A Biographer at the Funeral

 

By Andrew Marble


Like most full-time biographers, I lead a surreal life. Almost every waking minute is dedicated to understanding my subject. During the past two years, I’ve sped along 15,000 miles of highway and flown through 12,000 miles of airspace, visited more than 25 cities in 14 states, immersed myself in private archives that alone stack up to over a hundred linear feet, and interviewed more than 250 people.


     One basic question obsesses me: what made John Shalikashvili, my subject, go from being a penniless WWII refugee in Europe to chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (from 1993 to 1997), the highest-ranking soldier in the world’s most powerful military?


     This puzzle is always foremost in mind as I converse with friends, read books, surf the Web, eat a meal, or just sit quietly. I think deeply and talk animatedly about the links I see between the external world and specific thoughts about Gen. Shali (as he liked to be called) that swirl within me. I have, as one acquaintance laughed in a slightly concerned way, a “Shali fetish.”


     But on October 7, 2011, this surreal world of mine meshed perfectly with the external world around me.


     On that day hundreds of people came from near and far to gather at Fort Myer and Arlington Cemetery to attend Gen. Shali’s funeral. The thoughts of everyone—from dignitaries to enlisted men, family, and childhood friends—were focused on John Shalikashvili. Colin Powell put his hand over his heart as Shali’s coffin entered the chapel. Bill Clinton’s tribute elicited laughter; Madeleine Albright’s, tears. At the reception attendees wrote thoughts of the general in the guest book and stood transfixed by photomontages and video screens recounting his life and career.


     The gatherers mourned his passing as much as they celebrated having known this accomplished soldier, diplomat, and human being.


     I, the lone biographer, had similarly bittersweet feelings. I felt joy and a sense of centeredness at being surrounded by the many who had chosen to join my universe for a day. There was, though, the wistful and resigned realization that this experience would come only once.

From the November 2011 issue of The Biographer’s Craft   [direct link]https://app.e2ma.net/app/view:CampaignPublic/id:1351507.7638143409/rid:247914256ac3242e06288849d6992135