Columns > Published on May 2nd, 2014

5 Great Memoirs, from Bette Davis to the Rolling Stones

Writing about oneself carries risks. A life that’s been fascinating to you may be dull as dishwater to everyone else. Honesty, a requirement for memoirs, may lead to humiliation, as you slip open your dingy raincoat and expose your dirty secrets for the sake of grabbing some attention only to find that readers look at them and laugh. Libel looms large; if you aren’t careful, telling the unvarnished truth may result in multiple lawsuits. And writing a great autobiography means knowing how to treat yourself as a well-rounded character. As the great bard once wrote, “Neither a coward nor a blowhard be.” Okay, he didn’t actually write that, but he should have.

The books on this list are some of my own favorite autobiographies. The roster is short and sweet and not by any means comprehensive. I just find these books to be particularly engrossing, enlightening, powerful, and sincere. They indicate my own areas of interest (a gay man, a gay icon, the Stones….) Missing are such classics as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl  and The Autobiography of Malcom X. I rejected them on the grounds that they were far too serious. You don’t like my choices? Pick yer own.

'Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story' by Paul Monette

At turns harrowing, frustrating, embarrassing, and — mere pages from the end — liberating, Becoming a Man is “half a life story” in two senses of the phrase. Monette writes about a little more than half his life, and the life he writes about is only half lived. It was a familiar tale to many gay men of his era (1945 – 1995): a childhood and young adulthood of furtive sexual exploration and overwhelming shame, oppression from others and torture from within. Outwardly successful, the life of the party, witty, talented, and lusty from an early age, young Paul got himself into Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, as a townie kid on a scholarship. By the time he entered Phillips he’d already sucked the cocks of a peewee thug and a kid more like himself. Kite, the little ruffian, had much more in common with  Paul than Paul first imagined; the tough’s and the straight-A student’s sexual interest was mutual, as it was with Richie, the quiet kid he messed around with after his mother walked in on Paul and Kite enjoying themselves in Paul’s bedroom. Paul was certainly precocious; he was giving and getting blowjobs before he could even cum.

What follows is a series of academic triumphs and personal catastrophes as Paul falls in thoroughly unrequited love with a long string of straight boys from Phillips to Yale, where Paul becomes adept at distracting his fellow students from any signs of physical and emotional homo-ness by way of his wit — itself a sign that emblazons “queer” over his head in pink neon. Graduating from Yale, he embarks on a career in poetry, a decision that appalled his parents, who expected the Ivy League to teach him how to make serious money. He accepts paltry-paying teaching jobs at some prep schools in New England, including one where a studly student keeps feigning sleep in Teacher’s bed with an obvious boner until Teacher can’t take it any more and blows him. The relationship lasts about a year until the student, who is as disturbed as he is attractive, attempts to get Paul fired but succeeds only in getting himself expelled.

The narrative flags a bit toward the end, as Monette’s struggles begin to seem absurdly attenuated. “Just fuck guys and be happy,” the reader cries as Paul attempts to turn hetero. But in the memoir’s final pages, he meets his long-imagined “laughing man,” Roger Horwitz, the man with whom he would, in fellow literary ‘mo E.M. Forster’s dictum, “only connect.” Sadly, Becoming a Man is not Monette’s first memoir; that honor goes to Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, which chronicles Horwitz’s illness and death from AIDS in 1986. Monette himself died of the disease in 1995.

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'The Lonely Life' by Bette Davis

Unlike some pleasant but forgettable movie star memoirs, Bette Davis’s The Lonely Life is extraordinarily well written. Sure, she had the help of a professional writer, Sandford Dody. Dody was a serial ghostwriter; he helped Helen Hayes, Robert Merrill, and Elaine Barrymore (John Barrymore’s ex-) among others, but grew exasperated by subsuming himself so thoroughly in ghosting for the famous that he once said he “died a little” every time. But Davis’s voice comes through loud and strong and distinctive. She was a natural at holding people’s attention.

The title alone gives some indication of Davis’s disappointed view of herself. By the time the book came out in 1962, she had been married four times and divorced three — the other husband died before the marriage had a chance to fall apart completely — and she writes as one who well knew the price she paid for movie stardom. She paints generous, sympathetic portraits of her pushy mother, Ruthie, and emotionally disturbed sister, Bobby. She’d blabbed to the press once of Bobby’s troubles and appears to have learned a lesson: it’s the better part of valor to downplay one’s sister’s mental instability in public. Years after The Lonely Life was published and Ruthie was gone, she came across a trove of letters Ruthie had written to a friend; they were not especially complimentary to Bette, and Bette was devastated.

The reader hoping for bitchiness will be thwarted; Bette is caustic but never nasty. (That would come in Volume 2: This ‘n That, in which she chronicles Joan Crawford’s inane behavior on — but mostly off — the set of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and lambastes her ungrateful traitor of a daughter, B.D.) Here we read of her impatience with the devilishly goodlooking but lunkheaded Errol Flynn; her feud with the impossible Miriam Hopkins; the sanctuaries she found in her New England homes (Butternut in the 1940s and Witch Way in the 1950s); and perhaps most notably her intense admiration and love for William Wyler, who directed three of her best films — Jezebel, The Letter, and The Little Foxes.

