Until her death in 1968, Helen Keller was among the world's most admired women, a paragon of human perseverance in the face of adversity. Blind and deaf from age 2, she lived almost her entire life in what Herrmann terms "gray silence." Yet, communicating only through a unique manual language, she led a full and vital existence, touched by luminaries such as Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell and every president from Grover Cleveland to Dwight Eisenhower.
Still, she is best known as the little girl played by Patty Duke in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker. Like the movie, Herrmann's account focuses on the intimate bond between Keller and tutor Annie Sullivan, who took on an animal-like Helen when the girl was 6 and became a lifelong companion. The relationship was rich, complex and unpredictable, sometimes like that of a married couple, sometimes like that of a prizefighter and trainer. Using previously unreleased memoirs, veteran biographer Herrmann—whose earlier books were on humorist S.J. Perelman and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh—paints an intimate and moving portrait of one of the century's most inspiring figures. "Never did I dream a drama could be devised out of the story of my life," Keller once said. How wrong she was. (Knopf, $30)