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National Biography Award
Subcategory of Awards Australian Awards
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The National Biography Award was established in 1996 to encourage the highest standards of writing biography and autobiography and to promote public interest in these genres.

The award is administered and presented by the State Library of New South Wales on behalf of the award's benefactors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Mr Michael Crouch AO.

The winner of the National Biography Award receives prize money for a published work of biographical or autobiographical writing. Shortlisted authors also receive a sum of money.

Source: Sighted: 29/11/2013.

Winners (also see subcategories)19971754

2021 winner y separately published work icon Truganini : Journey through the Apocalypse Cassandra Pybus , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2020 18268689 2020 single work biography

'Cassandra Pybus' ancestors told a story of an old Aboriginal woman who would wander across their farm on Bruny Island, just off the coast of south-east Tasmania, throughout the 1850s and 1860s. As a child, Cassandra didn't know this woman was Truganini, and that she was walking over the country of her clan, the Nuenonne, of whom she was the last.

'The name of Truganini is vaguely familiar to most Australians as 'the last of her race'. She has become an international icon for a monumental tragedy: the extinction of the original people of Tasmania within her lifetime. For nearly seven decades, she lived through a psychological and cultural shift more extreme than most human imaginations could conjure. She is a hugely significant figure in Australian history and we should know about how she lived, not simply that she died. Her life was much more than a regrettable tragedy.

'Cassandra has examined the original eyewitness records to write an extraordinary account of this lively, intelligent, sensual young woman’s life. Both inspiring and heart-wrenching, Truganini's story is now told in full for the first time.'

Source: Publisher's blurb.

2021 winner (Michael Crouch Award for a Debut Work) y separately published work icon One Bright Moon Andrew Y.M. Kwong , Sydney : HarperCollins Australia , 2020 18587081 2020 single work autobiography

'From famine to freedom, how a young boy fled Chairman Mao's China to a new life in Australia

'Andrew Kwong was only eight when he witnessed his first execution. The desperate scene left him sleepless, anxious and doubtful about his fervour as a revolutionary in Mao's new China. Yet he knew if he devoted himself to the Party and its Chairman he would be saved. That's what his teacher told him.

'Months later, it was his own father on trial. This time the sentence was banishment to a re-education camp, not death. Yet it left the family tainted, despised, and with few means of survival during the terrible years of persecution and famine known as the Great Leap Forward. Escape seemed the only solution, and it would be twelve-year-old Andrew who undertook the perilous journey first.

'This is the poignant, resonant story of a young boy's awakening - to survival, education, fulfilment, and eventually to a new life of freedom in Australia.' (Publication summary)

2020 winner y separately published work icon Tiberius with a Telephone : The Life and Stories of William McMahon Patrick Mullins , Melbourne : Scribe , 2018 13911959 2018 single work biography

'The oddly compelling story of a man regarded as Australia’s worst prime minister.

'William McMahon was a significant, if widely derided and disliked, figure in Australian politics in the second half of the twentieth century. This biography tells the story of his life, his career, and his doomed attempts to recast views of his much-maligned time as Australia’s prime minister.

'In office, McMahon worked furiously to enact an agenda that grappled with the profound changes reshaping Australia. He withdrew combat forces from Vietnam, legislated for Commonwealth government involvement in childcare, established the first Department of the Environment, and accelerated the timetable for the independence of Papua New Guinea. But his failures would overshadow his successes, and by the time of the 1972 election McMahon would lead a divided, tired, and rancorous party to defeat.

'A man whose life was coloured by tragedy, comedy, persistence, courage, farce, and failure, McMahon’s story has never been told at length. Tiberius with a Telephone fills that gap, using deep archival research and extensive interviews with McMahon’s contemporaries and colleagues. It is a tour de force — an authoritative, compelling, and colourful account of a unique politician and a vital period in Australia’s history.'

Source: Publisher's blurb.

