"America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation," by Joshua Kendall

Hachette Book Group, Rachel Youdelman
Hachette Book Group, Rachel Youdelman

Jeff Glor talks to Joshua Kendall about "America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation."

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Joshua Kendall: I have long been obsessed by the obsessed. My previous two biographies were on obsessive wordsmiths -- Peter Mark Roget, creator of the legendary "Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases" and Noah Webster, author of the first dictionary of American English. And I used to think that most obsessives were nerdy, bookish types. But one day I had this aha-moment when I realized that they have also led the way in many fields -- from information technology and marketing to politics and sports. That's when I knew that I had a bigger story to tell -- not just about the individual lives of the seven icons whom I selected, but about a common path to greatness. Compulsives, as I have learned, also make for compelling subjects. The biographer's job is to paint a vivid portrait, and given that these folks like to do the same thing over and over again -- while HJ Heinz of ketchup fame never met a doorway he didn't want to measure, beauty tycoon Estee Lauder couldn't stop touching faces -- it can be easier to figure out exactly what makes them tick.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

JK: I was repeatedly startled by how reckless my seven obsessives could be in their personal lives -- something that is in stark contrast to the extreme control that they exercised in their chosen crafts. In the batter's box, Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was a paragon of patience and focus. He would rarely swing at a pitch that wasn't over the heart of the plate, and he often walked 150 times or more a season -- an unheard of number. But everywhere else, he was totally undisciplined, even on other parts of the baseball diamond. Early in his career, he infuriated his managers by turning his back to home plate and practicing his swing during games. A notorious f-bomb hurler, Williams would also frequently pop off at both journalists and his three wives and numerous girlfriends. Likewise, I couldn't believe that Charles Lindbergh, who was so careful in the airplane -- his obsessionality led him to develop the safety checklist which has saved the lives of countless pilots -- had so little control over his own libido. Besides his wife and his three steady German mistresses, with whom he fathered seven children, he also had a bunch of girlfriends such as the stewardess 40 years his junior, whom he met for trysts over a six-year period toward the end of his life.

JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

This is a tough one because I love books and always wanted to be a writer. As a kid, I learned to type very early -- and while this is not an exotic skill for grade-schoolers today, it was before the age of the personal computer -- and couldn't stop banging away on the keyboard. I would probably be involved with books in some other way; in one fantasy, I would be the head of a rare book library assigned the delightful task of traveling the world in search of books and manuscripts that are on the auction block.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

JK: Due to my interest -- or, if truth be told, obsession -- in capturing the inner worlds of my subjects, I like to keep track of current developments in psychiatry. So I have been reading the recently published books on the DSM-5, the new version of psychiatry's diagnostic manual, such as "The Book of Woe" by Gary Greenberg and "Saving Normal" by Dr. Allen Frances. It's amazing how divided mental health professionals are right now. One would think that over time, the field would begin to move toward a consensus, but lots of the key concepts are still in play.

JG: What's next for you?

JK: I'll be traveling from coast to coast promoting the book. I'm looking forward to going to places that I don't know too well, such as the Midwest. In between stops, I'll do research for my next book, which is a psychological study of U.S. presidents. I'll be focusing on the link between personality and leadership style. I'm excited by the prospect of visiting several of the presidential libraries sprinkled around the country.

For more on "America's Obsessives," visit Kendall's website.

  • Jeff Glor

    Jeff Glor was named anchor of the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" in January 2012 and Special Correspondent for "CBS This Morning" in November 2011.