Reprinted from élan, December 2002/January 2003
BY JUDY POMERANZ
I first encountered Jan Pottker a few years ago when my husband and I attended a "Celebrity Georgetown" walking tour sponsored by the local Columbia University alumni association. Jan, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia, was our guide, and by the end of the tour we were utterly charmed. While we of course enjoyed seeing the haunts and homes of D.C's glitterati, we were far more entranced by the delicious tales Jan told about them along the way. Her biographical anecdotes and tidbits, combined with a surprisingly extensive knowledge of Washington's social history and an irresistible wit, made for an entertaining and enlightening few hours. Clearly, this was a woman with stories to tell and the means to tell them.
Thus, I was not surprised to learn that Jan's walking tours were only a sideline to her main business which is, in fact, telling people's stories. The tours, as it happened, were a spinoff from her fifth book, Celebrity Washington, but they also turned out to be a moving force behind her sixth and newest book, the critically acclaimed biography, Janet and Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, issued late last year by St. Martin's Press. For it was in the course of conducting these walking tours, which included Janet Auchincloss's Georgetown home, that Jan became aware of the public's fascination with the little-chronicled woman who raised one of Northern Virginia's most famous residents and one of America's most beloved and admired first ladies.
As one might expect from a sociologist, Jan's first two books were scholarly in nature, but she then decided to try her luck with the mass market. An avid reader of biographies and a woman greatly interested in how people live their lives. what motivates them and what forms their character, she saw the genre of biography as a natural fit. All she needed was a subject.
It had to be someone whose life was of interest to a broad audience; that went without saying. She also preferred that her subject be a woman and one whose profession she could fully comprehend, eliminating folks like Marie Curie, she notes, right off the bat. Beyond that. she wanted a subject who had not been biographied to death, someone about whom there was still something new to say. It was not long before she realized that not one but two of America's most interesting characters met all these criteria: Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. Thus was born Jan's third book and first dual biography, Dear Ann, Dear Abby, published in I987 by Dodd, Mead. The book sold 50,000 copies in hard cover and 220,000 in paperback, was serialized in periodicals and optioned for a television movie. Not bad for a first shot at commercial publishing. From there, Jan went on to write Born to Power, an ambitious book about the lives of heirs to 50 prominent family businesses, which she followed up with another hybrid business/biography book entitled Crisis in Candyland: Melting the Chocolate Shell of the Mars Family Empire, which shed light upon one of Northern Virginia's most important businesses. Next came Celebrity Washington, followed quickly by Janet and Jackie, the second dual biography.
Her choice of subjects would indicate that Jan is a woman who enjoys a challenge. Particularly in writing about the famously secretive Mars family and the publicity-averse Auchinclosses, she was able to put the research skills she honed in graduate school to very good use. A big fan of libraries, she generally begins her research using publicly available sources.
She scours both generalized and specialized document collections, visits historical societies and other associations and checks out Internet sites, caches of correspondence and clipping files before setting about the interview process. She is a great believer in the importance of primary source. materials and has found that they contain a wealth of information often overlooked by other biographers.
Only after she has wrung out much of what exists on paper does she begin talking to friends, family and associates of her subjects in an effort to elicit interesting and revelatory anecdotes, confirm information and conclusions and gain the keenest possible understanding of her subjects, their lives and their circles. She has found most potential interview subjects to be open and often even anxious to tell their stories, though she has occasionally found herself in a position of being "vetted" by interviewees who insist on chatting with her at length, presumably to assess her motives and intentions, before finally letting her do the questioning. Her apparent interest in presenting a fair portrayal without engaging in sensationalism or gratuitous gossip, her string of literary and academic credentials and the fact that she generally requests interviews only after she has secured a book contract combine to demonstrate a level of seriousness and objectivity that interview subjects ultimately respond to favorably.
Besides that, she is fun to talk to. Jan has the perfect personality for the job. Her academic roots have given her a sincere interest in what makes people tick and how background and breeding affect character.
She is currently working on a new dual biography which she expects to see published in the fall of 2003 or spring of 2004. After the popular and critical success of Janet and Jackie, which The New York Times said "may provide the best window of all on the essential character of Jacqueline Kennedy," and Publishers' Weekly deemed "meticulously researched and ably narrated," Jan Pottker's readers have every reason to look forward with anticipation to her next offering.