Irving Stone was born July 14, 1903, in San Francisco, California, son of Charles Tennenbaum and Pauline Rosenberg Tennenbaum Stone. He legalized the surname of his stepfather. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Stone received his B.A. in 1923, taught economics at the University of Southern California from 1923 to 1924, when he was awarded his M.A., and then did postgraduate work at the University of California for two more years. In 1934 Stone married Jean Factor, who was to become his editor and researcher. They had a daughter and a son, Paula and Kenneth.
Although Stone’s Pageant of Youth was published in 1933, he first scored heavily with the “biographical novel” format in 1934, when he dramatically re-created the life of artist Vincent van Gogh. Spirited, colorful, and fact-filled, Lust for Life attracted a wide audience who wanted both livelier biographies and rewarding, factual novels. (The nature of this and Stone’s similar works–fact-based but imaginatively re-created biography–makes it somewhat inadequate to categorize them as either fiction or nonfiction.) Traveling across Holland, Belgium, and France to recapture the life of the shy and awkward but compassionate artist driven to madness by his less feeling peers, Stone developed a special method of characterization by writing as if he were the character himself. The success of Lust for Life was enough to inspire a Hollywood film in 1956 starring Kirk Douglas.
In 1938 Stone won high praise from critics for Sailor on Horseback, which detailed the life of American novelist Jack London. Armed with London’s correspondence, family documents, and autobiographical writings, Stone produced a seamless amalgam, leaving the reader to wonder where London left off and Stone began. Vivid scenes that account for both London’s actions and his dreams caused critics to hail Stone’s portrait as full, skillful, and honest. Preferring to write about artists, authors, and political leaders, Stone moved close to the realm of romantic suspense when he chose Rachel Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson, as the center of The President’s Lady. Scorned by the public because of doubt about her divorce from her first husband, Rachel was crafted as an undeniably appealing victim by the author, especially in those scenes where she was used as a political weapon against her husband. The couple’s deep love and her untimely death before his presidency greatly moved women readers. The story was filmed in 1953.
In Mary Todd Lincoln, the protagonist of Love Is Eternal, Stone found an ideal subject, for he could merge an account of her vilification by the public with a solidly researched narrative of the Civil War period to deliver a heady mixture. Taking his title from the romantic inscription inside Mary Todd Lincoln’s wedding band, Stone wrote some of his most moving prose about the deepening love that comes to a couple–in this case, a most unusual couple–who must grow and rebuild after defeat and remorse. Love Is Eternal was a popular success, broadening Stone’s audience.
Stone’s next subject was the great sculptor Michelangelo. Although some critics regarded The Agony and the Ecstasy as simply a bad novel and believed the author to be better suited to historical nonfiction, an eager public pushed the work up the best-seller list. The story became a major motion picture in 1965. The four and a half years of research, including Stone’s apprenticeship to a sculptor, the book’s mix of letters, diaries, histories, and observations, as well as extensive editing by his wife, brought forth an accessible Michelangelo “purged not only of ambisexuality, but of egotism, fault-finding, harsh irony, and ill temper,” as one reviewer noted, describing the book as a simplistic view for a popular audience. Stone followed this popular triumph with nonfiction spin-offs such as I, Michelangelo, Sculptor; The Story of Michelangelo’s Pietà; and his introduction to The Drawings of Michelangelo.
By the time The Passions of the Mind was written, Stone was even more smitten with research. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical studies, his friends, and their milieu–all this took Stone six and a half years of research and writing, only to produce a work considered ponderous and indiscriminate by most critics. Similarly, The Greek Treasure, the story of Heinrich and Sophia Schliemann and the discovery of ancient Troy, was poorly received by the critics and failed to attain the popular success of its predecessors. The Origin, about Charles Darwin’s life and writings, garnered higher praise for Stone from most critics. Redmon O’Hanlon termed it “Stone’s best researched and best written book to date.” Stone compressed Darwin’s early life in order to concentrate on the voyage of the Beagle, and he is especially fine at rendering the scientist’s familial surroundings.
Stone’s account of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro–Depths of Glory–received the most damning critiques of the author’s career, ranging from one critic’s comment on the less than ideal subject and the “arch drivel” of its dialogue to another’s reflection that “it is filled with information–but so is the almanac,” adding that “no one comes to life.” The more Stone wrote, the more he was criticized for offering too much history and not enough life. Nevertheless, two of his books–Lust for Life and The Agony and the Ecstasy–were among the most widely read biographical novels of the twentieth century.