Everyone has a story.
And when those stories are tales of the rich and (in)famous, they demand to be read.
Here, we found this year’s 13 best celebrity (auto)biographies.
Simply call them the write stuff . . . in alphabetical order.
He was, perhaps, the best talk-show host . . . wry and dry, funny and witty and ballsy. Dick Cavett, the legendary talk show host, is back with a new collection of provocative essays, his reflections and reminiscences about Hollywood legends, American cultural icons and the absurdities of everyday life—in Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks (Henry Holt, $26).
Great pithy stores and recollections . . . as Mel Brooks puts it: “The best bathroom reading ever written! Each story takes just the right amount of time.”
In his signature charming prose, Cavett introduces readers to the fascinating characters that have crossed his path. He recounts meeting John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed at the St. Regis; sparring with Muhammad Ali; being wooed by Steve Jobs to be Apple’s first celebrity pitchman; and flirting with the ultimate Hollywood star, Elizabeth Taylor. Other notable figures that cross Cavett’s path in these pages include James Gandolfini, Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, Tony Curtis and Groucho Marx. Delightfully, Cavett also shares his youthful–and not so youthful–escapades, including his first violent hangover and a few instances when he almost found himself in the county jail.
Offering piquant commentary on contemporary politics, the indignities of travel, the nature of comedy writing, and the utter improbability of being alive at all, Brief Encounters opens the door on how Cavett’s mind works and what it is like to live in his world. Settle in (or on the john), and enjoy the conversation.
As a recovering Catholic, let me get this straight.
I think “the new Pope” is asking that all people be kinder to the LGBT community. He’s a few steps away from allowing them to marry. Funny, from a man who wears a dress . . . white, even after Labor Day.
The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Henry Holt & Co., $30) is an expansive and deeply contextual work that, at its heart, is about the intersection of faith and politics—the tension between the pope’s innovative vision for the Church and the obstacles he faces in an institution still strongly defined by its conservative past. Based on extensive interviews in Argentina and years of study of the Catholic Church, Austen Ivereigh tells the story not only of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the remarkable man whose background and total commitment to the discernment of God’s will transformed him into Pope Francis—but the story of why the Catholic Church chose him as their leader.
With the Francis Revolution just beginning, this biography will provide never-before-explained context on how one man’s ambitious program began—and how it will likely end—through an investigation of Francis’s youth growing up in Buenos Aires and the dramatic events during the Perón era that shaped his beliefs; his ongoing conflicts and disillusionment with the ensuing doctrines of an authoritarian and militaristic government in the 1970s; how his Jesuit training in Argentina and Chile gave him a unique understanding and advocacy for a “Church of the Poor”; and his rise from Cardinal to the papacy.
Hugh O’Brian (finally!) finished his autobio, Hugh O’Brian: or What’s Left of Him, and it’s surprising this lively memoir was self-published by Book Publishers Network ($17.95). The actor takes readers on a six-decade+ journey that continues to this day. O’Brian’s style of self-discipline, enterprise and tenacity, learned from his Marine Corps father, carried him from being the youngest Marine Corps drill instructor in history to a legendary career as TV’s Wyatt Earp, as various movie roles, Broadway and stage shows, as well as numerous guest appearances.
O’Brian recalls so much . . . surviving being shot between the eyes by John Wayne on the set of The Shootist because director Don Siegel wanted a fluid film shot without interruption, which wouldn’t allow for the use of a stuntman; performing Guys and Dolls for President Johnson at the White House and later shooting craps with him in the East Room; hearing issues as a result of using full loads in the guns while filming The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.
But it was a life-changing trip to Africa to meet the famed humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer that set O’Brian on a new path: The founding of the Hugh O’Brian Youth organization to develop young leaders, which now boasts over 425,000 alumni and growing. Added pluses: more thanr 100 photos, plus forewords by two of Hugh’s special friends, Debbie Reynolds and Hugh Hefner.
