Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

Writers seldom choose as friends those self-contained characters who are never in trouble, never unhappy or ill, never make mistakes and always count their change when it is handed to them” wrote one of twentieth-century Amer­ica’s best-known historians and biographers, Catherine Drinker Bowen (1897-1973). Born in Haverford, Mont­gomery County, she is best known for her narratives of historical figures that yielded a fresh perspective to the craft of writing biographies. Recipient of many prestigious awards – including being named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania by Governor George M. Leader in 1957 – she has been praised and emulated by writers and is a frequent subject of articles and essays.

Bowen was the daughter of Aimee Ernesta Beaux (1852-1939), called Etta, and Henry Sturgis Drinker (1850-1937), an attorney, mechanical engineer, president of Lehigh University from 1905 to 1920, and descendant of one of Philadelphia’s earliest families. Her autobiography, Family Portrait (1970), published three years before her death at the age of seventy-six, provides an intimate account of growing up in the university president’s house. In 1962, Lehigh University awarded her an honorary doctorate degree and, in 1997, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a state historical marker on the university’s campus to recognize her work.

For role models Bowen credited her illustrious siblings Henry S. (1880-1965), a prominent Philadelphia attorney and amateur musician; James B. (1882-1971), a banker; Cecil K. (1881-1956), dean of the Harvard School of Public Health; Ernesta (born 1892), an interior decorator; and Philip D. (1894-1972), inventor of the iron lung. She was also impacted by her relationship with her difficult, often caustic aunt, her mother’s sister, the “stormy one,” Cecilia Beaux(1855-1942), an accomplished artist known for her sumptuous portraits, including likenesses of the Drinker family (see ”Artistic Ambi­tions: Cecilia Beaux in Philadelphia” by Tara Leigh Tappert, Winter 1996). In Family Portrait, Bowen titled one chapter “Aunt Cecilia Refuses to Die.”

Bowen received her early education in Bethlehem, and at St. Timothy’s School, a boarding school affiliated with the Episcopal Church, in Catonsville, Maryland. By the age of twelve, she had become a proficient violinist. Although encouraged to attend Bryn Mawr College, she studied, instead, at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore from 1915 to 1917. She graduated from New York’s Darnrosch In­stitute of Musical Art (now The Juilliard School) in 1919, the year she married Ezra Bowen, an economics instructor at Lafayette College in Easton. Bowen began giving private violin lessons and briefly contemplated a career as a violinist, but ultimately decided to pursue music as an avocation, performing with amateur string quartets and local orchestras. Her first article, describing a sailing trip, appeared in Yachting Magazine in 1920. She wrote articles for various magazines and a series of love stories for Women’s Home Companion. In 1924, she published her first two books, The Story of the Oak Tree and A History of Lehigh University. Although intent on writing fiction – her only novel was Rufus Starbuck’s Wife, pub­lished in 1932 – she went on to become highly acclaimed for her nonfiction. Her books about researching and writing biographies include Adventures of a Biographer (1959) and Biography: The Craft and the Calling (1969). “For forty years I have been writing biography,” she wrote in Adventures of a Biographer, “if I had to choose, I would live the biographer’s life over again. I cannot conceive of time spent more entertainingly, to myself if to no one else.”

Unlike many biographers of the day, Bowen managed to be sympathetic to her subjects without altering the historical record. Approaching her subjects with careful historical research undertaken in libraries and archives around the world, she wrote with clarity, continuity and skillful plotting. “I plan the biography …which will contain no word of fiction Bowen explained. “The problems of construction are basically the same…Misrepresentation of the subject occurs not only through factual error and the quoting of doubtful sources, but by ­ faulty organization, the clumsy construction of page, paragraph or sentence.”

She wrote her first biography, Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikovsky and Nade­jda von Meck (1937), with Barbara von Meck, widow of the grandson of Nadejda von Meck. The pair tell the story of the brilliant (but unhappy) Russian composer and his platonic relationship with his patroness, a wealthy widow who provided him an annual stipend. For years they conducted their eccentric relationship exclusively by correspondence, agreeing to never meet. Bowen used the letters exchanged by Tchaikovsky and von Meck to construct a narrative frame­work spanning the composer’s life and reveal intimate details not found in other biographies.

Bowen’s biographical subjects included Anton and Nicholas Rubenstein, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., John Adams, Sir Edward Coke, and Francis Bacon. Her final biography, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin (1974), was published posthumously. Bowen’s acclaimed Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 (1966), looks closely at the individuals behind the U.S Constitution and the comprises that made consensus possible. (In 1999, Miracle at Philadelphia ranked fifty-­fourth of the top one hundred books held by American libraries; it is also required reading for applied history programs at numerous colleges and universities.) She recounted her own experiences as a violinist in Friends and Fiddlers (1935).

Bowen and her first husband, who divorced in 1936, had two children, Ezra and Catherine Drinker Bowen Prince. She married Thomas McKean Downs in 1939, who died in 1960. The author died in 1973, and is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County.

Catherine Drinker Bowen’s works show her to have been a member of an articulate, industrious family, one engaged in living life to the fullest while contributing mightily to the betterment of society. Her autobiography proves her to be witty, highly principled, competitive, and astonishingly candid, raising her memoirs from sentimental nostalgia to a moving, straightforward, and introspective record of a life well led, well read and, ultimately, well written.