In conversation with Amanda Foreman
September 23, 2011
LIVE from the New York Public Library
South Court Auditorium
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Good evening, good evening. My name is Paul
Holdengräber, and I’m the Director of LIVE from the New York Public Library. I’m
delighted tonight to be cosponsoring the evening together with the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, the director of the Center, Jean Strouse, as well as the Deputy Director, Marie d’Origny, for all their help, support, and love. I would also like to
welcome the new producer of all things LIVE, Charles Jabour, or ―Charlie Jayber,‖ as he says. Every season it would seem now the Cullman Center and LIVE from the New York LIVESchiff_9.23Transcript 1
Public Library present one or two events together. This fall, and thank you for coming tonight, we also will be welcoming on October 11th, John Lithgow, who will be in conversation with Bill Moyers. This fall, also, LIVE will be presenting evenings with Ariel Dorfman, this Monday, next Friday, Robert Wilson together with Lucinda Childs, Rufus Wainwright, and Lou Reed. Later this season I will be talking to Harry Belafonte, Rick Rubin with Russell Simmons, Gilberto Gil, Jessye Norman, Brian Eno, and Anish Kapoor, to mention a few. So I hope you will be able to come. Come, join the mailing list, and you will find all of the programs on your seat if you are interested.
It is a pleasure to welcome tonight Amanda Foreman, the author of Georgina, Duchess of
Devonshire, adapted to the screen as The Duchess and most recently A World on Fire:
Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. She will be in conversation with
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Stacy Schiff, the author of Saint-Exupéry, of A Great
Improvisation: France, Franklin, and the Birth of America. And of course of Cleopatra:
A Life, which is a source of a movie slated to star, I’m told, Angelina Jolie. Stacy was a Cullman Fellow and I would also like to congratulate her on joining Jonathan Franzen, Tony Kushner, Natalie Merchant, Ian McEwan, and Isabel Wilkerson in becoming this November a Library Lion of the New York Public Library. (applause)
For the past few years now, we have asked each of the authors, each of the talent, coming here to define themselves in seven words, a biography in seven words, a haiku of sorts. Amanda Foreman: ―Scholar, writer, innovator, educator, wife, mother, obsessive.‖ Stacy
Schiff: ―Once turned cartwheels in the Reading Room.‖ Please welcome Amanda Foreman and Stacy Schiff!
AMANDA FOREMAN: I know we’re all absolutely delighted to have Stacy here with us this evening. I know you’ve been doing an awful lot of traveling.
STACY SCHIFF: Not at all!
AMANDA FOREMAN: And in fact your plane only touched down a few seconds ago.
STACY SCHIFF: Absolutely, I’m here directly from the airport, uptown.
AMANDA FOREMAN: And you braved the rain to get here, so thank you very much.
STACY SCHIFF: Thank you for doing this.
AMANDA FOREMAN: It’s a real pleasure, it really is, and also now I get to ask questions that I’ve always wanted to ask.
STACY SCHIFF: That’s why I didn’t want you to do this!
AMANDA FOREMAN: Very well, there we go, no good deed goes unpunished. So my
first question to do you is something I think most writers want to know. You started out in publishing, after Williams College, you joined Simon & Schuster and you were there for about eight years. So when did you realize you were on the wrong side of the fence?
STACY SCHIFF: The first time I got in an elevator with Dick Snyder. I wasn’t there for
eight years, actually, I was at Viking first, just so I don’t forget to mention that. It actually I’ll tell you because it involves this building. As an editor you’re meant to be having lunch most days with agents, which is usually a wonderful thing to do, but somehow I got the idea that there ought to be a new biography of Saint-Exupéry. And I would sneak over to the Reading Room, to the South Reading Room, from Simon & Schuster’s offices and spend my lunch hour reading about Saint-Ex so that I could figure
out what author I could pitch this idea to over lunch one day, and I found that increasingly I was spending my afternoons here in the library as opposed having lunch with agents, and that when I did have lunch with agents, I didn’t ever sort of say, ―Don’t you have a writer who would like to do this book?‖ because I was getting very possessive about it, and then there was the day that someone told me that one of those books was actually pseudonymously written by Saint-Exupéry’s lover but under a male pseudonym
and I sat there in the Reading Room and piled up all twelve of the previous biographies to try to figure out which one it was and finally I realized it was the one that didn’t mention his marriage. (laughter) And that was when I thought I could possibly add value here.
