By Jack Sparacino
Recently, I wrote about 10 of my favorite biographies as a wonderful educational window on American history. The reaction from readers was encouraging, so I’d like to offer up 10 more of my favorites. This time, they’re tilted toward entertainers, and most of the titles below are autobiographies. Taken together, they offer a panoramic view of some of the most creative, heroic and influential people of the twentieth century. I hope that if you read any of them, you’ll be as inspired and enlightened as I was.
1. “Love, Lucy” by Lucille Ball. This charming book, discovered in manuscript form after her death, reads like a giant kiss blown from her grave. She was a talented, funny, smart and unstoppable force who worked like crazy from the bottom up for all her success, and had a fine movie career going before she attained international stardom on television. Her recollections offer a detailed look into her own motivation and the cast of characters, including but by no means limited to Desi Arnaz, who helped her work her way toward a true Hollywood pinnacle.
2. “Joe Dimaggio,” by Richard Ben Cramer. For anyone who has ever paid the faintest eyelash of attention to American sports, Joe Dimaggio stands out as one of the spectacular all-time greats. He fielded his position with skill, grace and speed and was a laser focused demolition derby in the batter’s box. He led his Yankee teams to winning nine league World Series titles in his 13 seasons (you can do the math on that one). All that greatness is an historical given. What may surprise if not unhinge Dimaggio fans is Cramer’s wire brush portrait of the man who lived off the field. If you are unprepared for Cramer’s view of a self-centered, petty, greedy human being who made few true friends in life and alienated his family, this book will knock your ball cap off. That said, the chapters on Dimaggio’s Yankee career are simply thrilling and the photos (except the cover, just my opinion) are terrific.
3. “David Brinkley: A Memoir,” by David Brinkley. Mr. Brinkley was more than a newsman, he was an American news icon. Born in a small town (Wilmington, N.C.) with only a single 100-watt A.M. radio station, he grew up to be one of the handful of people we looked to for help in understanding what was going on in an increasingly complex and frightening world. The book spans some 75 years and is written in the warm, friendly personal style that we learned to expect when he was on the air.
4. “Broken Music,” by Sting. This is a tough one to capture in a few words. Sting is a brilliant musician and he writes, if it’s possible, even more brilliantly. In fact, one might wonder why he didn’t pursue a career as a writer in the first place. Sting comes across as a first class act as a human being. You’ll learn about rock and roll, how a kid from a humble working class background found the strength to create his own destiny, and how for some, at least, the road to fame can be an uplifting and intensely edifying experience.
5. “Clapton: The Autobiography,” by Eric Clapton. Pretend for a moment that you love rock and roll. Further pretend that you find the creation of over the top lead guitar musicianship riveting. Now imagine that you have a soft spot for people who have managed to overcome their setbacks and afflictions and write about them with an artist’s sensitive eye for drama. Good. Now check out this book and be whisked away by a master. “I went down to the crossroads” indeed.
6. “Lauren Bacall: By Myself.” While some have noted, accurately I think, that Ms. Bacall’s book is not a great literary work, she more than makes up for that with gritty and often humorous candor and genuine self-insight. Few aspects of her performance anxiety and insecurity seem to be left out, and her years with Humphrey Bogart are warmly and keenly told. One is left wanting to have a cup of coffee with her and thanking her for having lived and shared such an intriguing life with the stars. If there has ever been romance or fear in your heart, this book has your name on it.
7. “Will Rogers: A Biography,” by Ben Yagoda. For a considerable time, Will Rogers was the most popular and perhaps most influential man in America. His successful start as a rodeo act and Ziegfield Follies star, as impressive as it was, only helped lay the foundation for Rogers becoming a radio and movie megastar and the most revered columnist of his day. His irresistible likeability and warm, folksy yet keen sense of humor kept him front and center in America’s heart well into the Depression.
8. “Rickenbacker: An Autobiography,” by Eddie Rickenbacker. If you like high adventure as told in the first person and want to go for a daredevil of a ride, this is your book. From racing car mechanic to championship racer to WWI fighter pilot ace to his founding Eastern Airlines, Eddie Rickenbacker was the kind of American hero that Hollywood has always searched for. Though his writing hand is steady and determined, you will seldom catch him selling himself short as he shares more adventures than one would imagine any single human being could have experienced.
9. “Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life.” For many of us growing up in the 1940’s through the 1970’s, Walter Cronkite might as well have been carved into Mount Rushmore. His credibility as a newsman was the gold standard for just about all who have followed him in the world of news reporting. Happily, his autobiography leaves one liking him as a warm and inviting person, with a delightful sense of humor no less, at least as much as we treasured him as a fixture on the radio and TV. How many of us wouldn’t give our eye teeth to be able to still have him to turn to when the world news of the day is just too much to bear or even comprehend?
10. “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand. This woman is such a remarkable researcher and writer that I find myself practically speechless. Her recounting of the life of former Olympic track star turned WWII bombardier and then prisoner of war and spectacular survivor, Louie Zamperini, is stunning. This book is so incredibly well done that Ms. Hillenbrand deserves all of our thanks and admiration and then some. If you think you’ve read some real life adventures about unspeakable courage that could make your hair stand on end, try this one and see if you can still breath normally by the time you finish reading it.
More good news. I believe I found all these books in the Beaufort County Library. A great place to visit. See you there!