10 Great Biographies and Memoirs Spotlighting Right Hand Men


Everyone loves a good memoir — we don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about a true, personal story that gets us every time, especially when it comes from someone we’ve already been idolizing from afar. Enter Biographile, one of our recently-discovered favorite websites, dedicated to biographies and memoirs and the readers who love them. To commemorate the release of Grace Coddington’s new memoir, Grace , which hits shelves next week, the kind folks at Biographile have curated a list of some of their favorite biographies and memoirs by and about the right hand men (and women) who have found their own spotlight. Click through to see which they chose, and if your favorite sidekick memoir has gotten the brush, add on to their list in the comments!

Grace Coddington

Were it not for The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s 2009 behind-the scenes documentary starring Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief and reigning force behind American Vogue (and inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada), Grace Coddington, the magazine’s delightfully outspoken creative director, would still be fashion’s best-kept secret. In her TIME review of the documentary, Mary Pols wrote, “If Wintour is the Pope… Coddington is Michelangelo, trying to paint a fresh version of the Sistine Chapel 12 times a year.” In her memoir, Grace, which comes out November 20, Coddington acknowledges the role the documentary played in her life. Initially resistant to the whole affair, Coddington eventually acquired an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude and agreed to participate in the filming. Coddington stepped out of Wintour’s shadow and into spotlight, perhaps because she dared to speak her mind to the Devil.

Photo credit: Arthur Elgort, 1998. From Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington © 2012 by Grace Coddington.

Keith Richards

On stage, mad, bad, dangerous-to-know Keith Richards stands off-center of Stones front man, Mick Jagger. The two have suffered a notoriously rocky relationship, as detailed in Richards’ 2010 autobiography, Life . According to Richards, Jagger, who is jokingly referred to as either “Your Majesty” or “Brenda,” became unbearable over the years; however, Richards assures his readers that the two do not hate each other, as it might seem, but rather see through two different ideological lenses. Fans saw the enmity “as if it was North and South Korea, when all it was was East and West Berlin” with a wall standing in between them.

Photo credit: The Rolling Stones 50, courtesy Mirrorpix via Rolling Stone

Ed McMahon

On October 1, 1962, Ed McMahon announced, for the very first time, “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” He then went on to call out that very same thing at the very same time for the next thirty years as Johnny Carson’s sidekick on NBC’s The Tonight Show. While Carson performed his monologue, McMahon could always be found offering a “Heyyy-o!” dutifully by his side, and when Carson moved to his desk, McMahon joined him in the guest chair. In his 1998 autobiography, Here’s Johnny , McMahon summed up his role on the show to say, “I had to support him. I had to help him get to the punch line, but while doing it I had to make it look as if I wasn’t doing anything at all. The better I did it, the less it appeared as if I was doing it … If I was going to play second fiddle, I wanted to be the Heifetz of second fiddlers.” For thirty years, McMahon was Johnny Carson’s perfect foil, America’s perfect sidekick.

Photo credit: NBC via The New York Times

Paul Allen

Paul Allen is not nearly the household name that Bill Gates has become. Unsurprising, then, is the fact that the two have endured a rather stormy partnership. Allen’s relationship with his high school friend and business partner, Gates, has been likened to something of a bad first marriage. In his 2011 incendiary work, Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft , Allen wrote, “I was Mr. Slow Burn, like Walter Matthau to Bill’s Jack Lemmon.” And it’s true, the first half of Mr. Allen’s memoir reads like an exposé of nuptials gone sour. He paints Gates as a scheming, money-minded future mogul out for his partner’s stake in the company, while preserving his own reputation as a visionary ahead of his time.

Photo via Ceconf Technology

Dean Martin

Together, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were known as Martin and Lewis, a legendary double act and iconic crooner/comedy team. On Tuesday, July 24, 1956, at the Copacabana in New York, Martin and Lewis played their final show together, ten years to the day their professional affair began. Martin, as he always did, assumed the romantic lead, the straight man to Lewis’ comedic foil. Their honeymoon eventually ended when Martin became embittered and disillusioned as Lewis doused himself in the spotlight. To the devastation of a legion of fans, but above all, Jerry Lewis, Martin called it quits. In 2005, a decade after Martin’s passing, Lewis wrote Dean and Me: (A Love Story) , a joyous and heartbreaking account of his time spent alongside his best friend and revered singing partner.

Photo via St. Louis Core

George Burns

George Burns and Gracie Allen met while performing in vaudeville in 1923. When they first started out, Burns was the comedian and she was the “straight man.” But their act didn’t work — Gracie was getting all the laughs. In his 1988 memoir, Gracie: A Love Story , Burns wrote, “I didn’t have to be a genius to understand that there was something wrong with a comedy act when the straight lines got more laughs than the punch lines.” Burns flipped the formula around, gave Gracie the punch lines, she evolved her old “Dumb Dora” routine and developed what they called an “illogical logic.” Their act became a hit, a television show was developed, and Burns and Allen achieved worldwide fame. “Gracie was the whole act,” Burns wrote.

Photo via

William Henry Seward

William H. Seward was a progressive governor of New York, a United States senator, and the Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Seward was an adamant opponent of the spread of slavery and a leading contender for the Republican nomination in the 1860 presidential election. He, of course, lost the nomination to Lincoln, but that hardly deterred the relationship between the two leaders. Once great rivals, Steward became a loyal member of Lincoln’s wartime cabinet and the President’s right-hand man. They were opposites — Lincoln, brooding, and Seward, the idealist — but it made for a successful collaboration. On the same night President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre, Seward was stabbed by one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. Seward survived, though Lincoln, of course, did not. In his new biography, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man , which came out last month, Walter Stahr writes of the 19th century figure whose legacy is often obscured by the shadow of Lincoln’s very tall hat.

Lou Costello

William “Bud” Abbott and Lou Costello were an iconic comedy duo whose routine “Who’s on First?” is regarded as one of the greatest comedy bits of all time. Prior to Martin and Lewis, Bud and Lou were America’s number one comedy team. They made 36 movies and met Frankenstein, which audiences love because they knew that whenever Lou was scared he would offer his signature cry of, “Heyyy Abbott!” The 1981 biography, Lou’s on First , offers a portrait of Costello’s comedy career alongside Bud Abbott, as recounted by Costello’s youngest son, Chris Costello.

Photo via TCM

Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev was, for a time, one of Joseph Stalin’s closest advisers. He served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, supported Stalin’s purges, and was employed as the intermediary between Stalin and his generals. Three years after Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev delivered the “Secret Speech” to the 20th congress of the Communist party of the USSR in Moscow, in which he denounced his previous politics, and by extension, his association with Stalin’s reign, in his own effort to consolidate his control of the Communist party. There are several biographies written about Khrushchev, including William Taubman’s 2004 work, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era , which was shortlisted for the National Books Critics Circle Award. Khrushchev’s son, Sergei Khrushchev, also edited and released the Soviet Premier’s memoirs in three installments.

Max Perkins

Max Perkins, renowned as the greatest editor of all time, transformed the literary landscape when he introduced the world to some of our most iconic writers. Perkins discovered and published the debut novels of up-and-comers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Notably, Thomas Wolfe, whom he also discovered, was Perkins’ greatest professional challenge and tested his mettle as both a friend and an editor, as he helped Wolfe refine his writing. Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea was dedicated to Max Perkins’ life and memory. A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius reveals the life of an indelible figure, as well as the complex relationship between author and editor. The biography is currently being adapted into a movie that will star Colin Firth as Perkins and Michael Fassbender as Thomas Wolfe.