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7 Biographies to Add to Your LGBTQ Library

LGBTQ Biographies

In an era of tell-all memoirs, these biographies tell the story of activists and artists who died before they could offer their own.


A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen by Barry Alfonso is the biography of the influential bisexual poet, singer, philosopher, and pioneering activist of the 1960s and '70s. When honoring influential LGBTQ icons of the past, McKuen is often overlooked. Yet, nearly everyone who lived at the time knew of the man and his many works. His writings and music connected on a deeply personal level and his ideas still resonate today. McKuen came from a hardscrabble upbringing during the Great Depression. He suffered not just from the deprivations of the time, but also of physical and sexual abuse as a young child. Despite the odds stacked against him, he overcame these barriers to make both a difference and something of himself. Soon he was a teenaged radio host and went on to become a film actor and Beat-style poet. His music was regularly panned by the critics as sentimental kitsch, but his string of hits like Jean and If You Go Away connected with a wide and enthusiastic audience and his books sold millions of copies. Yet still, he was one of the most debated figures of his time. Alfonso digs deep with research and interviews of those who knew McKuen best to provide the definitive biography of the important queer pioneer. (Globe Pequot/Backbeat) -- Donald Padgett


Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano is the illuminating new biography of the great 20th-century American poet. Widely recognized as one of the most talented poets of her generation, Bishop's work had a certain devious tone and playful sense of mystery lurking beneath the surface. They were intricate yet natural and humorous. She wrote only 100 poems in her lifetime but received high praise and accolades for her work. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956, the National Book Award in 1970, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. Bishop had a fervor for life and was not the type to find inspiration in isolation. She traveled extensively and mingled and associated with an extensive list of international literati, glitterati, artists, musicians, scholars, and politicians. She was just as active in the vibrant cosmopolitan gay underground that went nearly undetected by the mainstream. Travisano was intrigued by the vigor and intricacy of her life and poetic style and felt driven to study her works and life further. Love Unknown is the result of his labors and is an illuminating resource for both the curious reader and budding poet. (Viking Books) -- DP


A Frank O'Hara Notebook, by Bill Berkson, is a fascinating account of the famed writer, poet, and art critic in the prime of his life. While technically a biography of the artist, the book is as much about the ideas and efforts of the devoted biographer as it is the subject. Following O'Hara's untimely death on a Fire Island beach in 1966, Berkson wanted to write a lengthy study on the man he had known as both friend and mentor. This endeavor was so comprehensive that it was left unfinished at the time of his death in 2016. A Frank O'Hara Notebook is not just a collection of the artist's works but also includes exact-scale photographic reproductions of Berkson's sketchbook where he gathered his notes, images, and more. The book focuses on the memories of their short six-year period of friendship and collaboration together before O'Hara's passing. This unique concept allows the reader to perhaps more fully appreciate the writer and poet because Berkson's own emotions and mindset are revealed in his handwritten notes. The book shows the evolution of his thoughts from fragmentary sentences to fully finished pieces of writing about his O'Hara. A Frank O'Hara Notebook captures the vibrancy and achievement of the talented author and critic through the lens of his devoted friend. (No Place Press/MIT Press) -- DP


Ian McKellen: A Biography by Garry O'Connor is a look back at the life of the acclaimed actor and inspirational LGBTQ activist from the biographer of Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness. Younger generations will know the actor from his unforgettable performance as Gandalf in the acclaimed Lord of the Ring movies, yet McKellen was a veteran of stage and screen long before those roles. He made his West End acting debut back in 1964 in A Scent of Flowers by James Saunders, but it was in 1980 that he made the rest of the world take note with his Broadway performance of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus. His career on stage and film has included roles such as Macbeth, Iago, King Lear, Sorin in Chekhov's The Seagull, and the tramp Estragon (opposite friend Patrick Stewart) in Becket's classic Waiting for Godot. It is McKellan's political activism that has endeared him to the LGBTQ community, where he has used his celebrity to share the message of equality and inclusion to bring about both awareness and change. O'Connor does not limit himself to a recounting of his roles, but probes the heart and soul of the man rather than just observing the actor. (St. Martin's Press) -- DP


Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski sheds light on the private and political life of the 15th president as well as the political structure of a forming nation in the early 19th century. Buchanan is widely regarded as one of the worst presidents of the United States and with good reason. But was he also our country's first queer president? A moderate from Pennsylvania, Buchanan developed a lifelong friendship with fellow bachelor and politician William Rufus King from Alabama when both were members of Congress. In those days, congressmen often left families at home and lived in communal boarding houses where deals were made and political allegiances forged during meals and at social events. Buchanan and King wielded a great deal of influence, but that didn't stop questions from being raised about the nature of their relationship. While King was almost certainly gay, questions remain about Buchanan. Balcerski's meticulous research covers their service in the House and Senate and diplomatic assignments in czarist Russia, Great Britain, and France in this dual biography of an Amerian president and vice president. Bosom Friends is a deep and intellectual read that will leave readers rethinking President Buchanan's legacy. (Oxford University Press) -- DP


The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess by Tara McDowell is the story of the poet Duncan and artist Jess, and how they used their shared household as the foundation for creative innovation. The book follows the pair from 1951 when they exchanged marriage vows and ends with Duncan's death in 1988. Duncan described his poetry as derivative while Jess viewed his collage art as a form of salvaging. Duncan took poems that spoke to him, then used that voice to create his own voice and words. An accomplished painter, Jess likewise often used a variety of images and found items, combined them together, and used the collective of individual parts to create a new vision. Rather than use a studio, gallery, or artists group to provide the support structure for their respective arts, they instead used the domesticity and physical space of their household. The daily rhythms of their shared life shaped their work while the material surroundings of their San Francisco home became an instrumental part of the creative process. McDowell follows not just the arc of their careers and the art they produced but also details the importance of their home and marriage to the process. (MIT Press) -- DP


The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix is a captivating illustrated biography (and quite the history lesson). In Hendrix's signature style that weaves together art and handwritten text, he tells the true story of a German Lutheran pastor who was so offended by Hitler's agenda that he helped develop two assassination attempts on the German leader -- and paid with his life. Obvious parallels with Trump's increasingly polarizing administration raise the question -- how far should resistance-minded citizens go in trying to save their country from a mad man? Not explicitly LGBTQ, but a graphic memoir that's very worth a read. (Amulet Books) -- JAM

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