The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer discusses her latest book on Cleopatra that looks beyond tired mythologies surrounding the powerful queen.
“I’d like to think we can get past the idea of Cleopatra as shamefully seductive female, and begin to see that there was a very commanding, very clever, very quick-witted ruler behind the story. And I’d like to think, too, that it’s possible to sense something of how the ancient world functioned and looked and smelled, that it might be possible to make the ancient world come alive.”
Above is how Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff describes her latest work, Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize; St. Exupery: A Biography, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Prize.
“Mostly,” Schiff writes, “I have restored context.” To which Kathryn Harris, in the New York Times, responds, “The claim stops sounding humble when we understand what it entails.” Mostly it seems to require taking no assumption for granted, and laboriously reading the silences.
To reassemble in biography a world this far from us, Schiff admits below, is to contend with a handful of male sources, who wrote hundreds of years after Cleopatra’s life. It requires painstakingly sifting through these sources for the telling detail that points beyond tired mythologies.
The resulting “restoration,” as it were, is an astounding achievement. The book’s reception has been remarkable: a New York Times Best Seller, a New York Times Best Book of the Year; a New Yorker 2010 Favorite.
Schiff engaged in a live conversation at the behest of Columbia University’s Nonfiction Dialogue series in late January. She spoke of how her subjects come to her, their subtle similarities despite seeming to have nothing in common but unpronounceable names, and how she finessed her early work shaping book excerpts for the New York Post into a reputation as one of the most acclaimed biographers in the country.
A Guernica contributor and guest editor, her co-conversationalist, Lis Harris is a former staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and a Professor of Writing at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts. She is currently working on a book about a hundred years in the life of an Israeli and a Palestinian family.
Lis Harris: You’ve written biographies of Saint-Exupéry, Benjamin Franklin, Vera Nabokov, and now Cleopatra—all amazingly rich, full of verve, style, intelligence—gorgeous narratives. What do they have in common? How did you arrive at these subjects? The only thing I can think of is that all of the people are exceptionally interesting.
Stacy Schiff: And have unpronounceable names.
Lis Harris: And they suffer various forms of dislocations—some positive, some negative. But how did you arrive at these subjects?
Stacy Schiff: Well, you do start with the most difficult question.
Lis Harris: We could put it last.
Stacy Schiff: Yes, let’s put it last. I think that a biographer can never really adequately answer that question; I do think it begins as or at least winds up as a sort of obsessional attraction of some kind. I could give you ten different reasons for how I arrived at each one of my subjects and then I could give you ten different reasons if you were to ask me again two years from now. What the subjects do have in common—well, the first three books, anyway—is that they are figures out of context. Only in retrospect did I grasp that you can actually determine the contours of a person better when you see him or her out of his natural milieu. This was particularly true with Franklin. Franklin’s English is, as you know, exquisite, clear, unbelievably supple, and when he resorts to French, he’s awkward and pedestrian and clumsy. It’s a new Franklin, it’s a foreign Franklin. You can really see the wheels turn—not turning, actually. You see the wheels ungreased, in a way, and you get a very different man. You begin to see that for a man who wrote reams, he was in fact a very silent man, among other things. So there was a sense of taking Franklin and transplanting him to France and suddenly glimpsing a different creature than the one we were used to.
Lis Harris: But the French loved him.
Stacy Schiff: The French loved him and he was a major celebrity, more so even than he was in America. To France, he was an exotic, a homegrown, primitive philosopher. He’s something that Rousseau had almost conjured up. Confronted with the question you ask me, Catherine Drinker Bowen replied, “You pick the subject that takes you where you want to go.” It’s not falling in love with your subject, it’s not feeling as if you are your subject. But you do have to like him or her enough to live with him. You probably shouldn’t be in love with him or her. You need to want to take that trip together, somehow. You want to conjure with, if not answer the questions posed by the life. In Cleopatra’s case, I couldn’t answer a great number of questions. But I could raise new questions and I could play with them. Moreover, they were questions that interested me and, I thought, very many of us. So what kept pulling me back to the subject were indeed the unanswered questions. It’s not as if I identified in any way with a Ptolemaic queen who murdered her siblings. At least I hope not. For starters, I don’t have any sisters.
Lis Harris: Brian Boyd warned you against Mrs. Nabokov. Why?
Stacy Schiff: Brian Boyd was the Nabokov biographer who had written a brilliant two-volume book on Nabokov a number of years before I started on Vera. I went to him immediately. Someone told me he was passing through New York and I met with him to ask, “Is there a book in Mrs. Nabokov?” and he said, “Absolutely not!” and I said “Okay.” And then I pretty much kept digging. Brian said, “There are no documents.” But Vera typed every letter Nabokov sent and herself drafted a very great deal of them them. So there were plenty of documents. But he was seeing things from his side and I from mine. And the ultimate—I think—manifestation of that was that he refers in his biography to a diary that Mrs. Nabokov kept of the publication of Lolita; indeed she started it when Lolita was being published and she realized that Nabokov’s and her lives were about to be changed forever. But it very quickly devolves, as most of our diaries do, into a story about Mrs. Nabokov and her feelings about the Cornell faculty, about which ones she didn’t like, and the incredibly stubborn young man who came to the door and wanted his copy signed and wouldn’t take no for an answer and how she felt about being Jewish and about Ithaca, New York. In other words, it suddenly became a very personal document. To Brian it was always the story of Lolita’s publication. For me it was the most richly textured and revealing twenty-five pages I had on Mrs. Nabokov. We simply saw things differently.
Lis Harris: Right, right. You write in Cleopatra about rescuing her from the almost totally inaccurate received ideas we all have of her, an amalgam of Shakespeare and Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor and Claudette Colbert and Cicero and Horace and Plutarch.
Stacy Schiff: That’s pretty good, isn’t it?
Lis Harris: Pretty good. But I don’t know how you did this book, really. It seems to me it’s impossible—
Stacy Schiff: [whispers] Me neither.
It’s not falling in love with your subject, it’s not feeling like you are your subject. But you want to take that trip somehow.
Lis Harris: When was it that some picture that was not the picture that you disapproved of—when was it that this began to appear to you?
Stacy Schiff: That’s a really good question. Um, twice, in short. This was a book I wanted to write well before I could figure out how to do it. It was pretty much a joke in our house: once Cleopatra’s diaries are found, you can start work. It just stuck around as a crazy, off-the-wall idea. And because David Ebershoff [in audience that night] had sent them to me, I had these beautiful editions of Plutarch and I kept rereading Plutarch’s Life of Antony. And one fine day in the middle of the summer many summers ago, I realized that we have a scene of Mark Antony and Cleopatra out fishing, on this sunny Alexandrian afternoon, on which Mark Antony, the greatest military commander of the day, cannot coax a single fish out of the teeming waters of Egypt. He has his servants dive under the water and attach several pre-caught fish to his fishing line, which he reels up triumphantly, one after the other, in a display of his prowess. Because after all it had been rather embarrassing to prove such a lousy fisherman with his girlfriend, the queen of Egypt, at his side. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra did not miss a beat. She arranges the next day for the enormous entourage to go out and watch her talented friend fish again, and, of course, beats him to the punch by having one of her servants dive under the water and attach an imported salted herring from the Black Sea to his fishing line. This he reels up to everyone’s delight. Cleopatra takes the moment to deliver a little speech—according to Plutarch, that is—about how Antony shouldn’t be fishing; it’s clearly not a sport for which he has any aptitude. He should be off conquering cities, kingdoms, and continents, which, needless to say, is what she would like for him to be doing. So, I read that probably for the fifth time and realized, “Oh my gosh. We have a scene, a very vivid scene, indeed we have dialogue.” I just suddenly thought, “Good God, if you could set the scenes we do know and work around the things we don’t know”—and from the Nabokov book I got very good about saying, “We don’t know on the page”—“then maybe you can actually—”
Lis Harris: You say it quite a lot—
Stacy Schiff: I do say it a lot, don’t I?
Lis Harris: Very elegantly.
Stacy Schiff: Thank you.
Lis Harris: You’re welcome.
Stacy Schiff: It’s something that I didn’t notice was said a lot. But thank you.
Lis Harris: You have to, because—
Stacy Schiff: You have to.
Lis Harris: —all there really is about her is one phrase and the coins.
Stacy Schiff: And I would doubt the phrase, actually.
Lis Harris: Really?
Stacy Schiff: It’s an edict in which she had—someone had scrawled, “Let it be done.”
Lis Harris: That’s right.
