Raised in Utah in a respected, if impoverished, Latter-day Saint (LDS) family, Fawn McKay drifted away from religion during her years of graduate work at the University of Chicago and married the ethnically Jewish national defense expert Bernard Brodie, with whom she had three children. Although Fawn Brodie eventually became one of the first tenured female professors of history at UCLA, she is best known for her five biographies, four of which aim to incorporate the alleged insights of Freudian psychology.
Brodie's controversial depiction of Joseph Smith as a fraudulent "genius of improvisation has been described as a "beautifully written biography ... the work of a mature scholar [that] represented the first genuine effort to come to grips with the contradictory evidence about Smith's early life. Her psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson became a best-seller and reintroduced Jefferson's slave and purported mistress Sally Hemings to popular consciousness even before advances in DNA testing increased evidence of a sexual liaison. Nevertheless, Brodie's study of Richard Nixon's early career, completed while she was dying of cancer, demonstrated the hazards of psychobiography in the hands of an author who loathed her subject.
Despite the religious prominence of her family, the Thomas McKays lived in genteel poverty, their property burdened by unpayable debt. The young Fawn was perpetually embarrassed that their house did not have indoor plumbing.
Fawn early demonstrated precociousness. At three she memorized and recited lengthy poems. When a whooping cough epidemic convinced Brodie's mother to homeschool Fawn's sister Flora, who was two years older, Fawn more than kept pace. Introduced to school in 1921, the six-year-old Fawn was advanced to the fourth grade; when she lost the school spelling bee to a twelve- year-old, "she cried and cried that this bright boy, twice her age, had spelled her down. At ten she had a poem printed in the LDS youth periodical, The Juvenile Instructor; at fourteen she was salutatorian of Weber High School.
Although Fawn grew to maturity in a rigorously religious environment that included strict Sabbatarianism and evening prayers on her knees, her mother was a closet skeptic who thought the LDS Church a "wonderful social order" but who doubted its dogma. According to Brodie, in the late 1930s, while her father headed Mormon mission activities in German-speaking Europe, her mother became a "thoroughgoing heretic.
From 1930 to 1932 Fawn attended Weber College, a two-year institution in Ogden then owned by the LDS Church, where she became an accomplished public speaker and participated in intercollegiate debate. She then completed her B.A. in English literature at the University of Utah in 1934. There she began to question such core Mormon beliefs, such as that the Indians had originated in ancient Palestine. Nevertheless, after graduation, at age nineteen, she returned to teach English at Weber College, where she demonstrated excellent potential as a teacher.
In high school, Fawn had begun dating a classmate, Dilworth Jensen, and they had written faithfully during Jensen's long absence on an LDS mission in Europe. In June 1935, both Brodie and Jensen were accepted for graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and friends assumed they would be married. But Flora McKay had recently eloped with Jensen's brother, whom the McKays disliked, and they encouraged Fawn to attend the University of Chicago instead. Fawn herself seemed to have had "growing doubts about marrying" Jensen.
At the University of Chicago, where she earned an M.A. in 1936, Brodie lost her faith in religion entirely. In 1975, she recalled, "It was like taking a hot coat off in the summertime. The sense of liberation I had at the University of Chicago was exhilarating. I felt very quickly that I could not go back to the old life, and I never did.Nevertheless, she continued to write to Dilworth Jensen until shortly before she married Bernard Brodie on her graduation day, August 28, 1936. Brodie was a native of Chicago, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants who was alienated from both his family and his ethnicity. A bright, emotional graduate student in international relations, Brodie eventually became a noted expert in military strategy during the Cold War era. The McKays were horrified at the impending marriage; and not surprisingly, Dilworth Jensen felt betrayed. David O. McKay went to Chicago to warn his niece of the family's strong objections. Out of consideration for her mother, Fawn scheduled the wedding in an LDS chapel, but of the McKays, only Fawn's mother attended. None of Brodie's family came.
