We live in a time that has been constructed and shaped by those who have come before us. That includes those from the entertainment industry of yesteryear. These pioneers have helped shape our society in ways that we can’t imagine and sometimes we forget where it all started and how far we have come. One of the best ways to revisit those times is to read these icons’ memoirs.
By Myself by Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall (born as Betty Joan Perske) was an American actress and singer. She has been most well-known for her distinctive voice and sultry looks. Bacall began her career as a model. But she got her big break as a leading lady with Humphrey Bogart in the film To Have and Have Not in 1944. She received an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009, “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures.”
Bacall won a National Book Award for By Myself, which was her memoir. She definitely deserved it! This “nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn” who became Humphrey Bogart’s better half (on and off screen), is able to capture the magic of Hollywood in her book — and without pulling any punches. Of her relationship with Bogart, she wrote: “When we looked at each other, trumpets sounded, rockets went off.”
Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead was an American actress. She conquered both the stage and screen, a reputed libertine. Bankhead was actually known for her husky voice that came along with her outrageous personality and devastating wit. She gained acclaim as an actress in both the United States and Europe.
With tales of cavorting with monkeys as an aspiring actress, entertaining the Wright brothers as a child, and a whole lot of Kentucky bourbon consumption, you will not be bored or disappointed when you read this book. The screen siren’s memoir is as outrageous as the rest of her persona. She said of her life, “I have three phobias which, could I mute them, would make my life as slick as a sonnet, but as dull as ditch water – I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, and I hate to be alone.”
Lulu in Hollywood by Mary Louise Brooks
Mary Louise Brooks, known professionally as Louise Brooks, was a dancer and American film actress. You may actually recognize her as the iconic symbol of the flapper. She also popularized the bobbed haircut. Brooks is best known for her roles in 1929 and 1930 in films titled Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Miss Europe.
Brooks published her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, in 1982, which is a slim collection of essays. Brooks recounts her swift rise and even swifter descent as Hollywood’s favorite bobbed star. She writes, “I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away.” She makes incredibly incisive observations about American film and how it treats women, making this is an essential read for feminists and film lovers alike.
The Richard Burton Diaries by Richard Burton
Richard Burton was a Welsh actor but he was most well-known for his smooth baritone voice. He established himself as a difficult Shakespearean actor in the 1950s. He had a very memorable performance of Hamlet in 1964. Burton’s failure to live up to expectations made him into an alcoholic.
Burton passed away more than three decades ago, so he didn’t really write a memoir; his journals were published after his death. But not until after ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor’s death. There is a good reason for this timing, though. His details about the violet-eyed siren are as scandalous as they come. He wrote, “Elizabeth is an eternal one-night stand. She is my private and personal bought mistress. And lascivious with it.” Burton, who loved to read, proved an impressive writer, as well.
Why Me by Samual George
Samuel George “Sammy” Davis Jr. was an American entertainer. His primary credits come from being a dancer and singer, but he was also an actor of stage and screen, comedian, musician, and impressionist. He has been noted for his impersonations of actors, musicians and other celebrities. Davis became an overnight sensation following a nightclub performance in West Hollywood after the 1951 Academy Awards. In 1954, he lost his left eye in a car accident.
Sammy Davis Jr. may be remembered for many things including being known as the king of shtick but in this bestselling memoir, he gave his shtick credit for breaking all kinds of racial barriers. It is a true testament to the power of positive thinking (and to the fact that a cigar, was never just a cigar).
My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Leslie Flynn
Errol Leslie Flynn was an Australian actor who achieved fame in Hollywood after 1935. He was known for his romantic adventurer roles in Hollywood films. He eventually became an American citizen in 1942. It is his specific roles that most people remember because they seem to translate into his style and personal life.
His memoir is colorful, courageous, boastful, and full of tales of love affairs, international adventures, and even some crime. Flynn’s memoir is just what we’d expect from a swashbuckling movie star—and it only makes it more glamorous. He wrote, “All I had to do was stick my face into this gruesome mess and bite off the young sheep’s testicles. Dag a hogget. I had good teeth.”
Kinski Uncut by Klaus Kinski
Klaus Kinski was a German actor who appeared in more than 130 films. For many years, his own writings were the only source of facts about his life but there is something to be said for that. These writings were not questioned or doubted by independent analysts but it has been said that Kinski had fabricated much of his autobiography. Which can really make a person wonder what his autobiography contains.
