Compiling a list such as this represents somewhat of a challenge. I normally tend to shy away from celebrity-written books, preferring, as I do, to read the stuff the professional writers have written…and only a select few of them.
I do not, for a moment mean to imply that only a professional author is capable of producing a good book. There actually are some excellent books written by people from other walks of life. For example, Thomas Cleveland Lane, a professional layabout, recently produced an excellent anthology/poetry collection called Shaggy Dogs (available at www.trafford.com, if you are interested).
While I do not have any layabouts on my official list (including the aforementioned one), I do have authors from a variety of callings. To produce a celebrity-written book, you must be a celebrity. That being the case, I will be choosing from a handful of high-profile occupations to find my noteworthy moonlight authors. I will group my list using those occupational categories.
In some cases, an author may have had considerable help in writing the book, but, looking at the situation of what I might recommend in the way of a celebrity book, I will go with the conceit that the listed author is actually the author. Also, I am expanding the idea of a “book” to include any significant body of writing. Here we go, then.
Jim Bouton: Ball Four
Jim Bouton was a pitcher for the New York Yankees in the early 1960s. His best years with them were 1963 and 1964. In 1970, he wrote a diary of his 1969 season with an expansion team called The Seattle Pilots (later to become the Milwaukee Brewers) and the Houston Astros.
While ostensibly about that season, a lot of Bouton’s book deals with his time as a New York Yankee. He wrote very frank accounts dealing with both segments of his career (not excusing himself from misconduct of various sorts), to the outrage of many prominent people in and associated with baseball. The commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, an otherwise fair and effective leader, demanded Bouton issue a retraction (Which the author refused to do). The right-wing sportswriter, Dick Young of the then equally-right-wing New York Daily News, excoriated Bouton for the revelations he brought forth, even though Young himself was often willing to stoop as low as it took to get a scoop.
I think I liked Bouton’s book because so much of it targeted the New York Yankees, but, even looking at it objectively, it is a well-written work. Actually I liked relief pitcher Jim Brosnan’s diary of the 1959 season, The Long Season, better. It contained far less salacious material, but a lot more good inside baseball. Unfortunately, whatever celebrity Brosnan had as an athlete came after, not before, he wrote his book.
Wilt Chamberlain: Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door
In this era of ridiculous salaries for athletes in all sports, including basketball, a 7-foot black millionaire, while not everybody’s next-door-neighbor, is far from unique. When Wilt Chamberlain wrote this book as his autobiography (1973), he may have been the only one.
I first came across excerpts of the book in a Sports Illustrated article and was immediately attracted to it, even though I am not a basketball fan. The book is very entertaining and worth a read.
While they may not be as well known to the general public as some actors or athletes, successful businessmen are well-known and respected within their community, and, to an extent the public domain.
Robert Townsend: Up the Organization
Townsend, a successful executive with American Express, became something of a phenomenon when he hired on to become the CEO of Avis Rent-a-Car, then a far-distant second banana to Hertz and a company that had never come close to turning a profit. In a very short time, Townsend made the company competitive and profitable.
Drawing on his success, he wrote Up the Organization, a book, not about him or the car rental business in particular, but successful business practice in general. It was itself very successful, spending 28 weeks on the best-seller list.
The reason for its success was that it was a well-written and compelling essay about a new approach to business management and ethics. Many of its concepts were repellant to the well-established businesses of the time and are probably moreso to the big corporations of today, but they worked effectively to turn Avis around.
One of Townsend’s most radical concepts was that the CEO of a company that has never made a profit should take no more than $36,000 a year for a salary. Of course, those were 1962 dollars, but that’s still a modest pay package for such an eminent position. It was also the salary Townsend took his first year, despite having been offered more money.
Even back in 1970, he was saying it was time for the internal combustion engine to make way for a better technology and that your most productive employees deserved a bigger slice of the pie, not necessarily out of social justice, but for incentive toward bigger and better results.
Radical as is ideas were, Townsend was no hippie. His advice on substance-abusing employees? Fire the person the third time he or she comes in to work too impaired to take care of business, without bothering to find out what the worker is on.
This book badly needs to be reissued for the unbelievably avaricious executives who run our businesses today.
Bill Veek: Veek, as in Wreck
Veek spent the better part of his life associated with baseball, although he was not an athlete. He owned or co-owned a number of franchises, often turning them from failures into successes. He is noted for his flamboyant, yet often practical promotional ideas and for being the first American League owner to integrate a team (Veek claimed that he had initially tried to purchase the moribund Philadelphia Phillies-the absolute worst team in the majors-in 1942, then stock it with stars from the Negro League, but the racist commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, blocked the sale of the team.). Despite never having played, Veek was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game.
He wrote three books, two of them about baseball. Both the baseball books are entertaining and informative, but the better one is the first, his autobiography: Veek, as in Wreck, so titled because that’s how his family pronounced their name, not “Veak” as in squeak.
Reading an entertainer’s memoir is a thing that is especially far down on my “to-do” list, but a few of our artists in this field have produced some good written work, not all of it about themselves. Here are three that I like.
Julie Andrews: Various children’s stories
Although she did recently write a memoir about her successful life on stage and screen, Dame Julie Andrews (writing under her married name, Julie Edwards) is best noted as an author for the children’s books she began writing in 1974 and is still writing today. They have been very well-received, for the most part, and include the titles, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Mandy and Simeon’s Gift (co-written with her daughter, Emma).
