Great Biographies: Jack Farrell Picks Eight With Some Help From His Friends

John Aloysius Farrell, an author also known as John A. Farrell or Jack, has written a well-received biography, Richard Nixon: The Life. Promoting that book on NPR, he picked his eight favorite biographies. A former reporter for the Denver Post and Boston Globe, Farrell also has written biographies of Tip O’Neill and Clarence Darrow. His favorites:

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro

Truman, by David McCullough

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Hitler: Ascent, 1899-1939, by Volker Ullrich

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, by Evan S. Connell

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles
Earlier on Facebook, Farrell told  friends he was working on the list and he asked for help:

Okay my friends. Need some help. I am writing a column on 5 great biographies that transform our opinion of an historic figure we thought we knew. (This is the same piece that prompted me to ask about Fawn Brodie and Annette Gordon-Reed a few weeks back.) I have whittled my list down to: 1) Brodie and Gordon-Reed on Jefferson, 2) Chernow on Hamilton, 3) Irwin Gellman on the young Nixon, 4) T. Harry Williams on Huey Long and 5) ????

Some of the suggestions:

Joseph Esposito: David McCullough on Harry Truman?

Ron Cohen: Farrell on Clarence Darrow.

Stefanie Weiss: James MacGregor Burns on FDR?

Matthew Pennekamp: Plutarch? In that through writing, he calcified the discordant floating strands of myth about various Greco-Roman public figures into one durable legacy.

Marshall A. Newman: Have you read the first two vol of Neil Hamilton’s books covering the war years. Marvelous!

Bryan Craig: Not sure this fits exactly since it’s also more autobiography: Alex Haley on Malcolm X.

Steve Weinberg: Blanche Wiesen Cook on Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Caro on LBJ.

Lisa Zagaroli: I think you should consider getting away from presidents and pols for your fifth. I learned a lot from Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, but not sure it’s technically a biography.

Karen Tumulty: Caro on LBJ

Marjorie Farrell: Richard the Third, by Paul Murray Kendall

Timothy Kenslea: Michael Kazin on William Jennings Bryan.

Wes Pippert: If autobiographies,Ben Bradlee’s. His section on early years much better (and hilarious) than his section on Watergate. If biographies: Hamilton, by Chernow, Jesus Christ, the Gospels.

Tom Bowman: Ronald White on Grant.

Alex Beam: To be perfectly unhelpful … Brodie/Jefferson yadda yadda but Brodie redefined Joseph Smith in a manner from which the Mormon religion has never recovered. Her work still stands, unequaled … but I know the chatterers love to yammer TJ this, SH that. But “No Man Knows My History” = wow.

Larry Rasky: Richard Cramer’s DiMaggio. Shook up the modern world. Too bad he’s not here to write Trump.

Carl Leubsdorf: Fred Greenstein of Princeton wrote the book on Ike’s “hidden hand” leadership that transformed perceptions of him and spurred his current rise in respect.

James Rowley: William Taubman’s biography of Khrushev illuminates just how complicit he was in Stalin’s resign of terror and that his subsequent denunciation of his deceased mentor was an attempt to cleanse his blood-stained conscience.

Connie Doebele: David Marannis on Vince Lombardi.

Patrick Yack: Maisie—Peter the Great; Sheehan—A Bright Shining Lie.

Mark Obmascik: Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan about John Paul Vann. More than any one work it exposed the incompetence, futility, and arrogance of the US war in Vietnam.
From Jack: As an editor, I especially liked these:

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. (Also a strange but interesting movie.)

Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker,
by Thomas Kunkel.

Esquire in the 60s, by Carol Polsgrove. (It’s mostly about Harold Hayes.)

Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    I’m glad Himmelman made your list. As for autobiographies, Bradlee’s A GOOD LIFE and Sidney Poitier’s THIS LIFE.

Speak Your Mind