The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein
One of the weirdest “biographies” of all time, a playful and irreverent work in which Stein documents — in her partner Toklas’ voice — some 30 years of her own life and their life together.
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Frida Kahlo
There have probably been hundreds of books written about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, but here I’ll recommend the most revealing: a beautiful facsimile edition of Kahlo’s diary, which covers the last ten years of her life in reminiscences, dreams, love letters, poems, treatises on pain, and watercolor illustrations, all in her own hand.
The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller
Miller’s razor-sharp “metabiography” investigates not only the women behind some of the English language’s most revered novels, but the legend and cultish interest that surrounded them during their lives (and into the present), arguing that it is in fact this latter nebulous, ever-changing thing (literary London wanted to know: are they saints? are they spinsters? are they revolutionaries?) that brought them the most cultural importance.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell
And since we’re on Brontë-mania, here’s the book that, according to Miller, “marked the birth of the Brontës as cultural icons” — the classic and essential construction to go side by side with Miller’s deconstruction.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs
In this remarkable book, one of the few existing personal narratives (that we know of) written by an enslaved woman, Jacobs recounts her escape from a savage master and her epic journey to reunite with her family in the north.
The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm
Here’s another postmodern biography of a famous, cult-inspiring, much-projected-on female writer. In The Silent Woman, Malcolm investigates both Plath’s life and her legacy, particularly the way the latter extends, is shaped, and is controlled. She also comments on the limits and wonders of memory and biography itself, especially when they surround someone as obsession-fueling as Plath.
Just Kids, Patti Smith
Queen of punk Patti Smith’s blockbuster memoir lays bare her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and the story of how she became an artist in the New York City of the late ’60s and ’70s. A delight, with lots of cameos from names you know.
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Duh. Anne Frank.
Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon
The brand-new memoir of art and love and music from one of rock’s greatest, coolest heroines.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
The classic poetic memoir by national treasure Maya Angelou. As James Baldwin wrote, it is a book that “liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie
A captivating biography of one of the most powerful women in history from one of the best chroniclers of Russian history at work today.
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, Lauren Redniss
This gorgeous “biography-in-collage” juxtaposes images and words to tell the story of Marie Curie’s loves and discoveries. A work of art in itself, filled with the words of both the Curies and their granddaughter, it’s unlike any other biography — or book — you’ll read.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore
OK, OK, so Wonder Woman is fictional. Don’t think I don’t know! And yes, her creator was a man, and lots of this book is about him. But Ms. Wonder Woman has had enough impact on American culture, and her story has enough implications for women everywhere (feminism! female cartoonists! female icons!), that I’m counting it.
Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, Marion Meade
A brilliant biography of a brilliant (and wicked, and wise-cracking) writer, one of the few that truly investigates all of her many contradictions, and interrogates all those myths we’ve been passing back and forth about her for ages.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nancy Milford
A biography as electric and multifaceted as the great poet herself, unpacking both her incendiary poetry and her wild life. Plus, it’s an absolute thrill to read.
Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff
Cleopatra is one of the most vibrant and compelling characters in the history of the world — but who was she, really? Schiff’s biography dusts off the real woman underneath all the myth and misunderstanding, and finds a shrewd politician, a leader, and a warrior.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Didion’s account of her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness is a modern classic of memoir and an inside look at grief as experienced by one of the most brilliant, fascinating women alive today.
By Myself and Then Some, Lauren Bacall
The National Book Award-winning memoir by one of the silver screen’s most iconic and charismatic actresses — and then some. In this case, that “some” is 80 extra pages added to the original 1979 book, telling Bacall’s story into the 21st century. Way smarter than your average celebrity memoir, and cooler too.
The Story of My Life, Helen Keller
The classic 1903 autobiography of the extraordinary Helen Keller, who managed to accomplish a hell of a lot without sight, hearing, or speech. It’ll make you reconsider all those excuses.
D.V., Diana Vreeland
The delightful, fashion-forward autobiography of modern style icon and all-around charmer Diana Vreeland.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Chang
The incredible story of Cixi, who began as a 16-year-old concubine of Emperor Xianfeng and wound up not only taking the reigns of the entire country, but bringing it into the modern era — in terms of infrastructure, military equipment, electricity, and women’s rights. Cixi is remembered as a feminist icon and perhaps the most influential woman to have lived in 19th-century China.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai
Talk about great women — Malala Yousafzai, teenage Pakistani women’s education advocate, is now the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her memoir, one hopes, is only the beginning.
Marilyn Monroe, Donald Spoto
A million and one books have been written about Marilyn Monroe. This one is still the definitive story.
Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), Stacy Schiff
“Without my wife,” Nabokov once said, “I wouldn’t have written a single novel.” Schiff’s bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Véra Nabokov is a beauty, a riveting, lucid love story and a complex portrait of an incredible woman.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Vols. 1 & 2, Blanche Weisen Cook
The definitive, gargantuan biography of America’s most-discussed first lady.
Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, Laurie Lisle
More than just the preeminent purveyor of vaginal flower paintings, O’Keeffe is an American legend, a romantic, avant-garde, supremely individual artist and human. This is the first full and well-loved biography, lacking only for more images of the wondrous art in question.
Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Julia Briggs
One of the few biographies of Woolf to take as its primary subject the artist, her creative process, and the work itself rather than the myth and social dramas of the famous writer’s life. If you’re one of those people who reads Woolf because of the way she represents experience, because of the quality of mind that seeps into all of her prose, this is the Woolf biography for you.
Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Jean-Claude Baker
The ugly, beautiful, iconic, sexy, larger-than-life story of sensational chorus girl Josephine Baker, as told by “the 13th of her 12 adopted children.” An intriguing look at a character that never gets old.
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon
A vindication indeed for writer, thinker, philosopher, and feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft, whose legacy has suffered much from attacks by other writers and sexist readings of her life and work. This book is the proper biography for a giant like Wollstonecraft.
Personal History, Katharine Graham
The candid, Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of the woman who ran The Washington Post for decades — including through Watergate. She was also the first female Fortune 500 CEO and the person in whose honor Truman Capote’s famous Black & White Ball was thrown, and and and… she’s kind of incredible. This book, both memoir and history, is too.
Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott J. Gorn
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” Or just read this great biography of one of our country’s most famous rabble-rousers, the labor organizer and radical icon Mary Harris.
Bossypants, Tina Fey
Everyone’s favorite book by everyone’s favorite smart-as-hell comedienne, which tells the story of her rise from young nerd to older, but hot and famous, nerd — and also manages to offer a whole plethora of hilarious and wise insights on life.
Grace: A Memoir, Grace Coddington
A frank, witty memoir by the force of nature also known as the creative director of Vogue, peppered with insight, stories, and Coddington’s own whimsical illustrations. Dare I say it: this book is rather a better Bible than Vogue itself.
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Valerie Boyd
This poetic, riveting biography of Hurston, filled with meticulous research and told generously, unpacks a complex and important life.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, Joan D. Hedrick
Hedrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography about the author of one of the most influential novels ever written (supposedly Lincoln credited it with starting the Civil War) illuminates Stowe’s fascinating career as well as her private life — shedding particular light on the built-in tragedies that came with being a woman in the 19th century.
Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee
The best biography of Wharton to date — a meticulously researched masterpiece that unveils one of the world’s greatest writers in all her tough, contradictory glory.
Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser
A thoughtful, compelling portrait of everyone’s favorite lavish (and lavishly unhappy) girl queen — one that shows her humanity and compassion, arguing against her “let them eat cake” persona and instead painting her as a courageous, aware monarch caught in a changing world.
Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon
This hefty work is a fast-paced, keen-eyed portrait of one of Broadway’s most revered women — the author of The Heidi Chronicles, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony (making her the first female playwright to win the award). An uncommonly good book that does justice to this uncommonly interesting woman.
Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, Nell Irvin Painter
Probably the best book out there about Sojourner Truth — kick-ass abolitionist, truth-teller, preacher, feminist, and all-around legend.
American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, Karen Abbott
A great cultural history that tells as much about American in the ’20s as it does about its alluring subject, the glamorous, swaggering stripper known as Gypsy Rose Lee.
Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook
Middlebrook’s National Book Award-nominated biography of the great, tragic American poet was controversial at the time of its release for its use of recorded tapes from Sexton’s psychotherapy sessions — and for the disturbing secrets they uncovered. But controversy or no, it’s a deep dive into the life and mind of a true artist, and worth a read for any lover of her work.
Zelda, Nancy Milford
Ah, the “other” Fitzgerald. The story of Zelda is a tragic one: a woman whose own talent was overshadowed by her husband’s, who began as a luminous girl, turned into a famous lush, and died in an asylum. An endlessly interesting (if sometimes depressing) read.
Lee Miller: A Life, Carolyn Burke
A brilliantly written biography of everybody’s favorite model turned war correspondent slash muse of Man Ray slash photographer in her own right. As if there were anyone else like her, I mean.
Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, Carolyn Burke
Since we’re on Burke, she also penned this important and relentlessly captivating biography of the avant-garde modernist poet Mina Loy. Lady knows how to pick her subjects.
Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White
A striking portrait of a woman, an activist (and “womanist”), and a writer who has been (and remains) an enormous influence on American literature and culture.
Barbara Jordan: American Hero, Mary Beth Rogers
The inspiring story of the first black woman from the South to be elected to Congress, an incredible orator but an extremely private person who hid her multiple sclerosis nearly until her death.
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
In this classic work, Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) tells the story of her life running a coffee plantation in Kenya. But in truth, this book is to be read less for its autobiographical information or even its storytelling, than for Dinesen’s incredible, luminous, heat-seeking prose.
Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale, Gillian Gill
An intimate portrait of the Lady with the Lamp that focuses on her home life rather than her historical significance. For the nosy among you.
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Moser
A meaty new biography of the extraordinary Lispector, a brilliant, beautiful, and difficult writer. This book is partly to thank for the Brazilian modernist’s resurgence of late.
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson
The first biography of the mistress of crime fiction, which reveals both her darkness and her brilliance.