Drew Carey: Dirty Jokes and Beer
It is unfortunate that Drew Carey will probably finish out his career as a game-show host, which, I’m sure he does quite well, but which has probably put an end to his career as a comedian. Carey was a successful stand-up comic, but his acting efforts saw him take on the type of role so successfully developed by Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason as the ultimate “straight man” off of whom others get to bounce their jokes. Carey proved to be such an enabler in both of his long-running series, The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line is it Anyway?
Carey’s book, an autobiography, deals frankly with both his successes and his difficulties. In fulfillment of the implied promise of the title, each chapter starts off with a dirty joke, many of which are excellent and none of which I had ever heard before. His book was on the best seller list for three months.
Tina Fey: A large body of scriptwriting
We know Tina Fey the performer from her long stint as a fake news anchor on Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” and from her character, Liz Lemon in the award-winning comedy 30 Rock, among other things. What we need to keep in mind is that she was the head-writer for SNL for an even longer period than she was a performer and continues as the head-writer for the brilliantly-crafted 30 Rock. Also, I am quite sure she wrote her own material for her hilarious guest appearance as Sarah Palin in the 2008 spoof of the vice-presidential debate, even if Ms. Palin herself did provide a vast reservoir of material to work with.
I might have included Al Franken on this list, for largely the same reason as Tina Fey, but, unlike the others on the list, Franken’s success as a writer has far eclipsed whatever he did as an actor, and his career as a politician is still too new to form a judgment.
For a successful politician, the eloquence of the spoken word is a necessity, so it is not such a stretch of the imagination to discover the eloquence of the written word here and there, even at the highest level.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Profiles in Courage
As I mentioned at the start of this essay, a number of these authors received help in producing their written work, some moreso than others, none moreso than Kennedy. Senator John Kennedy, as he then was, provided the impetus and direction for the book and polished the rough drafts of the chapters, but those drafts were probably written by his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen.
Nevertheless, Profiles in Courage remains one of the most important books of our time. Just as today’s greedy executives need to re-read Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization and today’s idiot baseball club owners should go over Veek, as in Wreck, our modern-day poll-driven politicians badly need to brush up on this book about their forerunners who took the rare courageous stand, sometimes with dire consequences, but often with nothing of the sort.
Woodrow Wilson: The Fourteen Points
Wilson, the first university president (Princeton) to ascend to the presidency, was also an ardent and prolific political scholar. It was Wilson, more than anyone else, who fostered an interest in political science as a field of study, and his many essays in the field are still used as texts for study by today’s students. His ideas did not all conform to what we, in the United States of America, accept as necessary and sacrosanct today, but they were certainly thought-provoking.
Wilson has been both criticized and praised for being an idealist, and, in a great many endeavors, he was. He was certainly a liberal in terms of economics and trade, and he appointed the first Jew ever to the Supreme Court (Louis Brandeis). On the other hand, his civil rights record was abysmal, to go with his markedly anti-black philosophy, so let us not be to quick to canonize the man.
Of all the things Woodrow Wilson wrote, in whatever capacity, nothing was as important as The Fourteen Points. He has been lambasted, both at the time of the document and to this very day, as a meddlesome, ineffective gasbag by people who only chose to look at what a hash the vengeful leaders of the victorious allies of World War I and the isolationist politicians back home made of his ideals. On the surface, the critics have a very good point to make. How dare the leader of a nation that waited until the last minute to join the beleaguered allies in the fight presume to dictate the terms of Germany’s eventual surrender?
What those critics (including one of my closest friends, a former political science student) fail to realize is that The Fourteen Points silenced the guns of the most terrible war in history, up to that point. Because they represented a reasonable, rather than a vengeful, set of terms for surrender, they gave the militant, but tottering German nation a face-saving way to surrender, much as the atomic bombs did for Japan at the end of World War Two, but without the hundreds of thousands of people killed in the process.
Does it matter that the surrendering Germans were “betrayed” with a far harsher surrender document? No, not really. Without the lure of The Fourteen Points, they would have gone on fighting for many more months, to no avail. They would have lost the war anyway and a great many more of their young men. Do we imagine for a moment that the peace that was dictated to the losers of the war would have been any more magnanimous had Wilson never set pen to paper? Of course it wouldn’t. If anything, it would have been harsher, to reflect the many more months of bloody conflict.
The Fourteen Points won Wilson a greatly-deserved Nobel Peace Prize, and that trumps a Pulitzer any day.
Final Category: the Artist, Theodore Geisel
Theodore Geisel is an American artist of some repute and ability. He was one of the most successful advertising copy artists, prior to World War II, and, during his own time in the army, he illustrated an animated film that won an Academy Award for best animation. Had it not been for the books he wrote in what started as his sideline, Geisel would probably be known to some extent by art aficionados today.
It was those books he wrote, though, that made him very well-known indeed, by the name he used as their author: Dr. Seuss.
That concludes my list of my 10 best celebrity-written books. I’m sure there are others that I have not read, but this list, covering quite a wide range, from Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain to John F. Kennedy, is pretty extensive, if I do say so myself, and indicative of some quality writing by people who have spent a great deal of their time doing something else.
Own scholarship and knowledge