Brodie continued her research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where the Brodies now lived, as well as at the headquarters of the Reorganized LDS Church in Independence, Missouri. Eventually she also returned to Utah and managed some discreet research at the LDS Church Archives, gaining access to some highly restricted materials by being introduced as "Brother McKay's daughter," a subterfuge that made her feel "guilty as hell. Her pursuit of little-known documents was not discreet enough, however, and eventually it attracted the attention of David O. McKay. After a "painful, acrimonious encounter" with her uncle, Brodie promised never again to consult materials in the Church Archives.
In partial compensation, Brodie's research was enlarged by other students of Mormonism, most notably Dale L. Morgan (1914-1971), who became a lifelong friend, mentor, and sounding board. Brodie finally completed her biography of Joseph Smith in 1944, and it was published the following year by Alfred A. Knopf when Brodie was only thirty.
Its title, No Man Knows My History, alludes to a comment Joseph Smith made in a speech shortly before his assassination in 1844. In the biography, Brodie presents the young Joseph as a lazy, good-natured, extroverted, and unsuccessful treasure seeker. In an attempt to improve his family's fortunes, he first developed the notion of golden plates and then the concept of a religious novel, the Book of Mormon, based in part on an earlier work, View of the Hebrews, by a contemporary clergyman Ethan Smith. Brodie asserts that at first Joseph Smith was a deliberate impostor who at some point, in nearly untraceable steps, became convinced that he was indeed a prophet, although without ever escaping "the memory of the conscious artifice" that created the Book of Mormon.
Non-Mormon reviewers praised either the author's research, the excellence of her literary style, or both. Newsweek called Brodie's book "a definitive biography in the finest sense of the word," and Time praised the author for her "skill and scholarship and admirable detachment. Other reviews were less positive. Brodie was especially annoyed by the review of novelist Vardis Fisher, who accused her of stating "as indisputable facts what can only be regarded as conjectures supported by doubtful evidence. Although Bernard DeVoto's review was mixed as well, DeVoto praised the biography as "the best book about the Mormons so far published." DeVoto, who believed Joseph Smith was "paranoid," complained that Brodie had not provided adequate psychological explanations for Smith's behavior. Brodie herself came to believe that a thorough psychological analysis of Smith was essential and that she "hadn't gone far enough in this direction.
Although No Man Knows My History was a direct attack on many foundational Mormon beliefs about Joseph Smith, the LDS Church was slow to condemn the work even as the book went into a second printing. In 1946, The Improvement Era, the official periodical of the Church, said that many of the book's citations arose from doubtful sources and that the biography was "of no interest to Latter-day Saints who have correct knowledge of the history of Joseph Smith." The "Church News" section of the Deseret News provided a lengthy critique that acknowledged the biography's "fine literary style" and then denounced it as "a composite of all anti-Mormon books that have gone before. BYU professor and LDS historian and apologist Hugh Nibley challenged Brodie in another booklet, No, Ma'am, That's Not History, asserting that Brodie had cited sources supportive only of her conclusions while conveniently ignoring others. Brodie herself thought the Deseret News pamphlet "a well-written, clever piece of Mormon propaganda", but she dismissed the ultimately more popular No, Ma'am, That's Not History as "a flippant and shallow piece.
In May 1946, the LDS Church excommunicated Brodie, and she never attempted to regain her membership. Brodie once wrote to a friend that the agony of her disillusionment with Mormonism "had to do with the pain I caused my family. The disillusionment itself was...a liberating experience." Even before publication of No Man Knows My History, Brodie sought to comfort her parents, "You brought us all up to revere the truth, which is the noblest ideal a parent can instill in his children, and the fact that we come out on somewhat different roads certainly is no reflection on you. Brodie's mother and three sisters were enthusiastic about the book, but Thomas McKay refused even to read it.
