Recommended Books: Memoirs

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Recommended Fiction
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MEMOIRS

The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre And The Thirties, by Harold Clurman
Probably the most famous of all the Group Theatre-related books. Harold Clurman writes his memories of that time and what those people. Essential reading.

Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, by Diane di Prima
A fascinating memoir by poet Diane di Prima, which gives an amazing collage of New York in the 1950s and 60s, the artists and poets and bohemians clustered in and around Greenwich Village. She created a magazine – The Floating Bear – with LeRoi Jones (Amir Baraka), which she ran out of a Village bookstore. Many poets now anthologized the world over were first published in her magazine. She was good friends with Frank O’Hara. She created the New York Poets Theatre. She had many babies (got pregnant in high school and decided to have the baby and her family basically – for all intents and purposes – disowned her). When she was just a teenager, she started writing letters to Ezra Pound, incarcerated in the mental institution. I think she took a bus ride up to see him. The memoir is fascinating but I have to say – it’s the opening chapters detailing her childhood that is the real takeaway, the macho Brooklyn-Italian world into which she was born, its male violence, the strict border between men and women … she captures it in exquisite detail, unforgettable. When I think of this book, it’s the opening I remember.

The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan, by Patricia Bosworth
R.I.P. Patricia Bosworth. I came to her, like most people did, through her biography of Montgomery Clift, one of the greatest biographies of an actor ever – and forget “of an actor” – one of the greatest biographies period. I came to know her, albeit very casually, through the Actors Studio. I admired her so much. She has written two memoirs, one about the effect of the Hollywood Blacklist on her family (which was extreme), and then this one, about her life as a young woman in 1940s Manhattan: the men, the acting jobs, the romances, reflections on what romance/sex even meant in the 1950s. She was a wonderful writer. I’m so sad she’s gone, that Covid would take one of our great writers at the age of 86. She has a book coming out this fall.

Life Is a Banquet, by Rosalind Russell
A fantastic memoir. Sometimes it’s the “peripheral” things that makes a memoir like this great – like Shirley MacLaine’s descriptions of her mother, or her father, or her childhood – if the person is a good writer, it’s a pleasure to read such books all on their own. This isn’t always the case with memoirs by famous people. They’re surface only, or poorly written, or ghost-written. Here, it’s Russell’s portrait of her childhood – that crazy house of siblings – running a craps game out of the attic? LOl!! – as well as her marriage – that really sticks in my mind. Beautifully vivid and heartfelt. You just love her.

Baby Doll: An Autobiography, by Carroll Baker
I have written before about the impact this book had on me. In a way, it was a door opening, THE door. She led me to the people who would change my life forever – Elia Kazan, James Dean, Tennessee Williams – and I was only 12 years old. It’s not even that well-written a book. It didn’t matter.

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kovály
A harrowing read. If you can get past the first paragraph – which runs chills of horror down your spine – then the rest of the book just goes downhill from there. Kovály hails from Prague, and tells the story of the growing clouds of war, of Hitler overrunning her country, of being captured by the Nazis. She actually escaped from a concentration camp and made her way back to Prague – a treacherous journey – and THEN about what happened after the war – the brutal oppression of the Communists – she lost everything, her whole family to Hitler, she lost her husband to Stalin. She’s an amazing writer, and was born at just the wrong time, to be caught between the gigantic murderous pincers of two raving fascist lunatics.

Just Kids, by Patti Smith
There are sections too painful to even really read. I had to gear myself up to endure it. But it made me think of all the friends I made in college, my dearest friends to this day, and how much we love each other, and how we fell in love with each other before we were fully formed, and we continue to transform with each other, loving each other, growing up together. She captures it so beautifully.

A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, by Anjelica Huston
What an interesting life she’s had. And continues to have.

Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, by Marlon Brando
I remember people pooh-poohing this book at the time, or dismissing it – maybe they still do. Yes, he wrote it in a frenzied weekend (exaggeration) to try to beat Peter Manso to the punch, who had written a disgusting poison-pen TOME, which was basically a 900-page character assassination. So … celebrities aren’t allowed to DEFEND themselves against a personal attack? I love this book. If you DISMISS it, you’re missing some of his revelations about acting and his process. Brando was notoriously (and understandably) cagey about talking about how he did what he did as an actor – and truthfully he probably couldn’t have put it into words. But here, he does. And there are some invaluable insights.

