A Singular Woman’s Biographer

It was in March 2008, while working at the New York Times, that Janny Scott ’77 first encountered Stanley Ann Dunham. As part of the paper’s presidential campaign coverage, Scott had been assigned to write biographical articles on Barack Obama. “I was working on pieces about his past,” she recalls, “and I encountered a photograph of Obama and his mother. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition…of the very obvious similarities and differences between them. And I realized I knew nothing about her. At that point she was ‘the white woman from Kansas.’”

Three years and more than 200 interviews later, Scott’s biography of Obama’s mother, A Singular Woman (Riverhead Books), appeared this spring. “I was always interested in history and writing,” says Scott, who majored in history and literature and wrote her senior honors thesis on Irish home rule in the 1920s. Her interest in journalism began almost on a whim. “I comped the Crimson my freshman year at the suggestion of my sister’s boyfriend,” she admits. The paper became her main activity at Harvard, but she says, “I didn’t spend all my time there.” Nevertheless, her stint led to a summer internship at a daily paper in Tucson, and then back to Boston to work for the Real Paper. 

She continued to write for the Real Paper after graduation, picking up work at Boston Magazine as well, but “eventually had to bite the bullet and find a real job. I applied to probably 75 daily newspapers around the country, and found a job at the Bergen Record in New Jersey.” She stayed about five years before moving to San Diego and then Los Angeles, taking a position at the Los Angeles Times, where she covered science and medicine. In 1994, she moved to the New York offices of the LA Times, and then, in her words, “defected” to the New York Times.

The Dunham biography wasn’t Scott’s first encounter with race relations. At the New York Times, she was part of a team of reporters covering the question of race in society. “We were looking at race as a subtext in different relationships and settings: the police, the military, the government,” Scott explains. “I wrote a miniseries in Baltimore, covering the making of The Corner, a TV show based on a book by David Simon”; she spent a year on the project, witnessing the relationship between the white writer and the black director. The Times team won a Pulitzer in 2001 for national reporting.

In 2008, during the presidential campaign, Scott took a leave of absence from the Times to work on her book about Dunham. “After seeing that photograph, I wrote a piece about her in March. The reaction was just extraordinary. People seemed startled that Oba­ma’s mother had lived an unconventional life. I felt moved by her story; it really shed light on Obama. I understood him differently.”

Dunham herself had died 13 years earlier, in 1995, of uterine cancer, so Scott “just started methodically and chronologically, with a rough roadmap of her life. I started in Kansas, took about five trips to Hawaii, more to Seattle where she went to high school, just getting to know and cultivating people who were close to her.” Scott began before Obama was the Democratic nominee, but was aware from the beginning of the potential ripples she was making. “I knew it’d be difficult; anyone’s mother is a sensitive topic, and then when you’re running for president and you’re Obama, people wanted to be especially careful about what they said that could potentially hurt him. So I trod carefully. In the end, no one turned me down. I was able to speak to all her uncles and aunts and both her children. No one ever tried to interfere.” 

With A Singular Woman now on the shelves, Scott is not sure what will come next. “I loved the Times and I loved writing this book,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out where I’m going. Journalism is a fantastic life if you can figure out how to make a living. It keeps you engaged and interested.”

Read more articles by: Maya E. Shwayder

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