2019 winner y separately published work icon No Friend but the Mountains : Writing From Manus Prison No Friend but the Mountains : The True Story of an Illegally Imprisoned Refugee Behrouz Boochani , Omid Tofighian (translator), Sydney : Pan Macmillan Australia , 2018 14342605 2018 selected work prose

'Where have I come from? From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains...

'Since 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani has been held in the Manus Island offshore processing centre.

'People would run to the mountains to escape the warplanes and found asylum within their chestnut forests...

'This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.

'Do Kurds have any friends other than the mountains? '  (Publication summary)

2018 winner y separately published work icon The Enigmatic Mr Deakin Enigmatic Mister Deakin Judith Brett , Melbourne : Text Publishing , 2017 11523887 2017 single work biography

'This insightful and accessible new biography of Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister, shines fresh light on one of the nation’s most significant figures. It brings out from behind the image of a worthy, bearded father of federation the gifted, passionate and intriguing man whose contributions continue to shape the contours of Australian politics.

'The acclaimed political scientist Judith Brett scrutinises both Deakin’s public life and his inner life. Deakin’s private papers reveal a solitary, religious character who found distasteful much of the business of politics, with its unabashed self-interest, double-dealing, and mediocre intellectual levels. And yet politics is where Deakin chose to do his life’s work.

'Destined to become a classic of biography, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a masterly portrait of a complex man who was instrumental in creating modern Australia.' (Publication Summary)

2017 winner y separately published work icon Before Rupert : Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty Tom D. C. Roberts , St Lucia : University of Queensland Press , 2015 9015448 2015 single work biography

'Following the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, Rupert Murdoch said his greatest regret was that he had let his father down. Popular history views Sir Keith Murdoch (1885–1952) as a fearless war correspondent – author of the famous letter that led to the evacuation of the Anzac force from Gallipoli – and a principled journalist and dedicated family man who, on his death, left a single provincial newspaper to Rupert. This benign reputation is unsurprising: the two previously published biographies of Keith were Murdoch family commissions.

But is there another side to the story of Keith’s success and the origins of News Corporation?

With controversial revelations – of forgotten fiancées, First World War propaganda operations, the promotion of eugenics, and the sensationalising of a schoolgirl’s murder leading to the execution of an innocent man – Before Rupert is an unflinching prequel to the saga of the Murdoch family’s rise to power, and details how Keith Murdoch ruthlessly exploited his influence and networks to gain control over Australia’s media and political landscape. (Publication summary)

2016 winner y separately published work icon Mannix Brenda Niall , Melbourne : Text Publishing , 2015 8355069 2015 single work biography

'Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 until his death, aged ninety-nine, in 1963, was a towering figure in Melbourne's Catholic community. But his political interventions had a profound effect on the wider Australian nation too.

'Award-winning biographer Brenda Niall has made some unexpected discoveries in Irish and Australian archives which overturn some widely held views. She also draws on her own memories of meeting and interviewing Mannix to get to the essence of this man of contradictions, controversies and mystery.

'Mannix is not only an astonishing new look at a remarkable life, but a fascinating depiction of Melbourne in the first half last century.' (Publication summary)

2015 winner y separately published work icon An Unsentimental Bloke : The Life and Works of C.J. Dennis Philip Butterss , Kent Town : Wakefield Press , 2014 6858200 2014 single work biography

'The Sentimental Bloke and Doreen are famous characters in Australian popular culture, but their creator deserves to be better known. C.J. Dennis transformed the larrikin from a street thug into a respectable image of Australian identity, and helped shape the Anzac legend.

Many people regarded Dennis himself as a sentimental bloke, but this book shows he was a much more complex and sometimes darker personality - not only examining his humorous and lovable side, but also his struggles with alcohol and depression, his political activism, his marriage and his financial dealings.

