We recently gave you a list of must-read biographies of American greats. But, as the saying goes, sometimes the stories are best when they come from the sources themselves. If you’d rather read things firsthand, here’s the chance for more stories of icons—from actors to authors, singers to Supreme Court justices—in their own words.
10 American Icons: In Their Own Words
One of the most influential and iconic actors in the history of modern film, Charlie Chaplin’s heartfelt and humorous memoir covers his childhood, rise to fame, international celebrity, controversial downfall, and eventual European exile. It’s one of the most candid and fascinating portraits of artistic genius that you’ll read.
A modern classic, Maya Angelou’s memoir of her childhood is equal parts painful, poetic, mysterious, and moving as it recounts the time during which Angelou and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother after their mother abandoned them. This coming-of-age tale is honest and pulls no punches when it comes to the highs and lows of Angelou’s experiences.
As joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable as childhood itself, Maya Angelou’s debut memoir captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou was awarded in 2011.
The first black actor to win an Oscar in the leading category, Sidney Poitier’s influence on film and culture is significant and triumphant. In this memoir of the many roles he’s played—actor, father, husband, activist, and man—he journeys into the depths of his personal and public lives to explore the nature of love, art, sacrifice, race, rage, forgiveness, and integrity.
Before she was charming us with cooking lesson on national television, Julia Child was living in France with her diplomat husband, Paul. She didn’t speak a word of the language and knew nothing about the country or its cuisine, but she knew she had to occupy her time somehow. Soon she found herself falling in love with French culture and food. In this unforgettable story, she finds her second life, and the reader sees a new side of a classic American personality.
From the first perfectly soigné meal that she and her husband savored en route to their new life in Paris, Julia Child had an awakening that changed her life. Soon this tall, outspoken California girl was chatting with purveyors in local markets and enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu. Filled with photographs and laced with the good spirit that made her such an extraordinary success, Julia’s memoir of falling in love with French food makes for the perfect winter escape.
Originally released in 1956, this timeless memoir chronicles the struggles and sensational life of Billie Holliday, the legendary jazz singer who found herself on a roller-coaster ride from a difficult childhood in Baltimore, the blossoming Harlem music scene and sold-out performances, to the tragic addictions and barriers that brought about her decline.
Celebrated for her genre-defying, game-changing artistic style and talent, Grace Jones is one of the most iconic entertainers of the twentieth century. When she emerged from the Studio 54/disco scene of the 1970s, Jones was a musician, but soon she expanded her career into film and fashion. Spanning her life—and the world, from Jamaica to Paris, New York, and everywhere in between—with endlessly entertaining and insightful reflections, readers will be glad that Jones’s title isn’t a true statement.
Bruce Springsteen spent seven years writing the story of his life, and the result is this revelatory and riveting memoir, which spans his childhood in New Jersey to his rise to fame with the E Street Band and the personal experiences and struggles that have inspired his iconic body of work. It’s an account that could only come from the man himself, and it transcends the typical musical memoir, being instead a story about coming-of-age, ambition, devotion, and humanity.
During his 8 years in office, the former president didn't kept his love of The Boss a secret. Bruce Springsteen sang his hit song “The Rising” at the first inauguration, and “The Land of Hope and Dreams” closed out President Obama’s farewell address. And while he was in office, Obama awarded Springsteen both a Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Since her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has played a crucial role in determining life-changing legislation for countless Americans. This collection of writing, briefs, arguments, and context for her personal beliefs, organized and introduced by the Notorious RBG and her biographers, is the best example of her enduring legacy and influence on law, society, and American history, and is both insightful and inspiring.
If there’s one name that defines television in the twentieth century, it’s Lucy. No comedienne has made America smile so big, feel so much, or care so deeply. In this warm and witty memoir from Lucille Ball, we learn about the woman behind the character, whose fiery spirit defined culture onscreen and off. It’s a story of her childhood, her career, her marriage (and divorce) to Desi Arnaz, and her eventual happy ending that is filled with light and laughter.
An extraordinary story of an extraordinary man, this classic autobiography documents not only Malcolm X’s life but also the rise of a movement that shook an entire nation to its core—then and now. As the controversial leader of Black Muslim activists, he gave critical perspective on the limitations of the American Dream, the inherent racism that plagues our culture, and the timelessness of the struggle.
The shortest book on this list, this searing and important memoir from one of the great thought leaders and activists of American history is a must-read. As he chronicles his childhood, religious beliefs, and the experience of being black in the United States, Malcolm X’s words shine a light on how far we have come as a country—and how much farther we still have to go. . . . Page Count: 460