21 LGBT Biographies or Memoirs You Should Read Now

From German counts to Utah cave-dwellers, there's something for every reader on this list.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 13 2012 1:29 PM ET

A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America's Original Superstar by Michael Foster and Barbara Foster (Lyons Press, $24.95)

Adah Isaacs Menken (June 15,1835–August 10,1868) was born into a mixed-race Jewish Creole family in antebellum New Orleans. She went on to become a global superstar, internationally known as the “Naked Lady,” for “baring all” on stage and film (although in reality she wore a flesh-colored bodystuit).

Remarkably prescient about creating a pre-celebrity public brand, she was adept at utilizing the newly invented mediums of photography and the daily newspaper to promote her performances and herself, allowing her personal life to not only become public but dominate the front-pages of scandal sheets. Menken had five husbands and became the most famous, highly paid actress in the world at the time, working in New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris -- all of this before her mysterious, sudden death at 33. Her influence on artists and literary giants of the time was reflected in the presence of the famous poet Longfellow at her bedside. He composed a farewell love song in her honor.

Like her friend George Sand, Menken “adopted what were considered to be men’s dress and habits. They wore pants in public...They smoked cigarettes and sometimes cigars. They chose their careers, earned lots of money, and played a significant part in the events of the day.”

But, the Fosters insist, “The lesbian relationship promoted by an American biographer of Sand, Noel Gerson (alias Samuel Edwards) is clumsy fiction. Gerson is the same hack who faked Menken’s licentious Havana diary.” Although Sand and Menken were photographed with Sand’s arm around Menken, and Sand gave Menken's son her last name, the authors insist the two women were just friends. They point to the 30-year age difference and say by that time Sand, “her beauty faded, looked like an older woman,” whose face was described as “‘mummified.’”

Still, A Dangerous Woman acknowledges Menken’s bisexuality and lesbian sexual encounters. The book is an engrossing look at a fully modern woman who presaged everything from femme fatales like Marilyn Monroe to today’s international celebrities and our fascination with the details of their lives. (LyonsPress.com)

An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life by Mary Johnson (Spiegel & Grau, $27)

Mary Johnson spent two decades as a nun working closely with Mother Teresa, and her memoir provides a frank, unflinching account of that experience and the difficulties she faced. A Texan who was inspired by Mother Teresa, Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charities to help the poor. But her superiors decided her skills would be better employed in a managerial track, so they pulled her from the field and Johnson spent most of her years as a nun in and around Rome doing paperwork and  teaching.

That role put her in a position to witness the political machinations and less-than-Christlike behavior of her superiors, and she doesn’t hold back on naming names (while using pseudonyms for innocent nuns and priests). Johnson is even willing to bypass the standard portrait of Mother Teresa as a "living saint" and provide a more nuanced description of a flesh-and-blood woman who could be something of a control freak, who deliberately pursued sainthood, and who strictly adhered to biblical and papal edicts even when those teachings kept other women subjugated and powerless.

But it isn’t the failings of others that eventually drives Johnson from the Missionaries of Charity, it’s  her “unquenchable thirst” for emotional and physical intimacy. The order prohibits physical contact, forbidding nuns to even offer each other a friendly hug; but Johnson can’t stop herself from going much further, developing sexual relationships with other nuns and having an affair with a priest. Eventually she leaves the order in 1997. The book wraps with a short epilogue that brings readers from 1997 to 2007, when Johnson visits some of the sisters and priests she knew during her years of service. We learn she’s married (to a man), that she no longer attends church, that she teaches creative writing and has found a community with women writers, but we’re left hoping for a follow-up memoir that details the decade she’s glossed over.  Hopefully it will be as engaging, frank, and thoughtful as this one. (RandomHouse.com/spiegelandgrau)

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, edited by Helena Whitbread (Virago, $14.95)

Previously published in 1988, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister was re-released to correspond with the airing of BBC’s TV movie of the same name. Born in the 1790s, Anne Lister lived during an era when women needed to be attached to a man to survive economically, but she forged her own way. An independent woman, Lister was a British landowner, industrialist, and lesbian who established a liaison with another woman that left them free to live on their own terms. Lister’s diaries had been written in a complex code, which was finally cracked by academic Helena Whitbread, who then released the transcribed diaries in two volumes, I Know My Heart (1791-1840) and No Priest But Love (1824–1826). No matter what form they come in, Lister’s diaries offer a fascinating look at the intimate lives of 19th-century lesbians and pioneers in the struggle for women’s rights and independence. (Virago.co.uk)

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