Kai Bird

Kai Bird (born September 2, 1951) is an American author and columnist, best known for his biographies of political figures. He won a Pulitzer Prize for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Kai Bird
Kai Bird in 2013
Born1951 (age 6768)
Eugene, Oregon, United States
OccupationBiographer, columnist
Alma materCarleton College
Northwestern University
SpouseSusan Goldmark


Bird was born in 1951 in Eugene, Oregon. His father was a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and Bird spent his childhood in Jerusalem, Beirut, Dhahran, Cairo, and Mumbai. His father named him after Kai-Yu Hsu, a refugee from Communist China he met at the University of Oregon. Kai means "mustard" in Chinese.[1]

Bird finished high school in 1969 at Kodaikanal International School in Tamil Nadu, South India. He received his B.A. from Carleton College in 1973 and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University in 1975. Bird now lives in New York City with his wife, Susan Goldmark, a retired country director of the World Bank, and their son, Joshua.[2]

In January 2017, Bird was appointed Executive Director and Distinguished Lecturer at CUNY Graduate Center's Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York City. He is presently working on a biography of President Jimmy Carter, under contract to Crown Books/Random House.[3]

Literary career

After graduation from Carleton, Bird received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which enables students to do a year of independent study outside the United States. He used the fellowship to do a photojournalism project in Yemen. Two years later, Goldmark was also awarded a Watson Fellowship, and the two of them spent 15 months as freelance journalists traveling through Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. "We filed weekly stories with papers like the Christian Science Monitor and Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review," Bird says. "We hardly made any money, but we enjoyed what we were doing."[4] Bird was an associate editor of The Nation magazine from 1978 to 1982 and then a Nation columnist.

Published works

Bird's biographical works include The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (Touchstone, 1998), The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment (Random House, 1992) and Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (1998), which he co-edited with Lawrence Lifschultz.[2]

In April 2010, his Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978, was released by Scribner. It is a meld of memoir and history, fusing his early life in the Arab world with an account of the American experience in the Middle East.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014) is a biography of CIA officer Robert Ames, whose career focus was the Middle East. According to the book, Ames played a key role in starting the peace process that led to the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO.[5] Ames perished in the April 18, 1983 truck bombing of the American embassy in Beirut.


Bird is a recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship (1973), an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship[6] (1981), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984),[7] and a John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Grant for Research and Writing (1993–95). In 2001-2002 he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Bird and co-author Martin J. Sherwin won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005).[8] He and Sherwin also won the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for their biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 2008, they also won the Duff Cooper Prize.[9]

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in the "Autobiography" category.[10][11]

In September 2016, he was the featured speaker at Carleton College's opening convocation in Northfield, Minnesota.[11]


  1. Bird, Kai (2010-04-20). Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781439171608.
  2. Hiar, Corbin (2009-04-24). "Kai Bird: The Nation's Foreign Editor". Hiar learning. Wordpress. Retrieved 24 April 2010.
  3. "Detail".
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 9, 2007. Retrieved May 31, 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. Kai Bird: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. Crown, New York 2014, ISBN 978-0-307-88975-1, p.2
  6. "Alicia Patterson Foundation".
  7. "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation - Kai Bird".
  8. Thompson, Bob (April 18, 2006). "Arts Pulitzers Make History the Big Winner". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
  9. Press, Orphans. "Past Winners of The Duff Cooper Prize". The Duff Cooper Prize.
  10. "National Book Critics Circle".
  11. "Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Kai Bird '73 to present opening convocation".
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