Unauthorised biographies foray into volatile territory rife with factual inaccuracies, lawsuits and vengeance.
For the writer, there is definitely more freedom to reveal unflattering details that would otherwise be concealed by the involvement of the subject. However, seeking such stories can often lead the writer down a rabbit hole of sources, who might be chasing revenge under the guise of offering their version of the truth. Accuracy aside, unauthorised biographies by their very nature almost always ruffle feathers of their subject. Here are a handful of some of the most notorious cases of such.
The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman (1988)
Having already caused a stir with the release of his controversial biography of Elvis Presley in 1981, Albert Goldman hit the point of no return with The Lives of John Lennon in ’88. The book makes a series of unsubstantiated claims, many of which have been proven factually incorrect. The false claims include reports of a secret sexual relationship between Lennon and Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, as well as accusations that Lennon was schizophrenic, violent and addicted to drugs. The book’s content has been widely disputed by all who knew Lennon, including Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney who each urged for the boycott of the biography. U2 later penned their track ‘God Part II’ as a response to the book and an answer to Lennon’s own song, ‘God’, containing the lyrics “Don’t believe in Goldman/His type like a curse/Instant karma’s going to get him/If I don’t get him first”.
Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis (1985)
All surviving members of Led Zeppelin have discredited music journalist Stephen Davis’ notorious biography, Hammer of the Gods, which depicts the outfit as a beast fuelled by debauchery, orgies and heroin. Upon its release, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones each distanced themselves from the book, claiming Davis hardly knew the band. Despite this claim, there was photographic evidence that the former Rolling Stone editor had based Hammer of the Gods on a two-week stint he spent touring with the band across the US, ten years earlier. Much of the book relies on the accounts of former Led Zeppelin road manager Richard Cole, who Plant later claimed was embittered by his menial role within the band and held a distorted view of his time with them as a result.
Guns N’ Roses: The Most Dangerous Band in the World by Mick Wall (1992)
Kerrang! music journalist Mick Wall was infamously named by Axl Rose in his track ‘Get In The Ring’, alongside lyrics such as “And that goes for all of you punks in the press/That want to start shit by printin’ lies instead of the things we said”. Contrary to popular misconception, the name check was not a result of Wall’s biography of the band. According to Wall, Rose had it in for him after he printed an interview in which the Guns N’ Roses frontman had said some things he’d regretted. Later, upon learning of his plans to pen a book about the band, Rose allegedly told Wall “I’ve heard you’re writing a book about the band and I just want to let you know that, if you do, I will track you down. I will track you down and kill you”, along with threatening to take him to court. At that stage, the book was intended as a collection of archival interviews Wall had done with the band, though Rose’s threats caused Wall to scrap that plan and go in for the kill with a fully-fledged biography.
Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz (2014)
Despite having worked together on the 1999 biography Aretha: From These Roots, Aretha Franklin was far from impressed by David Ritz’s follow up, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Upon its release, Franklin labelled the book as trashy and a waste of money, claiming Ritz had used the project to seek revenge on her after she had parts of their earlier joint effort edited out. Needless to say, the friendship fizzled. Ritz maintained that the book, which divulges details of Franklin’s struggles with alcoholism, teenage parenthood and her violently abusive former husband, was titled Respect as he felt it offered just that in its retelling of the singer’s troubled life.
His Way by Kitty Kelley (1986)
Kitty Kelley had already built a reputation for writing salacious, apathetic biographies by the time Frank Sinatra became her subject for His Way. Sinatra was so adamantly against the book he unsuccessfully filed a $2 million lawsuit against Kelley to stop it from being published. As well as depicting the singer as a violent drunk, His Way speaks of Sinatra’s alleged close ties with mobsters who he had beat up fans, in addition to women he had discarded. The book not only paints Sinatra poorly, but accuses his mother Dolly Sinatra of having run an illegal abortion ring. Notably, His Way relies on sources who were disgruntled former peers of the singer rather than those close to him. The book has been warned against by the likes of Frank Sinatra Jr and former wife Mia Farrow.