Brodie believed that previous historians had unduly vilified Stevens, and she enjoyed the prospect of rebuilding a reputation rather than, as in her Joseph Smith biography, tearing one down. Stevens as a champion of black people was a timely interest at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, and research materials were available at Yale University, where Bernard Brodie was employed. Then too, Stevens had a physical deformity, a club foot, and Fawn Brodie wondered how this handicap might have affected his psyche.
In the view of students of historiography such as Ernst Breisach, all biographers are to some degree psychohistorians, and any biography that refused to examine motives, character traits, and the depth of personality would be flat and uninteresting. But Brodie became interested in applying the theories of professional psychoanalysts to the study of historical personalities, a subject especially popular during the mid-twentieth century. At first Brodie was amused at how much psychoanalysis had "become a religion" to its practitioners, but she later become a committed devotee of psychoanalytic theory. Brodie made a number of acquaintances among psychoanalysts, who helped her evaluate Thaddeus Stevens, notably Ralph R. Greenson, with whom she developed a close personal and professional relationship. Both the Brodies also subjected themselves to psychoanalysis, he for insomnia and she for chronic mild depression and sexual problems. (Bernard's employer, the RAND Corporation, paid most of the bills.) If the problems of everyday life had been insufficient to maintain Brodie's interest in psychology, there was the case of her mother, who during this period attempted suicide three times, the second by cutting herself with a Catholic crucifix and the third (which succeeded) by setting herself on fire.
The Stevens biography took the better part of a decade to complete. In 1956, Brodie discovered evidence that Stevens might have killed a black girl who was pregnant with his child, complicating her attempt to rehabilitate his character. To decide the truth of the matter, Brodie consulted Freud. Fortunately, she also sought the advice of her husband, who acted as chief critic and editor as he had with the Joseph Smith biography, and he prevented Fawn from taking an extreme position. When the Stevens book was published in 1959, it enjoyed virtually unanimous praise from critics. Major historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, including David Herbert Donald and C. Vann Woodward, praised the biography. Donald called Brodie's psychoanalysis of Stevens "a tour de force." Most gracious was Richard N. Current, who himself had written a less favorable account of Stevens that Brodie had criticized. Current not only urged W. W. Norton to republish Brodie's book in paperback, but wrote a blurb praising the author for writing "more imaginatively" and "more resourcefully...than any other Stevens biographer." Ironically, Thaddeus Stevens was a commercial failure that sold fewer than fifteen hundred copies before going out of print in less than a year.
In 1960 the Brodies spent a year in France, during which Fawn spent considerable energy researching and writing From Crossbow to H-Bomb, a co-authored paperback intended as a college text that treated the impact of science on military technology. Bernard Brodie had signed the contract with Random House, but his wife did most of the research and writing.
When the family returned to California, Alfred Knopf asked Brodie to edit and write a new introduction for Sir Richard Francis Burton's book, The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1862). Almost immediately she "was lost" to Burton, a man whom she described as "fascinating beyond belief", and she was soon planning a full biography. Like Brodie, Burton was an agnostic who was fascinated by religion and all things sexual. Though Freud was almost superfluous in such a case, Brodie once again solicited advice from the psychoanalyst community and then tried to make Burton reveal his subconscious through "free association." For instance, she noted that immediately before and after Burton wrote about his mother, he talked "about cheating, decapitation, mutilations, smashings—-all the stories and metaphors are violent, negative, and hostile. The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton was published in May 1967 and was chosen as a featured selection by both the Literary Guild Book Club and the History Book Club. Reviews were again generally positive. The New York Times Book Review promoted it as an "[e]xcellent biography of a bizarre man who had a bizarre wife—-and life.
