“The Hunger Artist,” in The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2000)
Susan Sontag did two big things last year. She finished a novel, In America, and underwent treatment for cancer.
“How Martin Luther Changed the World,” in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 2017)
Clang! Clang! Down the corridors of religious history we hear this sound: Martin Luther, an energetic thirty-three-year-old Augustinian friar, hammering his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, in Saxony, and thus, eventually, splitting the thousand-year-old Catholic Church into two churches—one loyal to the Pope in Rome, the other protesting against the Pope’s rule and soon, in fact, calling itself Protestant.
Acocella demonstrates here that a great opening line does not have to be short and punchy, it simply has to be well written. Her article was written to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of “Luther’s famous action,” which she quickly—and happily, I think—reminded us never actually happened.
“The Beckham of the Barre,” in London’s Telegraph (Jan. 4, 2003)
Beautiful, gifted and irresistible to both men and women, Rudolf Nureyev was ballet’s first pin-up—the Beckham of the barre. He danced, lived and made love with an appetite and abandon that was both thrilling and terrifying.
It’s rare for a newspaper’s book review to contain a world-class opening paragraph, but that’s exactly what happened in Allardice’s review of Colum McCann’s 2003 biographical novel, Dancer. For those not in-the-know, the catchy Beckham of the barre phrase was an allusion to David Beckham, one of the greatest professional soccer players of all time, and a true cultural icon in Britain.
“Merle Haggard: A Good ’Ol Boy Lets his Hair Hang Down,“ in Esquire (Sep. 1, 1981)
It all began rather innocently one languid afternoon in 1969. Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield bubbahs in his road band, the Strangers, were riding in their tour bus through the drab, dusty east Oklahoma flatlands when suddenly a road sign for Muskogee came into view. It was one of the band members who actually set the whole thing off when he yawned and mumbled, “Bet they don’t smoke no marijuana in Muskogee.“
Allen continued, “That one innocent line sparked a mysterious alchemy that instantly shook Haggard—whose own parents had migrated from East Oklahoma to California in 1934—and the boys out of their road-weary doldrums. Hooting, howling, they just kept coming up with line after line. And thus was born what would ultimately become Haggard’s signature song, ’Okie from Muskogee.’“
Stephen E. Ambrose
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (2014)
This is the story of two men who died as they lived—violently.
Books about the parallel lives of famous figures have been around since the Greeks (the first was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the 1st c. A.D.), but few have begun with a better opening sentence. Ambrose continued in the first paragraph:
“They were both war lovers, men of aggression with a deeply rooted instinct to charge the enemy, rout him, kill him. Men of supreme courage, they were natural-born leaders in a combat crisis, the type to whom others instinctively looked for guidance and inspiration. They were always the first to charge the enemy, and the last to retreat.”
Some Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Siddhatta Gotama [sic] is a very un-Buddhist thing to do.
Armstrong continued: “In their view, no authority should be revered, however august; Buddhists must motivate themselves and rely on their own efforts, not on a charismatic leader. One ninth-century master even went so far as to command his disciples, ’If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!’ to emphasize the importance of maintaining this independence from authority figures. Gotama might not have approved of the violence of this sentiment, but throughout his life he fought against the cult of personality, and endlessly deflected the attention of his disciples from himself.“
The Bible: A Biography (2006)
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we find some pattern or significance in our lives, we fall very easily into despair.
W. H. Auden
“One of the Family,“ in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 1965)
I never enjoy having to find fault with a book, and when the author is someone I have met and like, I hate it.
Auden was referring to David Cecil’s 1964 biography of Max Beerbohm.
Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (2021)
Born on the Day of the Dead and dead five months before his twenty-ninth birthday, Stephen Crane lived five months and five days into the twentieth century, undone by tuberculosis before he had a chance to drive an automobile or see an airplane, to watch a film projected on a large screen or listen to a radio, a figure from the horse-and-buggy world who missed out on the future that was awaiting his peers, not just the construction of those miraculous machines and inventions but the horrors of the age as well, including the destruction of tens of millions of lives in two wars.
When one brilliant writer chooses to write a biography of another brilliant writer, readers can legitimately expect an extraordinary work, and Burning Boy is just that. The book also begins with a tour de force of an opening sentence—all 104 words of it. For reasons I’m sure you will understand, this was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
A bit later in the book, Auster also captured Crane’s pivotal role in American letters: “Crane’s work, which shunned the traditions of nearly everything that had come before him, was so radical for its time that he can be regarded now as the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word.”
The Man Nobody Knows (1952)
It was very late in the afternoon.
If you would like to learn the measure of a man that is the time of day to watch him. We are all half an inch taller in the morning than at night; it is fairly easy to take a large view of things when the mind is rested and the nerves are calm. But the day is a steady drain of small annoyances, and the difference in the size of men becomes hourly more apparent. The little man loses his temper; the big man takes a firmer hold.
It was very late in the afternoon in Galilee.
This lovely, philosophical beginning has the flavor of an older, wiser person—a teacher or clergyman, perhaps—passing along time-honored wisdom. As the third paragraph begins, we begin to sense that the book is a fictionalized version of a very real historical figure. Reading on, we discover that Barton—one of the era’s most successful business executives—has reframed the life of Jesus, portraying him as a brilliant adman, a superb salesman, and a role model for businesspeople everywhere.
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020)
On November 4, 2008, when many world leaders waited to hear the results of the American presidential election, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was in his Roman residence preparing to have sex.
This is a highly unusual way for a serious scholar to begin a serious book about modern autocratic leaders, but I think you will agree that it is also highly effective in achieving two of the goals of all Great Opening Lines: (1) to “frame” the story about to be told, and (2) to get the reader to continue reading.
The book continues with a brief discussion between Berlusconi and one of his many mistresses, Patrizia D’Addario, about which bed they will be using that night. He replies that it will be a bed he received as a gift from his strongman pal, Vladimir Putin. Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, went on to explain: “Berlusconi’s ‘Putin bed’ symbolized the intimacy of a friendship sustained by the leaders’ common drive to exercise as much personal power as their political systems allowed and to appear to the world—and each other—as virile.”
T. H. Huxley: Scientist, Humanist and Educator (1959)
On the 4th of May 1825, when Thomas Henry Huxley was born in the sleepy old village of Ealing, English society still had its roots deep in the eighteenth century. By the 29th June 1895, when he died at the newly developing seaside resort of Eastbourne, it was already feeling its way into the twentieth.
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Yea, Mr. Mays,” in Sports Illustrated (July 27, 1970)
In 1951 Marilyn Monroe was a starlet, Bobby Orr a baby, Hubert Humphrey a comer—and Willie Mays very nearly the same phenomenon he was last week.
