, so there was loads of press coverage about her. I traveled to Newfoundland, which of course is now part of Canada, and was able to piece together her early life there. Also, I was able to find many business documents related to her restaurants, including the disastrous and highly dramatic closings of her last ones, when she was depending on an unreliable manager.
Tell us about your next book, the one coming out in September.
The title is Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked. Again, it’s a biography of a 20th century woman who was all over the media for decades but is in danger of being forgotten. I don’t want to say too much about it at this point, but many boomers and Generation Xers will remember Evelyn Wood as the woman who promised to teach us a revolutionary way to read thousands of words per minutes without sacrificing one bit of comprehension. Basically, it was a skimming method that pushed people to read fast, resulting in limited understanding or even total misunderstanding of the text. But for several decades, US presidents, senators, and ordinary people paid hundreds of dollars for Evelyn Wood courses and swore they worked perfectly. People who love following the news about Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent Silicon Valley startup, Theranos, will want to read my book.
In the meantime, I hope they visit my site, marciabiederman.com for more about Patricia, and, soon to come, Evelyn.