The German actor’s memoir became a worldwide bestseller through the power of his unlimited gall. Apparently, he tells tales about his rise as an international star from a poor child in prewar Berlin. But it doubles as a harrowing, pornographic testament to his life —one you can’t look away from.
Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman by Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian and American film actress. She was also an inventor. After a brief film career in Germany (that included the controversial film Ecstasy), she fled from her husband. He was a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer. She secretly moved to Paris and met MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood. She became a film star and was remembered for her work in the 1930s to the 1950s.
Lamarr was very comfortable with her body and intimacy; in these vastly uninhibited pages, she gets down and dirty about her six marriages as well as her “hundreds” of lovers. She writes, “I would tell anyone who wants something from someone else to feign not wanting it. People are perverse.” This is a fabulous read for women decades ahead of her time.
My Lucky Stars by Shirley MacLaine
Shirley MacLaine is an American film, television, and theater actress. She is also a singer, dancer, activist, and author. MacLaine received the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 2012, is an Academy Award winner, and received the Kennedy Center Honors for her lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts in 2013. She is known for her New Age beliefs, and has written a series of autobiographical works that describe these beliefs along with her world travels and her Hollywood career.
In her memoir, she recounts her high times with old and new Hollywood. She discusses her associations with the Rat Pack, Debra Winger, and her first director, good old “Hitch.” She even gets into some juicy details of her extramarital affairs. All in all, it is a rewardingly indecent tell-all for such an evolved woman—and we love every sentence of it!
Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth by Lana Turner
Lana Turner was an American film and television actress; discovered in 1937 by William R. Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter. It is actually a very intriguing story—they met as she sipped a Coke at the counter of the Top Hat Café of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Turner attracted attention in her first film, They Won’t Forget. Media controversy surrounded Turner in 1958. Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Turner’s lover Johnny Stompanato to death in their Beverly Hills home. It was later determined to be an act of self-defense.
In wonderfully charismatic style, Turner tells her story and it is apparent that her self-absorption seems utterly merited. A sample, she writes, “I was bouncing back quickly, partly because of my natural resiliency. But I also had help. His name was Fernando Lamas.”
Goodness Has Nothing to Do With It by Mary Jane West
Mary Jane “Mae” West was so many things but she ultimately was an icon. She was an American actress, singer, comedian, screenwriter, playwright, and a gorgeous woman whose entertainment career spanned a staggering seven decades. Known for her breezy independence, West made a name for herself on the stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood. That is where she became a comedian, actress, and writer in the motion picture industry, as well as appearing on radio and television. West encountered many problems (especially censorship). It made her one of the more controversial movie stars of her day.
West’s memoir is arguably not very accurate since she always did like to control her public relations. But it is full of hard, cold facts about Hollywood. From censorship to marriage, intimacy, and misogyny, not to mention her signature bad-girl quips, like, “A man in the house is worth two in the streets.”
Shirley Jones: A Memoir by Shirley Jones
Shirley Mae Jones is an American singer and actress. She has accomplished approximately six decades of show business. She has starred as wholesome characters in a number of well-known musical films and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing a vengeful prostitute in the 1960s film, Elmer Gantry. She is arguably most well-known for playing the lead role of Shirley Partridge in the musical television series The Partridge Family.
Jones raised more than a couple of eyebrows with her racy 2013 autobiography; she also angered Joan Collins with one of her most racy claims. Jones claimed that the Dynasty star’s husband Anthony Newley invited Jones and then hubby Jack Cassidy to get naked and watch porn with them after a dinner party. Collins was not amused and responded with a cease-and-desist letter, asking publishers Simon & Schuster to correct the story. She demanded her name be removed from eBook versions of the memoir.
Pryor Convictions by Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (yes, quite a mouth full!) was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, and actor who was known for uncompromising examinations of racism and newsworthy contemporary issues. You could expect vulgarities and profanity, as well as racial descriptions from Pryor’s shows.
So what else could be expected of Pryor’s memoir than outrageously funny and outrageously sad accounts from his life? Pryor’s memoir captures the entire sorted story of who he was and what he experienced. He was a guy raised in a brothel, a freebasing cokehead, a scathingly brilliant cultural observer who’s become the most powerful comedian this country has ever seen. He has said, “What I’m saying might be profane, but it’s also profound.”