Acclaimed, bestselling Hollywood biographer Scott Eyman presents an engaging, revealing and fully rounded portrait of one of America’s most enduring and controversial film icons in John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, $32.50). Drawing on unpublished materials, exhaustive research, and more than a hundred interviews with Wayne and many of his closest colleagues, friends, and family members, Eyman separates myth from fact as he chronicles the full sweep of Wayne’s five-decade career, and with it, a large part of the history of Hollywood itself.
Wayne was not the indomitable life force he played on the screen; he had a difficult childhood without any money or love from his mother, which marked him in all sorts of ways. He was quite idealistic, always willing to put his money where his mouth was in terms of his political philosophy, which in turn cost him a great deal of money over the years. He loved domesticity, but had difficulties sustaining a marriage; he was passionate about his country but never served in World War II.
Who knew Wayne a demon chess player, strong and aggressive? Or that he knew literature, had a surprising gift for interior decoration and loved nothing more than to shop out of catalogs? (When Wayne was a child, the height of luxury for an impoverished boy on the edge of the Mojave Desert was the Sears Roebuck catalog).Or that he continued to smoke small cigars though he had lost a lung to cancer?
In his younger days, the actor was pretty randy, destroying his first marriage through his infidelities, including a long-running affair with Marlene Dietrich. He felt guilty about that marriage for the rest of his life, always calling his first wife, “the finest woman I’ve ever known.” In later years, he kept to his vows, but couldn’t manage to sustain the marriages, mostly because of his choices in women. Once the passion wore down, there was little to sustain the relationship.
And so much more.
Even with 14 million albums sold, 80 recordings produced and 40 years of collaboration with beloved composers and musicians, soprano Barbara Hendricks remains a steadfast anti-diva.
Take that Jessye!
The daughter of an African American Methodist minister and a schoolteacher in segregated Arkansas in the ’50s, Hendricks grew up to be one of the greatest operatic sopranos of the world, known internationally not only for her talents as a vocalist but also for her compassion as a human rights activist.
Now the story is told.
Lifting My Voice: A Memoir by Barbara Hendricks (Chicago Review Press, $32.95) is the charming self-portrait of one of the great female vocalists of our time. Beginning with her childhood in the Jim Crow South, Barbara traces her path from the Juilliard School of Music to the opera houses of the world, and later in life, to the United Nations as a Goodwill Ambassador. Growing up witnessing first-hand the painful struggle for civil rights changed the way Barbara saw herself in the world. Viewing historical events like The Little Rock Nine entering desegregated Central High School forced her to question at a young age how people learn to live in harmony together. As an adult, her humanitarian work with refugees around the world has defined her as much as her beautiful voice—singing for children in ghettos and serving as Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency for over twenty-six years.
While her impact on music is unquestionable, she has also lifted her voice in defense of human rights and has made a significant difference in the lives of countless refugees—from survivors of Cambodia’s killing fields, to the Rwandan genocide, to sniper alley in Sarajevo.
Down-to-earth and straightforward whether singing Mozart or Negro Spirituals, Hendricks has remained true to herself—shattering stereotypes by, above all, putting truth into her art and her life. Lifting My Voice is a warm, engaging, and honest self-portrait of a great woman of our time who has gone her own way as a woman, as a mother, as an artist and as a citizen.
Just how (in)famous was Belle Brezing?
She was a lady who borrowed enough money to set up her own brothel . . . years after working on the streets. She leveraged that first house and her early connections with wealthy patrons to purchase the more suitably ostentatious 59 Megowan Street in Lexington, Kentucky, a place so much more suited to her than her former house—the former home of Mary Todd Lincoln. Here, on any evening, it was common to see fashionable international travelers, horsemen and civic leaders mounting the five steps to the elegant house.
For a little nooky.
Indeed, Miss Belle’s renown was so famous that she is widely credited as Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Madam Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.
Miss Belle’s (mis)adventures are detailed in Madame Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky $24.95), in which author Maryjean Wall sheds new light on the tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South as told through Miss Belle’s notorious life.
