Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Five Great Celebrity Memoirs

Yesterday I met a friend from another country for coffee at the Augusta Barnes & Noble. "Are you going to buy the Sarah Palin book?" I asked, and got a look as if I'd suggested that we go out and smash some church windows.

"I'm serious," I said. "It's an instant party. Buy the book, put it on your coffee table and have people over for holiday drinks, and you can have dramatic readings." My friend was not persuaded, but if my apartment were set up for entertaining, I'd buy the book (at Sam's Club, deeply discounted) for that reason alone. I might buy it anyway, and bring it to my sister's for Thanksgiving.

Bad celebrity memoirs are always entertaining, but a good celebrity memoir is something really special: a history not only of the individual, but of a specific moment in cultural history. I'm not embarrassed to say that I've read a lot of celebrity memoirs. These are five of my favorites. Leave your own suggestions in the comments section.

1. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography. Great creative genius comes with a terrifying self-absorption and a certain level of megalomania, and both are on display in Charlie Chaplin's memoir. Self-absorption doesn't equal self-awareness, though, and much of what I found so compelling about this book was how little Chaplin seemed to understand about himself and what drove him. What he did understand was the terrible loneliness that came with seeing things other people couldn't see, and wanting more than other people wanted. I am not especially fond of Chaplin's films, but the book is essential reading for anyone who works with auteurs.

2. Sammy Davis Jr. with Burt Boyar and Jane Boyar, Yes I Can. A great celebrity memoir is as much about subtext as it is about what's on the page, and Yes I Can is a fascinating exercise in how to place the mirrors. I read it alongside Wil Haygood's excellent biography, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr., which offers a very different perspective on some of the stories Sammy tells.

3. Dominick Dunne, The Way We Lived Then. Less a memoir than a personal scrapbook with long captions, The Way We Lived Then is an exquisite time capsule of Mad Men-era Hollywood. Dunne, a recovering alcoholic, is clear-eyed and fearless in his description of how he systematically wrecked his life, and pulls no punches in describing the rich and famous.

4. Anne Heche, Call Me Crazy. She must have thought that title would head off the criticism; instead, it just makes her an easier target. My friend Maeve and I listened to this on audiotape during a drive to Yosemite for Thanksgiving several years ago. We were so mesmerized we missed our exit, and drove an hour out of our way before we realized what we had done. Anne Heche presents herself as a survivor of a bizarre upbringing whose later behaviors were all justified by her early experiences. She seems unaware of or unwilling to admit any damage she might have done herself, although the revelation she describes having while on LSD (that she was a pile of human excrement) suggests that some scrap of conscience survives.

5. Shelley Winters, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley. By the time I was old enough to be aware of her, Shelley Winters had become something of a parody of herself: middle-aged, blowsy, doing guest spots on game shows and talk shows and TV mystery series. But in the 1940s and '50s, she was hot — she was beautiful and smart and electric, she was a terrific actress, and she knew everybody (and slept with most of them). Shelley, Also Known as Shirley is a frank, funny confessional and score-settler by a woman who knows exactly who she is, and apologizes for nothing.


Claire said...

I have been told Steve Martin's Born Standing Up is excellent. Have you read it?

AnswerGirl said...

I listened to it on audio last year, and it was one of my favorite books of 2008.

From a literary perspective, it's certainly a better book than Anne Heche's, but it's much narrower in scope. It's more thoughtful and introspective; interesting, from that angle, to compare with Chaplin's massive work. They're similar types of men, I think, although Steve Martin is much more self-aware, and much more aware of the damage he's done to himself and others.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Also great: Michael Korda's Another Life, in which he discusses his long writing/editing career, sharing great gossip on writers such as Jacqueline Susann and Tennessee Williams. High-brow beach reading. If one can call Pamela Des Barres a celebrity, then I'm With The Band is certainly a very fun read. And if we are to see this category as loose, I would include Van Gogh's Letters to Theo.

Anonymous said...

Louis Brooke's "Lulu in Hollywood."


Sue Lin said...

Brooke Hayward's "Haywire." Was a #1 best-seller in 1977 and talks about her mother actress Margaret Sullavan, father Leland Hayward, ex-husband Peter Duchin, the Fondas, and much, much more.