Each year, the Leon Levy Center for Biography selects an eminent biographer to deliver a lecture on the process of researching and writing biography. Learn about past Leon Levy Biography Lecturers below.

2018 – Geoffrey Ward

Thursday, September 27, 2018, 6:30 p.m.

Harold M. Proshasky Auditorium

Geoffrey C. Ward delivers the Annual Leon Levy Lecture: “The Biographer’s Dilemma: Searching for the Known and Unknowable.” Historian, biographer and screenwriter, Ward the author of sixteen books, including A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has written or cowritten many documentary films, including The War, The Civil War, Baseball, The West, Mark Twain, Not for Ourselves Alone, and Jazz.

Headshot of Taylor Branch

2017 – Taylor Branch

Wednesday, September 27, 2017, 6:30 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

Taylor Branch is best known for his landmark trilogy chronicling the life of  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. The trilogy’s first book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards in 1989. The third and final volume of the 2,912-page trilogy—collectively called America in the King Years—was released in January 2006, and a selected summary of the trilogy, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013. His 2009 memoir, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, chronicles an unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history secretly on tape. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Headshot of Hermione Lee

2016 – Hermione Lee

Wednesday, September 28, 2016, 6:30 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

Hermione Lee is the author of the definitive life of Virginia Woolf, a signal achievement in literary biography, as well as biographies and critical studies of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Philip Roth, Elizabeth Bowen, and most recently, the brilliant late-developer Penelope Fitzgerald, who published her first book (a biography) at age 58; Lee won the 2013 James Tait Black Prize for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. She has written extensively on the art and craft of ‘life-writing,’ in Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography and Biography: A Very Short Introduction, and participated memorably in the Leon Levy Center’s 2013 Biography Conference. Educated at Oxford, she has taught at the College of William & Mary, the University of Liverpool, and the University of York. In 1998 she was the first woman to be named Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, and in 2008 she was elected the President of Wolfson College, Oxford, where she directs the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Lee is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, she was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). 

Headshot of Brenda Wineapple

2015 – Brenda Wineapple

Monday, October 5, 2015, 6:30 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

Brenda Wineapple is the author of the widely acclaimed biographies Genêt; A Biography of Janet Flanner; Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein; Hawthorne: A Life (2003, winner of the Ambassador Award for Best Biography); and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2008, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). In 2013 she published Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, a groundbreaking study of how America confronted slavery and redefined itself as a nation. Writing in the New York Times, David S. Reynolds described it as “history as it feels in real time … delivered through its vivid portrayal of the human side of an era.” Wineapple has received a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim, and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of American Historians, and the New York Institute of the Humanities. Formerly Distinguished Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, she has taught at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, The New School, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Union College. She is now teaching a new master’s course on biographical narrative sponsored by the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center. 

Headshot of Richard Holmes

2014 – Richard Holmes

Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

Richard Holmes has made his mark in two fields, literary biography and science writing. He transfigured the way the Romantic poets are written about with his first book, Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), of which The New York Times noted, “If the art of biography was ever damned, Shelley: The Pursuit redeemed it.” He is best known for his definitive two-volume biography: Coleridge: Early Visions (1989, winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award) and Coleridge: Darker Reflections. His other books include Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (which Stacy Schiff has called a book every biographer secretly wishes he’d written), Sidetracks, and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (winner of the James Tait Black Prize). After ten years of teaching, he published his international bestseller, The Age of Wonder, which won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent book is Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Holmes is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the British Academy. In 1992, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).  

View the video of the 2014 Leon Levy Biography Lecture.

Headshot of David Levering Lewis

2013 – David Levering Lewis

Wednesday, September 18, 2013, 6:30 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

David Levering Lewis is Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History, Emeritus, at New York University. Twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, for each volume of W.E.B. DuBois (an unrivaled feat), Lewis has received the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations, and the National Humanities Medal, which was presented to him by President Obama. His other books include the first biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (King), God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, and a classic history of Harlem, When Harlem Was in Vogue. He is currently completing a biography of Wendell Willkie.