Mays, in his 20th baseball season, was approaching a record reached by only sixteen previous players. Blount continued: “In harsh heat and foggy chill, and under the intense scrutiny such a situation demanded, he chased after his 3,000th hit—and seemed to blossom rather than wilt under the pressure.”
“Jimmy Buffett Does Not Live the Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle,“ in The New York Times (Feb. 8, 2018)
Jimmy Buffett awoke one morning last year in one of his many homes—he can’t remember which one, there are a lot of them—and a panic gripped him in his throat.
The notion of a panic suggests something pretty serious, so this first sentence immediately gets our attention. Brodesser-Akner continued in the piece’s opening paragraph: “His new Broadway musical, “Escape to Margaritaville,” was coming along nicely, but something was off.“
As it turns, out Buffett was worried about Paul Alexander Nolan, the Canadian singer who had been cast in the role of Tully Mars, a singer at a rundown Caribbean hotel called Margaritaville. So what was the source of Buffet’s concern? Was it Nolan’s voice? His look? His acting chops? Nope, none of these. Buffett was concerned that he didn’t have a tan.
“Get to a tanning salon,” Mr. Buffett told Mr. Nolan the very next day, adding, “To me, it’s essential to the part. Tourists in Margaritaville are white and turn red. You need to be tan.” Happily, Mr. Nolan immediately complied—and Buffett’s panic attack came to an end.
Lincoln and the Civil War (2011)
If the legendary oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek had been alive when the Civil War began, he would probably have given the South a better-than-even chance of winning.
In the opening paragraph, Burlingame continued: “As historian William Hanchett has cogently argued, ‘Contrary to the conventional assumption, the North, not the South, was the underdog in the Civil War.’”
An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd (2021)
Abraham Lincoln was apparently one of those men who regard “connubial bliss” as an oxymoron.
In the book’s opening paragraph, Burlingame—described by Time magazine as “a towering figure in Lincoln scholarship”—continued with this revealing anecdote: “During the Civil War, he pardoned a Union soldier who had deserted to return home and wed his sweetheart, who reportedly had been flirting with another swain in his absence. As the president signed the necessary document sparing the miscreant’s life, he said: ‘I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.’” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
In his book, Burlingame attempted to set the historical record straight by telling the unvarnished truth about Lincoln’s notoriously unhappy marriage. On top of the countless monumental problems the 16th U.S. President wrestled with, Burlingame wrote that “he had to cohabit the White House with a psychologically unbalanced woman whose indiscrete and abusive behavior taxed his legendary patience and forbearance to the limit.”
Robert A. Caro
Master of the Senate [Book 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson] (2002)
The room on the first floor of the Barbour County Courthouse in the little town of Eufaula, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk’s Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county’s Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections—not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Jeff Jacoby, American journalist and Boston Globe Op-Ed columnist: “I nominate this opening line from Caro’s Master of the Senate (2002), the third volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and to my mind the best of them so far. The very first sentence establishes a tone of moral seriousness and gripping narrative power. Eufaula, Alabama is far removed from LBJ’s native Texas, and even farther from the U.S. Senate chamber where he became such an influential national figure. But Caro’s first line aptly foreshadows the immense struggle over black civil rights that would be the backdrop to Johnson’s rise to power. With four volumes in his “Years of Lyndon Johnson” series now published, Caro is only up to 1964—and his legions of fans are hoping that he lives long enough to get through Volume 5.”
Jacoby has also penned some masterful opening lines. To view them, start here.
“Edward Gorey’s Toys,” in The New Yorker (July 12, 2021)
Killing children is generally frowned upon, but Edward Gorey did it all the time.
It’s rare for a short piece about an upcoming art exhibition to have a great opening line, but New Yorker staff writer Cep convincingly demonstrates it can be done. In her brief article about two exhibitions at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, Cep continued: “He squashed them with trains, fed them to bears, poisoned them with lye, forced them to swallow tacks, watched them waste away, and burned them in fires; on his watch, they died of everything from fits to flying into bits.”
Charles Chaplin, Jr.
My Father, Charlie Chaplin (1960; with N. And M. Rau)
There was always the scream I heard, the scream that seemed to be coming from someone else, the scream at something whose face I could never see but whose malignant presence I could feel—scream after scream in the dark, the utter loneliness.
This powerful opening line reads more like an autobiography of a son than a biography of the father—and that simple fact makes us want to read on. The author continued: “And then suddenly there was the light. There were people caressing me, putting cold compresses on my head, for I was almost rigid in my terror.”
Chaplain goes on to list the people who were around to comfort him during his night terrors: “My grandmother, my great-grandmother, my mother, and sometimes even my great-grandfather.” Notably missing from the list—it is quite apparent—is his father.
Washington: A Life (2010)
In March 1793 Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist.
It’s unusual for a biography begin by focusing on a person other than the subject of the work, but Chernow’s selection of Stuart—the painter whose legendary Washington portrait has been immortalized on American one-dollar bills—turns out to be inspired.
By describing Stuart’s view of Washington as a portrait subject—as well as how Washington interacted with his portraitist—Chernow found a way of shining a new light on a U.S. President he described as “the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved.” Chernow’s book went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
Even as other Civil War generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print.
When Chernow was asked by Brian Lamb in a C-Span interview why he chose to start his book with these words, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian replied: “When I started working on the book...I ran into a friend who said to me, ‘Ron, how can you write a great biography of someone who wrote a great autobiography?’ And that really kind of stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought about that comment for many days. And then I realized that it actually helped to define the direction of my book because I realized that what my job was as a biographer was to zero in on the silences and the evasions in Grant’s memoirs.” And, a moment later, he added, “I ended up…zeroing in on those things that Grant did not want to talk about, particularly his lifelong struggle with alcoholism and his repeated business failures.”
In the opening paragraph, Chernow followed up on his opening words this way: “The son of an incorrigible small-town braggart, the unassuming general and two-time president harbored a lifelong aversion to boasting. He was content to march to his grave in dignified silence, letting his extraordinary wartime record speak for itself.
In a 2017 New York Times interview, Chernow was asked which of his books was his favorite. He replied that he’d always avoided the question in the past, but no more: “Grant is my favorite book,“ he announced, “and not just because it’s wall-to-wall drama. Some quality of pathos in this story of a defeated man, ground down by failure, who then soars into the firmament got under my skin and haunted me all the way through the telling.“
“Robert Frost,” in Talk About America (1973)
It was a splendid day in Vermont when they buried Robert Frost, the sky without a cloud, the light from the white landscape making every elm and barn as sharp as a blade, and the people crunching quietly through the deep snow and squinting in the enormous sun.