The well-heeled nature of her establishment allowed it to become a social hangout for the men who controlled the economy, politics, and horse industries of Kentucky. Belle’s vaunted secrecy and discretion with such powerful figures often paid dividends, most notably when she was quietly pardoned by Kentucky Governor Luke Blackburn for keeping a “bawdy house.”
For generations, fans of the novel and movie Gone with the Wind have speculated about whether Margaret Mitchell modeled her character Belle Watling after Belle Brezing. Mitchell denied this to her death in 1949, as did her husband, John Marsh. But few people believed these denials. In her biography of Margaret Mitchell, Marianne Walker speculated that a connection had to exist because too many coincidences linked the two Belles. Belle Brezing’s hair was red; so was Belle Watling’s. The novel’s descriptions of Belle Watling’s house match the glimpses we have of Belle Brezing’s mansion. Both madams accepted as clients only men of financial means. Both women attempted to give large donations to charitable institutions, only to be rebuffed because of their profession.
Marsh worked the police beat for the Lexington Leader while attending the University of Kentucky during the 1910s (before his marriage to Mitchell), fueling further speculation that Belle Watling was indeed modeled on the notorious Belle Brezing. Mitchell would not have known how to describe the inside of a brothel, as Walker wrote. But Marsh would have. Belle Brezing’s kitchen was always open to police officers and reporters who covered the police beat. “In exchange for her [Belle’s] culinary offerings,” according to Walker, “she could depend on the policemen to restore order in case there were fights, or to dispatch drunks, and she could count on the newspapermen to keep silent about certain reports and the names of certain clients.” Walker learned in an interview with John Marsh’s sister-in-law, Francesca Marsh, that John spent many nights in Belle’s kitchen with a police officer, enjoying a fine meal and hearing colorful stories about the demimonde of the red-light district on the Hill. Francesca Marsh told Walker that Marsh related these stories to his brothers and later to his wife.
Why did Mitchell deny the Belle connection? When she composed her manuscript, she apparently thought the resemblance between Belle Watling and Belle Brezing was unimportant because she wrote the manuscript for herself, not for publication. Walker and another Mitchell biographer, Anne Edwards, agree that Mitchell, a journalist, wrote fiction only for her own amusement. The unexpected happened when Macmillan accepted the manuscript for publication in 1936 and it became wildly popular, Walker wrote. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, and more than 30 million copies are in print worldwide. The 1939 film adaptation was likewise a huge popular success. Mitchell and Marsh had envisioned none of this; they believed that sales would number only a few thousand, with most books going to relatives or to libraries in Georgia. “She was not concerned about the Watling character,” according to Walker, “because Lexington, Kentucky, was many miles away from Atlanta, where people had never heard of Belle Brezing or, even if they had, they would not know any details of her life.” The surprising success of Gone with the Wind might have prompted Mitchell and Marsh to fear that Belle Brezing would sue them, speculated Lexington newsman Joe Jordan. Mitchell was still denying Belle Watling’s similarity to the real Belle when she and Marsh visited Lexington three months after Belle Brezing’s death.
There seems little doubt that Lexington’s most notorious brothel keeper was given new life in Gone with the Wind. But in a sense it hardly matters: Belle’s real-life story in old Lexington is as fascinating as any fiction.
He remains an icon of evil. Of death. Of madness.
And now, just as we rounded the curve of the monstrous murder anniversary, Charles Manson is back.
Drawing on a host of new, often exclusive interviews and sources, bestselling author Jeff Guinn delivers the most authoritative and accurate account yet published of one of the most notorious criminals in American history in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, $17).
Guinn talked extensively with Manson’s sister and cousin, neither of whom had ever previously cooperated with an author, as well as childhood friends, cell mates, and members of the Manson Family, who have all provided stunning new information about the full scope of Manson’s life. In addition, there are new details that answer previously unresolved questions about two terrifying nights in August 1969 when members of Manson’s mostly female commune gruesomely slaughtered seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski . . . for example, on the first night, why was one person spared? Equally compelling are family photographs from Manson’s childhood and youth (including his wedding) that have never previously been published anywhere.
