Great biographies as a window on American history

in Voices by

By Jack Sparacino

Sure, I took history classes in school.  But it was far from my favorite subject and unfortunately, not much of it stuck.  Much later, though, I discovered the joy of exploring history somewhat indirectly through interesting biographies and autobiographies.  Not only can you learn a lot about people you’ve been fascinated by, but in a really well researched and written book, you can also learn more broadly about their times.  Here are ten of my favorite biographies, most of which are loaded with terrific photos.  They are admittedly tilted a bit toward sports legends and listed roughly in order of when the subject lived.  If any of these books are new to you, I hope you like them, too.
1. George Washington. There are, of course, shelves of books on and about George Washington.  The one that got my attention and kept it is “His Excellency: George Washington,” by Joseph J. Ellis.  If you want to dig into not only one of our nation’s all time most influential people and the incredible times he lived in, including his fascinating military career, this is a wonderful book and not lengthy.  The book may make you ponder why so few if any leaders rise to his level of visionary courage and positive impact on our lives today.
2. Teddy Roosevelt. Talk about an atomic powerhouse of a man, a force of nature, that was Teddy Roosevelt.  He was an intensely dynamic president and of course achieved international fame for his military accomplishments, focus on developing national parks, and courageous forays into raw jungle and wilderness.  The three volume series on Roosevelt by Pulitzer Prize winning author Edmund Morris is hard to beat.  The details of TR’s many adventures and the political environment he wrestled with around the turn of the 20th century come to life with breathtaking velocity.
3. W.C. Fields. As he once observed, “The world is getting to be such a dangerous place, a man is lucky to get out of it alive.”  The famously wry if ornery comedian, much more nuanced and complex than some might have thought, was born in 1880 and started his professional life as a world class juggler in vaudeville.  He toured internationally to rave reviews.  The biography by James Curtis is a fun and poignant read, with fascinating insights into the entertainment world of the early 20th century.  Another marvelous inside look is available in “W.C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Autobiography” by Fields himself and his grandson, Ronald J. Fields.
4. Casey Stengel. The absolutely unique Mr. Stengel started his career as a professional baseball player, and was a very decent major league outfielder from 1912-1925, before going on to managerial fame with the Yankees and Mets.  Like Fields, he had a more complex personality and was sharper than might have first met the eye.  He could also make people laugh.  Robert W. Creamer’s biography of “the ole perfessor,”  “Stengel: His Life and Times,” is instructive and sometimes funny, even for non-baseball fans.
5. William Randolph Hearst.  One of the truly “larger than life” personalities in American history.  Publishing giant.  Political piranha.  Undaunted entrepreneur.  David Nasaw’s “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst” is a tour de force in its panoramic exploration of an extremely full and massively influential life. This book is intensely scholarly and rather long so put on a pot of coffee.
Not decaf.
6. Humphrey Bogart. Born almost exactly at the turn of the 20th century, Bogart exceeded just about everyone’s expectations.  His amazing acting career, strength of character, and long running conflict with his studio chiefs at Warner Brothers, are touchingly chronicled in “Bogart” by A. M. Sperber.  For anyone who ever enjoyed ANY of Bogart’s many movies from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and wondered what Hollywood was like back then, this book will make you say “hmm” a lot.  Maybe even “here’s looking at you!”
7. Lou Gehrig.  Far more than the man that an awful disease was named after, Lou Gehrig was the centerpiece of the Yankees during the Depression.  His modest but intensely solid upbringing and dazzling career at first base, with nothing but crushed baseballs and cheering fans in his wake, are laid out for all of us to share in Jonathan Eig’s “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.”  The title is a tipoff.  Be prepared to shed a few tears with his book, both happy and sad ones.  It’s a real winner.
8. Ben Bradlee.  Talk about a grandly successful journalist and publisher.  Ben Bradlee had just the sort of gritty Navy career early in life that you might expect.  His hard hitting victories at The Washington Post are well documented, as are the charm, wit and charisma of this modern day icon.  His autobiography, “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” is a world of fun and deeply revealing.
9. Sandy Koufax.  For my money at least, this handsome fellow, at the height of his career with the Dodgers in the early-mid 1960’s, was the best pitcher on earth.  How about 25 wins against 5 losses in 1963 with an ERA of 1.88 and 306 strikeouts.  I can still fondly remember listening to Dodger announcer Vin Scully smoothly calling his pitches on the radio.  Jane Leavy works her magic in “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.”  The Sporting News got it right when they said, “a perfect game of a book.”
10. Seabiscuit.  Yes, I’m ending with a horse.  But not just any racehorse, the one that captivated the nation and became one of the top entertainment beacons of the 1930’s. Exactly when America really needed a lift and was primed to get a boost from the astonishing success of a made-to-order horse practically bought at a tag sale price.  The absolutely peerless Laura Hillenbrand brings this spectacular creature, his handlers and his world right into your home and heart in “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.”
There, from the father of our country to the father of all great underdogs.  Let me know how you make out with these treasures.