AMANDA FOREMAN: So now fourteen years later and four books later, we have
Cleopatra, and critics have described it as your most dazzling work, I think for three reasons, three obvious reasons, first of all its artistry, its courage, and its insights into a woman who left behind no papers, no portraits, and no eyewitness accounts that aren’t problematic. You say very pithily in the book that to read a Roman history of Cleopatra would be like reading a history of the United States if it were written by Chairman Mao, (laughter) so I think it’s for the benefit of those who haven’t read your book or know
that much about Cleopatra, can you just sum up the basic facts about her?
STACY SCHIFF: Sure. The problem in writing about Cleopatra is first of all getting past Shakespeare, Shaw, and Elizabeth Taylor. (laughter) So already it’s a losing battle,
but the other piece of the losing battle is our misconception that she is Egyptian when she is in fact Greek. And that’s where the trouble lies; she descends from one of the generals
of Alexander the Great. She’s born in 69 B.C., she’ll die in 30 B.C. after being defeated by the man who will go on to be the first Roman emperor, Octavian, later to become Augustus, and as a Greek woman her history falls to a series of Roman men, which is already a problem, all of them writing after her lifetime. We can go into this later if you want, but in terms of the sources, Plutarch is probably for various reasons the least biased source and the most congenial source; he’s also the only one who has anything that
vaguely qualifies as eyewitness accounts, which are thrice-told tales, and he is writing LIVESchiff_9.23Transcript 5
about a hundred and fifty years after Cleopatra, a little bit longer, so he’s as far removed from her as we are from Ulysses Grant, and he is probably our best source.
So in terms of material, very little remains. There’s not a shred of documentation from her reign, not so much because she is a loser in history as because the humidity in Alexandria destroyed all the material, there is no shred of papyrus that remains. And her palace, insofar as any artifacts go, is either under the city of Alexandria, in which case we will never see it, or in pieces under the harbor of Alexandria, where there is currently an underwater excavation going on.
AMANDA FOREMAN: And can you give us a slight skeleton outline of her life? For
example, we know that she murdered her siblings to stay in power. What was she doing with Julius Caesar?
STACY SCHIFF: Okay, assassination. What was she doing? You were going to answer
that one. The two family specialties essentially are assassination and incest. This was one of those dynasties where if you didn’t murder your siblings they would murder you. Or as Plutarch so beautifully puts it, ―sibling murder was the kind of thing that happened in the best of families.‖ (laughter) And it did in hers. Cleopatra obviously is the winner of all
of that—all that intersibling rivalry. What is happening at the time that she comes to power is that Rome is essentially gobbling up the Mediterranean. And so if you look at Cleopatra’s story in retrospect, you see that she is dealt essentially a losing hand. Rome is LIVESchiff_9.23Transcript 6
closing in on her when she comes to power. Egypt is surrounded by Roman lands, it’s really the only great power that maintains its autonomy.
And it is up to her to somehow make peace with Rome, make some kind of alliance with Rome that will allow her to continue on as an independent ruler. She’s really a client queen, but that will allow her to maintain her hold on the throne. This is made easier by the fact that hers is the richest and most fertile country in the Mediterranean. She is the richest person hands down at the time. And no single Roman wants any other Roman to be in control of Egypt because that would be a huge threat to Rome, so it’s like a hot potato contest about who gets to have Egypt. So they would rather that someone else, in this case a Ptolemaic queen, be in control, but she still has to ingratiate herself with Rome, so that when Caesar’s civil war intersects with Cleopatra’s civil war, she quite brilliantly allies herself with him by essentially convincing him he should back her and not the brother with whom she is battling to run the kingdom and somehow coincidentally nine months later she has his child, which pretty much seals the deal.
