Biographies are favorites of vintage book collectors, especially when signed by the author or subject. At best, biographies by writers like Robert Caro are exhaustive and scholarly works, written with the full knowledge and cooperation of the person (or their heirs) whose life has been placed under the microscope. At worst, biographies are unauthorized hatchet jobs, churned out by celebrity authors such as Kitty Kelley and opportunistic publishers looking to cash in on the human frailties of movie stars, first ladies, and other personalities. Somewhere in the middle is the hagiography, which takes its name from medieval tracts about saints but is generally understood to mean a biography that is too effusive and uncritical.

Autobiographies and memoirs are even more unreliable histories. While many people are comfortable revealing some of their faults, human nature prevents most autobiographers from being completely honest about their lives. Memoirs are often even less comprehensive than autobiographies, sometimes serving only as snapshots of, say, the author’s childhood or years spent abroad. Better are diaries, which are typically confessional and candid. In contrast, autobiographies are often little more than calculated attempts to rewrite history.

One of the most famous diaries was written by Samuel Pepys, a 17th-century Londoner who was a Member of Parliament and an administrator in the Royal Navy. Penned by Pepys during the 1660s, mostly in shorthand, the six-volume diary was not published until 1825, with subsequent “translations” printed in the 1870s and ’90s. Alas, all of these editions left out Pepys’ sexual exploits, which didn’t make it to the page until 1970, when University of California Press released the first of nine volumes edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews.

In the 20th century, some of the most renowned biographers include Carl Sandburg, who published his first book about Abraham Lincoln, “The Prairie Years,” in 1926 (Blue Ribbon Books) and won a Pulitzer Prize for his follow-up in 1940 called “The War Years.” Charles Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1953, Scribner), which described the aviator’s non-stop, solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, also won a Pulitzer.

Sometimes novelists dabble in biography, the most famous example being Norman Mailer’s tomes on Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Gary Gilmore. And then there are journalists such as Walter Isaacson, who take on larger-than-life subjects such as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs. Conversely, in the case of Arianna Huffington, there are biographers who eventually become journalists—her peek under the covers into the stormy personal life of artist Pablo Picasso, “Creator and Destroyer,” was published in 1996.

In recent years, rock and pop musicians have turned to print as yet another outlet for their self expression. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones made headlines in 2011 when his drug-soaked autobiography, “Life,” cast an often uncomplimentary eye on bandmate Mick Jagger, including deflating observations about the singer’s anatomy. Punk rocker Patti Smith was no less candid in her memoir, “Just Kids,” 2010, which was mostly about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but she won a National Book Award for her efforts. And even though Jimmy McDonough’s “Shakey,” 2003, is considered the definitive biography of rocker Neil Young, the singer/songwriter and collector of model trains released an autobiography called “Waging Heavy Peace" in 2012.

Still, in the United States, a substantial amount of high-quality ink has been spilled on presidents. In addition to Sandburg’s books on Lincoln there is Jean Edward Smith’s biog...

In a category by himself is John F. Kennedy, whose own collection of mini-biographies titled “Profiles in Courage,” 1955, proved a launching pad for his political career. Naturally, the assassinated leader was himself the subject of numerous biographies and histories, from Arthur Schlesinger's (“A Thousand Days,” 1965) to William Manchester's (“The Death of a President: November 1963,” 1967). Of course, because Kennedy’s ties to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe made him a celebrity, too, he also got the Kitty Kelley treatment, albeit via a book about his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Google Book Search

Google Book Search

Want to do one quick search and pull up the mother lode of vintage books? Try Google Book Search, a database filled… [read review or visit site]

