In Culture


Celebrity Memoirs – Are They Worth the Read?

Other than sating a curiosity about how the rich and famous live or their steps up the ladder of success, can we glean any value from celebrity biographies? Not historical giants nor the life stories of saintly figures like Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama but individuals we know from television, the movies, or music and, perhaps, admire in one way or another. Do their aging journeys match ours? What wisdom do they have for us?

Celebrity biographies are plentiful. Their egos, fortified by their fame and success, must prompt them to tell their life stories but do they impart merit for their readers? Are there life lessons we can take and apply to our own lives. Let’s see.

Two Pauls

Paul Newman and Paul McCartney were both blessed with good looks and often found that could initially hinder recognition of their talent and accomplishments. Newman’s collaborative bio – The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man published posthumouslyis an oral history that combines a mass of interviews with his family and friends plus Newman’s own reflections. All involved committed to complete and total honesty.

The result is a raw, unvarnished memoir of a Hollywood legend that covers his entire life starting with an unhappy childhood, his rise to stardom, his drinking, his friendships with other actor/stars but most revealing is a look at his relationship with Joanne Woodward – his wife of 50 years. Openly and earnestly the book tells of “their love for each other, his dependence on her, how she shaped him intellectually and emotionally,” according to the New York Times book review.

Newman was neither comfortable with his good looks nor confident of his talent. Riddled with self-doubt, he considered himself unworthy of love or acceptance let alone the adulation he often received. But what shines through is his relentless search for truth and redemption. He died a man respected for his undisputed talent as an actor, his philanthropic generosity and his fealty to the most important person in his life – his wife, Joanne.

Paul McCartney at 80 may be hard for Beatle lovers to ponder but it’s a great time to peruse his “tacitly approved” biography written by Philip Norman – Paul McCartney: The Biography — who also wrote a bio of John Lennon. While sometimes cast in Lennon’s shadow and considered not only less edgy and caustic but also less talented, their famed producer, George Martin disagreed saying that “John was lemon to Paul’s olive oil.”

McCartney stands out as the Beatles’ most evolved musician and a keen student of classical music. Devastated by his mother’s death when he was 14, his beloved father – an amateur musician — provided an outlet for his son’s grief by introducing him to music — thus the inspiration for the lyrics “When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, let it be,” from the song Let it Be. 

Taking us from the heady years of the Beatles in the 1960s to his stint as a solo artist up to the present day, what emerges is a career that has rarely faltered. McCartney has a relentless work ethic that has led to a plethora of albums, collaborations and tours. Upon losing his wife Linda – undoubtedly the love of his life — to breast cancer (ironically the disease that also took his mother) McCartney, again, found an outlet for his grief that spurred musical creativity and productivity.

Recognized as the most successful and prolific songwriter of modern times, McCartney has maintained his dignity and decency when so many of his rock and roll contemporaries are riddled with alcohol and drug abuse, love and marital scandals and frequent brushes if not outright clashes with the law.

As often reflected in his songs, McCartney maintains his hopeful nature and not only embraces but celebrates his advancing years. While he remembers the “good old days,” and acknowledges all that he has accomplished he doesn’t wile away reminiscing or dwelling on the past, he’s too busy living his life and composing music.

. . . And Then There’s Katie

Katie Couric, that is. Having earned her stripes on local TV and a stint at CNN, Couric’s big break came with a snafu on NBC when they replaced Jane Pauley with the younger Deborah Norville and it never took. In two short years, they hired Couric for the “Today” co-anchor spot and it was she who elevated the stature of the morning news program.

Couric’s autobiography, Going There, is an amazingly frank memoir brimming with entertaining, insider views of network television plus an emotional ride into the tougher parts of her life, especially losing her first husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer.

Couric identifies with those in her generation – career-oriented and inspired by the Mary Richards role in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Blessed with a strong work ethic and outgoing personality, she over-delivered in every category. She could cut-up with comedians, co-croon with pop stars, dress up in outlandish costumes for Halloween but also conduct hard-edged interviews with local politicians and world leaders.

Another celebrity who sometimes felt confined by her looks, Couric grew to hate the descriptive “perky,” which was often how she was characterized and sometimes overshadowed her real accomplishments as a journalist. But when offered the opportunity to join CBS as the first woman to hold the solo anchor spot on the evening news show, she jumped at it.

By the time Couric’s husband Jay Monahan was diagnosed with colon cancer, it was too late. Nevertheless, Couric did just about everything her celebrity and money could marshal to find doctors and treatments to save him. It didn’t but she used her “Today” platform to take colon cancer out of the shadows. She had her own colonoscopy shown on her show to millions of viewers and succeeded in convincing scores of Americans to recognize the deadliness of the disease and the relatively easy way to diagnose and treat it.   

Having scaled the heights and witnessed the depths of network television machinations and intrigue, Couric has nothing more to prove. She’s far from retired and works on projects that interest her. She, like Newman and McCartney, didn’t live a perfect life, but certainly one with merit that did more good than ill.

Can we learn lessons from these three celebrities? I think so. From Newman we can learn to be accountable for our life and to make the most of crippling setbacks such as a miserable childhood. McCartney teaches us to live in the present and to embrace our advancing years with continued productivity, grace and dignity. Couric provides lessons in accepting one’s own talent and personality by making the most of it and turning one’s own personal tragedy into ways to help others.

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