“Frank Lloyd Wright,” in America Observed (1989)
I met him first on a winter’s afternoon in what I almost slipped into calling the vestry of his suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Wright had such a hallowed reputation when Cooke first met him that the British visitor to America resorted to liturgical imagery to describe him: “I pressed the electric button at first timorously, then boldly, then incessantly, and was about to turn away when the door was opened by a pretty young woman, a secretary, or granddaughter, or vestal virgin perhaps, who beckoned me into the hushed gloom behind her through which I expected to see sacramental tapers.”
Nina de Gramont
The Christie Affair (2022)
A long time ago in another country, I nearly killed a man.
In a Wall Street Journal review, Tom Nolan wrote that the novel “Sizzles from the first sentence,” and I was pleased to include it in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In 1926, Agatha Christie was one of the world’s most popular writers when, after her husband told her he was leaving her for his mistress, she famously disappeared for eleven days. While Christie never talked about what happened, the story has been explored in a number of books and films—but never more ingeniously than in de Gramont’s novel, which told the story from the perspective of Nan O’Dea, the mistress of Agatha Christie’s husband. In the novel, O’Dea continued with a dark but powerful observation:
“It’s a particular feeling, the urge to murder. First comes rage, larger than any you’ve ever imagined. It takes over your body so completely it’s like a divine force, grabbing hold of your will, your limbs, your psyche. It conveys a strength you never knew you possessed. Your hands, harmless until now, rise up to squeeze another person’s life away. There’s a joy to it. In retrospect it’s frightening, but I daresay in the moment it feels sweet, the way justice feels sweet.”
Adrian Desmond & James Moore
Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins (2009)
Global brands don’t come much bigger than Charles Darwin.
In their biography, Desmond and Moore continued: “He is the grizzled grandfather peering from book jackets and billboards, from textbooks and TV—the sage on greeting cards, postage stamps, and commemorative coins. Darwin’s head on ₤10 notes radiates imperturbability, mocking those who would doubt his science. Hallow him or hoot at him, Darwin cannot be ignored.”
Rachel Silber Devlin
Snapshots of My Father, John Silber (2022)
My mother would be horrified by this book.
When I first came upon this forthright opening line, I thought to myself, “I’m sure this candid admission will resonate with countless other authors as well.” In Devlin’s intimate portrait of her father, the long-time president of Boston University, she continued about her mother:
“Did I not learn anything from her example? She would see telling our family’s story as akin to undressing in front of a picture window and parading back and forth, making a spectacle of myself. There could be no good reason for doing so.”
“The Hard Choices of Elizabeth Hardwick,” in The New Yorker (Nov. 15, 2021)
Elizabeth Hardwick was a master of the opening sentence. Few writers have the guts to begin so boldly—or with so many adjectives.
A moment later, after ticking off several examples of great opening lines from Hardwick, Doherty wrote: “Her friend Susan Sontag said that she wrote ‘the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.’”
Lawrence J. Epstein
George Burns: An American Life (2011)
George Burns was always willing to sacrifice truth for a good line.
Epstein continued: “He liked, for instance, to tell the story of the stage manager who heard him singing and fired him on the spot. But Burns could never tell it the way it really happened. He retold it with comic exaggeration to hide the pain.”
In the Darkroom (2016)
In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father.
This is the haunting first sentence of one of the most interesting father-daughter stories I’ve ever read (it went on to win the 2016 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Biography). In the opening paragraph, Faludi—an influential American feminist—continued:
“The project began with a grievance, the grievance of a daughter whose parent had absconded from her life. I was in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many things—obligation, affection, culpability, contrition. I was preparing an indictment, amassing discovery for a trial. But somewhere along the line, the prosecutor became a witness.”
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (2022)
7 April 1944
After days of delay, weeks of obsessive preparation, months of watching the failed attempts of others and two years of seeing the depth to which human beings could sink, the moment had finally come. It was time to escape.
The opening paragraph reads like the first words of a suspense thriller, but they are, in fact, based on the true story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jew to successfully escape from Auschwitz (one of only four in history). In the book’s second paragraph, Freedland continued:
“The two other prisoners were already there, at the designated spot. Wordlessly, they gave the nod: do it now. Walter and Fred did not hesitate. They climbed on top of the timbers, found the opening and, one after the other, they dropped inside. A second later, their comrades moved the planks into place above their heads. One of them whispered, ‘Bon voyage.’ And then all was dark and silent.”
Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius (2021)
Leonard Cohen never planned to be a rock star. He had ambitions to be a novelist or, better still, to be recognized for his greatest love, poetry.
In the bio’s opening paragraph, Freedman continued: “In his youth the idea of setting his words to music rarely crossed his mind. And even when it did, and he started writing songs for others, the thought of performing them himself positively terrified him. So much so that the first time he was asked to perform his music in public he got stage fright and darted off midway through his act.” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
John Kenneth Galbraith
“Promises to Keep,” in The New York Times (April 25, 1971)
Truth, not unconvincing humility, is the grandest virtue and accordingly I may observe that I am better qualified than any man alive to review a book on the public life of Chester Bowles.
A man must be in possession of quite an ego to begin a review of someone else’s memoir with a grandiose statement about himself, but nobody ever accused Galbraith of being a Shrinking Violet. In point of fact, though, Galbraith began his review of Chester Bowles’s 1971 memoir (My Years in Public Life, 1941-1969) by simply suggesting that the careers of the two men paralleled each other in so many ways that he was the perfect person to review his memoir. Galbraith went on to write: “He is a friend, which is a disadvantage only if the book in question is bad. Only then do you have to consider whether the author should get the truth from you or someone else. This, fortunately, is an extremely good book.”
“Adventures Of a Mathematician: The Man Who Invented the H-Bomb,” in The New York Times (May 9, 1976)
Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals—the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all.
This is the opening paragraph of Gardner’s review of S. M. Ulam’s 1976 book, Adventures of a Mathematician. In the review, he described Ulam, a Polish mathematician, as the man who, modifying a previously failed plan of Edward Teller’s, deserves credit for inventing the H-Bomb.
In the review’s second paragraph, Gardner wrote: “Imagine Aristotle revivified and visiting Manhattan. Nothing in our social, political, economic, artistic, sexual or religious life would mystify him, but he would be staggered by our technology. Its products—skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, television, pocket calculators—would have been impossible without calculus. Who invented calculus?”