Thomas Jefferson was a natural subject for Brodie's fourth biography. One of her courses focused on America from 1800 to 1830 (for which she wrote meticulous lectures), and her seminar in political biography might serve as an appropriate forum for a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, throughout this period, Brodie continued to be attracted by Mormon studies and had been importuned by several publishers to write a biography of Brigham Young. LDS entrepreneur O.C. Tanner (1904-1993) even offered Brodie $10,000 in advance to produce a manuscript. At this point, Brodie’s confidant Dale Morgan convinced her that an even closer friend, Madeline Reeder McQuown, had nearly completed a huge manuscript on Young. McQuown’s biography was, in fact, little more than rough drafts of a few early chapters, but Brodie was dissuaded and abandoned Brigham Young for Thomas Jefferson.
By May 1968, Brodie was emotionally committed to writing the biography. She understood that it could not be a full account. The study of Jefferson had become a virtual career for several living historians. For instance, Dumas Malone was in the process of completing a six-volume biography of Jefferson, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Instead, Brodie directed her efforts to a biography of “the private man,” a study that would build on several recently published articles speculating on a possible sexual relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slave, a quadroon, and the possible half-sister of his late wife. Not only was the topic timely during this period of increased national interest in race, sex, and presidential hypocrisy, but Brodie had also recently discovered that her own husband had been conducting an extramarital affair.
To Brodie, Jefferson’s ambiguous posturings on slavery could be explained by his personal life. If he were conducting a 28-year affair with a slave, then he could not free his slaves because once freed, Virginia law would force them all from the state. He could only continue his liaison with Hemings if his slaves remained slaves. Because of the paucity of evidence, two of the most prominent Jefferson biographers of the twentieth century, Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, had discounted rumors about this sexual relationship, first published in 1802 by the unscrupulous journalist James T. Callender when Jefferson was President. Ironically, Brodie's contribution to the debate arose not from her speculations about Jefferson's psyche but from her use of Dumas Malone's discovery that Jefferson had been in residence at Monticello nine months prior to the birth of each of Sally Hemings's children—-and that when he was not living there, she had none.
By 1971 Brodie had a $15,000 advance from her publisher and had presented a summary of her arguments at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. One commentator, Merrill Peterson, "blasted" the paper. Author and publisher alike understood that the biography would be controversial. An in-house editor at W. W. Norton was especially critical: "Doesn't [Brodie] know about making the theory fit the facts instead of trying to explain the facts to fit the theory? It's pretty fascinating, like working out a detective story, but she doesn't play fair.
Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History was published in February 1974, and it became the main spring selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Brodie did her best to ensure that the three foremost Jefferson scholars, Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Julian Boyd, would not be invited to review the book. But she scarcely needed to worry. Brodie was interviewed on NBC's Today Show, and the book quickly "became a topic of comment in elite social-literary circles." The biography was also an immediate commercial success and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for thirteen weeks. Jefferson sold 80,000 copies in hardback, 270,000 copies in paperback, and netted Brodie $350,000 in royalties—-adjusted for inflation, more than a million dollars in the early twenty-first century. Academic reviews were mixed. Literary reviews were generally positive while historians were often critical of Brodie's undue speculations.
Brodie was at least partially vindicated in 1998 when blind DNA tests concluded that a male carrying the Jefferson Y chromosome had fathered Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings' youngest child. In January 2000, a research committee commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation also asserted that there was a high probability that Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemmings and possibly the father of all Hemings children listed in the Monticello records. Nevertheless, a similar study in 2001, organized by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, reached opposite conclusions, namely, that it was unlikely that Jefferson had fathered any of Hemings' children. Defenders of Jefferson's probity used to argue that if any Jefferson DNA was to be found in descendants of Sally Hemings, it came from Thomas Jefferson's nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr, an argument the Jefferson family itself used to combat Callender's allegations. DNA testing precludes this possibility because the father of Eston Hemings must have carried Jefferson's patriarchal Y chromosome. Today, defenders of Jefferson usually assume Jefferson's brother Randolph was the guilty party, although he had not been suggested as a probable candidate before the DNA study.
