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