If the acquiring editors have it right, Jonathan Goldsmith, the actor who played “the most interesting man in the world” in the Dos Equis beer commercials, doesn’t just play an interesting man on TV: he’s pretty interesting in real life, too. Earlier this week, Galleycat shared news that the character actor has signed with Dutton to publish a memoir in May 2017 that includes stories about getting shot by John Wayne, drinking with Tennessee Williams, and, um, sailing the high seas with Fernando Lamas. “Much more than a memoir,” crows the press release, “the book will be a truly daring and bold tale, and a manifesto about taking chances, not giving up, making courageous choices, and living an adventurous life.” (Try reading that without hearing the voiceover in your head—I dare you.)
Hoisting a jib with Fernando Lamas is one thing, but somehow I doubt the book will fulfill readers’ fantasies that Goldsmith really is the Bill Brasky-esque character they grew to love 30 seconds at a time. Fortunately, I have compiled a list of memoirs and biographies of men and women whose astonishingly varied resumes make them deserving of the “most interesting” accolade.
American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, by Thomas Keneally
A gifted and urbane New York lawyer, Sickles served as a diplomat in the court of Queen Victoria, represented lower Manhattan in Congress, and was made a brigadier general in the Union army by President Lincoln himself—only to arrogantly disobey orders at Gettysburg and led his troops to their doom. (He escaped with the loss of a leg, which he donated to a museum and later regularly visited.) After the war, he served as both the military governor of South Carolina and American minister to the court of Spain, where he was rumored to have had an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II. Ever the hothead, he also murdered his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, son of the guy who composed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He got off in memorable fashion, too, using the defense of temporary insanity for the first time in our nation’s history.
Beautiful, brainy, and independent, Jewish-Austrian Lamarr dropped out of school to pursue an acting career, then nearly derailed it by marrying a munitions manufacturer who cozied up to the Nazis. After collecting useful weapons information, she escaped to Hollywood, where she found success on the silver screen—all the while working secretly on a form of radio communication she hoped would boost the U.S. war effort. It didn’t, but what is now known as “frequency-hopping spread spectrum” eventually became the basis for cell phones, Wi-Fi, and GPS—basically, all the reasons we can’t concentrate or remember anything. George Antheil, a pianist and avant-garde composer who assisted Lamarr with the science, had fascinating adventures that probably deserve a book of their own.
The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson: Aviatrix, Sportswoman, Journalist, Publisher, by Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen
Born into a Chicago newspaper-publishing dynasty in the early twentieth century, Patterson shunned the predictably genteel life laid out for her. While she did marry the boy her parents wanted her to, it didn’t last long: In short order, she divorced him, got her pilot’s license; became a big-game hunter; remarried; tried her hand at reporting; divorced again; married again (this time to a Guggenheim); bought a small, struggling Long Island newspaper; became Adlai Stevenson’s lover and confidant; led her reporting staff to a Pulitzer Prize; and, natch, wound up on the cover of Time. If her life sounds like a novel, well, this biography reads like one.
I learned about this guy in Montana History class during high school, which makes me a member of the small minority who knew this man’s name before Egan’s popular biography brought it into the public eye. The son of a wealthy Irish merchant, Thomas Francis Meagher (1823–67) was the public spokesman of the Young Ireland movement during the Great Hunger, a crime that saw him condemned to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Britain’s last penal colony. He escaped to the U.S., where he roused the passions of Irish immigrants for the liberation of his homeland; while biding his time on that, he led the Irish Brigade in the Civil War, then turned his thoughts to a “New Ireland” out West, eventually becoming Acting Governor of Montana Territory. That office that may have led to his downfall—under mysterious circumstances, he disappeared over the side of a steamboat on the Missouri River.
This jaw-dropping tale of Arctic survival has its share of remarkable characters—including a relative of Herman Melville who not only survived the ordeal but returned to sea, survived several more shipwrecks, and retired as an admiral—but is worth reading for the capsule history of James Gordon Bennett alone. Bennett, the rich-as-Croesus publisher of the New York Herald, financed not only the Jeanette expedition, but also Stanley’s famous search for Livingston in Africa. He had a taste for adventure himself: When he wasn’t dawdling in the lap of luxury, he was betting on himself in everything from walking races to the first trans-oceanic yacht race (which he won, naturally). Unable to check his every impulse, he scandalized New York’s elite time and again, ruining his name for good when he drunkenly urinated into the fireplace (some allege it was a grand piano) at the home of his socialite fiancée. Alas, the book devoted solely to the irrepressible Mr. Bennett (Richard O’Connor’s The Scandalous Mr. Bennett, 1962) is long out of print, but you won’t regret making his acquaintance here.
The Lives of Beryl Markham, by Errol Trzebinski
Aviatrix, horse trainer, and seductress—somebody give this woman a beer commercial, already! Oops, too late: she died in 1986. British by birth, Markham grew up in Kenya, largely raised by her father’s employees after her mom flew the coop back to England. She was possessed of courage, strength, and stoicism, traits that proved invaluable during her career as a legendarily promiscuous lover, not to mention her time spent in the cockpit and saddle. She stalked her lovers as a hunter stalks prey, bagging Denys Fitch Hatton shortly before his untimely end, and carrying on torrid affairs with both the Prince of Wales AND his brother. With all that, was it any wonder that she left her third husband to do the actual writing of her best-selling memoir, West with the Night (1942)? Clearly, she didn’t have time for mere scribbling. Markham’s life was also novelized as Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain.