From Dino to Brando, Michael Hogan reveals the wisdom, wit and war strategy culled from the 22 biographies (and autobiographies) every man should read.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Published posthumously in 1964, one of Hemingway’s best-loved works recounts his time as an ex-pat in France between the World Wars. Cue much boozing and cerebral, croissant crumb-covered café pow-wows with compadres James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and, famously, F Scott Fitzgerald. Part-road trip, part-love letter to Paris, part-paean to friendship, all in his famous muscular sentences.
Key details: The big man’s hair-growing contest with Stein, and penis-measuring contest with Fitzgerald.
Titan: The Life Of John D Rockefeller Sr by Ron Chernow
This definitive take on history’s first billionaire tells how the mogul rose from humble roots by creating the US’s most powerful monopoly, Standard Oil, which controlled 90 per cent of the domestic market. Despite his reputation as a “robber baron”, Chernow’s book portrays Rockefeller as stoic and compassionate.
Key details: His journey from ruthless tycoon to lovable old codger, donating millions to charity, while handing dimes to adults and nickels to children wherever he went.
Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times by Thomas Hauser
In the ring, Ali was indisputably The Greatest, bringing his unprecedented combination of speed and grace to the boxing world. Outside of it, he was The Louisville Lip, whose wit, charm and principled beliefs formed a new blueprint for the world’s expectations of a champion sportsman. This heavyweight biography from Hauser – a leading US boxing writer – does the late hero justice, and won the 1991 William Hill Sports Book Of The Year.
Key details: The particularly evocative account of the Thrilla In Manila – written in such sweatily brutal detail, you can almost hear the punches and see Joe Frazier’s gumshield flying out of the ring.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
The late, hard-living New Yorker’s deliciously snarky, straight-talking memoir – an extended remix of a New Yorker article titled ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This’ – explains his passionate relationship with food and, more spicily, the frequently grim reality of working in a top restaurant.
Key details: Never eat fish on a Monday. Don’t order steak well done. And remember that sweating away in that Michelin-starred kitchen are “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths”.
Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith
The co-authors earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for this superb study of the troubled life and ideologies behind the influential abstract impressionist painter. A reclusive alcoholic who hated “phonies” and had trouble dealing with his star status in the Forties New York art scene.
Key details: Pollock urinating into socialite art collector Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace during a cocktail party.
The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven
The rakish actor’s racy memoir of a chequered life sold five million copies worldwide. And no wonder – it shows a flair for yarn-spinning and shameless name-dropping.
Key details: The tales of a “tart-with-a-heart” Soho prostitute named Nessie popping his cherry, and his hell-raising days living with Errol Flynn in a house dubbed ‘Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea’.
Darwin: The Life Of A Tortured Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore
The biologist was a controversy magnet, but his theories of evolution and natural selection went from heresy to accepted wisdom in a single generation. This almost novelistic account depicts Victorian society, Darwin’s five-year research voyage on the HMS Beagle and the discoveries that nearly killed him through overwork.
Key details: Darwin’s gambling and gluttony at Cambridge, plus how he used his work in the fight against slavery.
The Kid Stays In The Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans
“Success! Scandal! Sex! Tragedy! Infamy! And that’s just the first chapter…” A better-than-fiction Hollywood memoir from the sadly departed permatanned bad boy producer of The Godfather and Chinatown. A brilliant raconteur, Evans spins stories of A-list womanising, cocaine use and murder charges.
Key details: In Evans’ short-lived acting days, the cast and crew of The Sun Also Rises – including writer Ernest Hemingway – demanded Evans be fired, but studio exec Darryl F Zanuck said, “The kid stays in the picture.” Evans recalls: “Acting was OK, but I realised what I really wanted was to be the guy who said, ‘The kid stays in the picture.’”
Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life Of John Kennedy Toole And The Remarkable Story Of A Confederacy Of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin
The tragic saga behind the enigmatic New Orleans writer, the rejections for his masterpiece A Confederacy Of Dunces, his suicide aged 31 and the cult comic novel’s posthumous publication is as incredible as the Pulitzer Prize-winning book itself.
Key details: The way Toole was shaped by the bohemian New York Beat scene, and army life in Puerto Rico, before his infamous descent into tragic paranoia.
Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert
One of the greatest Britons has one of the greatest biographies. Army officer, Nobel Prize-winning writer, artist and prime minister in two separate stints, Sir Winnie was a titan who bestrode British public life for 60 years. As official biographer, Oxford history don Gilbert wrote an eight-book epic, which he boiled down into this single-volume version. Politician Michael Foot said of Gilbert’s work: “Whoever made Martin Gilbert Churchill’s biographer deserves a vote
of thanks from the nation.”
Key details: The way Churchill drove off the black dog of depression and many other, more literal enemies in wartime, powered by nothing but cigars, whisky and sheer force of personality.
Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches
A man with nothing to lose and everything to prove. The Ferriday Fireball who became the Father of Rock’n’Roll. The Louisiana hellcat whose career was never the same after he married his 13-year-old cousin – before he was even divorced from his other wife. This incendiary tale has been, rightly, hailed as the greatest music biography ever.
Key details: Shooting his bass player point blank with a .37 Magnum and the night Lewis repeatedly rammed his car into the iron gates of Elvis’s Graceland mansion, yelling, “Tell him the killer is here!”
