Author Stacy Schiff

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author de-bunks some common myths about Cleopatra’s ethnicity, physical appearance and death.

Called a "master biographer," Stacy Schiff won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography Véra, the story of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov. She's also illuminated the lives of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Benjamin Franklin. In addition to her award-winning books, she's written for various notable publications. Schiff was previously a senior editor at Simon & Schuster and received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In her latest text, she reconstructs the life of the African queen Cleopatra.


Tavis: Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose many notable biographies include Vera Nabokov and Benjamin Franklin. Her latest focus is on the life of one of the most famous women in all of history, Cleopatra. The much-talked-about new text is called “Cleopatra: A Life” and makes its debut on “The New York Times” best-seller list this Sunday. Stacy Schiff, good to have you on this program.
Stacy Schiff: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. The obvious question for me for starters, I guess, is why yet another book about Cleopatra?
Schiff: Well, to me it was the ultimate blend of sex and celebrity. You can’t get bigger than this in terms of subjects, and you’ve got a powerful woman in a world in which there were actually fairly powerful women, and you’ve got an all-star cast.
You’ve got Caesar, you’ve got Marc Antony and you’ve got Cleopatra – kind of doesn’t get better than that. You’ve got a woman who’s authoritative, who’s accomplished and who’s ambitious, who gets slaughtered by history, but how many of those can you name? It was this just strange little moment of history where you have this amazing woman.
Tavis: I want to make sure I heard you correct – you suggested she was a woman in a world where there were other powerful women or not other powerful women?
Schiff: There were other powerful women, and she hails from an Egypt in which women have exceptional rights, which was something I hadn’t known when I started working on the book. We’re talking about a time in Egypt where women could initiate lawsuits, inherit property, enter into marriages of their own. Really astonishing rights they won’t have again until the modern age.
Tavis: What period of her life does this particular text cover?
Schiff: This is really the entire life, so from 69 B.C., when she’s born, until 30 B.C., when she commits suicide, and it’s really the story of her two relationships with Caesar and Marc Antony, how she manages this extraordinarily rich and fertile country – she is hands-down the wealthiest person in the Mediterranean world, man or woman – and how she essentially keeps Rome at bay for those two decades.
Tavis: Not to give the entire text away, but –
Schiff: Oh, she dies in the end. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s funny. Not to give the entire book away –
Schiff: Don’t ask me how, though.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) You’re funny. So what did you discover, a couple of things about Cleopatra that heretofore have not been discussed, dissected, deconstructed in all the books written about her?
Schiff: Well, we have this misconception that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor, for starters, so right off the bat she’s not a beautiful woman. She’s a woman who’s immensely charismatic, very clever. All the ancient sources attest to her extraordinary charm, but everyone says her looks were secondary to that, and the coins seem to attest to that.
She’s a woman who’s immensely powerful at a time where you don’t think of women having this kind of power. She’s Greek; she’s not Egyptian, so already you have an ethnic misconception of fact.
Tavis: Let me jump in right there. Send all your e-mails to Stacy. (Laughter) I am certain you’re going to get e-mails about this, so let’s just – since you went there, let’s just jump into it.
Schiff: I’m going to forward those e-mails to you, but go ahead.
Tavis: No, don’t – do not – you said it, I didn’t say it. So while we’re talking about her genealogy, let’s talk about it, because there is this ongoing controversy about whether she was Black, whether she wasn’t Black, what she was. So your studies suggest what?
Schiff: Well, she descends from one of the generals of Alexander the Great, who are Greek Macedonians. So there is no question there that she comes from the line of Greeks. It gets a little bit more certain because they intermarry – of the 13 or 14 marriages in her dynasty, 10 of them were brother-sister marriages, so there’s really no foreign blood whatsoever in this dynasty. They are truly Greek Macedonian to the hilt.
There may have been a Persian princess who slipped in there somewhere, but otherwise you’re really talking about a woman who was about as Greek, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of culture, in terms of education, as you could be in that world.
Tavis: Why has there been so much – my word, not yours – fighting, then, about her racial make-up?
Schiff: I’m assuming because she’s an African queen, so you would expect an African queen to be African. Moreover, she’s ruling a people who are of a different ethnicity than she is. She’s the only ruler of her dynasty who bothers to learn the language of the people over whom she rules, which is a pretty astonishing thing.