“In ‘Yours in Haste and Adoration,’ Terry Southern’s Thoughts Spill Out,” in The New York Times (Dec. 15, 2015)
It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.
In the article’s second paragraph, Garner continued: “It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.”
Mozart: A Life (1999)
The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness.
A perfectly crafted opening sentence can compress a wealth of information into a handful of words, as Gay so ably demonstrates here. His writing continued to impress as he continued:
“A few five- or six-year-olds of his time could produce pretty variations on a theme or lure coherent tunes from a harpsichord with its keyboard covered so that they could not see their hands. But unlike other mid-eighteenth-century Wunderkinder, Mozart refined his inventions and his performances into breathtaking beauty and never showed the slightest sign of fading into ordinary adolescence, a fate that has always bedeviled prodigies.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018)
Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—the lives and times of these four men have occupied me for half a century. I have awakened with them in the morning and thought about them when I went to bed at night.
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009)
We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history, where the splash strikes one way and the big tides run another, and though what we feel is the splash, the splash takes place only within those tides. In almost every case, the incoming current drowns the splash; once in a while the drop of the pebble changes the way the ocean runs.
After opening with an impressive metaphorical flourish, Gopnik nicely sets up the thesis of the book—that a spectacular coincidence can change the course of world history. He continued: “On February 12, 1809, two baby boys were born within a few hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic. One entered life in a comfortable family home, nicely called the Mount, that still stands in the leafy English countryside of Shrewsbury, Shropshire; the other opened his eyes for the first time in a nameless long-lost cabin in the Kentucky woods.” Those two baby boys, of course, were Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.
“Why Don’t the French Celebrate Lafayette?” in The New Yorker (Aug. 16, 2021)
Lafayette, like Betsy Ross and Johnny Appleseed, is so neatly fixed in the American imagination that it is hard to see him as a human being. Betsy sews stars, Johnny plants trees, Lafayette brings French élan to the American Revolution.
Gopnik continued: “He is, in the collective imagination, little more than a wooden soldier with a white plume on his cocked hat. In the original production of ‘Hamilton,’ Daveed Diggs portrayed him affectionately, with a comically heavy French accent and an amorous manner—a hero, yes, but of the cartoon kind, a near relation of Pepé le Pew.”
Havelock Ellis: A Biography (1980)
Havelock Ellis was a revolutionary, one of the seminal figures responsible for the creation of a modern sensibility, although, like most revolutionaries, he would not have been happy with the world he helped to create.
Elvis Forever: Looking Back on the Legacy of the King (2021)
Elvis was the survivor of twin boys, a fact that strongly influenced his life
A popular technique among biographers when introducing the people they’re writing about is to open by revealing important—and sometimes little-known—early details that later evolved into major life themes . Hadleigh does that very nicely here, and he continues to do so in the book’s first paragraph:
“Mother Gladys, fearful of losing her only child, kept him close. The mother-son bond intensified when father Vernon was away working, seeking work or in jail. Growing up and in school, Elvis was a loner, often shunned by classmates due to poverty, the way he dressed and his longer hair. As his parents’ marriage deteriorated, Gladys’s sole focus became her son, whose fondness for singing she encouraged. She steered him away from his interest in guns, which would later prevail, and helped Elvis pay for his first guitar.”
By the end of the first paragraph, the reader has been given a capsule summary that beautifully captures the essence of Elvis’s early years. This is no small feat. You should know, however, that Hadleigh’s book is not a true biography, but rather an extensive collection of quotations about Presley. Hadleigh is a talented quotation anthologist, but the first paragraph of this book suggests he might also want to try his hand at formal biographies.
Mike Nichols: A Life (2021)
In the origin story that Mike Nichols liked to tell, he was born at the age of seven.
Harris continued: “The first image of himself he chose to conjure for people was that of a boy on a boat, holding his younger brother’s hand, traveling from Germany to America. They were unaccompanied on that six-day crossing in 1939, their ailing mother still bed bound in Berlin. Their father was already in New York. His two small sons had not seen him for almost a year.”
Harris’s opening paragraph raises an interesting question we all might give some thought to. When we tell our own origin stories, where exactly do we begin, and what is the psychological significance of that precise moment we’ve selected as our starting point?
Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001)
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
I love great opening lines, true, and that love also occasionally extends to the things written about them. If I spent a month crafting my own thoughts about Hillenbrand’s remarkable opening paragraph, it wouldn’t hold a candle to an amazing assessment made by professor Richard Goodman of the University of New Orleans. In an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle (titled “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings”), he offered a Masterclass in literary criticism in these three paragraphs:
“How do writers take advantage of the opening of their story and use it skillfully to accomplish what they need to do? We can begin with the simple act of dispensing of information. There’s no better example of how that’s done well than the Preface of Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Remember that when this book was published in 2001, very few people had ever heard of Seabiscuit, much less had known anything about the horse’s remarkable, unlikely drama. That seems incredible now, after the hugely successful book and the equally successful movie, but it’s true. Not only that, Hillenbrand knew very well that no book about a horse had ever done remotely well in the history of American literature. (I’m excluding books for children and young adults, because this book is not in that category.) She had her work cut out for her….
“What she does here, foremost, in this brief paragraph, is to get the reader to understand how big, culturally speaking, Seabiscuit was. First, we notice the famous—and infamous—company she puts Seabiscuit in: Roosevelt, Pope Pius XI, Clark Gable. Mussolini and Hitler. But it’s how she puts Seabiscuit in that company that makes this so convincing. The names are intricately balanced. If you were to diagram them, poetically speaking, it would be AAA—all the political figures—; B—the Pope—; and CCC—all the well-known cultural icons. Look closely, and you’ll see this paragraph is even more fully balanced. The year 1938 is at the start of the paragraph, and it’s also near the end. The word ‘newspaper’ is placed before the litany of names, as well as after. Hillenbrand further provides a sense of balance with the litany itself: ‘was not’; ‘wasn’t’; ‘nor was’; ‘wasn’t even’, setting up the dramatic ‘It was.’ Having been set to expect a person, we are, instead, given the name of a horse. That horse—the one who was more famous that Roosevelt, Clark Gable or the Pope—was named Seabiscuit.
“No good artist ever does anything without a reason. So you can be certain that every single thing in this paragraph was done deliberately. The effect is to get you to look at this horse in a way you’ve never looked at another horse and to believe this is going to be a story worth reading. Of course we know the denouement to this paragraph is going to be Seabiscuit. That’s the name on the cover of the book. So how can we still be surprised? We’re surprised by the facts that we didn’t know, and by how they’re presented to us. This writing is the result of patient crafting, but it’s also the result of research and of marshaling facts. These facts didn’t just fall from the sky, though; Hillenbrand rooted them out—obsessively, as she herself describes it. To find those facts she began, ‘prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing information wanted ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers.’ She didn’t stop until she found what she was looking for. This, with her craft, produced a gem of an opening paragraph.”