Masterfully placing Manson in the context of his times, Guinn shows why the madman and the murders he and his followers committed took on a broad and lasting significance. This was not just because celebrities were killed and many other celebrities (including Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys and Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son) were associated with the killers, but because Manson was so emblematic of the ’60s. After spending half his life in correctional institutions, he had come to Los Angeles determined to get a recording contract. The Tate murders, and the equally grotesque killing of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home the following night, were directly related to his frustrated musical ambitions and the disrespect he felt he was shown. Manson believed that his songs would rival the music of the Beatles, and taught his followers that, along with the Bible’s Book of Revelations, the Beatles’ albums prophesied an apocalyptic race war that would leave Manson and his so-called Family as rulers of the world. He referred to the gory mayhem to come as “Helter Skelter,” the title of a particularly raucous Beatles song.
Manson was, in the words of one person who knew him, just like 100 other wannabes on the fringe of the LA music scene, except for the psychopathy that turned him into a monster and the persuasive gifts that enabled him to persuade others to do his horrific bidding. Ironically, at the same time the Manson murders were being committed, preparations were underway across the country for the biggest music festival of the era, the remarkable youth gathering at Woodstock that took place just one week later. But if Woodstock represented the joyful, idealistic, and peaceful side of the ’60s, Manson stood for its violent, demented and amoral nadir. “There was nothing magical or mystical about him,” Guinn comments, “yet he was and is worse than we ever imagined.”
More than 40 years after the killings he orchestrated shocked and horrified the nation, Charles Manson continues to haunt and fascinate us. Packed from beginning to end with new, illuminating material, Jeff Guinn’s Manson is the definitive portrait of the life and times of a heinous killer who remains a household name long after the names of other multiple murderers have been forgotten. What the landmark bestseller Helter Skelter was to the Manson trial, Manson is to Charles Manson’s life.
We’ve heard many times of many celebrities who were abused, in many ways, by family members. Sometimes wounds heal, sometimes the pain lingers. Alan Cumming could not put the torment and pain of his father’s emotional and physical abuse—torment that followed Alan into his adulthood—until Dad died. Not My Father’s Son (Dey Street Books, $26.99), is an unflinching look at his turbulent childhood. Cumming lays bare his soul, but this isn’t a Daddy Dearest book. It’s a man’s story of survival, a journey to resilience, written with ribald humor, beauty and incredible insight, and how that man became beloved.
Still, the family secrets were long buried and run deep. When television producers in the UK approached Cumming to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show in 2010, Alan enthusiastically agreed, hoping the show would solve a family mystery involving his maternal grandfather, a celebrated WWII hero who disappeared in the Far East. But as the truth of his family ancestors revealed itself, Alan learned far more than he bargained for about himself, his past and his own father. Details surrounding his grandfather’s life and untimely death were not the only mysteries laid before Alan’s feet. His father, who Alan and his brother had not seen or spoken to for more than a decade, called just before filming for the show began. He had a secret he had to share, one that would shock his son to his very core and set into motion a journey that would change Alan’s life forever.
At times suspenseful, at times deeply moving, but always incredibly brave and honest, Not My Father’s Son is a powerful story of embracing the best aspects of the past and triumphantly pushing the darkness aside.
How much does Johnny Depp love Joe Perry, lead guitarist and co-head writer of Aerosmith? As he writes in the book’s foreword: “The wise, silent one finally speaks! This book is a gift. A sacred tome, even. A hitherto secret slice of life, beamed in directly from one of the greatest guitar gods to have ever walked the earth, or stepped on a stage or raged inside the mind of a young soul searching for what the f— it all means.”
Indeed. In Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), Perry shares—with total candor and without apology—reflects on the people who stood beside him during the highs and lows as he and Aerosmith skyrocketed into a world of fame and utter excess. Before he was one half of the “Toxic Twins,” Perry was a science-obsessed kid who dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. His loving, supportive parents encouraged his curiosity and sent him to Vermont Academy where his love for rock ‘n roll grew. Before long, he was skipping class to play guitar and ultimately dropped out because he refused to cut his hair. Not long after, he met Steven Tallarico in a New Hampshire restaurant and the two quickly recognized their shared love of music. In 1970, Perry, Tom Hamilton, and the newly-dubbed Steven Tyler moved to Boston, and alongside Joey Kramer and Brad Whitford formed the Aerosmith we know today.
