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Saturday, September 25, 1999 Published at 09:45 GMT 10:45 UK

World: Americas

Reagan biography: Fact or fiction?

The publishers did not know in advance about the author's device

By BBC arts correspondent Razia Iqbal

A new biography of former United States President Ronald Reagan is causing a stir in the US even before the book goes on sale at the beginning of next week.

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, took its author, Edmund Morris, 13 years to complete.

Mr Morris made his name as biographer of another US President, Theodore Roosevelt, for which he won the prestigious Pulitzer prize.

[ image: Several times, Reagan was attacked in public]
Several times, Reagan was attacked in public
Ever since the authorised Reagan biography was commissioned by the publishing company, Random House, at the cost of a $3m advance, the publishing world has been waiting with some anticipation.

Now that it is about to make its appearance in bookshops around the world, the author and the publishing house are in the middle of a controversy which is bound to increase once the book is finally in circulation.

There is something very strange about this story.

When Random House commissioned Edmund Morris to write the book they had no idea that he would appear in the biography, as a fictional character in the life of Ronald Reagan.

Since it has become public knowledge that this extraordinary literary device was going to be used, the official publicity machine behind the venture has virtually ground to a halt.

[ image: The Reagans were perceived as a  team in the White House]
The Reagans were perceived as a team in the White House
The book is expected to be serialised in the American weekly magazine, Newsweek, next week, but no preview copies have been sent out.

Book notes on the company's Website have quietly disappeared.

The silence on the part of the publishing house is not matched by the noise being made by those who want more information about the book and those who have prejudged it based on what little is known.

Mr Morris, although 59 years old, depicts himself in the biography as Ronald Reagan's contemporary.

The author takes the character of the son of an East African Airlines pilot, and also the son of a wealthy Republican mayor and a Chicago opera singer.

This puts him in a position to observe Ronald Reagan during his formative years, on a high school football field, edit his sports copy on the school newspaper and so on.

What will Nancy say?

Mr Morris had unprecedented access to his subject in the years before the former movie star turned politician and got Alzheimer's disease.

It is thought the former US president is unlikely to be aware of the stir caused by his life story, but this wife, Nancy, will not be pleased.

Former friends and aides in the Reagan camp have already expressed their disquiet, and other biographers have focussed on the precedent set by this book.

Some worry that if more of this fictionalising takes place, there will be no point in the job of the biographer.

For all their silence, the publishers must be relishing all this free publicity - until of course the reviews and initial sales figures come out.

Because it is possible that for Random House this clever literary device could become a very expensive experiment that did not quite work.

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