Long Shadows, by Shane Leslie
My father was one of the top Shane Leslie experts in the world. He gave talks on Shane Leslie. I wish I had paid more attention when Dad was alive to all this. I would ask him about Shane Leslie and he’d say, “Oh, he was a little pompous, he knew everyone, he was a name-dropper.” After Dad died, I read Shane Leslie’s memoir, and was so sad I hadn’t done so when I could talk to Dad about it. It’s fascinating! He and Winston Churchill were first cousins, so there are very amusing anecdotes about their shared childhoods. It’s weird to picture Churchill as a little kid.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi
While probably his Survival in Auschwitz is better known, this memoir – to which Auschwitz only gets one chapter – is equally as good. Primo Levi was a chemist, and so this book uses the periodic table as its organizing principle. Each chapter represents an element, and then he tells a story, which loops us into that element, in all its metaphorical and actual qualities. It’s beautiful. I love him.

The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, by Katharine Hepburn
There are anecdotes included here which I have used in my writing time and time again, particularly John Huston’s delicacy in giving her a crucial piece of direction which unlocked the whole character for her, allowing her to know how to play it. And yet it’s the WAY he gave the direction – without ever seeming like he was telling her what to do – that shows his genius. You don’t just say to Hepburn, a gigantic star, “Listen, you’re doing it wrong.” You have to be very careful in your approach, like he was here. And Hepburn recognized it, and was grateful for it.

Last Waltz in Vienna, by George Clare
A devastating read about a totally lost world, the Vienna and Austria of George Clare’s youth. He was born into a Jewish family (last name Klaar), who were assimilated Jews in the Hapsburg monarchy. Just like Stefan Zweig. There was a sense of safety in Austria, even though there were still anti-Semitic elements, as well as laws that barred Jews from climbing the ladder in companies. But still. It was a haven. Clare’s father worked for the Bank, one of the few Jews present. They didn’t “feel like” Jews. They felt like Jews who were Austrians. So when Austria went fucking insane in the 1930s … and the Klaar family realized the danger – too late – it was devastating. As well as dangerous. George Clare lost practically his whole family to the concentration camps – his grandmother, his parents, aunts, uncles … the only reason he survived was his parents moved heaven and earth to get him to safety in Ireland. It’s a terrible story but beautifully told, and his descriptions of Vienna right before and right after the Anschluss (such a terrible word) are absolutely vivid and terrifying. A very important book. He doesn’t just give his own perspective as a child (he was born in 1920, so he was a teenager when shit started getting hairy), but provides a wider political context, peppering the text with prophetic chilling statements like “if we knew then it would be our last chance to get out …” The book makes you see red. And there are many many connections and correlations to what is going on now.

Burning the Days: Recollection, by James Salter
A real writer’s writer. He didn’t write much. A handful of novels. But once you’ve read him, he climbs to the top of your list of “man, that can guy can WRITE” people. It’s fascinating to read this, to hear where he came from, what he was about, and all in his absolutely perfect prose – which is difficult for me to describe. I’ve written about him here and tried to put it into words, how he does what he does. I’d compare it to Lee Strasberg’s sense-memory exercises in a way, although he doesn’t go on and on about sights/smells/touches. But his work is so based in the senses it makes other writing seem shallow by comparison.

My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir, by Shirley MacLaine
I’ve read all her books, even the woo-woo ones. She’s a very very good writer. I recommend all of them, just to enjoy her prose, but this one I’m putting on here because it’s so chock-full of great show-biz stories. From Bob Fosse to Dean Martin to Debra Winger to Meryl Streep. Peter Sellers. Wonderful stuff.

Elvis: In the Twilight of Memory, by June Juanico
This, for me, is the best “I knew Elvis” memoirs. She was Elvis’ girl in the summer of 1956, the summer he moved from regional star to national star to international notorious phenom – all in the matter of, like, 2 months – and she was dating him as it happened. It’s a wonderful book and I’m so glad she wrote it.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Christopher Hitchens: “There are two kinds of people: those who read Franklin’s celebrated Autobiography with a solemn expression, and those who keep laughing out loud as they go along.” I am of the second variety. This shit is hilarious. My favorite part is when the young Ben creates a system to keep himself on track morally, to watch out for vices and flaws. He created a little chart, and he would check things off, like “I did this right” “I avoided this today” and then he realized how PROUD he was of avoiding vices, and realized that pride is, of course, a Mortal Sin, so he figured, “Oh well, that’s that” and gave up worrying so much about having correct morals. How many people do you know who are PROUD of being “good”, are PROUD of holding the “correct” attitudes, are PROUD of being more clear-headed, more compassionate, more social-justice-committed, more Christian, more “woke”, more WHATEVER, you name it, than other people? The PRIDE is the thing. Pride is a sin, yo. Check yourself. Ben Franklin figured that out and figured it out young.

