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Heilpern, the son of a bookmaker, was born in Manchester, England, and educated at Oxford University. He began his career at The Observer of London, where his interviews with numerous cultural figures (including Graham Greene, Rudolf Nureyev, Henry Moore, Artur Rubinstein, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson) received a British Press Award.
He has also worked as Peter Hall’s assistant director on Tamburlaine at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1976, and when he went to live in New York in 1980, he subsequently worked on Broadway as a librettist for Michael Bennett (of A Chorus Line).
Heilpern is perhaps best known for his classic book, Conference of the Birds – The Story of Peter Brook in Africa. First published in 1977 by Faber & Faber in England, it tells the story of a historic journey made by Peter Brook and an international troupe of actors (including the young Helen Mirren) across the Sahara Desert through North West Africa in search of a new form of theatre. The current paperback edition of Conference of the Birds, re-issued in America by Routledge, was described by The Sunday Telegraph as “one of the best books about theatre ever written”.
Among his other books, How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway? is a collection of theatre essays and reviews, and John Osborne - The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man, is the authorized biography of the iconic playwright who revolutionized British theatre. First published in the UK by Chatto & Windus in 2006 under the title A Patriot for Us, the Osborne biography received the award for Best Theatre Book of the Year. On its publication in the US by Knopf in 2007, The New Yorker described it as “compelling”, The Wall Street Journal as “masterful”, and The Philadelphia Inquirer as “a model of what a literary biography ought to be.” The Wall Street Journal named it one its Ten Best Books of the Year.
John Heilpern has been married twice; one of his former wives is editor and writer Joan Juliet Buck. His longtime companion is Sydney Weinberg. His daughter, Rachel, is a psychologist.
- Heilpern, John (1977). Conference of the birds : the story of Peter Brook in Africa. London: Faber.
- — (2000). How good is David Mamet, anyway? Writings on theater and why it matters. New York: Routledge.
- — (Dec 2012). "Out to lunch with Sir Ian McKellen". Vanity Fair. 628: 106.
- — (Jun 2013). "Out to lunch with Eddie Izzard". Vanity Fair. 634: 34.