Walter Isaacson has written biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. The book about Jobs, culminating in a release weeks after Jobs’ death, was one of 2011’s most highly anticipated books.
Isaacson, a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar, started his career at The Times-Picayune/States Item in New Orleans, went on to work as editor of TIME magazine, then was named president/CEO of CNN. He is currently the president/CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC.
In 2005, then-Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco appointed Isaacson to vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a board that oversaw spending after Hurricane Katrina.
Isaacson tries to get back to New Orleans often and serves on the board of Tulane University.
He found time in his busy schedule to answer…
SW: Your biography of Steve Jobs broke all records for sales of a biography. He was famously reclusive and didn’t let a lot of people into his world. What was it like to immerse yourself in such a complicated life for two years?
WI: I was very privileged to get closer access to Steve Jobs than any biographer I know of has done with a subject, except for maybe Boswell’s access to Dr. Johnson. We spent days and days together. He insisted that I should be honest. So I showed all facets of his personality, brilliant and rough. I felt that they tied together, reflecting his passion for perfection and impatience with shoddy work. It was very emotional to get to know him.
SW: Who is the better genius — Einstein or Jobs?
WI: Einstein. Einstein was not only imaginative, he was also a genius when it came to analytical thought. The two greatest theories of 20th century physics — relativity and quantum — sprang from his head when he was a young man working as a patent clerk.
SW: You were recently named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Could knowing something like that in advance have helped you out in the dating scene at Newman?
WI: When I was at Newman, Stephanie Bruno and I and some others organized a “computer dance,” where we told people they would be matched up by a computer if they filled out personal questionnaires. We didn’t actually have access to a computer, but we fixed ourselves up with the dates we wanted.
SW: You’ve talking about writing a love letter to New Orleans. What makes the city so special to you?
WI: New Orleans is a cauldron of creativity. Music, food, businesses, architecture, neighborhoods. Noting is boring in New Orleans.
SW: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid in New Orleans?
WI: Go to Preservation Hall and listen to Willie and Percy Humphries, who fronted the regular band back then.