Does a Great Writer Have a Private Life After Death?

Pity the aging celebrity author. The day of reckoning looms. The vultures circle. They are unusually civilized vultures, but they will rip you to shreds anyway. They are literary biographers, of course, and they are apt to be merciless.

“The idea that everything about oneself is destined to become public property is life-destroying,” the poet Stephen Spender wrote in 1993, “to the extent that one’s life is one’s own, shared with a few others.” Spender died not long after, at 86.

One’s life is one’s own? What a hope! His complaint was provoked by the appearance of a novel by the American author David Leavitt, “While England Sleeps,” which drew on a relationship between Spender and a young man in the 1930s. Spender had already described the relationship in his 1951 autobiography, but Mr. Leavitt narrated it with “lubricious” (Spender’s word) homosexual extrapolations. Spender took legal action to stifle the book. The official biography by John Sutherland came out in 2005, 10 years after Spender’s death. Sanctioned by his widow, it nevertheless offered an account of the Leavitt fiasco, of the real-life affair that gave rise to it, and of Spender’s double life. After death, there is no privacy.

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