William Sloane Coffin's Legacy of Exceptional Joy

By Goldstein, Warren | National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006 | Go to article overview

William Sloane Coffin's Legacy of Exceptional Joy


Goldstein, Warren, National Catholic Reporter


I came to write William Sloane Coffin Jr.'s biography by happenstance. My wife first had the idea, but tossed it my way when she was starting a new job and I needed a new book project. Coffin, whom I knew only slightly--I'd been militantly secular as a Yale undergraduate--was intrigued enough with the idea to check me out with other scholars, and then to invite us for an evening in Vermont, where his wife, Randy, could decide if I was worth the risk.

That evening remains a little hazy in my memory, because I could never seem to finish my vodka. I finally realized that my host was drinking me under the table, and that I'd better stop. In the morning we had a deal.

Writing the biography was the hardest thing I've ever done. Struggling to absorb mountains of documents, hundreds of sermons, dozens of interviews, and a huge public record, and still shape my own narrative, paralyzed me at times. Once the project passed the original five-year deadline everyone we knew began.wondering when--or if--I would ever finish it.

Bill and Randy must have shared everyone else's impatience, but never showed it to me. They both wanted the book to secure Bill's legacy beyond his friends and disciples. Hagiography wouldn't do the trick. While it was critical for Bill that I had gone to Yale, he liked that I had not been a disciple, and was tickled by the idea of a Jew writing his biography. To that end they put up with intimate, intrusive questions, reports from other interviewees about unpleasant lines of questioning, and the possibility that I would use the extraordinarily personal material they gave me--from love letters to tax returns, divorce papers, and letters the teenage Coffin children wrote to each other--to undermine or sully that legacy. They knew Bill had warts, and that I'd have to write about them.

Our handshake deal was that I'd give them the penultimate draft to comment on, but they'd get no editorial control; they'd have to grant me all their rights to the sources before reading a word. That is not to say Bill Coffin simply sat back and waited. One of the world's most charming men, Bill set about charming his biographer, his biographer's wife and his biographer's children.

Was he trying to manipulate me? Sure. But he couldn't have done anything different. That's who he was.

The truth is that I came to admire and like Bill far more than I expected at the beginning of the project. Reading (and watching and listening to) hundreds of sermons, I was treated to a consistently challenging mix of biblical exegesis, social criticism, barbs at "conventional" religion, witticisms, quotable aphorisms, moral seriousness and an affecting faith in the power of God's love. …

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