In these troubled times, star memoirs can hit the spot as a pleasant distraction. Celebrities frequently crank out their life stories in an attempt to stay relevant, maintain their legacy, and control the narrative. They often try to make the best case for themselves, expressing regret for wrongdoing, minimizing sins, or leaning hard into the “adorable” angle.
And then there are those stars who do not seem to care how they are perceived – they tell their story straight and they own their lives without apology.
Guess which ones make for the best reads?
Here’s a shortlist of autobiographies written by luminaries from different disciplines who keep it unremorseful. None of the authors are with us today, so their books have become part of their colorful legacy. Dip in and enjoy.
Evelyn Keyes’ Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister (1978)
Evelyn Keyes (1916-2008) was a respected actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age. An elegant blonde with acting chops, she appeared in many worthy movies of the era, most notably her titular allusion to Gone With the Wind. Still, she will likely be best remembered for this memoir, possibly the gold standard of movie-star tell-alls. Her book is loaded with wit, prurience, juice, and fine writing. We get walked through her four marriages (including directors Charles Vidor and John Huston and bandleader Artie Shaw) and dalliances with many others (Mike Todd and Kirk Douglas among them). Her obvious relish of all the rampant sex and global adventure makes for scintillating reading, and there’s a whole lot of introspection and spirit woven in.
Ray Charles’ Brother Ray (1978)
Revered singer/pianist Ray Charles (1930-2004) began his life with massive childhood losses and early-on blindness. But he had a mother who believed in him, nurtured his musical skills, and insisted he keep up with his chores so he could be autonomous all his life. Then she died while he was a teen away at a special music school, which he deems the saddest event in his life. Throw in the awful racism he transcended and an addiction to heroin and we get Ray Charles: musical miracle and total bad-ass. He makes zero apologies for his womanizing and drug use (the latter which he admirably kicked on his own). He knew his worth and lived his life exactly as he saw fit, earning the devotion of millions that lasts to this day. Brother Ray is witty, gritty, and wildly entertaining. He writes with great heart and in the coolest patois that makes you want to snap your fingers as you take in the details of his extraordinary life. Frank Sinatra famously dubbed him “The Genius.” We would be hard-pressed to disagree.
John Huston’s An Open Book (1980)
Legendary director, artist, actor, and screenwriter John Huston (1906-1987) has titled his book with a bit of a misnomer. It is by no means “an open book,” but a carefully curated account of family history, personal adventures, avid hunting and mad womanizing. It is also an intelligent treatise on movie-making from the auteur of Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen. His writing is elegant and his reputation as a stellar raconteur is well-displayed. Paul Newman dubbed him “the eccentric’s eccentric,” and this assessment is wittily borne out in An Open Book. His lack of contrition for the chaos he brought into the lives of so many (who admittedly kept going back for more) is striking but his charisma is undeniable.
Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again (1991)
Julia Phillips (1944-2002) was a Hollywood producer and subversive, a tiny woman with maximal moxie and minimal scruples. She was the first female producer to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1973’s The Sting, co-produced with her husband Michael. They also produced the impactful ’70s flicks Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She was a wise, mouthy conniver with a massive drug addiction and a personal rallying cry of “No rules!” As clever and gorgeously written as it is a skewering of legends like Steven Spielberg, Erica Jong, Goldie Hawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Warren Beatty, Mike Ovitz, and many others, it is an unforgettable squirm-fest of a book. Phillips was as hard on herself as she was on others, and this stunning exposé of the 1970s Hollywood Boys’ Club belongs on the shelf of any movie fan.
Kingsley Amis’ Memoirs (1991)
English author Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) was one of the finest entrants in the “Angry Young Man” literary genre. His first book Lucky Jim was hailed as one of the most brilliant comic novels of the mid-20th century. Subsequent books sold well and showcased his patented bitter comic edge. Unsurprisingly, his autobiography is a compendium of flesh-tearing Brit sarcasm, cringey observations, and political incorrectness. Not to everyone’s taste, of course. But there is a vibrant excoriation of his parents, colleagues, and revered figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Roald Dahl, Anthony Burgess, Francis Bacon, and Philip Larkin (to whom Lucky Jim was dedicated). Actor Terry-Thomas nailed the smarmy villain in the movie rendition of Lucky Jim, and he doesn’t escape Amis’ scrutiny. Memoirs is a non-linear collection of sundry essays that can be read in any order. They are impeccably written and often hilarious; a worthy summation from a writer who left one hell of a glorious curmudgeonly footprint.
Photo: Ray Charles in 2003, Wikimedia Commons