But it is really like one ethnicity is superimposed on another. It’s been compared mostly to Britain’s rule of India, where you’re talking about one entirely different nationality superimposed on and ruling another.
Tavis: What is your sense, specifically, of Cleopatra as a ruler?
Schiff: She manages to rule this very fractious, very difficult country in the course of a time where there’s plague, there’s famine, there’s war, and she steers it very peacefully through for those two decades. Now mind you, she’s very good at killing the people who oppose her, so that makes things a little bit easier, but she does a marvelous job A, making her subjects very happy, and B, holding off Rome during that time.
The problem has always been what to do with this rising military power which wants to subsume Egypt? Her father solves that problem by buying them off; she solves that problem by sleeping with and having children with the two most powerful Roman commanders of the day. It’s a very original solution, but it works (laughter) as long as it works. And she does seem to have the support of her people.
Tavis: How would you situate her leadership style in today’s world, where women, again, do have a lot of power?
Schiff: She’s very clear-sighted. Always, there’s a sense of vision. She really knows exactly what she wants. She needs to maintain her hold on the throne, she needs for the dynasty to continue, she needs for Rome to stay at bay so that she can maintain her extraordinary wealth.
But there’s also this sense of ingenuity, which is the kind of thing you’d like to think that women leaders today, or any leader today, would find to be part of the repertoire. She’s enormously resourceful. At the end of her life she’s trapped in Alexandria, she’s about to be essentially taken prisoner by Octavian, who’s defeated her, and she’s doing all these extraordinary things to try to get out of this boxed corner.
She’s trying to drag her fleet from the Mediterranean across land to relaunch it so she can escape to India. Basically, she’s anticipating the Suez Canal. Just this mind whirring with fertile ideas, which is pretty extraordinary.
Tavis: Not that when you’re that strong-minded and that clear purposed and that focused and the kind of strong leader that she was, not that you can’t have emotional soft spots, for lack of a better term, but how does a woman who possesses this kind of leadership strength and strategy end up committing suicide?
Schiff: When you’ve got nowhere else to go except be dragged through the streets of Rome as a prisoner, I suspect that’s what you do. There’s a long tradition of the noble thing to do at that point was in fact to do herself in, and interestingly, it’s one of the few things Cleopatra ever does that makes Rome admire her, because this is a kind of Roman death. She takes her own life and she does it very dramatically and very peacefully.
We’re not entirely sure how she does it, but the fact that she takes her fate in her own hands, and that’s I guess the other lesson to take away from her – she defines herself throughout her life. She defies the odds, she defines herself, she names herself, she has children with the men whom she chooses. It’s really an amazing degree of self-determination.
Tavis: Why is it after all these years that we still are uncertain about exactly how she took her life?
Schiff: Well, we have only two accounts, Plutarch and Dio, which are ancient accounts. Both of them essentially conclude that they don’t know, and the story of the snake, or the snakes, with which she perhaps kills herself doesn’t quite hold up. It’s practically speaking a little bit difficult for her to have killed herself and two maids in a closed room with one snake. The death doesn’t seem to correspond.
It seems to have been a very peaceful narcotic death. A snake would have meant a convulsive, very violent death. And the snake was a symbol of Egypt, so it’s very convenient; it seems to me to say, “Oh, she died with a snake.” Women and snakes have this long history, so Cleopatra, Eve, Electra, whomever you want to pair her with, it’s a nice – it makes iconographic sense to pair her with a snake, but since we don’t have a body and we don’t have a – we have no evidence, all we have are those ancient accounts, so there’s really no way to solve the mystery of how she did this.
My guess is she poisoned herself. Any sovereign of her time knew his or her poisons really well. It was part of the curriculum. She certainly would have known what to use and how to do it.
Tavis: For women leaders today who will read this, are there things about her leadership style tenets of her leadership style, that they would want to take away? I would assume if you’re in public life, not sleeping with other people, not killing off your enemies.
Schiff: Yeah, killing off your siblings would not be the place to start, although it worked for Cleopatra, exactly.
Tavis: Yeah, but what’s there to learn from Cleopatra in a modern day sense?
Schiff: I would say two things. I would say that keeping your eye on the ball. She is unflappable. There’s only one moment at which she loses her colossal self-possession, and that’s when Marc Antony, who’s her partner at the time, dies. Otherwise, unflappable.