Very well said, professor Goodman, very well said, indeed. Thank you for granting me permission to quote you.
Adolph Sutro: King of the Comstock Lode and Mayor of San Francisco (2020)
I hate biographies; they always end badly.
When reading biographies, it’s rare to find an opening line that might work perfectly in a standup-comedy routine, but that’s what happened when I opened the pages of Huber’s book about one of the most fascinating personalities in San Francisco’s colorful history. This great line came at the beginning of Chapter One. A page earlier, in the book’s Introduction, Huber also began memorably, writing: “A biography of one born in 1830 is sure to end with the death of the subject, and the opening chapter describes that inevitable outcome.”
Kissinger: A Biography (1992)
As his parents finished packing the few personal belongings that they were permitted to take out of Germany, the bespectacled fifteen-year-old boy stood in the corner of the apartment and memorized the details of the scene.
Isaacson continued: “He was a bookish and reflective child, with that odd mixture of ego and insecurity that can come from growing up smart yet persecuted. ’I’ll be back someday,’ he said to the customs inspector who was surveying the boxes.“
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There’s something more.
Isaacson begins his biography with a reference to the beginning of Franklin’s Autobiography, where Franklin had talked about arriving in Philadelphia after hastily leaving Boston. The “something more” is what Franklin’s original description had revealed about him. “Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us,“ Isaacson concluded. And a moment later, he described Franklin this way:
“Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so.“
Steve Jobs (2011)
When Paul Jobs was mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates. They had arrived in San Francisco, where their ship was decommissioned, and Paul bet that he would find himself a wife within two weeks.
Isaacson began his acclaimed biography with a tantalizing tidbit about his subject’s adoptive father; and—while I won’t go into the details here—it all makes eminent sense in the grand scheme of Jobs’s remarkable life.
Leonardo da Vinci (2017)
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.
This is a superb opening line—a classic example of oxymoronic phrasing—and easily the best of any of Isaacson’s fine biographies. I also regard it as one of the all-time best first sentences in the biography genre that Isaacson has come to dominate.
In his first paragraph, the affable Tulane University professor continued: “Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.”
“Making Kindness Stand to Reason,” in Sun After Dark (2004)
Though the Dalai Lama is increasingly famous as a speaker, his real gift, you see as soon as you begin talking to him, is for listening.
Iyer is best known for his travel writings, but his profiles about people are also beautifully written—and this particular opener is outstanding. He continued: “And though he is most celebrated around the world these days for his ability to talk to halls large enough to stage a Bon Jovi concert, his special strength is to address twenty thousand people—Buddhists and grandmothers and kids alike—as if he were talking to each one alone, in the language she can best understand.”
Ford Madox Ford (1990)
There are also the rich in spirit. It overflows and is seen in everything they do. They are never mean, not even with money.
Judd continued: “In the 1930s, when Ford was hard up in Paris, a Georgian prince—every Georgian in Paris was a prince in those days—came to him and asked for some. Ford had never met the man before but let him have a check. The prince was outraged by the smallness of the sum and never visited Ford again, though he kept the check. It was for one half of the money Ford owned.”
You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1970)
Once upon a time, the world was bright and new, and Dorothy Parker was one of the brightest and newest people in it.
Keats continued: “She was an elfin woman who had two kinds of magic about her. Her first magical quality was that no one could consider her even dispassionately, and the other was that no one could precisely define her.“
John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage (1956)
This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues—courage. “Grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway defined it.
Kennedy’s book went on to win the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and nicely positioned him for a presidential run a few years later. At the time, many believed Theodore Sorenson, a noted historian and close friend of the Kennedy family, had actually ghostwritten the work.
JFK didn’t say much about the matter, but in 1957 his father famously threatened to sue political commentator Drew Pearson for asserting that Sorenson was the real author. The controversy even resulted in a popular apocryphal story that one of Kennedy’s colleagues in the Senate had said to him, “Jack, I wish you had a little less profile and a lot more courage.” The whole matter remained murky until 2008, when Sorenson revealed in his memoir (Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History) that he had, in fact, written “a first draft of most of the chapters” and “helped choose the words of many sentences.”
In the opening words to the book, Kennedy continued: “And these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”
A Most Dangerous Method (1993)
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung met for the first time on 3 March 1907. They talked for thirteen hours straight.
Kerr continued: “The last time the two men were together in the same room was at the Fourth International Psychoanalytic Congress, held in Munich on 7-8 September 1913. On that occasion, so far as is known, they said not a single word to each other. So it was in silence that one of the most vexed partnerships in the history of ideas ended.”
Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003)
Six years after the fact, Dr. Paul Edward Farmer reminded me, “We met because of a beheading, of all things.”
So begins Kidder’s biography of Paul Farmer, a renowned physician and infectious-disease specialist whose motto was “the only real nation is humanity.” Nine years earlier, in 1994, Kidder was on assignment in Haiti, reporting on the 20,000 American troops who had been sent to restore the nation’s democratically-elected government after it had been toppled by a military junta three years prior.
Anne Dillard had the opening line—and more—in mind when she said the book “unfolds with the force of a gathering revelation.“
“How John McCain Turned His Cliches into Meaning,” in The New York Times (Dec. 18, 2013)
When I walk into John McCain’s office a week before Thanksgiving, he is not at all happy—and he seems to be enjoying it.
This oxymoronic opening serves as an example about why Leibovich was hailed by The Washingtonian’s Garrett M. Graff as “Washington’s reigning master of the political profile.” In the piece’s second paragraph, Leibovich continued:
“He is sampling none of the usual flavors of upset we tend to associate with the Arizona senator: not the ‘McCain is bitter’ or ‘get off my yard’ varieties, not even the ‘deeply troubled’ umbrage that politicians of all stripes love to assume. Here is a man, instead, who is gleefully seizing an opportunity for outrage.”
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah (2012)
Allen Ginzberg once said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind except Leonard’s.”
For a writer, it’s got to be a major challenge to craft an exemplary opening for a biography about the legendary Leonard Cohen and his equally legendary song, “Hallelujah.” But Light finds a way to do it with style—bringing together three iconic historical figures in one intriguing observation about two of them.
M. G. Lord
The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice (2012)
You could say it began in 1944 with National Velvet, when Elizabeth Taylor, age twelve, dressed as a boy and stole America’s collective heart. By “it,” I mean the subversive drumbeats of feminism, which swelled in the star’s important movies over decades from a delicate pitty-pat to a resounding roar.
Few people would regard Elizabeth Taylor as an influential figure in the early history of feminism, but Lord’s mission is to set the record straight. In the second paragraph, she continued: “Feminism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Elizabeth Taylor. But it might if you share your definition with writer Rebecca West: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
“‘Max’ in Danger” (1922), in Essays on Life and Literature (1951)
Max is in danger of being canonized.
Since canonization is typically regarded as a good thing, Lynd immediately gets our attention by suggesting that, at least in this case, the very opposite is true. At the time the article was written, all literate readers would have known that the “Max” in question was Max Beerbohm, one of the truly great wits in the early decades of the twentieth century. In his opening paragraph, Lynd continued: “Critics may quarrel about him, but it is only because the wreaths get in the way of one another, and every critic thinks that his should be on top.”
After this engaging introduction to the subject of the essay, Lynd continued to write with great flair as he went on to say: “In order to avert this unseemly canonization—or, at least, to keep it within the bounds of reason—one would like to adopt the ungracious part of advocatus diaboli and state the case against ‘Max’ in the strongest possible terms. But, alas! one finds that there is nothing to say against him, except that he is not Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson.”
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016)
Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a chronic gambler, a lout, a cheapskate, a deadbeat, and on his worst days, a poet. He’s probably the last person on earth you would ever look to for life advice or expect to see in any sort of self-help book.
Which is why he’s the perfect place to start.
Beethoven: The Universal Composer (2005)
The British playwright Enid Bagnold once asked a feminist what advice she would give to a twenty-three-year-old housewife who, having lost four children, found herself pregnant again by an abusive, alcoholic husband.
“I would urge her to terminate the pregnancy,” the feminist replied.
“Then,” said Ms. Bagnold, “you would have aborted Beethoven.”
Even though Morris quickly explained that Bagnold was “not quite right in her facts” about the situation Beethoven’s mother was facing, his decision to open the book with the well-known anecdote was clearly a decision on his part to immediately “hook? the reader.
Gouverneur Morris IV
“Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s “The Red Cross Girl” (1912), in The Novels and Stories of Richard Harding Davis, Vol. 11 (1916)
He was almost too good to be true. In addition, the gods loved him, and so he had to die young.
One of the most delightful surprises in my research into great opening lines was discovering remarkable specimens in the most unexpected places. This spectacular tribute came at the beginning of the “Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s 1912 short story “The Red Cross Girl.” The writer was Davis’s good friend and fellow pulp fiction writer Gouverneur Morris IV (1876-1953), the great-great-grandson of one of America’s Founding Fathers. In the opening words, the tribute continued at an exceptionally high level:
“Some people think that a man of fifty-two is middle-aged. But if R. H. D. had lived to be a hundred, he would never have grown old. It is not generally known that the name of his other brother was Peter Pan.”
Richard Harding Davis has been almost entirely forgotten by modern readers, but he was a major American celebrity in the early 1900s. A pioneering war correspondent and bestselling writer of adventure stories, he was also Theodore Roosevelt’s good friend. There is no question that Davis’s writing about the exploits of Roosevelt and his Rough Riders was instrumental in creating the legend that continues to surround the 26th President. A handsome, dashing figure, Davis also served as the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Man,” created to match his famous “Gibson Girl.” Davis died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 51 in 1916.
Our Man: Richard Holbrook and the End of the American Century (2019)
Do you mind if we hurry through the early years? There are no mysteries here that can be unlocked by nursery school.
GUEST COMMENTARY from the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Stacy Schiff, who writes about these opening words:
“Packer very nearly grabs his reader by the collar here. And who can resist a biographer who not only steps off the page to address us directly, but warns that we’re going to move at a gallop—and that he’s not going to trouble us with a long survey of his subject’s youth?”
In the opening paragraph, Packer continued: “Why Holbrooke was Holbrooke is not even the question to which we need an answer. I wonder if there’s an answer for anyone, least of all for him. You really need to know just one thing, and it has to do with Holbrooke’s father.”
Schiff has also crafted some memorable opening lines. To view them, start here.
“Introduction” to Ayn Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982)
Ayn Rand was not only a novelist and philosopher; she was also a salesman of philosophy—the greatest salesman philosophy has ever had.
Robert S. Phillips
Louis L’Amour: His Life and Trails (1990)
Louis L’Amour. The name itself sounds highly improbable for the author of Western and adventure novels. As one of his early editors said, L’Amour on a paperback sounded like “a Western written in lipstick.”
In my opinion, this is one of the all-time great opening paragraphs for a biography. If more biographers began with openers like this, the entire genre would be improved a thousandfold.
“Florence King,“ in The New Brunswick News (July 1, 2016)
On a Sunday morning, tucked into bed on the island of St. Simons, the place where I, at the age of 13, accepted the calling that had haunted me since I was four — that of becoming a writer—Tink brought me a copy of The New York Times and coffee loaded with cream.
Rich continued: “There on the front page of this revered Yankee newspaper, I discovered the obituary of perhaps the first Southern woman to write about the region’s people and draw attention to the differences between us and them—them being anyone else in the world who doesn’t possess an ounce of Southern blood or the common sense to understand we are to be celebrated, not mocked. ’Florence King died,’ I mused quietly. ’She was 80.’”
A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2006)
In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France.
In her opening paragraph, Schiff continued: “Typically after an ocean crossing his eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of land; he had just withstood the most brutal voyage of his life. For thirty days he had pitched about violently on the wintry Atlantic, in a cramped cabin and under unremittingly dark skies. He had barely the strength to stand, but was to cause a sensation. Even his enemies conceded that he touched down in France like a meteor.”
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams (2022)
Samuel Adams delivered what may count as the most remarkable second act in American life. It was all the more confounding after the first: he was a perfect failure until middle age.
Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, begins her biography with a juicy little tidbit about one of the Revolutionary era’s most influential—and fascinating—figures. I was delighted to honor her beautiful opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
Schiff continued in her opening paragraph:
“He found his footing at age forty-one, when, over a dozen years, he proceeded to answer to Thomas Jefferson’s description of him as ’truly the man of the Revolution.’ With singular lucidity Adams plucked ideas from the air and pinned them to the page, layering in the moral dimensions, whipping up emotions, seizing and shaping the popular imagination.”