Bookscans.com

Bookscans.com

Bruce Black's gallery of paperback book covers from the 1940s and 50s. With help from numerous contributors, he's a… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1876 Old Eccentrics Oddities Freaks Sideshow History Biography Curiosities 1857 Life Of George Washington Revolutionary War Americana Schroeder 2v Set Hannah More - Memoirs Of Life & Correspondence • 4 Vols 1834 W/ Autograph LetterAntique Civil War Army Nurse Memoir Hospital Nursing Slavery Union ConfederateJean Jacques Rousseau *1896* Confessions Autobiography Philosopher 2v BindingsS 1804 To 1807 Life Of George Washington John Marshall With Atlas Colored MapsBindings Memoirs John Evelyn *1827* Bray Diaries Letters 5v Engravings4vol Animal Biography & Zoology *1820* Bingley Plts Fishes Birds Insects Mammals1980 B.b. King Signed- The Arrival Of B.b. King- An Authorized BiographyMemoirs Of Benneval French Army/ottoman Empire/islam 1750 Scarce First English1870 Antique George Washington Biography Revolutionary War U.s. President VtgWild Football Harry Gregg Manchester United Signed Book Autobiography GoalkeeperDictionary Of Greek & Roman Biography & Mythology (1880) With Wood Engravings1866 Prison Life Of Jefferson Davis1903 George Washington Illustrated Biography Revolutionary War Antique Military1st John Ruskin *1886-88* Praeterita 3v Autobiography Past Life Dilecta1671 Life Of Caesars Suetonius Greco-roman Julius Caesar Rome De Vita Caesarum1831 - First American Official Ed - Life Of John Wesley By Richard Watson-1880 Whoa! Biography Of Elder Samuel Rogers, Cane Ridge Revival, Barton StoneThe Life Of Michelangelo Buonarroti - Symonds (1893) 2 Vol Leather Bound BooksScotland - Jacobite 1821 Memoirs Of The Rebellion 1745 Chevalier De JohnstoneEaston Press Fine Leather Signed First Edition, Barbara Bush: A Memoir Chuck Yeager Autographed Autobiography "yeager", Copyright 19851928 George Jeffreys Elim Pentecostal Biography 1928 1st Ed IllustratedRare 1860 Abraham Lincoln Campaign Biography Illustrated Hannibal Hamlin Gift1691 Life Of Oliver Cromwell Commonwealth England Elzevir Civil War PuritanRare 1864 Abraham Lincoln Presidential Campaign Biography Civil War 1st EditionTom Mix Memoir Essay By His Horse Tony Silent Film Cowboy 1923 American WestThe Bible Gallery - Illustrated By Gustave Dore, Memoir By Talbot Chambers, 18801959 Book Pasternak A Pictorial Biography By Gerd Ruge1941-(abraham) Lincoln-his Life In Pictures-biography-lorantPersonal Memoirs Of U. S. Grant - 2 Volumes - 1885 - 1886Personal Memoirs Of U.s.grant (1894) With MapsFielding Dawson: An Emotional Memoir Of Franz Kline / First Edition 1967- SignedMartyr Of Sumatra: Memoir, 1856, Henry Lyman, Frontispiece, Robert CarterVintage Chess Book Autobiography Of Andrew Soltis1952 A Woman At Scotland Yard Metropolitan Police Antiquarian AutobiographyFine Leather Binding 1821-30 5 Vol The Memoirs Of Queen Caroline John AdolphusLife Of Israel Putnam Major-general American Revolution By William Cutter - 18561888 Life Of Philip H Sheridan American Civil War Maps Battle Tactics Union ArmyShirley Temple Black Signed Autobiography Child StarPalladium Press Presidents Of The United States, 2 Vol, 2009, Leather, Biography1906 Life Of John Ericsson Naval Engineer U.s.s. Monitor In Civil War 2v. Illus1912 Rare Civil War Confederate Army Battles Lincoln Lee Grant Slavery Memoirs1920 Wwi Memoir 839th Aero Outfit Air Service Squadron " The Lost Squadron " 1774 Account Of Life Of John Richardson, Quakers, Ireland, America, Trial, CalfOld Book; H.m. Stanley's Biography (stanley And Africa)Life Of Chevalier John Paul Jones, Navy, Revolutionary War, 1825, SherburneB110) C1918 German Ww1 Pilot Pow Escape From Russia Via Persia AutobiographySeward An Autobiography, 3 Volumes With Dedication By Seward FamilyZackendorf Signed AutobiographyRare Coho Smith Texana Biography Texas Ranger Quanah Parker Dallas Texas +Autobiography By Charles Darwin [easton Press: 2000] Brand New Leatherbound BookAntique Books Secret Memoirs Of The Royal Family Of France - 2 Volumes 1826Easton Press Say Hey: Autobiography Of Willie Mays, Baseball Hof Collector's Ed.Easton Press Chester A. Arthur, George Frederick Howe , Sealed, BiographyEaston Press Albert Schweitzer Autobiography, Superb1897 Franklin & Oxford Counties Maine Leading Citizens Biography/history2006 Fishing On Deep River Csa Confederate Civil War Memoir 1st Edition Military1841 Old Book The Memoirs Of The Public And Private Life Of Napoleon Bonaparte