Stacy Schiff: The chances that it was she who actually wrote that—
Lis Harris: So there are no words—
Stacy Schiff: It’s sort of like Obama with the pens, you know?
Lis Harris: Right. [audience laughter]
Stacy Schiff: There are no words of hers except what we have conveyed by, for example, Plutarch.
Lis Harris: Yes, writing so much later.
Stacy Schiff: Exactly.
Lis Harris: And those coins.
Stacy Schiff: And the coins, which would be her way of communicating with her people.
Lis Harris: But the coins are real. The busts, maybe not, right?
Stacy Schiff: Every time someone finds a Hellenistic bust, or what might be, because one of the best of them may actually be modern, with a diadem, a ribbon around the hair and a melon coiffure…
Lis Harris: Like on the cover of your book?
Stacy Schiff: Yes, exactly. People say, well that’s a—it’s a Cleopatra. And there’s one of those in the Met, which actually has not been called a Cleopatra. But every time one of those surfaces, people think it’s possibly Cleopatra, and there are probably a lot of other highborn women of the era who had their busts sculpted. So none of them has been incontestably authenticated. But the coins Cleopatra has minted and traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean are very consistent, and that image I would certainly take to be an accurate portrayal of what she looked like.
Lis Harris: They’re surprising because… She’s not a beauty.
Stacy Schiff: She’s very Semitic and rather sharp-featured with sunken eyes and a hook nose.
Lis Harris: No Nefertiti.
Stacy Schiff: She’s no Elizabeth Taylor, no.
Lis Harris: Or Claudette Colbert, even.
Stacy Schiff: No. But then you could argue engraving was a little bit more primitive then. And she wants to look authoritative. I mean the idea here was to look like the previous Ptolemys, to look like the kings that had preceded her. Cleopatra does in fact look a lot like her father. She also appears very determined and authoritative; she doesn’t look soft in any way. There would have been good reason for that.
Lis Harris: But there’s no doubt, whatever she looked like, that she absolutely charmed people in nine languages wherever she went. That seems to be absolute.
Stacy Schiff: Plutarch says that her presence—you know when someone walks into a room and they change the temperature of the room?—that she was of that ilk. The power of her presence, he insists, was extraordinary; she had supple powers of persuasion. And yes, we know she spoke nine languages. Plutarch doesn’t say she was bad looking. He says that her personality was more remarkable than was her physical beauty, and you can read that one of two ways. But yes, all indications point to the fact that she’s immensely charismatic and winning. She’s able to get people, and powerful Romans in particular, to do her bidding.
Lis Harris: Our old editor at The New Yorker, Mr. Shawn, used to encourage us to take on difficult subjects about which a lot of people might say, “Well, you can’t do that, you’re not an expert, et cetera, et cetera.” You have done this in spades, treading on someone’s turf, you know—
Stacy Schiff: Like a prominent classicist, for example?
Lis Harris: For example. There were great irritations with reverberations. Have you experienced this?
Stacy Schiff: Geez, Lis, would you like me to quote the bad review, chapter and verse? Yes. But with this book, you know, I wasn’t so stupid that I didn’t go to experts among Hellenistic scholars and say, “May I run some questions past you?” Because there were plenty of questions. And in a way, I’d like to believe that being a layman helps to some extent. For example, Cleopatra is camped in the eastern Sinai when Caesar arrives in Alexandria and she’s at war with her brother. She has raised a mercenary army, is camped out in the desert with a tiny force of men, she’s about to be clobbered by her brother’s much greater army, and she secrets herself back into the palace to meet Caesar. That’s what we know, and of course from Elizabeth Taylor, we know it was inside a carpet. From Plutarch, we know it was in fact inside a canvas traveler’s bag of some kind.
Lis Harris: Great scene in the book.
Stacy Schiff: Great scene in the movie, too, yes. And so you look at the map and think, “Okay, Pelusium,” which is the eastern frontier of Egypt, “is here, and Alexandria is here, that’s not so bad.” But if you actually go there, you realize that it’s an incredibly long distance and also that you can’t sail from Pelusium to Alexandria because it’s against the current, and a very strong current at that. So, how to make that trip, and to wind up under the palace walls in a small boat, and do it all surreptitiously? Cleopatra had to go south and then back north again and up the Nile and then across and up a well-guarded river into a barricaded palace—undetected. So, I went to a few Hellenistic scholars and said, “Well, how would you make that trip?” And they looked at me like I was crazy because they’d never thought about it before.
