So that I can use this memoir-sharing day to talk about a biography, I’m insisting that biography is a cousin to memoir. After all, they are both non-fiction and try to examine a real life.
Where they differ is that a) biography shows the whole of someone’s life–from birth or before to death or the age the person is at the point of book publication, whereas memoir focuses on a certain aspect of someone’s life, such as coming-of-age, and b) biography is written by someone other than the protagonist, and memoir is written by the protagonist herself.
But I have an even better reason for sticking a biography in here today instead of a memoir. I’ll tell you my reason in a sec.
The biography I recently finished is Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother by Carolyn Quinn, who blogs at Splendiferous Everything. You’ve heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque star? June Havoc, the movie star? “Mama Rose,” as she’s known in pop culture, is the mother of those two celebrities. She herself is the inspiration for the starring role in the musical Gypsy.
Even if the title of the musical doesn’t ring a bell for you, there is no doubt you’ve heard the songs before. They are classics of the American songbook. Mama Rose herself has been played by Ethel Merman, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Rosalind Russell, and Bernadette Peters. Whew. I am on a mission to collect every version of “Some People” I can, as it’s one of my favorite songs.
Bette and Angela are two of my favorite versions:
And then there is Liza!!!!
Anyway, the other reason I feel that this book belongs in memoir country is that part of the research Quinn used to write this book is based on the memoirs of Rose’s two daughters. That’s right–both Gypsy and June wrote their own memoirs! And I haven’t read them yet . . . . But I can’t wait!
Quinn believes that Gypsy wrote her own memoir. Additionally, she wrote two novels, a play, and shorter memoir pieces for The New Yorker.
June, on the other hand, probably had a ghost writer for her two memoirs.
Are you wondering if you should read Quinn’s biography of Mama Rose? Yes, definitely! What a CHARACTER (Rose, not Quinn)!!! And if you’ve seen the musical on stage or screen, you don’t know HALF the story! Actually you don’t know a lot of the story because, as Quinn points out, the full name of the musical is Gypsy: A Musical Fable. It’s only loosely based on the true story. I won’t give away all the fascinating facts I learned about the lives of these three women, but I will tell you that I was amazed to discover that Baby June/Dainty June (June Havoc as a kid) was a super talented dancer and performing star in Vaudeville when she was young.
Recently, Carol Balawyder, on her blog, listed the three types of biographies as mentioned by Michael Holroyd:
- the biographer who writes about the very famous – film stars, murderers and royal family
- the ambitious professor who writes historical and political biographies
- the literary or artistic biographer.
This book is squarely in the #1 category. The protagonist is a notorious celebrity. You’ll have to read the book to see if she deserves the notoriety bestowed on her.
Go. Read. Enjoy.