Donald Spoto, biographer of Hitchcock and many more, dies at 81

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Donald Spoto, biographer of Hitchcock and many more, dies at 81
He wrote more than two dozen books, including richly detailed biographies of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Laurence Olivier and Jesus.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Donald Spoto, a prolific biographer whose subjects included Jesus and Joan of Arc, but who was best known for his books on Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and other high-profile entertainment figures, some of which made news with startling claims, died Feb. 11 in Koege, Denmark. He was 81.

His husband and only immediate survivor, Ole Flemming Larsen, said the cause was a brain hemorrhage.

Although Spoto wrote more than two dozen books, being a biographer was a sort of second career for him. Before that, he had held several teaching positions, including in the theology department at Fairfield University in Connecticut and the department of religion at the College of New Rochelle in Westchester County, north of New York City. But he always had a fondness for movies, especially those directed by Hitchcock, whose work he first encountered when he was 10 and saw “Strangers on a Train” at the RKO Proctor’s Theater in New Rochelle.

“The film completely wiped me out,” he told the Westchester Rockland Newspapers of New York in 1976. “It devastated me. I found its imagery overpowering. And after that, I found that every single Hitchcock film that came along absolutely mesmerized me.”

His first book, “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: 50 Years of His Motion Pictures,” published that year, wasn’t a biography but a cinephile’s guide. Spoto made a bigger impact with “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock,” published in 1983, three years after his subject’s death. It was a thorough biography that cut through the carefully cultivated image that the director had sought to project and delved into his harsh treatment of some of his stars and other unflattering details.

“It is not a heroic portrait of Alfred Hitchcock that Donald Spoto has presented here,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in his review in The New York Times. “It is instead the picture of a severely repressed, even twisted, Victorian gentleman.”

Spoto drew connections between Hitchcock’s personal demons and his films, although film critic Richard Grenier, in a separate review in the Times, suggested that Spoto’s admiration of his subject marred those efforts.

“Mr. Spoto dutifully records all the meanness and malignity of Hitchcock’s character — such as the strong signs of a sadistic attitude toward women,” Grenier wrote, “but, since he worships Hitchcock’s art, he goes to sometimes desperate lengths to show how all these character failings ‘enrich’ his work.”

In any case, “The Dark Side of Genius” was the first in a string of biographies by Spoto that included “Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich” (1992), “Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean” (1996), “Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn” (2006), “Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates” (2007) and more.

Spoto’s biographies, whether authorized (like the Bates book) or unauthorized (like the Hitchcock one), were rich in detail. He was so prolific that reviewers would sometimes fault him for piling on the minutiae but missing the personality.

Frank Rich, chief theater critic for the Times, reviewing Spoto’s “The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams” in 1985, said that it lacked “passion — for Williams, for the theater, and for the language and telling scenes a literary biography requires.”

“Grateful as we can be that Mr. Spoto has done the spadework,” Rich wrote, “someone else will have to dig far deeper to produce the biography that matches the size and drama of Williams’ life and art.”

Spoto’s research sometimes earned attention beyond the book-review section. In “Laurence Olivier: A Biography” (1992), his claim that Olivier, who was married to Jill Esmond, then Vivien Leigh and then Joan Plowright, had a 10-year affair with comic actor Danny Kaye drew considerable publicity. (A 2005 biography by Terry Coleman, authorized by Olivier’s heirs, disputed Spoto’s account.)

Spoto also drew attention with “Marilyn Monroe: The Biography” (1993), especially for its final section, in which he sought to undermine the oft-repeated contentions that the actress, who died in 1962, had had affairs with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and that her death was some kind of cover-up.

He concluded that Monroe had a one-time liaison with John Kennedy and none with Robert. He called the “cottage industry” of allegations and conspiracy theories a “grim cyclorama of deceit and sensation” and said those promoting such tales were motived by money.

“But the price runs higher than cash paid for shameful books,” he wrote. “The cost includes the erosion of ideals, a loss of faith in good men and women, a cavalier disregard for the reputations of decent people and a profound indifference to the truth.”

Donald Michael Spoto was born June 28, 1941, in New Rochelle, New York. His father, Michael, was a commercial photographer, and his mother, Anne (Werden) Spoto, worked in New Rochelle’s public information department.

He grew up in New Rochelle and attended Iona Preparatory School. In the late 1950s, he acted in several productions by the Fenimore Players, a local theater group of which his father was president for a time.

He studied languages at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then at Iona College (now Iona University) in New Rochelle, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He received a master’s degree at Fordham University in 1966 and then, in 1970, a doctorate there in New Testament studies.

As a student and later a professor of religion, Spoto gave talks with titles such as “Sensitive Areas in Teaching Religion to Adolescents.” In 1973 and 1974, he worked at an advertising agency, “mainly because I wanted to find out what the real world was like,” he said in the 1976 interview.

In the mid-1970s, he taught a course on Hitchcock at the New School in New York’s Manhattan. The course was so popular that students were turned away.

Spoto, who had lived in Borup, Denmark, for years, married Larsen in 2003.

Spoto did not entirely leave his theological training or his interest in Christianity behind. He drew on both for “The Hidden Jesus: A New Life” (1998) and “Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint” (2007), about Joan of Arc.

“This book deals with what might be called the mystery of Joan of Arc,” he wrote in the foreword, “and I offer it within the belief that the world and everything in it belongs to God and matters to God.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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