Lis Harris: Ah, too trivial.
We have this misconception that Rome was the center of civilization, the cradle of civilization and enlightenment. In fact, in those days, it is really Alexandria.
Stacy Schiff: Well, no, just not something that had caught their eye.
Lis Harris: It wouldn’t if you’re not a writer.
Stacy Schiff: Or not trying to set a scene, perhaps. It similarly seemed to me that Cleopatra was the richest person of the time. So I said to Roger Bagnall, “Is she the richest woman of the time?” And he said, “No, she’s the richest man or woman of the era, period, hands down.” So, I mean, there was a lot of back and forth with experts in the Hellenistic world. And then there was the constant refrain from everyone: “Just wait ’til a British classicist gets her hands on this book, you’ll be toast,” and indeed that happened last month in The New York Review of Books, which I take it is what you’re referring to. So, yes, that’s my battle.
Lis Harris: I’m actually saying something more than Mary Beard’s review. I’m sort of saying—
Stacy Schiff: Oh, I can recite it for you, if you want.
Lis Harris: You don’t remember your bad reviews! None of us remembers our bad reviews. I mean, I’m interested in how—what is his name, the man she cited, the biographer of Antony and Cleopatra.
Stacy Schiff: Adrian Goldsworthy.
Lis Harris: Yes. How is it that he could come to an opposite conclusion about her from the same little corners of papyrus that you chose?
Stacy Schiff: We often do that even with documented subjects.
Lis Harris: That’s true.
Stacy Schiff: When I was writing on Saint-Exupéry, there was one particular set of documents. Saint-Exupéry and his wife had a very difficult marriage and lived apart much of the time, generally sleeping with other people, which for the record makes for good biography. There’s a set of letters that he had written to her essentially [saying], “Could you please behave and at least have your affairs discreetly?” Those letters were with the son of the man to whom The Little Prince is dedicated, who didn’t really give them to me as much as tempt me with them. We were going through papers in his house and he would say, “You should have this document, you should have this document,” all the while piling the occasional document without comment on the far side of the table. At the end of the day there was this pile of documents an arm’s length away which we had not consulted, and he left the room for a little while, for no particular reason, and I just sat there. After about fifteen minutes, I realized that he had left me in order for me to read the documents, without his exactly enabling me to do so. So I did, and they were really good. But I didn’t use them. They did however turn up in another Saint-Exupéry book, which was published about the same time as mine by a male biographer who read the same letters and came to precisely the opposite conclusion regarding the marriage. So I don’t think that’s unusual. He stood up for the wife and I stood up for the husband. It was fascinating.
Lis Harris: It was just a different reading of the same materials?
Stacy Schiff: We were both reading precisely the same twenty-five plangent letters. Exactly.
Lis Harris: That’s so interesting.
Stacy Schiff: It does make you worry.
Lis Harris: Which brings me to another question. I don’t write about dead people much.
Stacy Schiff: I admire you for that.
Lis Harris: I know lots of people who do.
Stacy Schiff: I’m shy, it’s easier. [audience laughter]
Lis Harris: It seems to me, looking at your books, that from my point of view, the easiest must have been the ones whose subjects were closest to you in time. In other words Vera, because you had a live person, their son Dimitri, to talk to and other people who knew her were around. But maybe that isn’t true. Is there some kind of hierarchy of ease of your books that you can think of? This one had to have been the hardest.