View the video of the 2013 Leon Levy Biography Lecture.

Headshot of Robert K. Massie

2012 – Robert K. Massie

Monday, September 24, 2012, 7 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

Robert K. Massie is the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Russian history and the author most recently of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, which won the 2012 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Non-Fiction, and the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. Born in Kentucky and raised in Tennessee, Massie studied at Yale and at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Massie’s first book,Nicholas and Alexandra, published in 1967 and translated into 17 languages, was a New York Times bestseller for 46 weeks, and became an Academy Award-winning film. His book Peter the Great: His Life and World won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1981, and became an Emmy Award-winning television mini-series. Massie is also the author of Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War; Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea; and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.

Headshot of Hilary Spurling

2011 – Hilary Spurling

Wednesday, September 21, 2011, 7 p.m.
Proshansky Auditorium

The Fourth Annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture featured distinguished author Hilary Spurling. Born in 1940 and educated at Somerville College, Oxford University, Ms. Spurling has written biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott, Sonia Orwell and Henri Matisse in 2 volumes, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Los Angeles Times biography prize in 2005. She is a CBE, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and founder of the Royal Literary Society’s Writers Fellowship scheme. Her latest book is Pearl Buck in China, of which The New York Times writes, “Hilary Spurling approaches Buck’s life the way an art restorer approaches a serious but neglected painting. She clears away decades’ worth of grime, repairs some buckling, smoothes out a bit of flaking craquelure. The resulting portrait … has an absorbing glow.”

(Photo by Graeme Robertson)

Headshot of Ron Chernow

2010 – Ron Chernow

Tuesday, September 28, 2010, 7 p.m.
Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium

Mr. Chernow has written The House of Morgan, which won a National Book Award, The Warburgs, which was cited by the American Library Association as one of the year’s ten best books in 1993, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and praised by The Times of Londonas “one of the great American biographies,” and Alexander Hamilton, which won a George Washington Book Prize for the year’s best book about the founding era. The New York Times has called Mr. Chernow “as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we’ve seen in decades.” A frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Chernow is a familiar figure on national radio and television shows—he has appeared on C-Span, CNN, the History Channel, and National Public Radio, and in numerous documentaries. And in 2010, his Washington: A Life, a rare single volume, full-length portrait of George Washington, was released by Penguin Press and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

(Author photo by Sigrid Estrada)

Headshot of Robert A. Caro

2009 – Robert A. Caro

September 29, 2009, 7 p.m.
Elebash Recital Hall

Robert A. Caro, the master biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson, gave the Second Annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture in 2009. Caro is the author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, whose first three published volumes are The Path to Power, Means of Ascent and Master of the Senate. Mr. Caro was then at work on the fourth volume, The Passage of Power, an examination of Johnson’s years in the White House, published to great acclaim in 2012. Caro’s biographies of Moses and Johnson have garnered numerous honors, incluing two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography, two National Book Critics Circle Awards for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.” The Boston Globe notes that “Caro has a unique place among American political biographers. He has become, in many ways, the standard by which his fellows are measured.” A graduate of Princeton University, Caro has been a Holtzbrinck Distinguished Visitor at The American Academy in Berlin, a Carnegie Fellow at Columbia University, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

Headshot of Stacy Schiff

2008 – Stacy Schiff

November 5, 2008, 7 p.m.
The Skylight Room

Stacy Schiff gave the inaugural Leon Levy Lecture on Biography, speaking on the process of researching and writing her biography Cleopatra: A Life, at the time a work-in-progress, published in 2010 by Little, Brown. Schiff is also the author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, which won the 2005 George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the InstitutFrançais’s Gilbert Chinard Prize. She received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), published by Random House. Her first book, Saint-Exupéry, published by Knopf in 1994, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of numerous awards abroad.