An Unsentimental Bloke traces Dennis's early years in rural South Australia, his work on a bohemian newspaper in Adelaide and move to Melbourne as a freelancer for the Bulletin, his period of political involvement, followed by enormous successes (he was more popular than Banjo Paterson or Henry Lawson ever were), spectacular fall, and re-emergence as an elder statesman of Australian letters.' (Publisher's website)

2014 winner y separately published work icon The Ambitions of Jane Franklin : Victorian Lady Adventurer Alison Alexander , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2013 Z1937565 2013 single work biography 'In a period when most ladies sat at home with their embroidery, Jane Franklin achieved fame throughout the western world, and was probably the best travelled woman of her day. Alison Alexander traces the life of this inimitable woman, from her birth in late 18th century London, her marriage at the ripe age of 36 years to Sir John Franklin, to her many trips to far-flung locations, including Russia, the Holy Land, northern Africa, America and Australia. Once Jane Franklin married, her original ambition - to live life to the full - was joined by an equally ardent desire to make her kind and mild husband a success. Arriving in Tasmania in 1837 when Sir John became governor, she swept like a whirlwind through the colony: attempting to rid the island of snakes; establishing a scientific society and the Hobart regatta; adopting an Aboriginal girl, and sending a kangaroo to Queen Victoria.' (Publisher's blurb)
2013 winner y separately published work icon The Two Frank Thrings Peter Fitzpatrick , Clayton : Monash University Publishing , 2012 Z1881015 2012 single work biography

'They shared a name, of course, and their physical resemblance was startling. And both Frank Thrings were huge figures in the landscape of twentieth-century Australian theatre and film.

'But in many ways they could hardly have been more different. Frank Thring the father (1882-1936) began his career as a sideshow conjuror, and he wheeled, dealed and occasionally married his way into becoming the legendary "F.T." — impresario, speculator and owner of Efftee Films, Australia's first 'talkies' studio. He built for himself an image of grand patriarchal respectability, a sizeable fortune, and all the makings of a dynasty.

'Frank Thring the son (1926-1994) squandered the fortune and derailed the dynasty in the course of creating his own persona — a unique presence that could make most stages and foyers seem small. He won fame playing tyrants in togas in Hollywood blockbusters, then, suddenly, came home to Melbourne to play perhaps his finest role — that of Frank Thring, actor and personality extraordinaire. Central to this role was that Frank the son was unapologetically and outrageously gay.

'Peter Fitzpatrick's compelling dual biography tells the story of two remarkable characters. It's a kind of detective story, following the lives of two men who did all they could to cover their tracks, and to conceal "the self": Frank the father used secrecy and sleight-of-hand as strategies for self-protection; Frank the son masked a thoroughly reclusive personality with flamboyant self-parody. It's also the tale of a lost relationship — and of the power a father may have had, even over a son who hardly knew him.' (From the publisher's website.)

2012 winner y separately published work icon The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews : In Search of an Australian Anthropologist Martin Thomas , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2011 Z1765181 2011 single work biography

'The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews is about the life and work of the renowned 19th century surveyor turned ethnologist, R. H. Mathews, whose studies of Aboriginal Australia were path-breaking and quite controversial. His childhood in Goulburn meant that he grew up with Aboriginal children as playmates, so when he began his obsession with documenting Aboriginal life, he came to his subject with fond familiarity, not the freakshow interest that spurred many of the English anthropologists of the time, especially Baldwin Spencer, who went out of his way to discredit Mathews' work, especially after his death.

'Largely due to this conspiracy, Mathews has been a reasonably unknown figure in early anthropology, but his legacy and work have been reassessed and he is emerging as one of our most important documentors of Aboriginal language, legends and mythology. So important, in fact, that it is his legacy of papers, interpretations and documents, held largely in the National Library of Australia, that is being used by contemporary Aboriginal people to rejuvenate their culture.

'Martin's approach to his subject is not conventional biography, but something more ambitious and unusual, and one perfectly tuned to the revelations it contains.' (From the publisher's website.)