Stacy Schiff: It always seems like the one that was farthest away was the easiest, because you don’t remember the pain. The Nabokov book was great in the sense that it had sort of a Greek chorus in the Wellesley and Cornell students. Saint-Exupéry did too; at the end of his life he flew with a bunch of very young aviators who because they were eighteen years old and, struck by this monumental forty-four-year-old inept Frenchman, didn’t forget a thing about him. He made an outsized impression on them. With Nabokov, it was the students, who of course remembered everything, as we all do when students—every single word that had passed from the adult’s lips in front of them. These were great sources. They included a young man who became a very prominent professor of Russian literature, who told me the story about Nabokov coming to the first day of class and passing around a volume of Pushkin on the first day of class to gauge how good the students’ Russian was. Everyone mangled the language, horribly, and Nabokov was in agony until the only African-American student in the room got the book and began to read it. He declaimed in perfect Russian, and Nabokov, his head jerking up, asked, “But where did you learn to speak like that?” And he said, “PS 39 Moscow” or whatever. It was Paul Robeson, Jr. I called him to say, “What class was it and what semester did you take it?” and he said, “It’s a great story. But I never took a course with Nabokov.” But, yes, the witnesses are great. Did I miss those conversations with Cleopatra? How many hours of my life did that take me—because this was pre-internet—to find the scholar who told me this story, to go back to the Cornell registrar, to find Paul Robeson, Jr., and then to find out that the story wasn’t true. You may as well not have a document. I’m only kidding. You know what it’s like when a person, especially the child of a couple, sees a very different couple than anyone else does. So Dimitri Nabokov’s recollections of his parents were fabulous. But they were also the recollections of a child. And 4 A.M. phone calls because he could never get the time difference right weren’t so helpful. [audience laughter]
Lis Harris: One of the great satisfactions of [Cleopatra], for people here who have read it already know this, is the way you create the opulence and sensuality of Alexandria compared to the relative austerity of Rome. Not that Rome was all that austere, but compared to Alexandria it was. And those two worlds, not just architecturally or socially or even culturally, but the whole world, those two worlds become really clear in this book. Back to Beard and what she said about objecting to the contextual way of looking: if you don’t have firsthand information, you don’t have letters, you don’t have diaries, what do you have but context? In a sense, everything in the puzzle around her, and around Caesar and around Antony—that’s their world, that’s what you have. What else is there? I didn’t actually understand that critique because I don’t know what else there is.
Stacy Schiff: Her critique, just to answer that question, is that you can’t write a biography of a classical figure. It wasn’t an unexpected review because she said this of every previous Cleopatra or Caesar biography. To her mind, we just don’t have the material.
Lis Harris: So forget about it, don’t even try.
Stacy Schiff: Yes. I can see how you could make that argument. Obviously I don’t subscribe to it. In terms of context, with the city itself, it’s easy because Alexandria itself is the most written-about city in the ancient world. Generally, visitors arrive, many of them officers of the Roman empire, and they say, “This is a city that defies description, I am without words, I’m just speechless,” and then they run on colorfully for twenty pages. So there’s actually a tremendous amount of material. The world doesn’t change that much over that [period]; Alexandria is an astonishment, especially in comparison with Rome or any city of the ancient world. This was important to me partly because we have this misconception that Rome was the center of the world, the cradle of civilization and enlightenment. In fact, in those days, the fashion capital, the seat of learning was really Alexandria. So it was important for me to be able to set that record straight. The source material is terrific on account of those spellbound, wide-eyed visitors to the city. As for other contextual matters, there’s been a huge amount of scholarship about education in the classical world, which was absolutely constant from Antioch to Athens to Rome to Alexandria. And to be able to say this is what Cleopatra would have read is, I think, hugely useful.
Lis Harris: Would you mind describing that?
Stacy Schiff: Sure! Homer, Homer, and more Homer. For anyone with any kind of serious education… It would have been like the Bible… fifty years ago? No. When did everyone know his Bible? What book do we all know anymore? Good Night, Moon. [audience laughter] Everyone knew his X lines of Homer, and Cleopatra certainly would have known a large part of the Iliad by heart. And then Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Herodotus, and Thucydides. The language would have been Greek in the sense that Greek was essentially the French of the day. Greek was the language of business and diplomacy, of anything cultural. It was the language of the cultured dinner party and was spoken with some consistency from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other. Cleopatra and Cicero and Caesar and Mark Antony all would have communicated in Greek. She would have known as well plenty of other poets and Aesop’s fables. Those would have been the same books that the men with whom she spends her life—the men from the Roman world—had also read. We know something of the childhood exercises as well, in writing and arguing and declaiming. So saying contextually this is how she would have been raised, because we know everyone else was, was not only… I could be taken to task, I suppose, for saying, “Here are the birth control remedies of the day.” I didn’t say she used them. I just said these were the ones that were on the record of the day. There is a certain amount of bringing these things to approach Cleopatra, but never saying this is definitively how she employed them.
Lis Harris: You make clear in the book about not saying this is what she did.