AMANDA FOREMAN: And then after Caesar she went off with—
STACY SCHIFF: She will spend a few years with Caesar. She will actually go to Rome with their mutual child, for reasons which are really unclear to us and somewhat mysterious. It would have been in her best interests to go to Rome, it would not have been in Caesar’s best interests to have Cleopatra in Rome. She’s there when he’s murdered, she leaves quite abruptly, because her life is in danger at this point. She will sit LIVESchiff_9.23Transcript 7
out the Roman civil wars, or the fight for Caesar’s mantle that follows, very deftly, and
then she will align herself with Mark Antony, who seems the obvious heir to Caesar’s mantle, and with Mark Antony she will coincidentally have several more children, twins, and then another son all while Mark Antony’s Roman wife is turning out daughter after daughter after daughter. So that was also a smart political move.
Antony will account for Cleopatra’s basically restoration of the Ptolemaic empire. He
will give her lands so that she essentially will control the entire eastern Mediterranean, from present-day Libya around to Southern Turkey, with a little sliver cut out for Herod. However, the alliance with Mark Antony turns out to be an ill-advised one, and they will be defeated. You don’t want to hear about the Roman civil war, I didn’t want to write about the Roman civil war, they will be defeated ultimately by Octavian, and they will be trapped in Alexandria, where they will—I hate to give away the ending—both commit
suicide. How was that?
AMANDA FOREMAN: That was perfect, thank you very much.
STACY SCHIFF: I can tweak that, too.
AMANDA FOREMAN: Have you already? So what is known, as it were, is known. So
what was your intent in writing a new biography of Cleopatra?
STACY SCHIFF: I don’t know about you, but I tend to go into these things somewhat blessedly open-minded. I mean, I had no particular agenda. There’s a great line in E. B. White where he talks about having strong curiosity and weak affiliations, and I had no—I
didn’t go into this thinking I’m going to prove that she was Christ’s grandmother
(laughter) —or I didn’t go into this proving—that’s on the Internet. (laughter) I didn’t
go into this wanting to take a feminist angle on it particularly. I just felt stung by my own ignorance, in fact. I mean, here is a woman we think of as a sexual predator who is in fact an unbelievably well-educated strategic politician. A woman whom we think of as beautiful but who was in fact anything but. A woman whom we think of as Egyptian, who we think is Nefertiti, who had lived thirteen hundred years earlier. Just everything was wrong, and I just thought there was enough peeling away of myth that could be done and if you actually went back to the original sources, you could possibly construct, and I wasn’t sure I could do it as a straight narrative, but I felt I could possibly get an episodic narrative. I think originally I assumed the book would have to be sort of the five known scenes of Cleopatra’s life, the way Joe Ellis had done American Sphinx, where you like
leave out the second presidential administration kind of thing, where the stuff we don’t know just wasn’t there.
AMANDA FOREMAN: But it does seem that even though there’s a great poverty of
firsthand documents about Cleopatra herself, there’s this incredible cornucopia of LIVESchiff_9.23Transcript 9
information about life in Ancient Egypt then and in particular about the status of women and women’s education, and you bring all that out absolutely beautifully in the book, and
you compare women’s lives and education and rights in Egypt with those of Rome in which you said women had the same rights as chickens, and I just wonder if you could elaborate a little more on that, because I for one wasn’t aware of quite how different
women were treated in the two countries.
STACY SCHIFF: Well, you have made the very astute comment yourself about a time and a relationship constituting a biography in your new book, and in a funny way the relationship between Egypt and Rome falls in that category. To understand Cleopatra, which is to say to put her back into context, you have to remember that she is living in a world in which her story will fall to Rome, she is defeated by Rome, and she’s being
judged by Roman standards at all times, so and also that everything we know about her comes to us filtered through this Roman sensibility. So, for example, she gets caught up with the whole, a preexisting, if you will, metaphor of the dubious, suspicious, alchemical, occult East, and she is a creature of that world, therefore she is suspect. She is a woman, so she’s suspect, she’s a Greek, so she’s suspect, and she is very, very rich, so the opulence rubs Rome the wrong way, obviously the feminine thing does, and the whole Eastern sensibility thing is a problem.
And in fact it wasn’t until I—when she travels to Rome in 46 B.C. and I realized that I
had to suddenly paint a picture of her there, that I realized how essential that was going to be, and putting this woman—and taking her out of context, as is always the case when