This week (February 6) marks the 99th birthday of Ronald Reagan. (Also the 48th birthday of Axl Rose. This is probably the best argument I know against the validity of astrology.)
I met a biography author once who told me she "writes to quotes." I write to anecdotes. I let a few well-chosen anecdotes reveal the story behind my subject's life. And, let me tell you, Reagan's story was rich with great anecdotes. Some of my favorites:
Once, when he was traveling with his college football team, a hotel manager refused to give rooms to the black players on the team. Reagan's parents lived not far away. So Reagan invited his teammates to stay with his family.
As president, he traveled to Geneva to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev. He and Nancy stayed in a private home in a room normally occupied by the family's children. While the children had moved out for the occasion, their goldfish had not, and Reagan was expected to feed the fish. Maybe he forgot, but for whatever reason, one of the fish died. Reagan had a staff member replace the fish and left the children a note explaining what had happened.
On his famous visit to the Berlin Wall ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!")he was advised to be careful what he said at a meeting not far from the wall itself. The fear was that his words could be monitored from the other side. So Reagan took the opportunity to go out on a landing to get even closer to the wall and begin "sounding off" on what he thought about a government that penned its people in "like farm animals."
In the greater scheme of things, these were not important events in Reagan's life. Such anecdotes will never be the main focus of a biography. It's the whos and wheres and whens that will always be the skeleton of a biography. But it's stories such as these that give biographies their flesh and blood. They reveal our subject in a way that a who or a where or a when can't.
So mine those sources. Look for the great anecdotes. Let your subject live and breathe.