2011 winner y separately published work icon Grand Obsessions : The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin Alasdair McGregor , Camberwell : Lantern , 2009 Z1628869 2009 single work biography

'On 23 May 1912, American Walter Burley Griffin was announced to the world as the winner of the international design competition for the new Australian capital to be built on a sheep paddock they called Canberra. Almost a century later, Griffin's design - but most of all its implementation - is still hotly debated. Who was this man and what was his vision? How did he come to Canberra, what happened once the Australian establishment tore him to shreds, and what was the role of his wife, helpmate, fellow architect and equal creative partner, Marion Mahony Griffin?

'In this definitive new biography of Griffin husband and wife, Alasdair McGregor delineates the role each played in the production of their greatest works - Canberra, Castlecrag, Newman College and the rest - and charts their lives, from their childhoods and meeting in Chicago in the employ of the larger than life Frank Lloyd Wright, to their battles in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, and their swansong in India.

'This is a tale of many parts. It traces the lives of two individuals of great talent and vision and their fight against mediocrity. It is the story of the birth of Canberra, one that tells us as much about the Griffins as it does about ourselves and the troubled birth of the Australian national identity. It is a portrait of a pioneering woman who achieved extraordinary things but was rarely credited with that achievement. And it is an examination of the nature of fame in a young country uncertain of its position in the world.

'The Griffins' story resonates through the years, and their fight to see their idealistic vision realised is one that goes on in Australia today.' (From the publisher's website.)

2010 winner y separately published work icon Manning Clark : A Life Brian Matthews , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2008 Z1537356 2008 single work biography

'Manning Clark was one of the most influential Australian intellectuals of the last half century. His political pronouncements were often highly provocative and his sweeping judgements, dire denunciations and oracular prophecies infuriated conservatives and made him a controversial figure.

'His most enduring legacy, however, was his magisterial six-volume History of Australia. In it he reshaped the now familiar story of our nation's modern evolution; from the First Fleet's arrival, the convicts, the rum rebellion, gold, the sheep's back, Federation, and the glorious defeat at Gallipoli, up to the nation emerging from the Great Depression and on the threshold of a new world war. Within the dramatic narrative, which he envisaged as an epic, are highly original and insightful portraits of its great men with their tragic flaws: Phillip, Macquarie, Burke and Wills, Bligh, Wentworth, and above all Henry Lawson.

'But behind this ambitious work - with its more than a million words and twenty-five, long slogging years of research and scholarship - was a man as flawed as the historical figures he was presenting, figures in whose personalities and life events he often saw himself dauntingly mirrored. He was wracked with self-doubt, and dogged by fears of failure and personal weakness, he craved forgiveness for the betrayals that stalked and threatened his marriage to Dymphna, and wrestled with an elusive Christ in whom he longed to have a secure faith. Behind the signature broad hat and the stern unsmiling visage was a tortured man.

'That is the complex, enigmatic and thoroughly enthralling Clark who emerges in this remarkable biography by Brian Matthews, whose previous acclaimed memoir of Louise [sic] Lawson was judged to be both ground breaking and revolutionary. Manning Clark: A Life draws a compelling portrait of the great historian, who attracted both critics and acolytes alike in equal number. Both sides can expect to be astounded and captivated.' (Publisher's blurb)

2009 winner y separately published work icon I Am Melba : A Biography Ann Blainey , Melbourne : Black Inc. , 2008 Z1487903 2008 single work biography

'Melba: the story of an Australian girl who defied convention and became the most famous singer of her era.

'Growing up in Melbourne, Nellie Mitchell dreamed of fame, but her devout father disapproved. As a young wife and mother on the Queensland cane-fields, her longing for an exciting life intensified. Travelling to London and Paris, she trusted in her musical talent and hoped for a lucky break.

