We live in a golden age of biography. Ron Chernow’s recent biography of President Ulysses S. Grant is only the latest in a bevy of great reads. Among Anne Edwards’ large biographical stable is her life of Judy Garland. Gillian Gill has given us Agatha Christie.
The most expansive opportunity for Oregon biography is the late Mark Hatfield, whose two terms as governor and five as U.S. senator left an imprint on this state.
Brent Walth — who wrote “Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story,” the most important political biography of this state — will not take on Hatfield. When asked by Hatfield alumni to write that biography, Walth insisted that the late senator’s dark side would have to be in the story. That ended the discussion.
Now another impediment to serious Hatfield research has arisen. In “Hatfield’s Senate papers tucked out of view until 2022,” published Dec. 27 in The Daily Astorian, Claire Withycombe of our Capital Bureau reported that the senator’s widow, Antoinette, has sealed the papers until she is “in the grave.”
The irony in this is that Hatfield was the poster child of the Senate Historical Office for the manner in which he preserved and disposed of his official papers inside the archives of Willamette University. It’s also worth noting that the papers of Hatfield’s peers — senators Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson — are not sealed.
From the day that Mark and Antoinette married in 1958, she has been a highly visible element of the once dynamic political commodity that was Mark Hatfield. In Washington, D.C., Antoinette entered the real estate business. Her earnings afforded the Hatfield family a better life, and her savvy got them nice homes.
Early in my decade as a Washington correspondent, I wrote a feature article on Antoinette for Oregon Magazine. In a town where most people shade the meanings of their words and are always guarding their escape hatches, Antoinette was refreshing in her candor.
In addition to my weekly newspaper output, I was also doing biographical research on one of Hatfield’s predecessors, former Sen. Richard L. Neuberger. And that’s when I ran into what I will call the “widow rule” of research.
In addition to the Neuberger papers, at the University of Oregon, I was seeking access to the Wayne Morse papers, also at UO. But to gain access to the Morse papers, one had to be approved by his widow, Mildred. Someone sympathetic to the life of Neuberger would not likely gain access. The Morse-Neuberger feud of the 1950s was one of the most incendiary of Senate history.
As I stumbled through this new territory, I encountered a most helpful older historian. He explained: “When a collection is open, that often means the widow has probably culled it for the best stuff, which is not there. If the collection is intact, the widow controls access.” He continued: “That’s why the first step in writing a biography is to shoot the widow.”
One winter’s evening, my wife and I hosted the Hatfields in our Capitol Hill home. Our other guests, two young friends, were the only people whom we knew who would not want something from the senator.
During the course of the meal, I described my predicament with the Morse papers. Then I delivered the historian’s admonition to “shoot the widow.” Sitting next to me, Antoinette looked stricken.
Mark had a big laugh. Little did he know. Or did he?
Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.