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    

1888 General Sheridan Civil War Memoirs U S Cavalry Union Army 1st Edition MapsPresident Richard M Nixon Signed Memoirs Autograph Book Watergate Signature 1st1887 Antique General Mcclellan Civil War Memoirs Potomac Army Union Lincoln 1st1838 The Life Of George Washington Parson Mason L. Weems Revolutionary War RareMemoirs Of Samuel Pepys , Diary , Book1812 Memoirs Of The War, American Revolution, 2 Volume Set1811 Works Of Oliver Goldsmith W/ Life Of Author - 4 Full Lthr Vols - CompleteThe Life Of Joseph Smtih By George Q Cannon 1888 Hard Back Mormon Book Rare1726 'the Life Of Sir Thomas More' Henry Viii Reformation Wolsey First London EdRare 1890 Civil War Memoir Nurse Medical Union Army Csa Hospital Camps 1st EdMemoirs Of The Public & Private Life Of Napoleon Bonaparte 1827 Two VolumesGeorge Burns And Gracie Allen Signed I Love Her, That's Why! 1955 AutobiographyBy Jove Biggles The Life Of Captain W E Johns Berresford Ellis & Williams FirstJimmy Carter Signed Beyond The White House 2007 Presidential AutobiographyTom Landry Autographed An Autobiography Cowboys Coach 1990 Flex Defense MemoirMichael Caine Signed What's It All About? 1992 Actor Spills His Beans MemoirMemoirs Of Sherlock Holmes First Edition George Newnes 1894The Life Of Napoleon. A Hudibrastic Poem In Fifteen Cantos. Doctor Syntax 1815Brian Wilson Autographed Wouldnt It Be Nice 1991 Beach Boys Leader Surfin MemoirClarence Clemons Autographed Big Man 2009 Real Life Tall Tale Memoir SpringsteenHenry Kissinger Signed Years Of Upheaval 1982 Secretary Of State Autobiography1809 1st/1st Us History/ Biography G Washington Frontis, Fldg Chart 600p Leather1894 Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes 1st Edition A. Conan DoyleCornwall Autobiography Cornish Smuggler Capt. Harry Carter 1749-1809 Scarce 1894Charlton Heston Signed The Actor's Life 1978 Hollywood Legend Journals Memoir1868 Andrew A Bonar Memoir And Remains Of Robert Murray M'cheyneMemoirs By Harry S. Truman Vol. I And Ii Signed 1955 DoubledayEaston Press Einstein, Walter Isaacson 2007 Signed Collector's Edition Biography1885 Personal Memoirs U.s. Grant 2 Vols. Civil War General & PresidentBoswell's Life Of Johnson - In A Leatherbound 3-vol. Franklin Library Set U S Grant Personal Memoirs Civil War Union Full Leather 1st Ed Maps Vol 1 & 2Jim Tully-1924-beggars Of Life: A Hobo Autobiography-true First Ed., Dust JacketSamuel Smiles Industrial Biography: Iron Workers & Tool Makers Murray 1863 1stWolfman Jack Autographed Page & Have Mercy 1995 Memoir Signed By Byron Laursen1925 Sugimoto Daughter Of The Samurai Signed First Edition Japan Old Book MemoirMemoirs Of The Russian Revolution, General Loukomsky, 1922, Fisher UnwinLife Of Andrew Melville By Thomas M'crie New Edition Hardback Book - Nf S953 James Stalker, Life Of St Paul, Jesus Christ, The Two St. JohnsBarbara Bush Signed Reflections 2003 After White House First Lady George MemoirFirst Edition Up From Slavery Booker T. Washington Autobiography 1901 Civil RtsSigned Robert Creeley Autobiography 1990 1st Mint Allen Ginsberg Photo FinlandMiniature Little Lucy, A Day Inthe Life Of A Good Girl, 1837 Sidney Babcock 1839-40 Life Of Martin Luther | Felix Neff - Swiss Revivalist | Fine Leather BndAntique Book The Works Of Henry Fielding 1776 With The Life Of The Author Anthony Quinn Signed One Man Tango 1995 Hollywood Legend Opens Up Autobiography1880 Memoirs Napoleon Bonaparte His Court & Family 2vl Set French Revolution WarBetty Ford Signed A Glad Awakening 1987 First Lady Opens Up To Addiction MemoirThe Life Of Lord Roberts By Sir George Forrest - 1916 - In Half LeatherC.1880's - William Hole The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth 80 PicturesEaston Press/shrink Wrapped: Mussolini A BiographyThe Private Life Of H. P. Lovecraft By Sonia H. Davis Vfn Necronomicon PressThe Life Of Washington -limited Editions Club No 188 Signed By IllustratorSelect Works Of Tobias Smollett Memoir By Sir Walter Scott 1836 Full Leather Goethe's Works, Biography, Meister, Werther, Ltrs From ItalyThe Personal Life Of David Livingstone By W Garden Blaike,old Biog. 1880 DateThe Prince Of Peace (1898) A Life Of Christ By PansyMemoirs Illustrating The History Of Jacobinism, 1798Roger Kahn Signed October Men 2003 Reggie Billy Yankees Miracle Of 1978 MemoirAntique Book , Memoirs Of James Thomson 1841 Life Of Tecumseh Shawnee Indian Chief By Benjamin Drake 235 Pages Vg+