The Authorised Biography
Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780743244985, 640pp.
Publication Date: June 21, 2005
Sir Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. With a talent recognised by discerning critics from his very first appearance on the stage, he gained a world-wide reputation playing roles on the screen such as Fagin in Oliver Twist and Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit. His performance as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai won him an Oscar and, in his later years, he captivated a new generation of admirers as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
Guinness was a man who vigorously guarded his privacy and, despite publishing an autobiography and two volumes of his diaries, he remained an enigma to the general public and a mystery even to his family and closest friends.
After his death in August 2000, his widow, Merula, asked the author Piers Paul Read, who had been a friend of her husband, to write his authorised biography. Given full co-operation by the Guinness family and free access to Sir Alec's papers, including his private and unpublished diaries, Read has written an enjoyable, yet penetrating and perceptive account of an intriguing and complex man.
Read shows how Guinness's quirks of character and genius had roots in the circumstances of his early life. His marriage to Merula Salaman, a young actress of great promise, is chronicled by the many hundred letters Guinness wrote to her when serving in the Navy during World War II, while his post-war diaries reveal that readjustment to civilian life was traumatic, with doubts about his talent and a confusion about his sexual nature leading to bouts of severe depression.
Guinness's conversion to Catholicism in 1956 partly exorcised his demons, but he never wholly escaped the contradictions of his life -- his domestic ties vying with wayward passions, a yearning for holiness with an intolerance of constraint, a raw sensitivity to the feelings of others with an irascible and domineering nature. Yet from the diaries and letters to his friends quoted extensively in this biography, there emerges a man of great compassion, generosity, wit and charm -- intellectually curious, a talented writer, a great gossip, bon viveur and munificent host.
Piers Paul Read is the author of thirteen acclaimed novels, most recently Alice in Exile, and four works of non-fiction, among them a history of the crusading order, The Templars, and the international bestseller Alive! Past novels have won the Hawthornden Prize and the Geoffrey Faber, Somerset Maugham and James Tait Black Awards. He lives in London.
Frank McLynn, Independent on Sunday's Books of the Year It may sound hyperbolic to suggest that a "mere" showbiz biography could be a deeply intelligent, acute piece of work, full of humanity and compassion...but that is what Piers Paul Read achieves in his magnificent Alec Guinness.
Keith Baxter, Spectator A splendid biography...Read gives us an astonishingly moving portrait of a very complex man, his loving marriage, and his quest for spiritual solace. It is a warts-and-all portrait but Read effortlessly invokes compassion for his subject...engrossing.
Patrick Garland, The Oldie Piers Paul Read's perceptive study about this much admired and most complicated of actors falls into that rare category of exceptional theatre biographies.