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt
This book swept through my family like a forest fire. I read it while I was in grad school. I was sitting in the library at the New School, and I was reading the section when Malachy McCourt, a small child, got a pair of false teeth stuck in his mouth, and the father raced him across town to a doctor, Malachy sobbing, with these huge teeth jutting out of his mouth, and I started laughing so hard and so loud I had to get up and leave. Weirdly, in the years to come, I would meet both Frank and Malachy, through the Irish Arts Center, as well as through the Bloomsday celebration I go to every year (I was at its inaugural in 2004 – the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday – and Frank McCourt was there as a special guest, who opened the ceremony).

A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method, by Lee Strasberg
Required reading, really, for any actor. I wish he had written more. What’s interesting about this is the portrait he gives of life on the Lower East Side as a child, and the productions he saw at the famous Yiddish Theatre, and the incredible actors he witnessed – actors who showed him what was possible. His memories of the great stage performances he saw – and what made them so mind-blowing – from Eleanora Duse to Paul Muni – are the real take-aways of this beautiful little book.

Shelley Also Known As Shirley, by Shelley Winters
One of my favorite actress memoirs. Gossipy, funny, honest. There’s a Volume 2 too. One of the good things about these kinds of books for someone like me is not the gossip part of it – but the insights into their process as actors, the way they problem solve, their approaches, their growth spurts, etc. Winters was a very conscious actress and much of what she did required an act of WILL.

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge
One of the very few people who understood Stalin’s nature, and the dangers of Stalin, in the 20s. Everyone saw it in the 30s (well, not everyone: there were “useful idiots” like the Webbs and others, with Pete Seeger to follow) … but people who understood what was going on saw Stalin for who he was in the 30s. But almost no one saw the future in the 20s. Victor Serge did. He realized that what Stalin was doing was gathering all of the power into his hands, and that terror would be the result. He was almost eerily prescient. He had a front row seat. He was an insider. He had moved back to the USSR post-Revolution to lend his hand to the new government. He was a True Believer. This is why his insights are so valuable.

Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies, by James Wolcott
I have been happy to become acquainted with Wolcott in the last 10 years, and gathering for twice-a-year cocktails at the Algonquin Hotel, with friends Farran and Tom. Wolcott was the first big-wig to link to my Elvis writing. He said that I was writing posts with a “sacral” tone and he really captured what I was trying to do. I so appreciated it. He’s written a couple of books, and this one is great, because he was at the center of so much in the 70s: CBGBs, the Village Voice, the people he knew and interviewed, his colleagues – I mean, Lester Bangs, come on!

Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner
Another actress memoir I recommend. I read it shortly after I had seen her on Broadway as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – to this day one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in the theatre – so I ate up her insights into the character, and loved to read that as a young actress, she always had Martha in her sights. “Someday I will be old enough to play Martha …”

Elvis: My Best Man: Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, by George Klein
Another great “I knew Elvis” book (there are so many bad ones). Klein, who just died, knew Elvis from high school, but they re-connected in 1955, maybe even 1954, when Elvis was starting to put out records, and Klein was a budding DJ. Once again, Klein was never on Elvis’ payroll, and so the relationship remained pure. Elvis was Klein’s Best Man at his wedding. The story I remember most though is Klein sleeping over Elvis’ house – the one on Audobon Drive – so this had to be 1955, 1956 – and waking up and seeing Elvis sleepwalking and Klein having to deal with it. It’s such a touching story.

The Story of My Life – Recollections and Reflections, by Ellen Terry
An endlessly fascinating woman, one of the biggest stars of the theatre in the Victorian era. I have written a lot about her here. None of her performances can be seen now, of course. They were theatre. It was the 1880s, 90s. But we can at least imagine it. Oscar Wilde was obsessed with her. So was George Bernard Shaw.

The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen, by Maud Gonne
How can one person have so much happen in one life? Well, because Maud Gonne was at the center, she meant business, she walked the walk. She married one of the martyrs of the Easter Rising, and wore widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. She was married, in reality, to the idea of a free Ireland. A fascinating figure. People get irritated when you mention Yeats’s obsession with her, and all the poems he wrote about her and for her. As though her being one of the most important muses of the 20th century is … not worthy of her, and not a huge PART of her story and the effect she had on people. Give it a rest. Maybe YOU don’t care about how she inspired others, how she was seen by Yeats, his love for her … maybe YOU haven’t loved and lost like Yeats did – all I can say is: You’re lucky. Of course, the most important part of the impact she had on the world was in her ferocious activism. But why she is remembered? Come on. Let’s get real. Having read her letters (she wrote letters all. day. long – you can’t believe she could keep up with it – didn’t her hand get cramped?) … you recognize the tone here in the autobiography. Fierce, certain, and filled with purpose. I am endlessly fascinated by this woman. Have been since I was a kid, since my dad has this book – as well as the biography of her – and could tell you anything you wanted to know about her.

