A good biography does much more than provide the basic facts found on any general internet search. It introduces the reader to the real person that is sometimes hidden behind history and the PR machine.
I loved this book. As much as I knew about Ms. Fisher before I read it, I learned even more. She was intelligent, incredibly funny, smartass, loyal to those she loved, and vulnerable. What made this one special was that it showed her humanity. It is a complete picture of a woman who has inspired generations of fans, women, and those living with mental illness to not be afraid of being who they are.
Hollywood is not known for being the most comforting of industries. This is especially true for women of a certain age. Betty White is one of the few actresses who has been able to not only survive, but thrive in this environment.
The 2018 documentary Betty White: First Lady of Televisionis the story of her career. Ms. White entered showbusiness when television was in its infancy. Since her first appearance seven decades ago, she has become an icon, a groundbreaker and a performer who has entertained multiple generations of fans. Using archival footage and interviews, the viewer is given a glimpse of the real woman behind the beloved character actress.
What I loved about this film is that it shows its subject as she is. There are some biographies that present a slick and polished image of perfection. What you see is what you get. She is a smart, salty, and extremely funny woman who at the age of 99, is as real as she ever was.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely.
Betty White: First Lady of Television is available for streaming on Netflix.
P.S. The 2018 episode of Saturday Night Live that she hosted is for my money, one of the best in the past few years.
The plot line of a biography is as follows: the person was born on x date, accomplished a, b, and c, and died on y date. From there, it is up to the writer(s) to add the details and color to the story they are telling.
Heather Clark’s biography of Sylvia Plath, entitled Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, was published last October. Delving into Plath’s life and work (including The Bell Jar, one of my personal favorites), Clark takes the reader on a journey from Plath’s early years in New England in the 1930’s to her death in 1962 from lingering mental health issues. Using information that was previously unknown, Clark pulls information from interviews, unpublished works, and other documents to create a complete image of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
If there was ever a blue print on how to write a compelling biography, this is it. When I finished reading this book, I felt like I knew her. Not just as a poet and a writer, but as a human being. As a reader, it is one thing to connect to your favorite writer based on their work. But when you get to know them as an ordinary person, that is where magic happens.
Some people know from an early age that they are going to change the world. Others simply change their world by being a decent human being and seeing the injustice that is forced on others.
The new Eleanor Roosevelt biography, titled Eleanor, was written by David Michaelis. Published last fall, this is an extensive womb to tomb biography of the late former First Lady. Born in 1884 in New York City to the wealthy and respected Roosevelt family, her childhood was not a happy one. She lost both of her parents and her younger brother by the she was a teenager. As a young woman, she married her fifth cousin and future President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Their marriage not all sunshine and roses. But it became the platform she needed to become one of the greatest social justice warriors of the 20th century. Whether or not she knew it, Eleanor was a proto-feminist while serving as First Lady. Instead of quietly following in the footsteps of her predecessors, she became an activist. While other women were just starting to step out of the traditionally female world, she jumped whole heartedly into the causes she believed in.
This book is a masterpiece. It is gripping, entertaining, and humanizes a giant of American history. I will warn however, that it is far from a short read. But it is completely worth it, taking the reader behind the public image to see real woman behind the myth.
Political memoirs and autobiographies are an interesting subgenre. The perspective of the subject and their actions while in and out of office is often based on where the reader is on the political spectrum.
Former President Barack Obama published the first volume of his memoirs, A Promised Land last fall. The reader is taken on a journey from the President’s early days to the ups and downs of his first term. When we meet the future President at the beginning of the story, he is a young man who is driven and intelligent, but listless. As he matures, marries, starts his family, and his career in politics, he starts to become the man we know him to be today.
After four years of the chaos and noise of you know who, it is a pleasure to hear from a President who is thoughtful, well spoken, and at the very least listens and considers the opinions of others. What I appreciated was his honesty, especially on subjects that are controversial and/or complicated. It takes an adult to be open and candid, especially when dealing with the difficulties that are thrown our way.
Bella Abzug is a political and feminist icon. Not just among her New York City constituents whom she represented in the 1970’s, but the world over. Bella was a true politician, unlike many of those who are in the government today. She meant what she said and said what she meant. She stood behind her convictions, even if they made her unpopular.
The 2008 biography by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and … Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way, is not the standard biography.
Born in 1920 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Bella Abzug (nee Savitsky) was a born fighter. Her first brush with feminism when was her father died when she was a young girl. Traditional Judaism dictates that a son should say kaddish (prayers for mourning) for his father. But Bella, the youngest of two girls, had no brothers. So she said kaddish for her father.
Most biographies have a typical cut and dry style. The person profiled was born on this date, accomplished x,y and z during their lifetime and died on this date. But not this biography. What I enjoy about this book is that instead of being just another impersonal and historical biography, is the interviews. Not just with the subject herself, but with the those who knew her best. Her family, her friends, her colleagues. I feel like, as a reader, that even though I never met her, that I knew who she was, as a human being, warts and all.
Maureen O’Hara is a movie legend. The list of her leading men include John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power.
Aubrey Malone’s biography, Maureen O’Hara: The Biography follows Ms’ O Hara’s life from her childhood in Dublin through her decades long movie career to her present retired state.
Born in 1920 in the suburbs of Dublin, she made her screen debut in the late 1930’s. The movies she made are all very different: family classics (The Parent Trap, 1961, Miracle on 34th St, 1947), technicolor pirate and sword and sandal adventures (The Black Swan, 1942, Sinbad The Sailor, 1947) and Westerns (The Redhead From Wyoming, 1953, McClintock, 1963).
The book not only sheds light on her career, but on her private life. Unlike many of her colleagues, Ms. O’Hara lived a very quiet life, keeping her personal life out of the headlines. Compiling press clippings, movie reviews and film journals, Mr. Malone presents a complete picture of a performer whom many did not know about outside of her films.
I recommend this book.
On a related note, if there is one movie of her vast career that I would recommend, it would be Only The Lonely .
Made in 1991, Ms. O’Hara took herself out of retirement for this movie. She plays Rose Muldoon, the very overprotective mother to her son Danny (the late John Candy). Danny has sacrificed himself for his mother and brother (Kevin Dunn). When Danny meets Theresa Luna (Ally Sheedy) and starts fall in love with her, he finds himself torn between his mother and his girlfriend. Very sweet movie that just tugs at the heart strings.