Irving Stone was born as Irving Tennenbaum on July 14, 1903, in San Francisco, California, to Charles and Pauline Rosenburg Tennenbaum. He took the name of Stone after his mother remarried. The family was poor and he had to help by delivering newspapers and groceries. Reading constantly as a child, he tried to write short stories in the style of his favorite author, Jack London.
Stone had to work his way through the University of California with jobs as musician, clerk, and field laborer. Majoring in political science, he graduated in 1923 from Berkeley with honors. He pursued his Master’s Degree at Southern California, teaching economics as he earned his degree, which he received in 1924. He was working on a doctorate at Berkeley but left without writing his dissertation to pursue his first love—writing. He moved to New York and wrote many plays, but few were produced.
His time living in Paris in the late 1920s changed his life after he saw Van Gogh’s paintings. He knew he had to write about the artist and financed his research trip to Europe by selling short stories to magazines. Lust for Life, an historical novel based on Van Gogh’s life, was finished in 1931 but rejected by seventeen publishers before being accepted and becoming a best seller in 1934. It was made into a movie in 1956 with Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh. Jean Factor, whom he married in 1934, became his collaborator and editor in his series of biographical fiction. Theirs was a lifelong partnership. They had two children.
He described his work as “bio-history,” frequently picking misunderstood subjects or the women behind the men. He wrote the stories of Jack London, Clarence Darrow, Eugene V. Debs, and Earl Warren, to name a few. Other works among his two dozen books include novels about Heinrich Schliemann; Andrew and Rachel Jackson; Mary Todd Lincoln; Abigail Adams; American artist, John Noble; and Impressionist painter, Camille Pisarro. Men to Match My Mountains (1956) was a fictionalized version of the settling of the American West.
When working on the story of Michaelangelo’s life, he commissioned the first translation of his letters from Italian to English and spent two years in Italy near the places the artist had lived and worked. The Agony and the Ecstasy was published in 1961 and sold millions of copies. It was made into a film with Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo. Stone won honors from the Italian government for his historical work.
Irving and Jean Stone edited the letters of Michaelangelo into the volume, I Michaelangelo, Sculptor (1962) as a first-person narrative. The same year he published Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait with Alan Nevins. The Passions of the Mind (1970) about Sigmund Freud and The Origin (1980) about Charles Darwin, are other important titles.
He created the biographical novel as a popular contemporary form, relying on documentary evidence as much as possible, with occasional intuitive leaps into the motivations of his subjects. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Founder John P. McGovern Award in 1988.
Stone died on August 26, 1989, in Los Angeles, California, of heart failure at the age of eighty-six.