Somebody: The Reckless Life And Remarkable Career Of Marlon Brando by Stefan Kanfer
Brando’s CV had more ups and downs than a corrugated iron roof. He inspired a generation of Method actors during his Fifties golden period, before two decades in the wilderness due to bad role selection, ballooning weight and a refusal to learn lines. He, of course, made an astonishing comeback in 1972 with The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris, before then resuming his eccentric decay. This definitive biography, the first to appear after Brando’s death in 2004, charts what former film critic Kanfer calls “a life of ludicrous excess, outlandish triumphs and appalling sorrows”.
Key details: The account of a young Brando roaming nocturnal New York with a pet raccoon named Russell, bedding everything that moved. No wonder he fathered 16 children.
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
Your textbook tears-of-a-clown story, as Martin traces the beginnings of his career, from listening to comedy on his dad’s car radio, learning magic and landing his first job at Disneyland to his TV writing, the loneliness of life on the road and, eventually, silver-haired superstardom. It’s cleverly written, disarmingly frank, frequently moving and, as you might expect, funny as hell.
Key details: Nerdily noting the reaction to each joke in a ledger: “excellent!”, “big laugh” or “quiet”. Martin’s also great on capturing the culture of the late Sixties and Seventies, describing how the “streets of San Francisco simmered with a toxic vitality”.
Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann
US literary critic Ellmann’s impressively in-depth look at the life of the legendary Irish wit was 20 years in the writing, and won a Pulitzer Prize. It crackles with a humour and warmth worthy of Wilde himself.
Key details: Wilde’s many one-liners and gradual self-destruction, all in the pursuit of pleasure. The two collide in this declaration: “Nothing is good in moderation. You cannot know the good in anything until you have torn out the heart of it by excess.”
Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash
He walked the line. And wrote them, too. The rugged country legend tells his story in world-weary style, from his harsh childhood on a cotton farm to his amphetamine and painkiller addictions, attempted suicide and spiritual awakening. Admirably honest and humbling, it’s as effortlessly badass as the Man In Black was himself.
Key details: The casual chaos of stories including Cash starting a forest fire with a car and nearly getting disembowelled by an ostrich.
Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens
Late inflammatory political commentator Christopher Hitchens dissects the origins of his vocal opinions in this crisply candid memoir, which sparkles with witty stories and quotable turns of phrase. Full of famous friends and fierce feuds, it’s like a chain-smoking, whisky-soaked lock-in with your funniest, most indiscreet mate.
Key details: Being spanked on the buttocks by Margaret Thatcher and visiting a brothel with Martin Amis.
Empire State Of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner To Corner Office by Zack O’Malley Greenburg
An unofficial biography that also functions as a business manual, this study by Forbes reporter Greenburg shows how rapper Shawn Corey Carter, AKA Hova/Jigga/Mr Beyoncé, applied hustling techniques, learnt while drug-dealing in the Eighties Brooklyn projects, to the music industry and built his empire. It’s the rags-to-riches American dream, with added magnums of champagne.
Key details: He was moments away from being shot in 1994 (the gun jammed), and nearly launched the ‘Jay-Z Jeep’ years later.
If Chins Could Kill: Confessions Of A B-Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell
Jut-jawed Campbell is the star of the Evil Dead trilogy, and supporting turns in all sorts of other cult films and TV shows. This anecdote-stuffed sleeper hit provides a knowing, gossipy peek into Hollywood life from the perspective of a man perpetually working in the independent nooks and low-budget crannies.
Key details: The fake blood-spattered tales from the Evil Dead set. And David Duchovny’s chronic flatulence problem.
Fearless: The Undaunted Courage And Ultimate Sacrifice Of Navy Seal Team Six Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm
Andy McNab? Pah. This immersive, inspirational look inside a Navy Seal unit in Afghanistan focuses on one brave man who gave his life for his elite counter-terrorist unit. Serving and veteran Seals swear it’s the most authentic account of their experiences ever written.
Key details: Brown battling personal demons, including drug addiction and jail time, to become an unlikely hero.
The Life Of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
Claimed to be the greatest biography ever, Boswell’s tale of the mighty lexicographer is the result of the pair’s 20-year friendship and brings an era to life, like a Blackadder novelisation.
Key details: The sinking of countless bottles of port, plus Johnson refusing to go backstage at a theatre, because “the actresses’ silk stockings and white bubbies excite my genitals”.
Life by Keith Richards
He’s done enough hard-living to fell several elephants, but Keef’s still hanging on in there. Seven decades of rock, roll, riffs and recklessness are documented in this disarmingly honest memoir: from his Dartford boyhood and discovery of the blues to the decade that catapulted the Stones from back-room bar band to stadium behemoths – plus his relationships with drink, drugs, Mick Jagger and women.
Key details: Richards’ impish voice is always endearing, even when talking about Jagger’s “tiny todger”, but it’s his all-consuming love of music that really shines through.
Dino: Living High In The Dirty Business Of Dreams by Nick Tosches
Dean Martin found fame the hard way. Growing up Dino Crocetti, he pumped gas, boxed, worked in a steel mill, delivered bootleg liquor and dealt craps in a Mafia joint, before turning to crooning and wise-cracking comedy. After two name changes and a nose job, he rose to Rat Pack fame as the group’s boozer and broad-chaser. Dino’s career is also the story of US entertainment, from the heyday of Hollywood and mob-linked Vegas to the rise of TV. Tosches’ story drips with love for, and revulsion at, the Italian barber’s son who became an icon of 20th century US manhood.
Key details: The particularly vivid portraits of the Rat Pack. Ring-a-ding-ding.