Robert Payne Collection
Manuscript Collection 293

Biography

Pierre Stephen Robert Payne was born December 4, 1911, in Saltash, County of Cornwall, England, the son of Stephen Payne, a naval architect, and Mireille Louise Antonia (Dorey) Payne, a native of France. Payne was the eldest of three brothers. His middle brother was Alan (Marcel Alan), and his youngest brother was Tony, who died at the age of seven.

Payne went to St. Paul's School, London. He attended the Diocesan College, Rondebosch, South Africa, 1929-30; the University of Capetown, 1928-1930; Liverpool University, 1933-35; the University of Munich, summer, 1937, and the Sorbonne, in Paris, 1938.

Payne first followed his father into shipbuilding, working as a shipwright's apprentice at Cammell, Laird's Shipbuilding Company, Birkendhead, 1931-33. He also worked for the Inland Revenue as an Assistant Inspector of Taxes in Guilford in 1936. In 1937-38 he traveled in Europe and, while in Munich, met Adolf Hitler through Rudolf Hess, an incident which Payne vividly describes in his book Eyewitness. In 1938 Payne covered the Civil War in Spain for the London News Chronicle, an experience that resulted in two books, A Young Man Looks at Europe and The Song of the Peasant.

From 1939 to 1941 Payne worked as a shipwright at the Singapore Naval Base and in 1941 he became an armament officer and chief camouflage officer for British Army Intelligence there. In December, 1941, he was sent to Chungking, China, to serve as Cultural Attaché at the British Embassy.

In January, 1942, he covered the battle of Changsha for the London Times, and from 1942 to 1943 he taught English literature at Fuhtan University, near Chungking. Then, persuaded by Joseph Needham, he went to Kunming and taught poetry and naval architecture at Lienta University from 1943 to 1946. The universities of Peking, Tsinghua, and Nankai had converged in Kunming to form the University at Lienta. It was there that Payne, together with Chinese scholars and poets, compiled and co-translated The White Pony.

In China Payne met General George C. Marshall, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Tse-tung, who was elusive and living in the caves of Yenan, all of whom later became subjects for his biographies. From his time in China also came the autobiographical volumes Forever China and China Awake, and the historical novels Love and Peace and The Lovers.

From China, Payne briefly visited India in the summer, 1946, which resulted in a love for Indian art. Throughout his life, Payne retained a love for all forms of oriental art.

He came to the United States in the winter of 1946 and lived in Los Angeles, California, until he became Professor of English and Author-in-Residence at Alabama College, Montevallo, 1949-54. He was the founding editor of Montevallo Review, whose contributors included poets Charles Olson and Muriel Rukeyser. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953.

In Spring, 1949, Payne visited Persia with the Asia Institute Expedition. He received an M.A. degree from the Asia Institute in 1951.

In 1954 Payne moved to New York City, where he lived the rest of his life, interrupted once or twice a year by travel to the Middle East, the Far East, and Europe, mostly to gather material for his books, but also to visit his mother and father in England. His very close literary relationship with his father is documented in the hundreds of highly personal and informative letters which they exchanged.

In 1942, Payne married Rose Hsiung, daughter of Hsiung Hse-ling, a former prime minister of China. They divorced in 1952. In 1981, he married Sheila Lalwani, originally from India.

Over a period of forty-seven years Payne had more than 110 books published. He wrote his first novella, Adventures of Sylvia, Queen of Denmark and China, when he was seven years old. Payne's first publication was a translation of Iiuri Olesha's Envy, published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1936. A year later, T.S. Eliot published his novel The War in the Marshes under the Faber & Faber imprint. In the same year, 1937, Herbert Read published Payne's novel The Mountain and the Stars under the Heinemann imprint. All three of these books were published pseudonymously (as were a number of other books early in his career), after Payne had been influenced by E. M. Forster's Anonymity.

As well as writing under his own name, Payne also wrote under the following pseudonyms: Richard Cargoe, John Anthony Devon, Howard Horne, Valentin Tikhonov, and Robert Young, and translated Olesha's Envy as Anthony Wolfe.