In “How Samuel Adams Helped Ferment a Revolution,” an October 2022 New Yorker article that relied heavily on Schiff’s research, Adam Gopnik helped clarify why her opening words were so effective: “All writers must woo and win readers, and readers are wooed and won, today as yesterday, by stories of flawed, sympathetic people who do big and significant things despite many obstacles put in their way. The bigger the obstacles and the more grooved-in the personal flaws, the better the story.”
“Picasso and the Weeping Women,” in The Village Voice (July 20, 1994)
Did Pablo Picasso exist? It gets harder to believe. Think of him wielding pencil and pecker, astride a century. He rewired the world’s optic nerves and imagination.
In a long and distinguished career, Schjeldahl, longtime art critic for The New Yorker and The Village Voice became one of the most respected—and entertaining—voices in the history of criticism. He continued in the opening paragraph: “He clambered through life on a jungle-gym of female flesh. ‘I’m God! I’m God!’ he crowed occasionally to his umpteenth girlfriend Dora Maar in the late thirties. He was then still four decades short of receiving the universe’s riposte. It must have killed him to die.”
“Letter to the Editor,” in the Los Angeles Times (April 8, 1968)
There is a bitter sadness and special irony that attends the passing of Martin Luther King. Quickly and with ease, we offer up a chorus of posthumous praise—the ritual dirge so time-honored and comfortable and undemanding of anything but rhetoric. In death, we offer the acknowledgement of the man and his dream that we denied him in life.
When most people think about the subject of great opening lines, one of the last things to come to mind would probably be “Letters to the Editor.” However, as Serling so ably demonstrates here, even in this highly specialized sub-genre of writing, superlative openings are possible. He maintained the ironic tone by continuing in his opening paragraph: “In his grave, we praise him for his decency—but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.”
Dan Shaughnessy and Stan Grossfield
Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures (1999)
There’s no other way to explain the sentimental feelings many of us have for old, inanimate objects, like sweaters, cars, houses, and baseball parks.
With words by Shaughnessy and photographs by Grossfield—both longtime Boston Globe employees and devoted Red Sox fans—this book proves that great biographies aren’t restricted to human beings.
Shaughnessy continued: “I still have the maroon wool cardigan that my coach, John Fahey, gave me in 1969 (the year Tony C. staged his dramatic comeback) when I lettered in baseball as a sophomore at Groton High School. The sweater has a big “G” on the right side, and for more than two years I got to walk the corridors of GHS feeling cool. I haven’t worn that sweater since the early ’70’s, but I could never throw it away.”
David Shields and Shane Salerno
J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.
This magnificent opening sentence is the book’s entire first paragraph. In the second, the authors continued:
“Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the ’prep school boy,’ a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.“
Warrior Statesman: The Life of Moshe Dayan (1991)
The black eyepatch dominated Moshe Dayan’s appearance, like some dark, spidery animal wrapped around his face.
A dazzling physical description is a time-honored way of beginning a book—especially a biography—and few can rival this description of one of Israel’s most colorful figures. Slater continued: “With its thin straps sliding over his bald head and upper cheek, the oval eyepatch jarred, dismayed, overwhelmed. The message conveyed was unmistakable: This man has been through hell and survived.”
H. Allen Smith
The Life and Legend of Gene Fowler (1977)
The picturesque and comfortable little town of Nyack snuggles up to the Hudson River at the point where it widens into the Tappan Zee. Nyack is on the west shore of the Hudson. Once widely acclaimed as the most beautiful river on earth, today the Hudson is only 9.2 percent water.
The two opening sentences are pretty standard stuff, but the third—with its tongue-in-cheek claim about the percentage of water in the Hudson River—immediately suggests that this will be no ordinary biography.
Smith continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Late of a blustery night, a good many years back, one of the citizens of Nyack came traveling up from Manhattan, a former scalawag newspaperman named Charlie MacArthur. Accompanying him to his home was an amiable reprobate, himself a veteran of the newspaper shops, a tall athletic handsome fellow called Gene Fowler. The two cavaliers had been hard at the swilling of grog for something like eight hours, and they were awash with all manner of liquid concoctions.”
Just Kids (2010)
I was asleep when he died. I had called the hospital to say one more good night, but he had gone under, beneath layers of morphine. I held the receiver and listened to his labored breathing through the phone, knowing I would never hear him again.
In these moving opening words in the book’s Foreword, Smith was referring to her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The woman often described as “the punk poet laureate” continued: “Later I quietly straightened my things, my notebook and fountain pen. The cobalt inkwell that had been his. My Persian cup, my purple heart, a tray of baby teeth. I slowly ascended the stairs, counting them, fourteen of them, one after another. I drew the blanket over the baby in her crib, kissed my son as he slept, then lay down beside my husband and said my prayers. He is still alive, I remember whispering. Then I slept.”
In a 2014 article in Classic Rock, a British magazine dedicated to rock music, Smith revealed that she wrote the book because, just before he died of AIDS in 1989, Mapplethorpe asked her to write a book about their decades-long friendship. “I didn’t write it to be cathartic; I wrote it because Robert asked me to,” she said, adding, “Our relationship was such that I knew what he would want and the quality of what he deserved. So that was my agenda for writing that book. I wrote it to fulfill my vow to him, which was on his deathbed. In finishing, I did feel that I’d fulfilled my promise.” The book, hailed by critics from the beginning, went on to win many awards, including the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life (1998)
Charles Bukowski raised himself up from his chair and got a beer from the refrigerator behind him on stage. The audience applauded as he drank, tipping the bottle until it was upside down and he had drained the last golden drop.
“This is not a prop,” he said, speaking slowly with a lilt to his voice, like W. C. Fields. “It’s a necesssssity.”
The words come from the book’s Prologue, and they provide a fitting introduction to one of the most colorful characters in literary history.
The first chapter of the book (titled “Twisted Childhood”) also begins memorably: “Bukowski claimed the majority of what he wrote was literally what had happened in his life. Essentially that is what his books are all about—and honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society. He even went so far as to put a figure on it: ninety-three percent of his work was autobiography, he said, and the remaining seven percent was ‘improved upon.’”
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961)
He sat before the mirror of the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheeks with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-colored eyes wide-set but heavy-lidded.
The opening paragraph describes a young Michelangelo, who doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror. The second attempts to capture his thoughts:
“’I’m not well designed,’ thought the thirteen-year-old with serious concentration. ’My head is out of rule, with the forehead overweighing my mouth and chin. Someone should have used a plumb line.’”
Stone was one of literary history’s most successful biographers and biographical novelists. Noted for his exhaustive research, he not only lived in Italy while writing The Agony and the Ecstasy, but worked in a marble quarry and apprenticed with a marble sculptor. He also translated and carefully analyzed 495 Michelangelo letters that had previously been available only in the original Italian. A critical and commercial success, the novel was adapted into a popular 1965 film starring Charlton Heston.
"Churchill: The Man," in Churchill Revised (1969; A. J. P. Taylor, et. al., eds.)
The psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to attempt a character study of an individual who he has never met is engaged upon a project which is full of risk.
“Isaac Newton,“ A Life in Reading in British Medical Journal (Dec. 21-28, 1985)
Isaac Newton is generally acknowledged to have been one of the greatest creative men of genius who ever existed. It also happened that he showed many striking abnormalities of personality, and at one time was considered mad by his contemporaries.
Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream (2014)
Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.
If you’re going to begin a book with a description of a person, it had better be a good one. This one starts off beautifully—and continues at the same high level for an entire 147-word first paragraph:
“Thick neck. Goatee. Hair trimmed tight on the sides and to a broomlike inch on top, having grown too thin to facilitate the lush mullet he favored for the better part of two decades. Big, calloused mitts roughened by wrench turning and car towing and several hundred applications of blunt-force trauma, of which dozens resulted in his arrest. Self-applied four-dot tattoo on his left wrist, signifying his years as a guest of the state. A belly nourished by beer, whiskey, Rumple Minze, and buckets of both haute cuisine and Buffalo chicken wings—of the latter, seventy-two at one sitting—but ameliorated by excellent posture. He leads with his chest, shoulders thrown rearward, daring the world to take a swing at him.”
Swift’s tour de force of a first paragraph is followed by a few more of the same high quality, and they ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion. You’ll have to check it out on your own, though. Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.
Nicholas L. Syrett
An Open Secret: The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton (2021)
On March 4, 1960, Robert Allerton became a father. He was 86-years-old at the time and his newly adopted son, John Gregg, was 60. The pair had already been living together and calling themselves father and son for almost four decades.
In a Chicago Tribune book review (June 18, 2021), Darcel Rockett wrote: “The first lines of Nicholas Syrett’s third book…had me hooked.” In the book, Syrett chronicled a fascinating story in gay and lesbian history—how a man who was once described as the “richest bachelor in Chicago” adopted his longtime lover, a man 26 years his junior (it was the first such adoption in Illinois history). The two men had been closeted lovers for nearly forty years, and the adoption—occurring during a time of rampant homophobia—gave Allerton a socially acceptable way to leave his fortune to his lover after his death. With a legal “son” as heir, the chances of any challenges to the will were greatly reduced.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in Esquire (April 1966)
Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.
This is the impeccable opening line of a celebrity profile that helped launch the “New Journalism” movement. Now regarded as a classic in journalism history, the essay is taught in journalism classes all around the country. In 2003, the editors of Esquire magazine hailed it as “The Best Story Esquire Ever Published.” And in a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Frank DiGiacomo described it as “The greatest literary-nonfiction story of the 20th century.” Many also regard it as the best profile ever written about Sinatra.
In the opening paragraph, Talese continued: “But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.”
“The Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan 7, 1962)
A satirist is a man profoundly revolted by the society in which he lives. His rage takes the form of wit, ridicule, mockery.
If you’re going to open an essay with an observation that attempts to capture the essence of your subject, it had better be a good one—and in this case, it turns out to be one of the very best things ever written about satirists. Indeed, Vidal’s first sentence was so eloquently expressed that I stopped reading for just a moment to appreciate the beauty of the construction.
Vidal was writing about the English writer Evelyn Waugh, who he described as “Our time’s first satirist.“ About Waugh, he continued: “For thirty years his savagery and wit have given pleasure and alarm. . .all set down in a prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American.“
Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel (2009)
Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.
About this opening line—and the heartwarming tale that follows—I cannot improve upon the publisher’s description: “So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls’s no-nonsense, resourceful, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town—riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in [Walls’s 2008 memoir] The Glass Castle.” The New York Times named Half Broke Horses one of The Ten Best Books of 2008.
“The Gentle Wit of Robert Benchley,” in American Heritage magazine (Nov./Dec., 2021)
Comedians yammer on and on, but humorists are a somber bunch.
Watson, a noted American writer/biographer/historian and senior editor at American Heritage, continued with words almost guaranteed to get readers to stay glued to the page: “Though funny in print, their party personas tend to brooding. Their lives are often a mess. You don’t have to be Freud to see that sorrow is the soul of wit. But meet Robert Benchley.”
Vagina: A New Biography (2012)
Why write a book about the vagina?
This is an opening question readers that would’ve never seen a few generations ago, but we are now clearly living in a new era. Wolf gives a direct answer in the second paragraph: “I have always been interested in female sexuality, and in the history of female sexuality. The way in which any given culture treats the vagina—whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly—is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.”
To Write As If Already Dead (2021)
There comes a moment when you are finally given some space and quiet, maybe an hour, possibly two, the occasional birdsong by an open window, and you must go to that other room and return to the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel.
In this genre-bending work (part-biography, part memoir, part novel), Zambreno begins by describing an experience all people—especially writers—are familiar with. I was so impressed I selected it for a Smerconish.com post on The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).
For me, that final phrase—the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel—has a haunting, unforgettable quality, causing me to reflect, “Yes, I’m familiar with that kind of problem.”
Rats, Lice, and History (1935)
This book, if it is ever written, and—if written—it finds a publisher, and—if published—anyone reads it, will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography.
Zinsser, a prominent American physician and bacteriologist, may have been the first person in history to write a biography about a thing rather than a person—and he directly addressed that issue in the opening words of his book on typhus (the formal subtitle was: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever).
Biographical writing was enjoying great popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, and it seems clear that Zinsser was hoping to capitalize on the trend. A bit later in his Introduction, he wrote: “The subject of our biography is a disease,” and he went on to add: “We shall try to write it in as untechnical a manner as is consistent with accuracy. It will of necessity be incomplete, for the life of our subject has been a long and turbulent one from which we can select only the high spots.“ Zinsser’s attempt to capitalize on the interest in biographical writing appears to have been successful, as his book became the 8th bestselling nonfiction book of 1935.
In the Preface to his work, Zinsser also offered some memorable opening words, and they provide a hint as to why he chose to frame the book as a biography: “These chapters—we hesitate to call so rambling a performance a book—were written at odd moments as a relaxation from studies of typhus fever in the laboratory and in the field. In following infectious diseases about the world, one ends by regarding them as biological individuals which have lived through centuries, spanning many generations of men and having existences which, in their developments and wanderings, can be treated biographically.”