Stacy Schiff: I thought so. An example is, after the Alexandrian war, there is no record of what happens. Again, I went to Roger Bagnall and said, “Would there not have been a victory procession?” He said, “Of course there had to be a victory procession. You had to show your people that you had prevailed and thereby consolidate your power on the throne.” We know what a victory procession looked like. So I do not say she held a victory procession that looked like this. But I do say she would have held a victory procession and here are the animals that we are told paraded at an earlier victory procession. So a lot of it was piecing these things together, I like to believe not speciously.
Lis Harris: You make a good case, because of her education, of showing how the sex kitten of yore that’s in the popular imagination is such a stupidity because everyone loved talking to her about math and science and all the things that you just described. And reducing her to that image, it’s just—I mean she ruled for twenty-one years, it was a prosperous kingdom, the granaries were filled, she was richer than anybody, she controlled the whole eastern side of the Mediterranean—she was a very important and good ruler. She did murder a lot of people, but everybody seemed to. I think I told you this was my first Kindle experience: I read this in the Middle East recently and at the time I was reading it, it was a very rough time for the Lebanese. The head of the country, Hariri’s father was assassinated by Hezbollah, and a commission was appointed to find who did it, and it was going to come out that it was Hezbollah, and Hezbollah was demanding that Hariri denounce the commission, denounce its review and essentially denounce the people who were and are saying who killed his father. And it just seemed like a chapter from this all over again. You know, there’s a patricide, and you’re not going to say anything? “Oh, ha ha ha ha, it doesn’t matter, my father was killed by these people,” and it’s just exactly the same thing. And many people said, “Yes, Hariri had better do that.”
Stacy Schiff: There’s a great line in Plutarch about dynastic politics. He basically says, they’re very messy, they’re very uncivilized, and it’s standard operating procedure.
Lis Harris: Exactly, and it’s terrifying.
Stacy Schiff: Such atrocities occurred in the best of families, sighs Plutarch.
Lis Harris: Where is the wonderful phrase—I want to know where you found it—“the society of inimitable livers,” from the name that Antony and Cleopatra gave themselves and their friends? And then when things went badly and their fortunes turned more mordantly dark, they became “the companions to the death.”
Stacy Schiff: It’s Plutarch.
Lis Harris: It’s Plutarch?
Stacy Schiff: Plutarch’s just great.
Lis Harris: Is this a well known—
Stacy Schiff: I think it is pretty well known. At the end of their lives, Antony goes to pieces. He and Cleopatra are backed into a corner in Alexandria, they’ve lost the Battle of Actium the previous year, and it is clear that Octavian is on his way to Alexandria essentially to finish the job. Antony during this period of time goes to pieces. If the reports are true—and, again, I should say that what we have on Antony is also written by his enemies, the victors, and he is just as mangled in these accounts as was Cleopatra—he succumbs to despair. First he gets depressed and then he decides to live out the rest of his days in lavish celebration. Cleopatra, meanwhile, is turning out crazy scheme after crazy scheme of how she can escape the inevitable, maybe they should drag a fleet across what is today the Suez Canal, but what was then land, to re-launch the fleet into the Arabian gulf and sail around Africa and go to Spain and start a new kingdom there. Maybe they should travel to India. Maybe she should cut a deal with Octavian and betray Antony, so that one of her children could ascend to the throne. You can feel the mind whirring on the page where Antony is just off in his corner, befuddled and flat-out depressed. So it is in picking himself up from that, evidently at Cleopatra’s instigation, that the two form this society of inimitable livers, to live out the rest of their days in some kind of style and celebration.
Befriending Caesar at that point would have been the smart thing to do. Having a child with him is just plain brilliant.
Lis Harris: Do you have a sense, as between Caesar and Mark Antony, which of those was more political and which of them was more—I don’t want to say erotic because God knows what that meant.
Stacy Schiff: I didn’t know how unromantic I must be until I wrote this book. A Ptolemaic queen didn’t enter into marriages for love, period. It seems to me awfully convenient that Cleopatra had children with the two most powerful men in the world at the time. It just seems like a strange coincidence. Especially given the ostensibly great birth control. My sense is that these are both strategic alliances. Caesar would have been an attraction but also a no-brainer, for the most part, because Cleopatra is about to lose a war; he appears as a kind of savior. You asked about what was the moment—that’s the other one; the moment where I realize, “Oh my God, this is not the mythical Cleopatra.” What I realized is that she is camped out in the desert and she’s twenty-one and she’s at war with her brother’s very, very aggressive advisers and she’s about to lose and she’s highly vulnerable and she’s in an all-male military camp, somehow having raised funds to hire these Thracian and Syrian mercenaries—how do you do that? That was when I realized that this is not our everyday Cleopatra. Befriending Caesar at that point was first and foremost a necessity. And given his prestige in the world at that point it would have been the smart thing to do. Having a child with him is just plain brilliant. [audience laughter] And she does this very quickly; they meet and within a month Cleopatra is pregnant. What I find interesting is we all assume she seduced him; no one has ever suggested that he seduced her. I don’t know why that would be. But it’s never the other way, it’s always that she turns up in Alexandria and, given her feminine wiles, manages to seduce Caesar.
