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Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Reputations revisited
Alec Guinness
As new biographies reveal sex secrets of the late actor Sir Alec Guinness, we look at the biographer's art of "making over" the dead.

When it comes to a cracking read, it seems the book-buying public just can't get enough of true-life stories - biographies are rarely far from the top of the best-seller list.

Sir Alec Guinness and family
Sir Alec Guinness and family
For those who recount the lives of others, finding a previously undisclosed revelation is akin to the Holy Grail.

Sir Alec Guinness, who died last August, is the latest icon to be examined for feet of clay.

Three new biographies reveal he was charged with a homosexual act in a public lavatory in 1946.

But the case went unreported because the married actor gave a false name to police and the courts - Herbert Pocket, the character from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations that Guinness was, at that time, playing on stage and would do so later on film.

Sheridan Morley tells the story 55 years later in his authorised biography of Sir John Gielgud, as does Piers Paul Read, Sir Alec's authorised biographer.

Yet such disclosures recounted by respected authors merely paint a fuller picture of a man recognisable to many but known to a few.

Hatchet biographers

Not so with some of the revisionist biographers penning warts-and-more portraits of those who have passed away into the stuff of legend.

One of the most encyclopedically vicious books in the history of encyclopedic viciousness

New York Times on Kitty Kelley's work
Yet American biographer Kitty Kelley prefers to set her sights on moving targets - first Nancy Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor, then the Windsors.

In 1997, The Royals, a scandal-packed account of the lives of the Windsors since World War One, was a best-seller in the United States.

But the publishers never tried to get it into print in the UK, where libel laws are notoriously harder to navigate. Ms Kelley was warned by her lawyers not to speak to British reviewers for fear of legal action.

Kitty Kelley's book
The Reagans were not amused

A famously vigorous researcher, Ms Kelley is said to have sent her husband out on daily trawls through Elizabeth Taylor's rubbish bins.

And the New York Times described her unauthorised biography of Nancy Reagan as "one of the most encyclopedically vicious books in the history of encyclopedic viciousness".

The King is dead

But when it comes to hatchet biographers, few can rival the late Albert Goldman.

Elvis Presley: Gone but not forgotten
In 1981, he described in lurid detail Elvis Presley's last days of amphetamine-fuelled midnight feasts.

The book cast the King as a talentless plagiarist and borderline paedophile who died an incontinent, wearing nappies.

By the end of the decade, the author had got the knives out for another dearly-departed icon of popular culture.

In The Lives of John Lennon, Mr Goldman portrayed the former Beatle as a semi-comatose wastrel and child-abusing wife-beater.

Yet few fans gave his claims much credence as the book got basic facts wrong, such as song titles and dates.

John Lennon
John Lennon: Gunned down in 1980
Who, however, could resist taking a leaf from the revisionist's handbook when it comes to recounting our own exploits?

John Bayley, the widower of acclaimed author Iris Murdoch, wrote in his memoirs of two women who tried to bring him out of his grief and between the sheets.

After the Sunday Telegraph published extracts last month, the rival Sunday Times claimed the 75-year-old Oxford don had denied all knowledge of the romps in an interview.

Bayley later said: "It's real on one hand, and somewhat unreal on the other. It's just a question of how you interpret it."

In an age when each generation seeks to put its own spin on what has gone before, interpretation, it seems, is in the eye of the biographer.

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16 Apr 01 | Showbiz
Sir Alec Guinness 'was bisexual'
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