This is by no means meant as a definitive list. Thousands of great artists and celebrities have produced thousands of great memoirs—or autobiography, whichever word we prefer these days—over the years. This list doesn’t even include some of my favorite memoirs, but, for brevity’s sake, I wanted to focus on the six that come to mind whenever anyone asks if I have a favorite memoir.
Groucho and Me
Bernard Geis Associates, 1959
While his humor might feel dated, Groucho remains a true original. From his voice to his puns to his eye-rolling delivery—literally, the man punctuated gags and puns, usually jokes he knew were bad, by rolling his eyes or glancing upward—he’s spawned countless imitators, most notably Bug Bunny.
He started comedy on the Vaudeville Circuit as a teenager. In the early twentieth century, theaters around the country offered variety shows featuring various performers: comedians, jugglers, singers, dancers, burlesque performers. Filled with puns and innuendo, vaudeville gags helped lay the groundwork for early cinematic comedies. Many of the biggest stars in the early days of film, in fact, started in Vaudeville, including Charlie Chaplin and, of course, Groucho Marx.
Groucho attained worldwide fame as the centerpiece of the Marx Brothers. He not only inspired generations of comedians—he also inspired counterculture movements, especially the movements of the 60s. Groucho—and the Marx Brothers—were fiercely anti-establishment. They challenged authority, the notion of government—democratic or fascist—and lampooned higher education. They also attacked the human condition, satirizing the wealthy, the poor, the credulous, those seeking fame and those running from it. Few targets escaped the brothers’ sights.
As a personality—both on and off the screen—Groucho was a prankster and a showboat, arrogant and miserly. He simultaneously sought and thwarted attention. In most cases, it’s better to view a celebrity’s autobiography as a sustained PR effort. Even in their worst moments, they later spin the story to minimize their appearance or effects on situations or people.
Groucho’s penchant for telling autobiographical stories and anecdotes in different ways to different people often makes it difficult to tell truth from fiction or to assess the veracity of his claims. It’s better to approach this is a book of dubious truths. Don’t let that discourage you, however.
Having little formal education, Groucho in later years aspired to become a writer. He devoured books and befriended some of the biggest modernists of the twentieth centuries—his letters to TS Eliot are great. He took writing seriously, and it shows. His prose is fluid, conversational, and never stuffy. Much of the book reads as if your funny uncle is relaying personal anecdotes. Although many allusions and jokes are dated, this books is still well worth checking out.
The Long Hard Road Out of Hell
Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss
If you somehow don’t know who Marilyn Manson is, he’s a holy fuck read that first chapter nothing I could write can or will do this book justice so just read that first chapter fuck me what an insane and disturbing chapter Christ it will haunt you just read it already
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Biography
When he burst onto the scene in the 1960s, Chuck Barris was ridiculed as a king of trash, smut, and lowbrow entertainment. Some people went so far as to accuse him of dumbing down America. As the creator of television shows such as The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, he certainly wouldn’t win accolades from the intelligentsia. Barris didn’t seem to care. He attained fame and fortune while creating and producing two popular syndicated shows. And people hated it for it.
After the Gong Show ended, he published this memoir. It instantly gained notoriety—and even denial from the United States government. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Biography, Barris makes the bold claim that he was a CIA assassin in the years his shows divided the television public.
Some people, of course, thought Barris insane. Others wondered if his claims perhaps contained a least some truth. This was the height of the anti-war movement, when the first generation turned a skeptical eye to the government and what Eisenhower dubbed the Industrial Military Complex. What better cover for an assassin than an obnoxious—to some—television presenter?
Barris upheld his claims until his death in 2017 but he refused to discuss of alleged lift as an assassin. Few people believe his claims and no one has undertaken serious inquiry into the ‘confession’—for good reason: it’s bullshit. Assuming his assertion has a definitive truth value is to miss the point.
Chuck Barris’s confessions amount to an allegory criticizing the heart of American mythos. The United States was a nation founded on war, expanded through violence and warfare, and claimed global hegemony largely through military machinations. Every generation anoints its military heroes and martyrs. How many American foundational myths center on warfare or violence? To this day, presidents award medals of honor, of valor, and so on. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, while not explicit, offers a criticism of the lionization of war and warfare. At its heart, the book posits the question: How can the public vilify and end the career of a man who simply wanted to entertain people while awarding medals to people who murder other people?
