A Dozen Biographies to Take Center Stage this Fall

More than 100 biographies will compete for reader interest this fall. But here are a dozen that, based on industry buzz, are likely to attract the most attention.

By James McGrath Morris

More than 100 biographies will compete for reader interest this fall.  But here are a dozen that, based on industry buzz, are likely to attract the most attention.

Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, by Patricia Bosworth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Bosworth, a well-known New York writer and editor, has known Fonda for decades. This insider’s view of one of America’s most loved and hated actresses is bound to attract a lot of attention.

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And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt). Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, has produced the first-ever biography of Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels have legions of fans of all ages. At first, the late Vonnegut declined to cooperate with Shields. But his persistent would-be Boswell would not take “no” for an answer and during Vonnegut’s last year alive, Shields had access to the author and his letters.

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Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson, by Amanda Smith (Knopf). Washingtonians of a certain age will remember Patterson, who made the failing Washington Herald into the town’s leading paper for a brief time following her famous motto: “When your grandmother gets raped, put it on the front page.”  Smith worked on this book for years and the 720 pages promises to reward readers with an interest in press lords, or in this case, press ladies.

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Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, by Lisa Chaney (Penguin).  Chaney, author of Hide and Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie, unearthed love letters that portend to answer questions about Chanel’s drug habits, lesbian affairs, and her German lover during World War II.

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Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, by David Margolick (Yale University Press). Their photograph—a young black girl on her way to Little Rock Central High, and a white girl looking on in anger, rage, and hate—is iconic. Now Margolick tells the story of the photo, of the lives of the two women and how neither could ever escape the one second in their lives frozen in time by a photographer.

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Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue, by Marc Spitz (Penguin). Using remembrances of those who have surrounded Jagger for decades, Spitz has assembled both a biography and a cultural history of this musical icon. He didn’t get any interviews with Jagger, but you don’t always get what you want, you get what you need.

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Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin (Penguin). This is a publishing event. One of England’s most acclaimed biographers, Tomalin takes on the life of the nation’s most beloved writer.

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A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, by Michael Holroyd (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; published in the UK by Chatto, 2010) By the author of Lytton Strachey and Bernard Shaw, this book is a puzzle but bound to draw in readers. Ostensibly about several unknown women, with a biographer as part of the mix, this book will charm those with an interest in the craft of biography.

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James Madison, by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books). Brookhiser, the author of several books on founding figures, returns with a profile of the man known as the Father of the Constitution. No new secret letters or revelations but like other biographies of early American figures by a well-known author, this one is likely to find many readers.

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Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes (Doubleday). If you think of Rhodes as only capable of producing nuclear histories, this work will change your mind about the nimble Pulitzer Prize winner. Rhodes manages to combine science and beauty, film and war efforts into a tale full of surprises.

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Fraternity, by Diane Brady (Spiegel & Grau). Even if you don’t read this book, you’ll hear about it. A Jesuit priest recruits young black students for Holy Cross and winds up bringing to campus the likes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington author Edward P. Jones, Eddie Jenkins, a Miami Dolphins running back during the team’s 1972 perfect season, and others.

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American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, by David O. Stewart (Simon & Schuster).  This book, filled with double-dealing, treachery, intrigue and dreams of empires, will make today’s politics seem tame. Stewart, president of The Washington Independent Review of Books and the author of a history of the Constitutional Convention, is at the peak of his powers in this unforgettable slice of American history.

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