Bowen was born Catherine Drinker on the Haverford College campus in Haverford, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1897, to a prominent Quaker family. She was an accomplished violinist who studied for a musical career at the Peabody Institute and the Juilliard School of Music, but ultimately decided to become a writer. She had no formal writing education and no academic career, but became a bestselling American biographer and writer despite criticism from academics. Her earliest biographies were about musicians. Bowen did all her own research, without hiring research assistants, and sometimes took the controversial step of interviewing subjects without taking notes. A number of Bowen's books were chosen as Book of the Month Club selections, including Beloved Friend (1937), Yankee from Olympus (1944) and John Adams and the American Revolution (1950).
In 1958 she won the U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), a biography of the prominent lawyer of Elizabethan England. In addition, Ms. Bowen received the 1957 Philadelphia Award and the 1962 Women's National Book Association award. Her last book, Family Portrait, received critical acclaim, and was a Literary Guild selection. During her lifetime, she was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Philadelphia Award. In 1962, she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Lehigh University.
At the time of Bowen's death in 1973, she was working on a biography of Benjamin Franklin; the unfinished book was published posthumously as Scenes from the Life of its subject. She died in Haverford and is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Catherine was the daughter of Henry Sturgis Drinker, who later became president of Lehigh University. She had four brothers, Henry ("Harry"), an attorney who lent his name to Philadelphia's Drinker, Biddle law firm, and who was also a chamber music composer and conductor; Jim; Cecil, the founder of the Harvard School of Public Health; and Philip, inventor of the iron lung; and a sister, Ernesta. Catherine's aunt on her father's side was artist Catherine Ann Drinker[circular reference] and on her mother's side noted portraitist Cecilia Beaux.
Catherine Drinker married Ezra Bowen, the Chair of Economics at Lehigh University and the author of Social Economics in 1919. They divorced in the 1930s. Catherine married her second husband, Thomas McKean Downs, a surgeon, in 1939. She had two children from her first marriage: Catherine Prince and Ezra Bowen. Ezra went on to become a writer and editor for Sports Illustrated and Time-Life.
Catherine Drinker Bowen.
Giffuni, Cathe. "Catherine Drinker Bowen: A Bibliography," Bulletin of Bibliography, Vol. 50 No. 4 December 1993, pp. 331-337.