The other is it seems to me that she rises above, insofar as we can tell, because obviously we’re talking about 2,000 year old history, she seems to rise above gender. She doesn’t seem – she is twice in her life the single woman in an all-male military camp, for example. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She just forges ahead.
And granted, forges ahead while having children, so she’s not unaware of the fact that she’s a woman. But it seems to me that it’s almost a post-gender approach. It doesn’t really register with her and she does what she needs to do.
Tavis: What is it that pulls you in, given the stuff that you’ve done in the past, what pulls you into a subject like Cleopatra, again, that’s been written about by everybody, and we’re talking 2,000-year history there?
Schiff: Because I felt there were questions that no one had really asked. There’s the question of her wealth. She has this bizarre relationship with Herod the Great. Things that no one had really touched upon before, and there were questions that no one had really asked, like what would she have read, what would she have known?
This was a woman who had a first-rate education. She hailed from the same kind of background that Caesar and Cicero would have hailed from, so what would that have been like? She’s a woman raised in a place where women are treated essentially as equals. How did that pan out? So there are all kinds of questions I felt that no previous biographer had really asked.
No, I wasn’t working from a newly found diary of Cleopatra’s by any means. There’s been a lot of good recent scholarship as well, which certainly helps, but it was – it’s this sensationally kind of super-saturated story with these enormously big players and they just seemed to me simple questions that no one had previously asked, like how did a Roman man feel about a Greek woman who had significantly more money than he did?
Tavis: I assume it won’t take long, if it hasn’t already happened, that this will be optioned for a movie.
Schiff: It has been optioned for a movie. (Laughter)
Tavis: See how that works? Let me guess, it was optioned before you finished the book, probably.
Schiff: You are so right. It was optioned just as I sold it to the publisher. It was optioned on the proposal when I sold it five years ago, or whenever it was, to the publisher, exactly.
Tavis: So are there names that you’ve heard circulating already about who might play Cleopatra in the movie?
Schiff: Are you being coy or do you know that Angelina Jolie has been mentioned?
Tavis: Just asking. (Laughter)
Schiff: Angelina Jolie has been mentioned to –
Tavis: My producer must have known, because that picture popped up awfully fast on the screen when you said her name.
Schiff: So what if I had said, “No, I don’t know?”
Tavis: Yeah, they wouldn’t have put that picture up.” (Laughter)
Schiff: There has been some – what if I said, “Elizabeth Taylor?”
Tavis: Then they would have pulled that picture up. See? Look. (Laughs)
Schiff: Okay, Sigourney Weaver.
Tavis: Yeah, no, no.
Schiff: There’s been discussion of Scott Rudin, who had optioned it, would very much, I think, very much like Angelina Jolie to play Cleopatra. Where it goes from there, I’m not yet sure.
Tavis: Scott Rudin usually gets what he wants around here.
Schiff: I can’t wait to see what else you’re going to put up on that screen.
Tavis: No, that’s it, we’re done. (Laughs) How about I put the book cover up again?
Schiff: That’s great, it’s a gorgeous –
Tavis: Would you appreciate that?
Schiff: Is that a gorgeous book?
Tavis: That’s a great – as a matter of fact, Jonathan, leave that there for just a second. I want to close where we began. You talked about the fact that she wasn’t the most beautiful, the most attractive woman. Does that explain why this photo?
Schiff: Because we don’t know what her features looked like, the only honest way to do it and my only interest here was that it be historically accurate. So we don’t know what her face looked like, but we do know that she wore her hair like that; we know that she wore pearls woven through her hair – pearls were the diamonds of the day.
We know that she wore that diadem, that ribbon in the hair, to denote the fact that she was royalty, and we know she dressed in these amazingly rich colors and in Greek style. So historically, we knew everything except the profile.
Tavis: See, with all due respect to Rudin, Scott Rudin’s already off-base. Angelina ain’t the ugliest woman.
Schiff: Are you going to write him?
Tavis: I’m going to send him this tape. She ain’t the least attractive woman I’ve ever seen, but she’ll get the nod anyway if she wants it, I’m sure. The new book, again, from Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is called “Cleopatra.” Stacy, good to have you on the program and congrats on the book.
Schiff: Thank you very much.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm