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Monday, 9 February 2015

Greed, Glory – and Adventure!

Laurence Bergreen loves the worlds of ancient travel and exploration.

Laurence BergreenBut the internationally-renowned, prize-winning biographer of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus is equally fascinated by modern space exploration and the deep seas.

What’s more, although his works about Polo and Ferdinand Magellan are being made into movies starring well-known actors,  he is also enthralled by  a  wide canvas of   figures ranging from the gangster Al Capone to celebrated writers and musicians. They’re all part of the adventure!

Here the New York-based prize-winning biographer and historian tells me, among other things, where he’d like to travel.

I present our  Question and Answer’ session uncut: 

N.I.W. The British naturalist, Sir David Attenborough says he’d like to visit the Himalayan Mountain Kingdoms and that there are still parts of central Asia that are still unexplored. What do you say?

L.B. Vast parts of the ocean are still unexplored, and we know less about them than we do about the moon or Mars. I’d like to visit some of these places.

N.I.W. You’ve written about the great historically acclaimed explorers, Magellan and Columbus. What so much intrigues you about them and the traveller, Marco Polo, whose life you’ve also tackled?

L.B. I’m interested in their burning curiosity about what lies over the next mountain, literally or figuratively, and in their courage, and finally in their commitment to recording, or narrating, their experiences, which greatly amplifies their value. Also, like many people, I just plain enjoy adventure stories.

N.I.W.  It is recorded that Luis de Torres, the interpreter on Columbus’s 1492 voyage was a Jewish converso (né Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri). Do you agree that Columbus may have been a ‘hidden’ Jew?  Luis de Toress

L.B. Some people believe that Columbus was a converso, or had Jewish ancestry. In the course of my research, I found abundant evidence that he was Catholic, but nothing to indicate any Jewish connection. Somewhere in the Columbus family tree there may be a converso, but I couldn’t find anything. Incidentally, other traditions would also like to claim Columbus, for instance, Portugal, despite lack of evidence.

N.I.W.  NASA's (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) exploration of Mars is another of your themes. Do you see modern scientists and astronauts as being in the same heroic mould as their ancient counterparts?

L.B. Very much so. In fact, I began thinking about writing about the Age of Discovery after repeated conversations with NASA scientists and others, who constantly referred to the 15th and 16th centuries for precedents and inspiration. There are some differences, though. In the age of Columbus, explorers primarily went in search of empire, or gold, or out of religious conviction. Today’s missions are science-oriented.

N.I.W. Could there be some form of intelligent life there as we understand it on earth? Or is that a query for cranks?

L.B. When you understand the building blocks of life, and realise that conditions in which life arose on earth exist elsewhere in the universe, you see that it’s entirely possible. Little green men may be for cranks, but the possibility of various life forms is easy to contemplate. They might be very far away, however.

N.I.W. What makes an explorer want to ‘discover’? Is it like a mountaineer yearning to climb something just because it exists? Or is there more?

Ed ViestursL.B. Depends on the explorer. Magellan and Columbus had mixed motives: greed and glory. The mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who’s climbed the 14 highest peaks in the world without oxygen, explores for the sheer joy of it. But most explorers go for some concrete reason, to find something specific.

N.I.W. Do you visit Israel? Would you consider emigrating from New York?

L.B. I’ve never been to Israel, but would like to visit.

Sir.Martin.GilbertAs I conducted this interview with Laurence Bergreen, the death was announced of his British counterpart, Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert
Bergreen remarked: “I didn’t know Martin Gilbert, but I was deeply impressed by his enormous vigour and the scope of his work”.

N.I.W. Tell me a little bit about your family background and upbringing.

L.B. I was born in New York. My parents were lawyers. I grew up in the suburbs nearby and then in New England, and later England, where I began to write and publish. I’m currently based in Manhattan, and I travel a lot. I graduated from Harvard College.

N.I.W. Many Jews say we’re now living in our most troubling times since the 1930s. Others deny this hotly and dismiss such thinking as ‘hysteria’. As a professional historian and a Jew, how do you feel?

L.B. There is certainly cause for concern in the news every day.

N.I.W. Your choice of subjects is most diverse, ranging from modern network broadcasting to ancient travellers while embracing wordsmiths and musicians en route. This, you may agree, has itself been a personal odyssey. How and why do you select an individual?

L.B. Some of it has to do with where I am in my own life, my personal journey, if you will. In general, though, I feel my subjects choose me, that is, there is a certain intuitive reaction that makes a subject irresistible. This is not infallible and needs to be tested, but that’s what leads to picking a particular subject. There are many I’d like to write about; I’ll never be able to get to them all.

N.I.W. Who has been your favourite?

Louis.ArmstrongL.B. The figure I’d most like to spend time with would be Louis Armstrong. (Who wouldn’t?).

N.I.W. Have you ever been tempted to write about a living person?

L.B. Irving Berlin was alive while I was writing about him, and died shortly before publication of the book at the age of 101.

N.I.W. Yourself?

L.B. Well …. maybe a memoir, someday.

N.I.W. Indeed, as one of your books features Armstrong, I’d like to end by asking you about him. He once appeared on BBC Radio’s famous Desert Island Discs show and said if he were stranded on the mythical isle, he’d want to take as comfort, his autobiography and a trumpet. What would you do?

L.B. If you have an iPad, or similar device, that covers pretty much everything – except the necessity of companionship.

N.I.W. Thank you, Laurence Bergreen for taking time away from your travels to sit and chat with ‘Alwayswriteagain’.


** This interview also appears on ‘PerfectlyWellRead’ at:


© Natalie Wood (09 February 2015)

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