Writing was Payne's life. In 1947, he wrote two novels, a political study, a book of poetry, and a personal journal, while also editing a book of Chinese poetry. A decade later he published, in a single year, a biography of Schweitzer, an account of pre-Bolshevik revolutionaries, The Terrorists, and The Splendor of Persia. His last book, The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades, appeared posthumously in 1984.

Payne's writings included anthologies, art, biographies, essays, film scripts, journalism, histories, libretti, literary criticism, novellas and novels, operas, plays, political commentary, philosophy, poetry, short stories, translations, and travel.

Payne was best known for his many critically-acclaimed biographies. His subjects included Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Dostoyevsky, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung, Sun Yat-sen, André Malraux, Shakespeare, Alexander the Great, and George G. Marshall. He thoroughly researched his subjects and often traveled to retrace their steps.

His historical volumes included works on Christianity, Islam, China, Israel, Greece, Rome, the Spanish Civil War, and the Crusades. His writings were variously set in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Persia, India, China, Bangla Desh, and Japan.

A number of Payne's books were Book-of-the-Month Club selections. His best-selling biographies The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler and The Life and Death of Lenin were Main Selections. The Gold of Troy was a Dual Selection, and The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi and The World of Art were Alternate Selections. The Rise and Fall of Stalin and The Dream and the Tomb were also selected.

Many of his books were translated into a variety of languages, including Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.

From the 1950s through the 1970s his articles appeared regularly in the New York Times Magazine, United Nations World, Saturday Review, and numerous other magazines. He regularly wrote book reviews for the New York Times and Saturday Review.

Payne was chairman of the Translation Committee of P.E.N. until 1976, when he left to found the Translation Center at Columbia with Frank MacShane and William Jay Smith. In 1967, Payne became the series editor of The Russian Library, issued by New York University's Washington Square Press.

Payne translated from Chinese, Danish, French, Greek, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, and Russian. In 1936, in London, he translated a collection of short stories by Boris Pasternak into English, becoming the first person to do this. The result was first published in Singapore in 1941 as Childhood. He was also the first person to translate Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling into English.

Payne turned out an average of two books a year, many of them massive studies. He usually worked on five to eight books at the same time, but each book took three to seven years, on average, to complete, as Payne researched and read as much as he could on each subject. Every morning, around 2 a.m., Payne sat down at the card table that bore marks of years of abuse--chunks fallen away, its surface discolored and legs enfeebled. On top sat a portable manual typewriter amid a pile of open books. Pens, paper clips, loose pages of notes, cigarettes, packets of chewing gum, and a magnifying glass were scattered on the table. For the next five or six hours, Payne worked. He almost always demanded total solitude, but in his last two years he allowed his wife's cat, Ashley Aurangzeb, to curl up on his lap as he worked in his living room.

Payne was a voracious reader and book collector. His apartment on Central Park West, New York City, contained more than 8,000 volumes, in spite of regularly donating to libraries books that had served him in completed writing projects. The apartment was stacked floor to ceiling with books. Books sat in untidy piles on sofas, chairs, tables, and under his bed.

An article in Newsweek explained his extraordinary productivity: "He's mildly surprised that anyone still asks. Simple arithmetic: 'If you do three or four pages a day, in a month you have 100 pages.'"(1)

"Every sentence has its own problems, every word has its own problems," Payne told Israel Shenker during an interview. "It's a rather tough job. And the toughness lies in trying to put vitality into it, which means one's own vitality. But I find it very exciting--getting inside people, almost wrestling the life out of them. The idea is to arrange the facts so that your subjects reveal themselves. The test seems to be whether they walk into the room at 5 o'clock in the morning. When you can see them that close it usually goes well. It's a slightly hallucinatory thing--you find yourself almost talking to them."(2)

Robert Payne died February 18, 1983, while on vacation in Bermuda. A memorial service was held at the chapel at Columbia University on March 3, 1983.

Payne autobiographical volumes include Forever China (also published as Chungking Diary) and China Awake, both republished in a one-volume edition as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946, Eyewitness, and A Rage for China.

Sources consulted in preparing this biographical sketch include Contemporary Authors and the New York Times obituary, February 22, 1983.

Footnotes
1. Annette Grant, Man of 100 Books. Newsweek, May 19, 1969.
2. Robert Payne, Over 100. New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1978.