Lis Harris: That’s what Shaw thought. I know this because I played Cleopatra in college. [audience laughter]
Stacy Schiff: Really? You had to do all those kittenish lines up on the stage?
Lis Harris: Not only did I do that, but—
Stacy Schiff: Would you do that for us?
Lis Harris: Caesar was played by my French professor, Wallace Fowlie, a great scholar of French literature, and his class was at 8:30 in the morning, which I deeply resented, and my Cleopatra, whom the director was directing as a needling sex kitten, was such a pleasure to do, I just enjoyed it so much, and he’s just constantly backing up on the stage, backing away and backing away from me.
Stacy Schiff: That may have been the best production done of that particular play.
Lis Harris: But what it was was just what you said, that he had no—we won’t use the word agency—but that he had no role in it. She was the prime mover.
Stacy Schiff: Caesar of all people had no role in it.
Lis Harris: Although in your book you seem to suggest, because when she finally sails in all her glory, in her gorgeous ship, her golden ship, and arrives in Rome, she does not arrive in the center of town. And Caesar seems to be kind of shunting her off a bit.
Stacy Schiff: This is one of the big inexplicables to me. This is one of the questions no one can answer. Cleopatra goes to Rome basically two years after the Alexandrian War; she either makes one trip or two. There’s no obvious explanation for why she would have done this. At this point, she and Ceasar have a child. Clearly he has invited her, she would not have sailed north without an invitation from Caesar. It may have had something to do with their child, not because he needed to see him but there may have been something about the son, or there may have been a question of her meeting the senate in some way. She may have felt that Caesar didn’t have a perfect hold on the Roman Senate and wanted to—
Lis Harris: Apparently, he didn’t!
Stacy Schiff: Clearly! And she may have wanted to make her case herself. There may have been some kind of agreement in the air that needed to be ratified by the senate, something for which her presence may was required. It remains unclear, however, what she was doing there. But in any case, and again here I am reading the silences, it could not have been in Caesar’s best interest to have Cleopatra there. He’s married to a Roman woman who lives across town. He could not marry a foreigner, he should not have had a child with a foreigner, and everything about Cleopatra essentially breeds contempt or suspicion. So to have his Egyptian mistress, so to speak, living in his villa above Rome was a great political liability. Nowhere in all of the many accounts of why Caesar was murdered six months later—Cleopatra is still in Rome—does anyone make mention of her. And that I find really uncanny. Obviously, if you’re taking someone to task for comporting himself like a king, why do you not mention that he also happens to have his girlfriend the queen in town? And that detail just doesn’t come up.
Lis Harris: And in his memoirs, Caesar only mentions Cleopatra one time, is that right?
Stacy Schiff: “She was a good and obedient female.”
Lis Harris: Exactly. Which she so was not.
Stacy Schiff: Right, although Caesar doesn’t mention a lot of things in his memoirs, like crossing the Rubicon or burning a library. Caesar’s memoirs are a dicey proposition. Someone once said that he’s missing from his memoirs, which is more or less true.
Lis Harris: That’s true of Grant as well in a certain way.
Stacy Schiff: It’s true of Ben Franklin, too. But the answer to your question is with Mark Antony, the relationship is much longer; it’s a ten-, almost eleven-year affair. And there’s a lot more business to be transacted. Will I go so far as to say it’s a love affair? I don’t know. They have three children together. And they have some plans together which are very clear to us. I would seriously doubt this was a love affair more than an affair of state, however.
Lis Harris: You don’t say so, but you get the idea that Mark Antony was more besotted than Caesar. I don’t know if that’s true, but you get that impression as you read along.