Like many previous Jefferson biographers, Brodie developed an intense affection for her protagonist. She even claimed that in dreams, she and Jefferson became "man and wife." Not surprisingly, Bernard Brodie is supposed to have muttered, "God, I'm glad that man is out of the house." More poignantly, Fawn Brodie asked where one could go after Jefferson "but down.
As usual, Brodie considered a range of subjects for a new biography. Brigham Young was now a clear field, but she decided not to “return to old ground.” Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency shortly after she had finished Jefferson, and Brodie had spoken formally to both students and others about the former president. As a liberal Democrat, Brodie had developed a “repellent fascination" for Nixon, a man whom she called “a rattlesnake,” a “plain damn liar,” and a "shabby, pathetic felon." Although Brodie thought Nixon an imposter like Joseph Smith, she did not believe him to be the “charming imposter the Mormon leader was.
There were also personal factors motivating her malevolent interest in the former president. One of her sons had nearly been drafted in 1969 shortly after Nixon had won election on the promise to end the Vietnam War. (At the last minute, sympathetic physicians had Bruce Brodie reclassified as unfit for military service on the basis of his allergies.)
Also, when Nixon had sought information to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, his operatives had burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. Ellsberg was a close friend and former RAND associate of Bernard Brodie, and Fielding was Fawn Brodie’s long-time therapist. Brodie considered “Nixon the perpetrator of an assault on her privacy.”
Neither Brodie’s husband nor her publisher were enthusiastic about her choice of Richard Nixon as a new subject, but Brodie forged ahead anyway. She resigned her professorship at UCLA in 1977 and began the task of research, including, for the first time, in oral history collections. Brodie herself conducted 150 interviews. She tried unsuccessfully to interview Henry Kissinger, whom she knew on a first-name basis—-and even Nixon himself for what she described in a letter to him as “a compassionate and accurate study.” (Nixon did not reply.) Though she could find no evidence, Brodie became obsessed with the notion that Nixon had engaged in a homosexual relationship with his good friend Bebe Rebozo. Even her psychoanalyst friends tried to warn her off.
In November 1977, Bernard Brodie was diagnosed with a serious cancer, and Fawn suspended her research on Nixon: “That son of a bitch can wait.” She nursed her husband until his death a year later and then sank into “a depression from which she would never really emerge.” Under the circumstances, Nixon’s biography seemed “like a total obscenity.”
While hiking at a family reunion in 1980, Brodie became unusually tired. She was shortly diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, although she had never smoked. Between chemotherapy treatments she pushed ahead to complete the Nixon study, her three children and a daughter-in-law providing moral and editorial support in her time of need. Knowing that she could never complete a full biography, she ended the manuscript with Nixon's pre-presidential years, lending it an unfinished quality.
Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character was published in late 1981 and received reviews less enthusiastic than any of her earlier books. Writing in The New Republic, Godfrey Hodgson questioned both her psychoanalytic approach and her motives: “[W]e are in danger of having the insights of psychotherapy used as a tool for character destruction, certainly for libel, potentially for revenge.” Sales of the book were disappointing, in part because of the reviews, in part because memoirs by Nixon associates such as Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, and John Dean had recently flooded the market. Perhaps Brodie’s book was most influential in stimulating Oliver Stone to create his controversial 1995 movie Nixon.
Brodie died nine months before publication of the book. As death neared, the cancer spread to her brain and bones, and Brodie experienced intense pain. During this period, she was visited in the hospital by her brother Thomas, who had remained a practicing Latter-day Saint. Brodie asked him to “give me a blessing,” a surprising request since she had long been estranged from both her brother and the LDS Church. Even more curious was that a few days later Brodie released a note saying that her request for a priesthood blessing should not be misinterpreted as a request to return to the Church. It was Brodie’s last signed statement. In accordance with her wishes, friends spread her ashes over the Santa Monica Mountains, which she loved and had successfully helped to save from real estate development.