By Ward, Nathan
BACK IN THE 1960s. WHEN FRUSTRATED PLAYWRIGHT AND NOVELIST Marshall Frady was working for magazines like Harper's and Newsweek, he was already fascinated by seemingly outsized American figures--preacher Billy Graham, segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. The latter two would become the subjects of his classic biographies: 1968's Wallace and 1996's Jesse. Frady says that following Jackson around for six years was like competing in "a migratory, open-ended tournament of talking." Now, Frady has set his sights on an even more imposing figure: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The son of a preacher from Augusta, Georgia, Frady says he "had been writing on King in somewhat glancing and marginal ways since Wallace." In writing the new biography, he was seeking to get past the image of King as civil rights martyr and view him as an actual flesh and blood man or, as he describes him, the "short, chunky man, with a manner of unremitting and ponderous gravity" whom he met in 1964 while reporting on the civil rights movement.
"There have been billowings of writing on him since he died, and one tries to inhale that and then begin to write it as if telling it for the first time," Frady says.
In the book, titled Martin Luther King, Jr., Frady argues that King "has been abstracted out of his swelteringly convoluted actuality." Frady portrays King faults and all, not glossing over King's infidelities and his vanity. "[King] remained discreetly but resistlessly infatuated with the glamours of importance: limousine transport to imperial hotel suites, the company of the wealthy and eminent. Neither was he innocent of a certain fretful pride in his appearance, in his intellectual heft, his historical import." Frady warns that "to hallow a figure is almost always to hollow him," recognizing that King "was always a far more excruciatingly complex soul than the subsequent flattenings effected by his mass sanctification."
Having finished a biography of the man he'd been thinking about for thirty years, Frady is now moving on to new projects, ones that will allow him to maintain both his passion for fiction and his fascination with legendary historical figures: a screen adaptation of William Faulkner's novella "The Bear," as well as a "meditation" on Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whom he met in the early 1990s while on a trip with Jesse Jackson. …