In Perry’s own word, the book is “the loner’s story, the band’s story, the recovery story, the cult story, the love story, the success story, the failure story, the rebirth story, the re-destruction story and the post-destructive rebirth story.” As gold as any of their records.
John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Company, $39.95), the new biography of Tennessee Williams is both exhaustive and definitive . . . not “exhaustive” in the sense of tiring, but in the sense of complete, absolute, and, in a very real sense, the final word. To be sure the future may hold more works of, shall we say, scatological bits and pieces of his life as literary vultures do tend to pick up on mainstream talent with less than mainstream tastes in lifestyles and sex lives.
Lahr is particularly well situated in time and space to write this biography. A few decades younger than his subject, he was nevertheless present for the spectacular burn out, or rather, burn outs, that littered Williams’ late career. Lahr also explains to the extent possible the real cause of Williams death, as well as the undignified and unprofessional antics relatives, friends, lawyers, and acquaintances all grasped in an attempt to control Williams’ estate.
But the great strength of Lahr’s work is the tracing of the growth in Williams artistry, from the early poetry and struggling unproduced plays, to the toast of Broadway and the world, to the decline in alcoholism, drug addiction and madness. Matching the artistic achievements to specific events in Williams’ life, the reader get a full panorama of the and peculiar times of a genius working in mid-century professional theater, the fights and intrigues, the failures and successes, and, most of all, illuminating portraits of the fellows and felons, stars and suck-ups, artists and assholes with whom this genius dealt. Maureen Stapleton, Marlon Brando, Gore Vidal, Elia Kazan, Anna Magnani, Katharine Hepburn, every single major theatrical talent of the period grace, or, in some cases, disgrace these pages. Further, Lahr explicates Williams’ extraordinarily sex and love life with care and seemingly unerring accuracy.
Few show biz books are as interesting and revelatory as this. Although it may be the size of a small door stop, this, unquestioningly, in the definitive celebrity biography of this year, and probably many years to come.
We’ve have waited years for this book. Too many years.
Rock ‘n roll legend Carlos Santana has penned The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light (Little, Brown, $30) a candid life story that’s far more than just the history of a rock band that, over four decades, sold more than 100 million albums, won 10 Grammy Awards, made Santana one of the most influential and celebrated artists of our time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center honoree.
This is he story, 67 years in the making, of an individual who is ceaselessly creative, spiritually focused and yet fearlessly part of a world that brought him fame and adulation and challenged his dedication to his music and to doing good.
Santana’s story speaks to the infinite possibility he sees in each person he meets. “Love is the light that is inside of all of us, everyone,” he writes. “I salute the light that you are and that is inside your heart.”
Santana’s memoir is filled with finely recalled historic detail and visceral storytelling, beginning with his humble childhood in Mexico—one can smell the savory food of his early youth in Autlán, where he grew up the son of a violin player, feel the distinctive atmosphere of the El Convoy bar in Tijuana, where he played when he was just a teenager.
Deeply honest and frank, Santana’s authentic voice shines through on every page. From imagining the wisps of smoke from a long-gone Miles Davis before a Santana show, to his hazy experience at Woodstock and first world tour, to his influences from Latin, jazz, rock and blues musicians and his ongoing spiritual evolution, Santana describes the depth of his connection to sound and his belief in the “universal tone”—how music and soul are interconnected.
Life, we will learn, is a game of love.
Sometimes in most interesting ways.
Let us color you a picture.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first great love, Suzanne Mallouk, arrived in New York City in the ’80s, after she escaped a painful childhood in Canada. She worked in bars and struggled to find her place in a city as alluring as it was dangerous. She kept her heroin inside her beehive hairdo, the white powder hidden in the tease, and spit where the cops and drug addicts couldn’t find it. Basquiat lived on the benches of Washington Square Park, his crayons kept with his other belongings in a plastic bag. Not long after the two met at a dark, seedy bar called Nightbirds, they became inseparable, together in a bygone New York both glamorously synonymous with art, music, and the Mudd Club and notorious for its violence, drugs and crime.
