Jean Strouse

Jean Strouse was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on 15 January 2015. Ms. Strouse discussed her appearance on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on May 23, 1999 and her book Morgan: American Financier.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is January 15, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Jean Strauss, who appeared on Booknotes on May 23, 1999, to discuss her book, Morgan, American Financier. Hello, Ms. Strauss, thank you for speaking with us today.

Hello, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

How did your book come to be on Booknotes?

I don't really know. Either someone from Booknotes got my, the book had just come out in that spring, and either my publisher got in touch with Booknotes or the other way around, but I don't really know the answer to that. And how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes? I had been, the book took 15 years to write. I had turned it in in 1998, it came out in 1999. I, it was so much a part of me that I didn't really have to do very much preparation, and since Brian's questions were so great, it would have pulled it out of me even if I hadn't been very fresh with it.

And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program?

How generous Brian Lamb is, was, with time. It just, he gives authors an opportunity to really talk about their projects, and that's very rare. I had done a lot of other television and radio appearances, and they were all very interested in moving it along. In a really fast clip, you get about two sentences, whereas Brian really set you up to talk and tell the story, which is invaluable, I think, to the writer, but also to people who are listening to and watching the program.

The Booknotes hour-long format definitely was very distinct from other network television programs, which maybe would last three minutes or less. You've talked a little bit about what you think the benefits of that are. Could you go more into those detail, or do you think, are there any potential drawbacks of this longer format interview for the author or the audience?

I suppose if the topic is really boring, that could be a drawback, but I think the benefits are enormous to give people a real sense of a story, especially if it's a, and it was only nonfiction books that he was doing, of the depth and breadth of what a particular book holds. To invite the author to give such full answers to a whole range of questions, and by the way, I thought Brian was brilliant at guiding the conversation, that the questions he asked were like great pitches in baseball. He would just toss, throw them very cleanly and neatly over the plate, and then I would have a chance to give my best answer and go into details of this story that really, no one else had not had that experience with any other interviews, where it could be so detailed, and at the same time, it was very crisp. He kept it moving very quickly, but as I say, one great over the plate pitch after the other. It's not normal. Often people who run these programs have their assistants read the book and then give them a few questions. It was so clear that he had really read the book, and that he'd also figured out a strategy for getting the most interesting range of answers from me. What he did was hold up the pictures, who's this person, who's that person, and then it would give me a chance to give a little quick chapter of the story. I don't mean it was a whole chapter of a book. I just mean it was a way to talk about a particular part of the story and a particular person. I also thought that he'd structured it very well, that he started with people, which is for a television watcher or a listener who's not familiar with the subject, people are the most engaging way to get into a story about history. Then he got to the harder things later on about what Morgan was doing in finance and in industries, but he prepared the way, both with me as the speaker and with people who might be listening, by getting you engaged with the human parts of the story and then moving on to the more difficult ones.

Were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions? 

Yes. No, I loved them. I just re-watched the interview and I see myself laughing at some of the pictures he holds up or the questions he asks because it was just amusing because he thought about it so well and he wanted to know about so many of the things that are very entertaining and impressive. I mean, and sorry, not impressive about me, it was impressive about him that he was so able to elicit good answers.

Well, Brian Lamb frequently asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing to be interesting?

I do. I do. I now run a program for scholars and writers at the New York Public Library and we have people come here for a year to do their work. They also talk to, they give a presentation over lunch to each other and invited guests and then in the evenings when they publish their books, we have them talk about it. And I do think people love hearing about process. There is a finished book and of course you want to talk about that, but the struggles, the triumphs, the roadblocks, I think people like hearing about that a lot.

Mr. Lamb also frequently asks guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you and is this different from most other author interviews you have experienced?

It is different, again, partly because we had so much time and I was a little bit surprised but not put off by it at all. And they were light questions. They weren't intrusive. It was more, where are you from and how long did it take you to write this book, that kind of thing. It was fine. It was very nice. He did ask you about your financing, but I guess that also could have been... Oh, that's right. I forgot. You were writing about a financier. My financing was not like Morgan's. But that I found really amusing, not at all off-putting. Well, did you watch Booknotes either before or after your appearance on the program and did your experience with the show change your impression of it at all? I did watch it before and after. Not a lot, especially not before because I was too busy to do anything but finish my book. But I don't think the experience on the show changed it. I think, I don't know, I feel like I was very lucky that he just – it wasn't luck because it was his skill, but I think it's one of the best presentations about that book I ever gave because of the way he was organizing it and he just sets you up. He told me a little bit for a couple of minutes before we went on the air about what he was going to do. He was going to hold up a picture and ask me. And then when we got through a lot of the pictures, he would just say one word like "Horsair," which was Morgan's yacht, or "Cragston," which was Morgan's house in the country, or "Bar Harbor," which is where he went on his yacht. It was just like little lead phrases that would elicit these stories from me and I just thought it's really a great way to do this.