The Year of Magical Thinking
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
Every human experiences fear. Some fears may seem irrational—a fear of holes or dragonflies—and some are rational. Most fears remain distant and vague sensations someone experiences, a fluttering in the stomach, anxiety, thoughts too narrowed and focused. The fear of losing a spouse, however, is one many people will experience—and it’s nothing you can prepare for, even if you brace yourself for it from time to time. My father’s health was failing for years, but we all relegated his death to some unspecified future. (When we learned the news, my mother repeated, again and again, “Oh, man. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.” Her words and tones still echo in my ears from time to time.)
Joan Didion, the famed and often brilliant writer, lost her husband in 2003. When her husband died, Didion’s daughter was hospitalized for pneumonia. She later suffered a serious medical event when doctor’s learned that she had bleeding in the brain.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion chronic a es the year between her husband’s death and her daughter’s second hospitalization. It’s an unflinching and brutally honest look at mortality and coming to terms with the death of those you expect to die but never manage to brace yourself against the stark reality when your fears are realized.
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
Playboy Books, 1965
Although I’ve already discussed this book at some length on my list of transgressive books, it’s making an appearance here because—well—I adore it.
Lenny Bruce courted controversy by daring to embrace taboo topics and language on stage. For all its rhetoric about freedom, America acted no differently than a totalitarian state in the 1950s. Use obscene language in public could send you to the hoosegow. Police stood in the back of clubs where Bruce performed, listening for the slightest provocation, uncouth word, inappropriate topic—i.e., looking for the slightest reason to arrest and remove from public view a man who openly challenged the official American narrative.
Written at the behest of Hugh Hefner, the founder and publisher of Playboy Magazine, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People originally appeared in the pages of that magazine in serialized form. It appeared in book form in 1965 and has remained a classic, almost continuously in print.
The book’s chronology mirrors the arc of Bruce’s career, which makes it more than a typical book by a comedian. Lenny Bruce emerged as a bawdy comic. He gained a following and influenced generations of comedians. His fearlessness forever altered comedy. In a sense, you could divide American comedy into two parts: Before Lenny Bruce and After Lenny Bruce.
But his trouble with the law took a physical and mental toll on Bruce. He obsessed over it. As the frequency of his arrests and his legal problems mounted, Bruce transformed from a comedian to a person fixated on his persecution. At some point, he stopped performing traditional standup altogether; instead, he’d stand on stage before a baffled audience and read court transcripts, pausing to offer running commentary.
This book mirrors his career. It starts as a lighthearted memoir about the trials and travails of a witty and precocious man who built a career and fell under the scrutiny of the federal government. Toward the end of the book, as with his career, he ranted against the government and those trying him and included court transcripts, complete with running commentary.
This is a book about a man who challenged a government’s totalitarian control of culture and cultural norms. By challenging the norms, Bruce helped to break the US government’s iron grip on the culture. But it cost him everything—including his life.
The Secret Life of Salvador Dali
Dial Press, 1942
Where to start? The autobiography of the eccentric artist who once stated “I don’t do drugs; I am drugs” is more or less what you might expect. At times hilarious and mind-blowing, breathtaking in its beauty and tedium, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali provides insight into a serious and practiced artist and how he maintained a carefully cultivated persona.
Dali was more than a persona. He was a singular human being, an experience. In a sense—to borrow a line from Nietzsche—he was himself a work of art. And a hell of a writer. Although the book was translated into English, his turns of phrase, his strength of thought, his enigmatic passages and energy emerge.
The Secret Life of Salvador Dali covers the first 34 years of the artist’s life. A considerable portion concerns his upbringing and childhood. As a child, he was a spoiled monster prone to fits of outrage and violence. But he channeled his complex and contradictory personality into art at an early age.
This book is full of strange and often hilarious scenes and insights. The most memorable chapter—at least for me—details his experience in his mother’s womb. Yes, you read that right. Dali believed he remembered his life in the womb. While many people believe they can remember their earliest period—Winston Churchill was one—few set to describe the sights and experiences in tedious detail.
It’s hard to summarize this book. Some passages are hilarious, some are surreal, some are strange while others boring beyond belief. It is a fair representation of the man himself. If you haven’t read The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, put it on your list. It’s definitely worth it.
What memoirs or autobiographies—whichever word you prefer—are you drawn to? Comment below and tell me why you love or hate them? Please share this article if you’d like it. And consider taking a moment to check out my GoFundMe campaign, which you can read more about here.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.