In Widow Basquiat: A Love Story (Broadway Books, $16), award-winning author Jennifer Clement, who first met Suzanne while waitressing at a Mexican restaurant after her own move to New York, has created an enchanting portrait of her close friend, poignantly capturing her voice in passages of monologue interspersed throughout the book’s poetic narrative. What emerges is a gorgeously written memoir of Suzanne’s passionate and complicated love affair with the troubled yet brilliant, enduring influential artist.
Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat dropped out of school at 17 and began writing on walls around New York City signed with the tag “SAMO” (standing for “same old shit”) and a copyright symbol. After SAMO’s unveiling, Basquiat’s ascension from street art to paintings that would sell for millions of dollars in the chic gallery spaces of Manhattan brought the artist into the company of many of established and rising figures, from Andy Warhol to Madonna to William Burroughs.
But just as Basquiat arrived on the art scene as “art itself began to reveal a change from the cool and cerebral to the volatile and passionate,” as a 1985 New York Times Magazine feature proclaimed, Suzanne experienced first-hand how well Basquiat himself fit the same description. Sometimes, he read her poems from his Black and White Notebooks, brought her cakes and pastries, called her Venus and painted her; other times, he picked up men and women at the Mudd Club, disappeared for days and ordered her not to speak because he couldn’t stand her accent. He was at once “engagingly shy and temperamental,” wrote New York Times Magazine, and had a conflicted relationship with his own fame. After one dealer visited his loft, he emptied the jar of fruits and nuts she had brought him over her head as she left, angry because he said she had tried to convince him her black driver worked with her in her gallery as opposed to chauffeuring her. Ultimately and tragically, his new life of celebrity and access was also his greatest downfall; unable to deal with the pressure and demands his fame brought, in 1988—at the age of 27—Basquiat died from a heroin overdose.
Widow Basquiat is the striking story of an artist whose impact would echo beyond his time in the visual art world—in the United States and abroad—and through the voices of musicians such as Macklemore, Jay Z and Frank Ocean alike. A captivating coming-of-age story, a heartbreaking romance and a powerful exploration of love, addiction, race, fame and the commodification of art, Widow Basquiat shows the artist as you’ve never seen him before.
Carol Burnett loves Amy Poehler. She is a funny girl. And she knows we’d all love to hang out with her, watch dumb movies, listen to music and swap tales about our coworkers and difficult childhoods with her. Because in a perfect world, we’d all be friends with Amy—someone who seems so fun, is full of interesting stories, tells great jokes and offers plenty of advice (Figure out what you want. Say it out loud. Then SHUT UP.) and wisdom. She’s soooo busy, we doubt she’d offer us movie night.
Luckily we have the next best thing: Yes Please (Dey Street Books, $28.99), Amy’s collection of stories, thoughts, ideas, lists and haiku (Plastic Surgery Haiku, a fave) from the mind of one of our most beloved entertainers, Yes Please offers Amy’s thoughts on everything from her “too safe” childhood outside of Boston (n ultra-rich Newton) to her early days in New York City, her ideas about Hollywood and “the biz,” the demon that looks back at all of us in the mirror and her joy at being told she has a “face for wigs.” Yes Please is chock-full of words and wisdom to live by. Such chapters as “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” “Plain Girl Versus the Demon” and “The Robots Will Kill Us All” will make you think. And laugh.
Want gossip? Of course, behind-the-scenes stories from Saturday Night Live is here, including blow-by-blows of the famous cold open featuring her as Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin; her historic performance of the Palin rap and various takes on various SNL guests tars, including Colin Farrell (“super hungover, super nice”), Hugh Jackman (“incredibly kind”), Antonio Banderas (“smelled the best of any host”), Bernie Mac (“sweetest and kindest”) and Jessica Simpson (“prettiest host without make-up”).
Yes please. Read and laugh.