Unsinkable by Debbie Reynolds
Mary Frances “Debbie” Reynolds was an American actress, singer, film historian, humanitarian and businesswoman who has one of the most successful careers in Hollywood. She was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1950. Her breakout role was in 1952 as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain. She continued to star in several films and in 1959, she released her first pop music album, titled Debbie.
In her second memoir, she gets real about her financial struggles and her daughter, Carrie Fisher. She shares her thoughts about Hollywood’s short memory and her personal mentors Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Reynolds comes off as a tough, likable broad who is still learning every day.
Audition by Barbara Walters
Barbara Walters is an American broadcast journalist who is known for having hosted of a variety of television programs, including Today, The View, 20/20, and ABC Evening News. She is also an author and television personality. She has had a very lengthy television career and since retirement from any full-time commitments, she still occasionally reports for ABC News.
A lot of the memoirs on this list detail many interesting events throughout the person’s life but for a more serious read, try out Barbara Walter’s 2009 memoir Audition. She recounts her childhood as the daughter of a nightclub owner with a disabled sister, and how those two circumstances dramatically shaped her life. She also talks about being the first woman to cohost the TODAY show, interviewing heads of state and celebrities, along with some of her experiences on 20/20, and The View.
Love, Lucy by Lucille Ball
Lucille Désirée Ball was an American actress and comedian who was best known as the star of the hit show, I Love Lucy. She was also a model, film-studio executive, and producer and produced shows including I Love Lucy, The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, and Life with Lucy.
This memoir was published eight years after her death in 1989. It recounts her childhood in rural New York, her marriage to Desi Arnaz, the turbulent years between them (which brought much controversy) and making it big on I Love Lucy. Readers who are personal fans of Ball will be excited to discover backstage anecdotes from the show and intimate memories of her two children; Ball’s second marriage to Gary Morton closes out the memoir.
Here We Go Again by Betty Marion White Ludden
Betty Marion White Ludden is an American actress, whose claim to fame is being everyone’s beloved grandma with the longest television career of a female entertainer (impressive, no?). White is regarded as a pioneer of television. She was one of the first women to have control both in front of and behind the camera. She is also recognized as the first woman to produce a sitcom. In terms of acting work, she is known for her Emmy Award-winning roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls.
It is safe to say that no one has worked harder in the television industry than Betty White. In her memoir, which was published in 2010, discusses her first five decades in Hollywood. White talks about everything, and you know she has some good gossip!
This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Creighton Burnett
Carol Creighton Burnett is an American actress and comedian who is best known for her long-running TV variety show, The Carol Burnett Show. She is also a singer and a writer whose career spans six decades of television. She has achieved success on stage, television, and film in varying genres. She also has appeared on various talk shows and game shows.
Carol Burnett’s memoir details her life and the power of laughter. From her famous friendships, behind-the-scenes stories and even one interesting story about how the Tarzan yell saved her from a mugging. Even through the low points in her life, Burnett uses the power of laughter to get through it. But this isn’t her only memoir so if you are a fan of The Carol Burnett Show, you should get her new memoir, In Such Good Company, to get a more in depth look at her life on the show.
My Mother Was Nuts by Carole Penny Marshall
Carole Penny Marshall is an American actress, director, and producer who was very popular as Laverne on the show Laverne & Shirley. In 1975, Marshall was cast as Laverne DeFazio for a guest appearance on the sitcom Happy Days, prompting the popular spin-off sitcom. She was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her performance three times and has directed Blockbuster hits such as Big and A League of Their Own.
Nothing is off limits in the Laverne & Shirley star’s 2012 memoir. She includes tales about her acting gigs, directorial roles, failed marriages, and friendships with Cindy Williams and Carrie Fisher; she even claims that despite coming from a successful family, her immense success was somewhat of a fluke.
My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke
Richard Wayne “Dick” Van Dyke is a television icon. He is an American actor, comedian, singer, dancer, writer, and producer. His entertainment career has spanned almost seven decades. After gaining recognition on radio and Broadway, Van Dyke became known for his role during the 1960s as Rob Petrie on sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Dick Van Dyke was one of the brightest stars on television in the 1960s with The Dick Van Dyke Show. He entertained people of all ages, making him the definition of “entertainer.” He was also one of the biggest names in Hollywood thanks to Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In his 2012 memoir, Van Dyke talks in detail about his enormous success and how he handles it, which makes readers realize he is a real person, too.