The nation’s first antidrug warrior, a Chilean surrealist painter, former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau and his famous forebears, and a Congolese man who became a Bronx Zoo exhibit in 1906—these are the subjects chosen by biographers awarded this year’s Leon Levy Center biography fellowships. The winners are Alexandra Chasin, Andrew Meier, Pamela Newkirk, and Justin Spring.
Now in its sixth year, the fellowship program supports the research and writing of outstanding biographies. Each fellow receives a generous grant of $60,000, writing space, and library privileges, and also participates in seminars and the intellectual life of the Graduate Center. “We think we have an extraordinary group this year,” said Gary Giddins, executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, who made the announcement in mid-April. “The quality of all applications, over eighty of them, was extremely high. However, these four, among all the others, popped out to all of us and we’re very much looking forward to welcoming them to the Leon Levy Center and working with them throughout the coming year.”
Alexandra Chasin, associate professor of literary studies at Eugene Lang College, the New School, will be researching and writing a biography of Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. A past recipient of a Whiting Dissertation Fellowship, a Bunting Institute Fellowship, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, she is the author of a nonfiction work, Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market, and two books of fiction—Kissed By, a collection of short innovative fictions, and Brief, an “app” novella for the iPad. Chasin earned a Ph.D. in modern thought and literature at Stanford and an M.F.A. at Vermont College.
Andrew Meier, who currently serves as assistant professor of writing at Eugene Lang College, the New School, will spend his time as a Leon Levy fellow working on “The House of Morgenthau: An American Family.” He is the author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall and The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service, both published by Norton and named books of the year by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR. Meier has reported on Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus for two decades, including as Moscow correspondent for Time, and is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He has been honored with fellowships from the NEH, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and he was the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation Fellow at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library.
Pamela Newkirk, a professor of journalism at New York University, is working on a biography of Ota Benga, the Congolese man exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Newkirk authored Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which received the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism, and is the editor of A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters and Letters from Black America. She has worked as a daily journalist at four different news organizations, including New York Newsday, where in 1990 she was among the reporting team awarded a Pulitzer Prize for spot news. Her primary areas of interest are race in the news media and African American art and culture.
Justin Spring, a writer on twentieth-century American art and culture, will be working on a biography of the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta. Spring has already written two interdisciplinary biographies, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade. Both biographies examine the lives of artists whose work combined the practice of visual art with literature, poetry, criticism, and social and political activism. Secret Historian was a National Book Award Finalist and received many other prizes. In addition to his work as a biographer, Spring is an award-winning curator who has published many monographs and museum catalogues, most recently Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune.
The Leon Levy Center for Biography was established with a gift from the Leon Levy Foundation to identify, support, and foster excellence and innovation in biography. In addition to sponsoring the residential biography fellowship competition, the center hosts many public programs, including an annual conference and an annual lecture.