Good biographies
October 29, 2013 5:27 AM   Subscribe

I need recommendations for good biographies (or autobiographies)!

I really enjoy well-written biographies, especially ones about famous women (whether they are famous in their own right or as companions of famous men), but I don't have much exposure to them. Can you recommend any good ones?

I especially loved Paris Without End by Gioia Diliberto about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife. I'm also enjoying Lousie Brooks by Barry Paris. I have read Sylvia Plath's biography (although I forget which one), as well as her letters and journals. I read an Anne Sexton biography that I enjoyed (again, I forget which). I'd love to read about Zelda Fitzgerald, but the ones on Amazon don't seem to get very high reviews. Any recommendations are welcome!

(My general interests lie in the literary world and her tangents, such as philosophy, art, music, etc. I'm especially keen on the time period from the 1920s to the 1960s, though I'm not super picky).

posted by mrfuga0 to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Edie: American Girl. About Edie Sedgewick and the whole Warhol scene in the sixties. Great read!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:32 AM on October 29, 2013

This biography of Catherine the Great is excellent.
posted by something something at 5:50 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the best autobiographies of a jazz artist is Anita O'Day's High Times, Hard Times. NPR did an good profile on her after her death, too.

Written in your time period although about a much earlier time—Nancy Mitford's Madame de Pompadour is fascinating. Certainly one of the most notable "companions of famous men." I think the book is a good gateway into the work of the Mitford sisters, some of whom you would probably find really interesting as 20th century literary figures (and some of whom were, uh, horrible fascists. But still maybe interesting people.)
posted by bcwinters at 5:54 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Patti Smith's autobiography Just Kids is excellent and gives a fascinating look into her life and the NYC art and music scene of the late 60s/70s/80s.
posted by horizons at 6:05 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Emma Goldman's Living My Life is well-written and fascinating. I don't particularly agree with her politics, but I loved the book.
posted by Area Man at 6:10 AM on October 29, 2013

I really enjoyed Dearie: the Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. She was a fascinating, hardworking woman who didn't take crap from anyone, and it was a really interesting read.
posted by skycrashesdown at 6:18 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

George Burns's "Gracie, A Love Story" about Gracie Allen is short and sweet, and fits your time period (and she was pretty amazing).

R.W.B. Leavis's biography of Edith Wharton is fascinating, plus you can pair it with her own autobiography "A Backward Glance" to see what she left out.

Also, it's not a woman, but Harpo Marx's autobiography "Harpo Speaks" is probably the best bio I've ever read and it hits your time frame dead on - he knew everyone and did a hell of a lot (he was even a member of the Algonquin Round Table), plus it's funny.
posted by Mchelly at 7:26 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by likeatoaster at 8:08 AM on October 29, 2013

This is a fabulous bio of Edna St Vincent Millay... really really good. I also very much enjoyed this biography of Shirley Jackson, this one of Dodie Smith, and this one about children's writer Dare Wright. Last but not least, not a lady but this biography of N.C. Wyeth is one of the best books I've ever read.
posted by OolooKitty at 8:42 AM on October 29, 2013

West with the Night, by Beryl Markham (autobiography).
posted by Empidonax at 8:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

skycrashesdown is right that Julia Child was fascinating. You can also read some of the letters that she and Avis DeVoto exchanged in As Always, Julia.
posted by amarynth at 8:50 AM on October 29, 2013

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature was very good.
And add My Life in France if you want to cultivate a complete Julia Child obsession.
posted by Erasmouse at 9:08 AM on October 29, 2013

Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, fits your criteria. Her biography is The Ghost in the Little House and she is definitely a woman who did things her own way. (The book has been criticized for being too hard on her mother, but I honestly don't see that.) The dual biography of both women, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, is also good (it really is about both women, despite the title).
posted by Melismata at 9:49 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You will love the Janet Flanner (Genet) memoirs: Paris Was Yesterday, and then her three Paris Journal books that follow it.

Bonus: She was great pals with Hemingway.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:04 AM on October 29, 2013

The Alma Mahler diaries! An incredible woman, too little known, excellent writer, diaries full of intrigue, art and romance.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:05 AM on October 29, 2013

It isn't exactly an autobiography per se, because Devil in The Grove is primarily focused on Thurgood Marshall's handling of a particular case, but contains a lot of other biographical material and is absolutely riveting and haunting. It is one of the most powerful books I've read this year.

In a completely different direction, I often suggest Shakey: Neil Young's Biography as a fascinating look at a complicated rock and roll character.
posted by Lame_username at 10:46 AM on October 29, 2013

Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff is an excellent read.
posted by trip and a half at 1:12 PM on October 29, 2013

I enjoyed Katherine Graham's memoir Personal History.

Probably my favorite biography is about a man; Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin handles all of Chatwin's contradictions wonderfully well.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:30 PM on October 29, 2013

Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
posted by goo at 1:35 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really enjoy reading Emily Hahn's autobiographical essays, as well as a biography of her written by Ken Cuthbertson, called Nobody Said Not to Go. She was a journalist and essayist, already somewhat unusual for the 1920's. No Hurry to Get Home is a collection of essays spanning her life living around the globe. I also adore China to Me and England to Me, about her years in each country (she was from the US) from the 1930's through the 1950's; I am deeply fascinated with her years in China and then Hong Kong as war starts around her. (Africa to Me is interesting, but a much more disturbing insight to what it meant to be colonialists living in Africa in the 1920's.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:07 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is a wonderful look at a wonderful science fiction author. As Tiptree, Sheldon wrote about gender politics, while managing for years to fool the biggest SF names of the time about her own true gender. This is a very well-written book about an extraordinary person.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:32 AM on October 30, 2013

There's a recent biography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, which is excellent: Beyond the Miracle Worker.
posted by Melismata at 8:44 AM on October 30, 2013

Agnes Humbert's RĂ©sistance was utterly amazing (and devastating). The diary chronicles her involvement with the French Resistance in WWII, including the underground newspaper of the same name. Not especially arts focused, of course, but it's a fascinating look at some incredibly brave people.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 2:45 PM on October 30, 2013

Seconding Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Your reading interests sound very similar to mine. I'd recommend Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. It's not technically a biography, but it covers the Lost Generation in detail in a very humanizing way (as opposed to caricatures a la Woody Allen) and seems meticulously researched. I felt transported back to that world and didn't want to leave.

Also, Simone de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre reveal much about her and are just as good, if not better, than her autobiography. She was such a tour de force in her own right and could easily have lived her life independent of everyone and sure as heck didn't "need" a man, but through reading the letters, he was undeniably her other half.

As far as Zelda Fitzgerald, I don't remember her being much of a presence in any of the books I'd read, but it's been a while. Have you read A Moveable Feast? That is Hemingway's autobiography. He does mention her in there, but only in passing. From what I gather, the people in her life, and especially her own husband, didn't quite seem to know what to do with her. She is portrayed mostly as a negative influence on the hapless Scott and wreaking unnecessary havoc on their otherwise merry lives. I think it'd be nice to get a more complex picture of her.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 2:51 AM on November 1, 2013

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