As I promised yesterday, here’s a rundown of my five favorite biographies. I should probably qualify this by adding the disclaimer “…at this particular moment”, as my list might very well be different, depending on when you ask me. Yeah, I’m a noodge that way.
Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick)
There’s a moment from the film Pulp Fiction that ended up on the cutting room floor in which Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he’s an Elvis man or a Beatles man. “You might like both,” she tells Vincent, “but you always like one better.” If you’ve been reading this blog even casually, you know I’m a hardcore Beatles fan. But I’m still fascinated by Elvis — especially the post-GI, bad-movie making, white jump-suited, bloated karate Elvis. And that’s why I bypassed completely Last Train to Memphis — the first book in Guralnick’s two-part Elvis bio, which tells the story of Elvis’ meteoric rise — and headed right for the good stuff.
Guralnick tells Elvis’ story in a clear-eyed manner, spinning a story that’s almost Shakespearian in its tragedy. And it quickly gets ugly, as Elvis corrodes into a lazy, strung-out fat kid, distracted by go-carts, badge collecting, and playing cowboys and Indians with his sycophantic Memphis Mafia, all the while derailing his own career, despite an incredibly forgiving fan base. From one oh-my-gosh, no way! moment to another, Guralnick delivers the goods, careening like a barely-controlled jalopy toward the decidedly non-glamorous ending we all know is coming. Look away? Heck no. Cringe-inducing? Heck yes. Awesome.
Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (Robert Caro)
Think the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson’s Senate years — during which he practically invented modern Senate procedure — Caro makes lawmaking look downright dramatic. Which it is, especially when the stakes are so high.
Johnson doesn’t come across as a hero in the practical sense — he’s a boor, unfaithful to his wife, an opportunist, and, at times, doesn’t appear to have any real core beliefs. Whether it’s speaking to Southern senators with a deep drawl before turning around and talking to New England progressives without a hint of an accent, or kissing the appropriate backsides to secure plum committee assignments and roles in the Senate leadership, Johnson appears to bend his own personality — as well as the personalities of others — to fit his own purposes. But whether you like him or not, he understood politics, and process, like no one else before him (and perhaps better than any since). And once he became committed to a cause, he was a dangerous man to cross; no one could kick your teeth in quicker using parliamentary procedure than Lyndon Johnson. You’ll genuinely cheer when he finally steers the Civil Rights Act to final passage.
Caro ends the book with a cliffhanger, as Johnson angles toward the Vice Presidency — and Caro’s next book will take things from there. Don’t rush things, Caro, but really, hurry up, won’t you?
The Lives of John Lennon (Albert Goldman)
If I had to choose my all-time favorite book — biography or otherwise — this would probably be it. Certainly, the fact that it’s about a Beatle automatically moves it toward the front of the line. But why choose this particular book — which I’ve re-read more times than I can count — when there are so many other Beatle bios out there? Simple: this one’s terrible.
No, really. This is a train wreck. Goldman has a major axe to grind, and over the course of 700-plus pages, he grinds his axe to iron powder. Lennon comes across as a mainly lucky, mostly untalented, naive bisexual musician with serious mother issues. It’s Character Assassination to the Extreme — of Lennon, Yoko Ono, and almost everyone but Paul McCartney — and you’ll find yourself marveling at the body count Goldman leaves behind. Every page contains one cynical, sneering appraisal of Lennon and his work after another, with Goldman trashing Lennon’s motivations and so often rooting for him to fail that it begs the question of “Why in the world would you devote 700 pages and seven years of your life to a subject you obviously can’t stand??”
I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad Goldman did it anyway — because this one is so gawdawful that it’s terrific.
Oscar Wilde (Richard Ellmann)
Richard Ellman won the Pulitzer for his work on Oscar Wilde, and with good reason: it’s not only the definitive look at the Irish poet, playwright, critic, and martyr, but it’s also a ripping good read. Wilde was a movie star in a time before movies, a tabloid staple, and a constant bestseller, and Ellmann makes him — and his work — come alive.
Following Wilde’s rise to literary and theatrical fame, a series of colossally bad decisions lead to his imprisonment and disgrace — another ending we know is coming and want desperately for our subject to avoid. In Ellmann’s capable hands — especially as he traces the poet’s final frustrating years — Wilde emerges not so much a victim of Victorian morals but rather of his own ego and genius. And we’re more than ready to forgive him for it.
John Adams (David McCullough)
Sure, it’s an easy choice — the Citizen Kane of biographies, universally admired, and perpetually in print. But it deserves every word of praise that’s been written about it. And if you say you didn’t enjoy it, you’re just trying to buck the trend, mister.
McCullough originally set out to write a book about the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but worried (he said later) that Adams might get lost in Jefferson’s shadow. But the more research he did, the more he began to wonder whether Jefferson could truly stand up to Adams — and changed the focus of the book to turn the spotlight solely on the second president.
It was a shrewd decision, and the right one. John Adams — heck, all of McCullough’s work — is not only a great piece of storytelling, it’s a user’s manual for How To Do Biography Right.