An authors’ discussion about a controversial Vincent van Gogh biography seems like an unlikely event to be held at Juilliard, but on November 3, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who wrote the recently published Van Gogh: The Life, stopped by Paul Hall to regale trustees, alumni, friends, and students with tales about their book. At the end of the hourlong discussion, moderated by New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman, President Joseph W. Polisi surprised Naifeh and Smith by presenting them with Juilliard President’s Medals.
Naifeh and Smith, who are partners in both life and work, have written 18 books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. They are also great friends of Juilliard, having co-founded Juilliard in Aiken (S.C.), a weeklong festival that has been held for the last nine years. Many of the festival’s events take place at the couple’s home in Aiken, a 60-room former Vanderbilt-Whitney mansion named Joye Cottage, which they plan to bequeath to the School as a future artists’ haven for Juilliard students. In the meantime, it is the site of several events during the annual festival, in which dozens of Juilliard actors, dancers, and musicians give public performances and also perform outreach activities at schools and health care facilities.
At the recent gathering, in addition to sharing personal details of writing a comprehensive biography of one of history’s greatest artists—and one of history’s most notably troubled creative minds—Naifeh and Smith discussed the intricacies of co-writing a 900-page volume over the course of a decade. (Naifeh does most of the research and Smith does most of the writing.) One of the most publicized aspects of their book has been the appendix, in which the authors make a case that van Gogh’s infamous death, in 1890, may not have been a suicide, contrary to conventional wisdom. After a quick explanation and defense of their theory (that local teens who routinely tormented van Gogh accidentally shot him), Naifeh and Smith noted that public opinion seems to be coming around to at least acknowledging the possibility that their theory could be correct.
Naifeh and Smith are the 28th and 29th recipients of the Juilliard President’s Medal, which is given to “individuals who have made an indelible impact on American culture and on Juilliard as an institution.” As loyal and generous supporters of the School, to say nothing of their extraordinary success as writers, Naifeh and Smith are certainly worthy recipients.