'Within a few years, reborn as Nellie Melba, she was performing to overflowing concert halls, hobnobbing with European royalty and collaborating with some of the most renowned composers of the age. Audiences swooned over the "heavenly pleasures" of her voice, while the public showed an insatiable appetite for news of her sometimes passionate private life. Feted and chastised by critics, pursued by the press and mobbed by fans, Dame Nellie Melba was Australia's first international superstar.

'In this important biography, enhanced by new research, Ann Blainey captures the exuberance, controversy and pathos of Melba's remarkable career.' (Publisher's blurb)

2008 joint winner y separately published work icon These Few Lines : A Convict Story: The Lost Lives of Myra and William Sykes Graham Seal , Sydney : ABC Books , 2006 Z1321201 2006 single work biography Joint winner with Philip Dwyer for Napoleon.
2007 winner y separately published work icon East of Time Jacob G. Rosenberg , Blackheath : Brandl and Schlesinger , 2005 Z1209757 2005 single work autobiography 'East of Time narrates his prewar childhood and adolescence in Lodz, through to the liquidation of the ghetto and his family's deportation to Auschwitz'. (Source : Richard Freadman, This Crazy Thing a Life : Australian Jewish Autobiography (2007))
2006 winner y separately published work icon The Idea of Home : Autobiographical Essays John Hughes , Artarmon : Giramondo Publishing , 2004 Z1157549 2004 selected work autobiography
2005 winner y separately published work icon The Boy in the Green Suit : A Memoir Robert Hillman , Melbourne : Scribe , 2003 Z1069682 2003 single work autobiography
2004 winner y separately published work icon Broken Song : T. G. H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession Barry Hill , Milsons Point London : Knopf , 2002 Z980577 2002 single work biography

'A group of men…chanting with the enthusiasm that made them forget age & weakness & becoming young again in spirit…the rising and falling of the chant melody, like the breathing that gives us life – what an unforgettable scene!’ Thus wrote T. G. H. Strehlow in 1935, as he began his life work, Songs of Central Australia, acclaimed as one of the great books of world literature. Prize-winning poet and historian, Barry Hill, with exclusive access to Strehlow’s diaries, has written a major work about the troubled man who grew up on the Hermannsburg mission, became the first Patrol Officer of Central Australia, called himself the ‘last of the Aranda’, and compulsively collected secret-sacred objects and images. Broken Song straddles a century of Australian history, from the race wars on the frontier to the modern era of Aboriginal land rights, tracking Strehlow’s creative and tragic life in translation.' (Source: Reading Australia website)

2003 joint winner y separately published work icon Recollections of a Bleeding Heart : A Portrait of Paul Keating PM Don Watson , Milsons Point : Random House Australia , 2002 Z994945 2002 single work biography 'In December 1991 Paul Keating wrested the role of Prime Minister from Bob Hawke and the bruises from that struggle were part of the baggage he brought to the job: the other parts included the worst recession in 60 years and an electorate determined to make him pay for it. Keating defied the odds and won the 1993 election, and in his four years as Prime Minister set Australia on a new course - towards engagement with Asia, a republic, reconciliation, a social democracy built on a modern export-based economy and sophisticated public systems of education and training, health and social security. Widely regarded as a quintessential economic rationalist, Keating's record clearly shows that his vision was infinitely broader and more complex.

'Don Watson was employed as Keating's speechwriter. Based on the diaries Watson kept through the four turbulent and exhausting years of Keating's Prime Ministership, on its release Recollections of a Bleeding Heart was widely deemed a masterpiece. It is at once a groundbreaking "inside" account of politics and a profound and extraordinarily frank study of the most intriguing and visionary politician in Australia's modern history. Now, when vision and character have all but vanished from politics, Don Watson's Recollections makes absorbing - and essential - reading.' (From the publisher's website, 10th anniversary edition.)
2003 joint winner y separately published work icon Rose Boys Peter Rose , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2001 Z915485 2001 single work autobiography (taught in 1 units) At twenty-two Robert Rose faced a rare choice. He could devote his talents to cricket or he could follow the path of his father, Bob Rose, one of the great Australian Rules footballers. Then on St Valentines Day 1974 Robert became a quadriplegic following a tragic car accident. He lived for another twenty-five years, totally dependent on others. Now his brother Peter, a leading literary figure, has written Robert's life story. The result is a family memoir of rare candour touching themes of family, disability, loyalty, masculinity, physical and emotional dependence--above, all mortality. (Source: Trove)
2002 winner y separately published work icon A Certain Style : Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life Jacqueline Kent , Ringwood : Viking , 2001 Z895268 2001 single work biography

