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UMW's Chappell Great Lives lecture series celebrates 10th anniversary page 3
UMW's Chappell Great Lives lecture series celebrates 10th anniversary

Date published: 1/17/2013


Julius Caesar is another figure so iconic--Alexander Hamilton called him "the greatest man that ever lived" --that a fully realized portrait of him often eludes biographers.

"There have been a lot of books about Caesar; there are several that come out each year," Philip Freeman said. "But they tend to be very technical, to look at some particular part of his life, like how Caesar ran the army in Gaul and what strategies he used. I wanted to try to put him in a very approachable sort of format, to tell his life as a story."

John Turner also found that previous biographies of his subject, Brigham Young, presented too many conflicting views of the Mormon leader.

"I found previous biographies bitterly divided between whether he was an inspiring spiritual leader or a licentious pirate, so I wanted to try to understand who he was for himself," Turner explained. "I found that he fell somewhere in between those two things."


All the authors agree that one of the keys to writing successful biographies is having access to great sources. Bedell Smith spent six months courting Buckingham Palace to get the cooperation of Elizabeth's public relations team (the queen herself never grants interviews). With the palace's backing, she was able to interview more than 200 sources with close ties to the queen, from members of her family to the trainers who work with the famous royal corgis to Helen Mirren, who played Elizabeth in the movie "The Queen."

Turner was able to read letters from some of Young's disgruntled wives (he had 55 of them), Young's early personal diaries and minutes from the excommunication trials of several Mormon church members.

"These were sources that nobody else had made full use of," he said. "Sifting through that mountain of material was the really fun part."


Bill Crawley is pleased that, in addition to the major figures, this year's "Great Lives" series will give audiences a chance to become acquainted with equally influential figures who aren't household names.

One example is Bill Wilson.

"You'll ask 'Who is that?'" Crawley said. "Well, he's the person who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization which has been helpful to millions of people."

"A good biography is a great life well-told," said Brian Jones, the liaison with Biographers International.

"A great life can even be a small life well-told. Everyone's got a compelling story."

"Everybody who's ever been alive has had the same 24-hour days but we all use them differently and it's just amazing," Freeman added.

Adele Uphaus-Conner is a Fredericksburg-area writer.

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What: Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series at University of Mary Washington When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24, to Thursday, April 25. Where: All lectures held at UMW's Dodd Auditorium, George Washington Hall, 1301 College Ave., Fredericksburg Info: 540/654-1065; umw.edu/greatlives