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.