Ginger: My Story, by Ginger Rogers
Tell it like it is, Ginger!

Accidentally On Purpose: Reflections on Life, Acting and the Nine Natural Laws of Creativity, by John Strasberg
I took a workshop with him which remains one of the greatest moments I ever had as an actress. Life-changing. Ready for a read? Get a cup of coffee. This is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about acting process. It’s a memoir, with some amazing cameos, of course – he and Marilyn Monroe had a very special relationship – but how he thinks about acting – which I experienced working with him in that workshop – is also intoxicating. I TOOK to it.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson
She has been one of my favorite contemporary writers ever since I read Sexing the Cherry, at random. I was so into her, I went on to read The Passion (for me, it’s her best), and everything else. She went off the rails, and I’m not as huge a fan of Writing on the Body as many many MANY others are – for me, it’s all about Sexing the Cherry and The Passion – those were the hooks – at any rate, it’s been practically a whole lifetime now of reading her work, waiting breathlessly to see what she would come out with next. Her very first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is basically a memoir – about her crazy childhood, growing up adopted – she was basically adopted by lunatics – and how she survived, as a little girl who wasn’t going to be like other little girls. This memoir, about her search for her birth mother, about coming to terms with having been adopted, about her whole journey, was enormously moving. By the end, there were passages where I felt like my heart was going to explode. I adore this book. I love her.

By Myself, by Lauren Bacall
A classic. Her journey is just so insane. Plucked from obscurity, plopped into To Have and Have Not (if you read any piece about “Greatest Film Debuts” and her performance in To Have and Have Not is not on the list, throw out the list. It’s no good). And falling in love with the much older and married Bogart. The kind of fame she got – overnight – rarely happens to any actor. Not to the degree it happened for her, when there weren’t other distractions, when everyone wasn’t compartmentalized into little cultural groups. She was top news across the land. This is a good book.

Life, by Keith Richards
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: If you are feeling introverted, if you are feeling lonely for conversation and human contact, no matter with who, read this book in public. People will come up to you when they see what you’re reading and have to talk about it. I read it when I was having a prolonged and almost hallucinatory manic episode in Memphis, where I alternately felt like I was in a transcendent state of truth OR like I was a ghost … I went for days without speaking to anyone and shit got spooky. I read Richards’ book at the bar at the Peabody Hotel – and a guy down the bar struck up a conversation and we ended up talking for 45 minutes. I realized I still knew how to talk to people. It happened again at a diner in Memphis where I was having breakfast. The 20something waitress had to talk to me about it. She had just read it. So. Take this tip, go forth, and have interesting conversations with strangers!

Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan
One of my favorite memoirs ever written. It was hugely important for me. I read it in high school, after my revelatory viewing of East of Eden, which changed my whole world. I drank in Kazan’s words, his stories. I have read it again and again and again. He is not trustworthy. Of course. But he tells you that right up front. I am a liar. I will do whatever it takes to survive. This book has been a neverending source of insights, examples, thoughts, scaffolding on which to hang this or that point I want to make. You may remain seated, refusing to clap, when he gets his Lifetime Achievement Oscar. I’ll be standing up with Meryl Streep. The fact that I finally got to meet the man who had had such a huge impact on my life – at the Actors Studio – at a production of Awake and Sing – by his old friend Clifford Odets – initially put on by the Group Theatre, which he was a member of – and I was a “his Girl Friday” with that production – just like Kazan was a “his boy Friday” with the Group – was too much for me. I shorted out.

The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig
Such a melancholy memoir. Zweig would commit suicide just a couple years later after fleeing the Nazis and ending up in Argentina. In this, Zweig evokes “the world of yesterday”: the Austria he knew and loved as a child and a young man, the “haven” for Jews, the place where they felt safe, where they could identify as Austrians, and not just visitors, or “tolerated.” Of course, this was all an illusion, and the shattering of that illusion would shatter Stefan Zweig. He would never recover. There may be rose-hued glasses here, but with a writer like Stefan Zweig, any colored glasses would be fine: you just want to read his writing, hear his insights, live his memories with him. This is such a mournful book.

Then Again, by Diane Keaton
I haven’t read her follow-up but this is terrific. It’s really all about her mother, and as I said upthread, often it’s these personal insights – not so much about the “business” – that makes these books what they are. These well-known figures often can write – and Keaton can write. I have always ‘related’ to her, and she, for me, is a role model into how to grow old. There are very few role models – in women anyway – who show us it can be as wild as youth and maybe even more interesting.

Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, by Jerry Schilling
What a wonderful and loving book by one of Elvis’ best friends. Jerry Schilling was a friend from way back, and – unlike other members of the “Memphis Mafia” – was never on Elvis’ payroll. He was just a trusted friend. Elvis, of course, helped him out financially – bought Jerry the house he still lives in! – but Jerry was not a dependent. This left the relationship pure. Jerry Schilling is a very loving man (his commentary track for Love Me Tender is affectionate and informative), and some of the pictures of Elvis provided in this book are so touching!

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, by Steve Martin
I found this memoir surprisingly touching. He’s intelligent but also emotional, tender almost. It shows how carefully he thought about what he was doing as a comic in the 70s, which … I mean, I guess you had to be there. And I was too young to be there, but his fame trickled down even to me. There was this guy roller-skating across the stage on Carson, with an arrow through his head. I remember we had a talent show in 6th grade and one kid did a re-creation of Martin’s “King Tut.” So he had filtered down into all levels of the culture, even the grade-school set. I loved listening to how all of his different obsessions – magic, banjo – were all “of use” to him in crafting his weird persona in the 70s. And why the white suit? Everything he did was calculated, carefully chosen. Everything had a reason. I love this memoir.

Me: Stories of My Life, by Katharine Hepburn
The title is so perfect. ME. Now of course she doesn’t tell the whole truth about herself. I consider that to be her right. But what she DOES share is fascinating, and her way of writing sounds like how she talks – short phrases, incomplete sentences, but fragments building in power. The way she wrote about John Wayne! I treasure it, I quote all the time. And the Howard Hughes section. They really did escape fame together, two weirdos.

Goldie: A Lotus Grows in the Mud, by Goldie Hawn
If you haven’t read this, all I can say is: do yourself a favor and pick it up. NOW. It’s so special!!

It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business, by Charles Grodin
While his stories are great, I would also recommend this to young actors just starting out in the business. I read it when I was just out of college, and his attitude – his practicality – his humor – also the struggles – like, how hard it was to get anything going for real – was inspiring, helped adjust my head to the right attitude to continue.

The Salad Days, by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
What a charming and amusing memoir. Another lovely writer. Very touching memories of Joan Crawford, but also he’s able to write where you get a real sense of his gentlemanly personality.

The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life, by Robert Evans
A stone-cold classic.

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
I read this last year. It was as good as everyone says. You know what I love? His ego. It’s not small. And it makes you understand why he is who he is. Early on, he knew: I’m the head of this band. It’s about me. You could judge him for that, but that would just be asking him to not be Bruce. You don’t get to be Bruce through having a small ego. Sorry. You just don’t. You don’t glide into fame like he has without pushing. His is an improbable journey. A bar band from the Jersey Shore … I mean, what are the odds? Superstars? Stadium superstars with a career reaching almost 50 years at this point? WRF? It was through Bruce’s sheer force of WILL that what happened ended up happening.

Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner
I have compared this book to George Eliot, and I stand by my statement. In the lexicon of actress memoirs, this is NUMERO UNO NO CONTEST.

Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry?, by Joseph Bau
This is one of the most harrowing memoirs I have ever read. Joseph Bau was one of “Oskar Schindler’s Jews”. Member the short scene of the couple getting married at Plaszow concentration camp in Poland? That was Joseph and his wife Rebecca. It was Rebecca who got him onto Schindler’s list. Rebecca was a manicurist for Amon Goeth, which is how she got wind of “the list.” The Baus were eventually separated – think of this woman, who got her husband on the list, while she wasn’t on the list herself – think of that – She was sent to Auschwitz. She was marked for the gas chambers three times, by Joseph Mengele himself – and ended up escaping (once, literally: she snuck out of line and joined the other line, just for “examinations”). At any rate, she made it through the war – and husband and wife were reunited- by sheer chance – in a refugee camp. ANYWAY. What makes this book so haunting, besides the terrible story, is Bau’s illustrations. They are burned into my brain. They are living nightmares. Here is the cover:

And there’s more where that came from. Bau is a brilliant artist. The book at times is almost literally unbearable. But you never ever forget it.

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2 Responses to Recommended Books: Memoirs

  1. Ted says:

    Love this list. It led me directly to your terrific “Accidentally On Purpose” post.

    • sheila says:

      Ted – hey! thanks! Yes that John Strasberg workshop was a doozy!

      I miss you – maybe we can set up a Zoom, would love to see your face.

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