Well, as you may or may not know, George Mason University has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books used in the Booknotes series. I actually have your book sitting here with me. And this amounts to some 800 nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?

It's an interesting question, especially right now when people are reading so many books online. Having the actual physical books there seems to me a very precious archive. Will people be coming to be able to use those books at George Mason, or are they more a sort of historical collection?

They absolutely can come and view the books in our collection and use them as a part of, within the archive.

Has that started to happen?

Not really, not yet. It's still a newer program, but we're definitely trying to encourage that use and also people being able to use these interviews as continued historiographical kind of context.

I think it sounds like an invaluable archive and collection to have for people who are curious about the subjects of the books and about this phenomenon, this way of making books available to a larger culture. It's at such a high level, which is again very rare to have someone, you know often a book is like three minutes of another program as you said before, but to really focus on it in a time when nobody focuses very much. Now we focus even less than people did in 1999 when we did this interview, but that kind of deep immersion in one book and story which is so immensely satisfying. I don't mean for me as a writer, I mean for me as a reader to really dive into a book and a story in a historical period. It's an invaluable way of learning and so I think to have all those available for anybody who wants to consult them along with the interviews about them would be great. I guess there's a question, if people can watch the interviews, do you think they're more or less likely to read the book? I think more, but I'm sure it depends on individual people, but I think it would definitely hook an individual and also to help them to see maybe if a book is or isn't for them ahead of time. Yeah, yeah. I was going to say this earlier, but I might as well say it now. I still get notes from people who I don't know. I have a website and so people can write to the address on my website and then it comes through to my email. People now, more than 10 years after that program was originally aired, who just watched it and who want to talk to me about it or want to just say how much they enjoyed it. That's a great long life for a program like this to have.

Well, Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time, but if asked back, would you have returned for another interview?

Not about that book, but yeah, if I had another book coming out, I think that would have been great. I think it may have been the very best one of all the interviews I did around that book. Maybe there were one or two where I did an interview in person for an hour, just conversation with somebody, but that's what this was, only it was on television. So I would have loved to come back with a new book, yeah. Well, from this interview, was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book or critical reception? You know, I didn't really track that, so I don't know. I think certainly the numbers of people I heard from who had seen it was significant. And as I say, that keeps going on. I don't have an answer about the sales or critical reception. I think probably it doesn't affect critical reception because reviewers get books early and write them when they don't really know what's going on about the book, and then, although it continues, so maybe that's not so true. I mean, people keep reviewing books after the initial push, so I don't really know the answer to that question.

Well, did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions about your research or your writing?

Not really. It was such a rich reception to what I had done, it made me feel like, oh. I mean, I had spent 15 years on that book, a lot of which were not so much fun. But by the time I came out and by the time I talked to Brian Lamb, I thought it was really fun. So, I don't think it changed that, although I'm just writing a new book now, but I haven't written a big one since then. So, ask me again in five years. Well, this jumps into the next question, which is, what have you been working on since this book, and what projects are you most pleased with? Since that book, I've been running this program at the New York Public Library, helping other people write books like academics, independent scholars, and creative writers. But for the last two years, I've been starting a new book, which is about 12 portraits by John Singer Sargent of one family. The father of the family was named Asher Wertheimer. He was an art dealer in London, and the paintings were done between 1898 and 1908. The first two were of Asher and his wife for their silver anniversary, and then they got to be very good friends, and Sargent went on and painted all 10 of their children. That was the largest commission he ever received, and they're fascinating portraits. So, it will be not a full biography, but it will be about the portraits, about the friendship, about Sargent himself, who was an American living in London, so very transatlantic, and the Wertheimers were German Jews living in London. So, in some ways, they were all outsiders to a certain extent, and yet all very confident and very successful in where they were. So, it's a delicious project, but I have a full-time job now, and I don't seem to have enough time to work on it.

Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then-contemporary American society and perhaps since?

Well, I think the time and space and thought and intensity of what Brian Lamb brought to these books and then what those interviews gave back to American culture was just invaluable, especially at that time. And, as I say, in this time when so much has changed in the world of books and so much, I think, is being lost, even though a lot of new things are being gained, I'm not completely a Luddite about all of this, but I think our attention spans are so quick now, and people are reading in all sorts of different forms and much shorter. I think, I wish we did have a forum like that back now with him or with someone who would learn from him about how he did it. I think it would be invaluable. But I do think that, as I say, the numbers of people I heard from who watched that program and loved it and wanted to know more, I think our culture really needs that. We needed it then, and we need it now.

Well, is there anything else that you would like to add about Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

Come back, start it again, or find someone else who can. I really do think it was an invaluable piece of our culture for as long as it was on, and I'd love to see something like it come back. Well, I know that they do have Book TV, which is similar but different.

Actually, I haven't watched it much. Is it similar?

It's a similar feel with regards to the book conversation, but it is a different show, so it has a slightly different format and different feel. And also, Brian Lamb himself was a huge part of what made that work so well. Not everyone can do that. Great.

Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. It was a pleasure.

Thank you.