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Solo or duet? Married couples in the American National Biography

By Susan Ware

What are the chances, I wondered, of having separate entries for a married couple in the American National Biography Online (ANB)? I’m still new to my job as the general editor of the ANB, but it struck me as intriguing that the very first update released on my watch will contain one such couple: country music singers Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Joined together in marriage and music, they both led fascinating lives that earned them inclusion – separately — in the ANB.

Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas and discovered music early. In 1955 he came to the attention of Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, who launched him on a five-decade career which included fifty hit singles and album sales approaching fifty million. In the meantime June Carter was growing up in the “First Family of Country Music” as the daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter. Johnny Cash and June Carter first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, and in 1961 she joined his touring show. Although they did not marry until 1968, their lives, both musically and personally, became intertwined. Cash especially credited his future wife with helping him overcome his addictions to alcohol and drugs. June Carter Cash died in May 2003, and her husband died four months later.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in 1969

How do editors decide whether members of a famous couple deserve separate entries or a joint one? In cases like Cash and Carter, it was pretty clear: each had an independent performing career and each had an enormous impact on the field of country music. Naturally, there is some overlap when reading the two entries side by side, but the authors (Bruce Evensen for Johnny Cash, and Patrick Andelic for June Carter Cash) choose different examples and themes so that each entry stands on its own.

Once I started to think about this, I realized that this question has come up for several entries we’re working at the moment. Take the case of Gerald and Betty Ford, whose entries will appear in future updates. Gerald Ford deserves extensive treatment of his presidential administration, as well as his political career leading up to his selection as vice-president and his role in the Republican Party after he left office in 1976. The ANB routinely includes all First Ladies; a recognition, I suspect, of their political celebrity no matter how anomalous the job is. But Betty Ford probably would have been included even if she hadn’t been First Lady, because of her leadership in founding the Betty Ford Center and her candor about confronting her own addictions. In her own way, her influence on the culture rivals that of her husband.

Another power couple who will warrant separate ANB entries is Sargent and Eunice Shriver. To write Sargent Shriver’s entry, I will look for a scholar who is grounded in foreign policy and can provide a balanced interpretation of the Peace Corps, of which Sargent Shriver served as the first director. For Eunice, I will seek out someone who can do justice to her work at the Special Olympics and her advocacy of those with special needs. Of course, each author will also have to deal with the whole Kennedy mystique, but that is what makes these short entries fun and challenging to write.

However, there have also been cases where a joint entry does in fact make the most sense. Mimi Farina is often best known as Joan Baez’s sister but she was an influential folksinger in her own right. So was her husband, Richard Farina, although his life was cut short in his 20s by a motorcycle accident. Treating the two lives in tandem will allow for a full treatment of the world of folk music in the 1950s and 1960s that produced these talented musicians, and allow Richard to be included in the historical record even though his individual accomplishments were limited by his premature death.

My final example is of a forthcoming joint entry of a couple who weren’t married or even romantically linked, but worked together as a team their entire careers. Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrote the lyrics, libretti, and screenplays for many of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s best-known musicals. Their working lives were so intertwined, said my friend Carol Oja who is co-authoring the ANB piece, that it would be impossible to write the life of one without the other. In this case, the entry will include separate biographical information about their early lives, but once they team up, tell their story together.

Making decisions like these is part of the general editor’s job description, I am learning. And often they need to be made on a case-by-case basis.  But that is one of the things that makes this job so interesting.

Susan Ware is the General Editor of the American National Biography.Susan Ware is the new General Editor of American National Biography. She is an accomplished historian, editor, and the author of seven books, including biographies of Billie Jean King, Amelia Earhart, Molly Dewson, and Mary Margaret McBride. Read Susan’s plans for the ANB in this OUPblog post.

The landmark American National Biography offers portraits of more than 18,700 men and women — from all eras and walks of life — whose lives have shaped the nation. First published in 24 volumes in 1999, the ANB received instant acclaim as the new authority in American biographies, and continues to serve readers in thousands of school, public, and academic libraries around the world. Its online counterpart, ANB Online, is a regularly updated resource currently offering portraits of over 18,700 biographies, including the 17,435 of the print edition. ACLS sponsors the ANB, which is published by Oxford University Press.

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Image credit: Photograph of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash by Joel Baldwin, 1969, via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [in public domain].

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