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'A Hell of a Life' by Maureen Stapleton

It may be necessary for the youthful reader's sake to establish who Maureen Stapleton was — and who she wasn't. She was not the actress who played Edith Bunker in the long-running sitcom All in the Family. That was Jean Stapleton. Maureen Stapleton was an extraordinarily talented actress — not that Jean Stapleton wasn't — who was in such full command of her talent that she even managed to give the otherwise ridiculous Airport its only truly brilliant performance. She's the bomber's wife, who shows up at the gate when the ruined plane manages to land and agonizingly attempts to apologize to the traumatized passengers and crew for the damage her husband caused. It's one of those performances that has so much integrity and authenticity that it actually washes away all the crap that had filled the screen beforehand. It's absolutely riveting, and if you haven't seen Airport, do so immediately to see Stapleton's heartwrenching final scene.

Stapleton writes her memoir the way she unapologetically talked — foulmouthed. She tells one especially amusing story of speaking at her friend Colleen Dewhurst's memorial service. In front of all the mourners, Stapleton reminisced that at one year's Tony Awards she and Dewhurst were both nominated, and "when they announced the nominees for best actress, Colleen and I turned and nodded to each other and got our speeches ready. And whaddya know," she told the somber crowd, "they gave the Tony to that cunt from Australia." That "cunt" happened to be Zoe Caldwell, who was a guest at the service and who found the description hysterically funny.

Stapleton crossed paths with many of the best actors of stage and screen. There are sympathetic accounts of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, and others. But the most complex portrait she paints is that of her mother, a strong Irish-American warhorse of a parent whose relationship with Stapleton ran to extremes. Stapleton describes her mother going "bananas" at Maureen's announcement that she was marrying her boyfriend Max Allentuck. "The minute she got my letter, she began sending me a series of letters that were, to put it mildly, horrific. I read the first in disbelief. The contents were bloodcurdling. Happily, I've repressed most of it, though I do recall the ending, which read, 'I spew you from my mouth like vomit.'" Now there's a catchy phrase.

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'Stone Alone' by Bill Wyman

The best book about the Rolling Stones is the one written by the group’s quietest, most enigmatic member. Bill Wyman played the bass guitar steadily, greatly, and without attracting much attention from the early days of the band in 1962 to his departure from it in 1993. It turns out that during all that time Wyman had been keeping a meticulous record of the Stones’ performances both on- and offstage. Wyman jotted down notes and clipped newspaper and magazine articles with the tenacity of a library archivist — he’d actually begun keeping a journal as a kid during WWII — and the result is an extraordinarily detailed look into the wondrous creative processes, prickly personalities, farcical violence at the hands and feet of teenage girls, and infamous drug busts of the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world.

Stone Alone is scarcely short; the paperback is 722 pages long. And the chronicle covers only the period from the band’s formation to the great Hyde Park concert two days after the death of the sexy, supremely talented, and fundamentally fucked up Brian Jones in 1969. All the major and many of the minor characters in the Stones’s early career turn up, and Wyman has a great knack for quoting them. Andrew Loog Oldham, who shaped the band’s image, is said to have “looked at Mick the way Sylvester looks at Tweetie Pie.” The perils of being a rock star find ample illustration. “As Brian said, ‘You don’t know you’re marooned until you want something like toothpaste. Then you have to remind yourself that if you go outside, you’ll get your clothes torn and lose a few handfuls of hair.” Of the aftermath of a concert in New Brighton, Wyman writes, “I saw a girl with a ripped pink dress being dragged away by her hair. Later I asked her what sort of time she had had. ‘Fab,’ she replied.”

Mick is always good for a pithy comment, such as, “The trouble with a tie is that it dangles in the soup.” At one typically riotous concert, the police turned fire hoses on a group of 200 screaming girls, who responded in classic Sixties style: they began singing “We Shall Overcome.” And at one especially violent appearance in Liverpool, Wyman writes, “Most alarming of all, a fan carrying a double-barreled shotgun tried to get into the concert. Twenty teenagers fainted, thirteen were treated for bruises, and eight were taken to hospital with wounds caused by stiletto heels.” I know – it’s only rock ‘n roll. But I like it.

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'D.V.' by Diana Vreeland

“The Grand Duke Dmitri was the handsomest… the hang of his suits! His leg in a boot! Oh God!” Empress of the superfluous, Our Lady of the Blood Red Silk, Vreeland was fashion, Vreeland was style, and Vreeland was hilarious. She ruled Vogue from 1963 to 1971. She once commented, “I’ve never seen anyone on drugs who didn’t have wonderful skin.” In a photo book on the Stones, Diana appears as a concertgoer with a stocking pulled over her face with a neat little topknot. Who but Diana Vreeland would show up at a rock concert dressed as a mugger?

In her autobiography she’s the master of the non-sequitur. “The next day, we got the big brass from the Third World – five presidents and one emperor! It was fantastico! The robes! The jewels! The security men! I love security men – I just adore them!” “Did I tell you about the Duke of Windsor’s bathroom at the Moulins?” “If I may say so, at least to you, I sometimes think there’s something wrong with white people. We’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blacks are almost the only people I can stand to look at nowadays.”

“Nostalgia – imagine! I don’t believe in anything before penicillin. I’ll tell you what I do believe in. I believe in back plasters.”

She reports that the fashion house Balenciaga’s abrupt closing was a shock that turned poor Mona Bismark into a virtual shut in (“I mean, it was the end of a certain part of her life!”). She reminds herself, vainly, to stay on topic: “We must not get too far afield or we’ll forget where we began.” To say the least. “Rodolph was so attractive. Don’t think this ritual of his was unattractive — it just took a little getting used to. This little weakness for ether was as normal as if you… Listen, Baron Rodolphe was the uncrowned King of Tunisia!” You don’t say.

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About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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