Stacy Schiff: You surely get the impression from everything written about Mark Antony, which interestingly is not a lot. There hasn’t been a great biography of Mark Antony in years, partly because he’s expunged from the record for having been a loser. You get the impression that he enjoyed women, that he could not help but fall in love with women. He repeatedly falls in love with his own wives. It’s just uncanny. You can’t expect him to have felt differently with Cleopatra. And he’s fun. He’s great fun.
Lis Harris Well, the statues of him make look like fun, too. He’s a very handsome, cool man. I think they’re real. Speaking of Hollywood, is this true?
Stacy Schiff: We’re really going down that road? I don’t know, I’m just the writer.
Lis Harris: Angelina Jolie?
Stacy Schiff: Apparently. She’s attached to it.
Lis Harris: Wow. Could we talk a little bit about the trajectory of your career? Because it’s always interesting to hear about that, how you began before you became “Stacy Schiff”!
Stacy Schiff: I was in publishing for… eight or nine years. I left to write the Saint-Exupéry book. But I was afraid to say I was a writer, because I hadn’t until that point really written anything.
Lis Harris: You were an editor.
Stacy Schiff: I was an editor. To be able to pay my rent, I used to do the book condensations for the New York Post, in the centerfold. It would be “reduce Bing Crosby’s memoir of beating his children to five hundred words.” I was really good at that. I would earn more for one of those than I would earn in a month as an editorial assistant. By the time I was a senior editor at Simon & Schuster I had decided —upon rereading him—that someone should write a new life of Saint-Exupéry. I kept wanting to give the idea to someone else until I realized I really wanted to do it myself. But I sheepishly went up and wrote a proposal without saying to anyone I’m going off to try to write a book. I edited a lot of biography and loved it, not only because it’s reading history through an individual lens. I suppose from a writerly point of view I embraced the form because it has a very natural beginning, a middle, and end. It seemed at the time a fairly straightforward thing to structure, and I loved reading it—back then anyway. I don’t necessarily love reading biography now; it feels like homework sometimes. So I left publishing to do that first book. And then, of course, once you’ve written a biography people think you know what you’re doing, so then you write another biography.
Lis Harris: But you did know what you were doing apparently.
Stacy Schiff: Well it’s interesting; I don’t, because I always seem to do something—
Lis Harris: But no writer thinks he or she knows what they’re doing, so just eliminate that part of it.
Stacy Schiff: You just made me feel so much better, thank you. [audience laughter] But the idea there was to write a dual portrait, which was in many ways very different from the first book. Am I answering your question or not?
Lis Harris: You are.
Stacy Schiff: And the Franklin book was again different—I had come to Franklin because I had always just loved his language. Few people had really touched the French years, something I better understood when I began working on them: much of the material is hand-written in indecipherable, moldy, still-coded French, also in French archives, where it is impossible to work without filling out multiple forms and reading in low light and giving over your passport and hoping the archivists don’t go out on strike. So they are not necessarily what I would term ideal working conditions. You haven’t lived until you’ve read eighteenth-century French handwriting on microfilm. But that book really came from my thinking that I wanted to do a chapter of a life, as opposed to a full-length life, and I wanted to take someone who we all know and do something different with him, eke something fresh out of a little-known adventure. Cleopatra was just the oddball, someone I couldn’t get off my mind for all those years. And Cleopatra was an idea I had before the Franklin book, in fact. As I said earlier, I just didn’t know how to begin to approach her. Women’s lives are, for me anyway, generally more difficult: women’s lives are less documented; women tend to be much less forthright with their feelings, at least the ones I’ve worked on. It’s all a little bit trickier. And this one offered no inner life to the biographer at all.
Lis Harris: You weren’t scared off by the lack of, you know, personal material?
Stacy Schiff: I’m scared off by everything. I’m scared off by the number of interviews you would have to do to do a book like you’re doing. Every part of the process scares me. But I think for me, there’s always a reaction to the previous book, and the miles of Franklin papers—especially for someone with a completion complex—made for a bad combination. Being liberated from all that and doing a book with minimal material seemed like an attractive idea at the time. Now of course I would like once again to bury myself in an inexhaustible archive.
Lis Harris: Do you have any ideas?
Stacy Schiff: Oh, I have several ideas. Oddly, each involves massive quantities of documentation.
Strangers in a Strange Land: Lis Harris’s introductory essay for her guest-edited issue of Guernica.
To contact Guernica or Stacy Schiff, please write here.