Chernow, 64, received the BIO award from the Biographers International Organization, a nonprofit established in 2010. During a gathering Saturday at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Chernow spoke about some of his most famous subjects, from John D. Rockefeller to George Washington, and how their public reputations often concealed a far more interesting private person.
"Once upon a time, biography was a very formal, straight-laced affair," said Chernow, a Pulitzer winner in 2011 for his Washington biography. "But nowadays we all expect the enterprising biographer to ferret out that hidden self." The BIO award is given for making a "major contribution" to the field of biography.
A former business journalist, Chernow said he learned a humbling lesson while researching "Titan," his 1998 biography of Rockefeller. Going through the oil baron's papers, Chernow had expected to unearth "sordid tales of collusion with the railroads, the bribing of entire state legislatures, the coercion of small retailers."
Instead, he found thousands and thousands of "cryptic little business letters" that avoided proper names and specifics of any kind, as if Rockefeller feared what he wrote would be seen "a prosecuting attorney or a Senate investigative committee."
Back home, he expressed his dismay to his wife, Valerie, who in response was "not only smiling. She was beaming. . . . And she said to me . . . 'You were looking for a typical business tycoon, and what you've been given instead is a true original.' "
Chernow's advice: Prepare to change your mind. He confided that while working on "The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance," he had been charmed by Thomas W. Lamont, the suave counterpart to the volatile J.P. Morgan. Chernow said Lamont, a master of reinvention, had another, more troubling side: friend to fascists in Italy.