'Beatrice Davis, 1909-1992, was general editor at Angus and Robertson the main Australian publishing company from 1937 to 1973. There she discovered and published such writers as Thea Astley, Miles Franklin, Patricia Wrightson, Xavier Herbert and Hal Porter becoming a literary tastemaker in the process. A central figure in Australian literature – ‘respected, feared, courted and berated.’

'Originally published to great acclaim in 2001, A Certain Style introduced this stylish and formidable woman to thousands of readers and told a history of books and publishing in twentieth-century Australia. This reissue has a new introduction and updates throughout as the author presents a compelling account of a contradictory woman and her times.' (Source : 2018 edition)

2000 joint winner y separately published work icon M Peter Robb , Sydney : Duffy and Snellgrove , 1998 Z1092515 1998 single work biography

A bold, fresh biography of the world's first modern painter As presented with "blood and bone and sinew" (Times Literary Supplement) by Peter Robb, Caravaggio's wild and tempestuous life was a provocation to a culture in a state of siege. The of the sixteenth century was marked by the Inquisition and Counter-Reformation, a background of ideological cold war against which, despite all odds and at great cost to their creators, brilliant feats of art and science were achieved. No artist captured the dark, violent spirit of the time better than Caravaggio, variously known as Marisi, Moriggia, Merigi, and sometimes, simply M. As art critic Robert Hughes has said, "There was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same."Caravaggio threw out Renaissance dogma to paint with dazzling originality and fierce vitality, qualities that are echoed in Robb's prose. As with Caravaggio's art, M arrests and susps time to reveal what the author calls "the theater of the partly seen." Caravaggio's wild persona leaps through these pages like quicksilver; in Robb's skilled hands, he is an immensely attractive character with an astonishing connection to the glories and brutalities of life. (Library of Congress/Publisher link)

2000 joint winner y separately published work icon Dreamtime Alice : A Memoir Mandy Sayer , Milsons Point : Random House Australia , 1998 Z186806 1998 single work autobiography This work, which was a finalist in the 1988 Vogel Award, recalls the author's itinerant early life as a tap dancer with her jazz drummer father on the streets of New York and New Orleans.
1998 winner y separately published work icon Snake Cradle Roberta Sykes , St Leonards : Allen and Unwin , 1997 Z328748 1997 single work autobiography (taught in 1 units)

'Snake Cradle is the first volume of Roberta Sykes's three volume autobiography, Snake Dreaming. Snake Cradle chronicles the early years of one of Australia's best known activists for Aboriginal rights, from the time of her birth in Townsville in the 1940s through to the birth of her son when she was 17, and the trial of the men who raped her.

Roberta's voice is strong and true as she describes far north Queensland of the time, her battles with a series of childhood illnesses, and her growing awareness that hers was not an ordinary Australian childhood. Born to a white mother and a father whose identity she did not know, her passion and commitment to the struggles of the Aboriginal people was shaped by the racism her dark skin invoked. A powerful and moving autobiography about a history that must never be forgotten.' (Allen and Unwin)

1996 winner y separately published work icon The World of My Past Abraham Biderman , Melbourne : AHB Publications , 1995 Z1178995 1995 single work autobiography

The autobiography of the author who survived the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau where his parents died, and also of surviving the camps of Althammer, Dora and Bergen-Belsen. This book is the memorial to his parents and to his brother who also did not survive, and to the other victims of the Holocaust.