The best family biographies with regional history in a starring role

Who am I?

I read (and write) biography as much for history as for an individual life story. It’s a way of getting a personalized look at an historical period. When the book is a family biography, the history is amplified by different family members' perspectives, almost like a kaleidoscope, and it stretches over generations, allowing the historical story to blossom over time. The genre also opens a window into the ethos that animated this unique group of individuals who are bound together by blood. Whether it's a desire for wealth or power, the zeal for a cause, or the need to survive adversity, I found it in these family stories.  

I wrote...

They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men

By Kathleen Stone,

Book cover of They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men

What is my book about?

They Called Us Girls tells the stories of seven women who broke professional barriers in the mid-twentieth century. When they came of age, the conventional expectation was for women to stay home. But these women had other ideas. They forged successful careers in male-dominated professions such as medicine, law, and science, among others. As a girl, and later as a lawyer myself, I was intrigued by women like them, and I wanted to find out what fueled their ambition. The book is a collection of individual profiles based on my interviews of the women, and lots of research into history and culture. Together, their stories paint a picture of an era.  

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The books I picked & why

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty

By Anderson Cooper, Katherine Howe,

Book cover of Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty

Why did I love this book?

When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he was the richest man in America. Two generations later, the family parlayed their wealth into social status in the city's newly defined class structure.

Anderson Cooper, CNN news anchor, and his co-author trace the city's social history, beginning with Anderson's ancestor who emigrated to the small Dutch colony at the tip of Manhattan as an indentured servant. The story ends with Anderson's mother Gloria, the last Vanderbilt to have known the family at the peak of its wealth and social clout before lavish spending took its toll.

Most affecting are Anderson’s memories of his mother that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with sharing life with someone we love.

By Anderson Cooper, Katherine Howe,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Vanderbilt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times bestselling author and journalist Anderson Cooper teams with New York Times bestselling historian and novelist Katherine Howe to chronicle the rise and fall of a legendary American dynasty-his mother's family, the Vanderbilts.

One of the Washington Post's Notable Works of Nonfiction of 2021

When eleven-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt began to work on his father's small boat ferrying supplies in New York Harbor at the beginning of the nineteenth century, no one could have imagined that one day he would, through ruthlessness, cunning, and a pathological desire for money, build two empires-one in shipping and another in railroads-that would…

Book cover of Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty

Why did I love this book?

In 1866, Lazarus Morganthau emigrated from Germany, intent on rebuilding the fortune he had lost. He died destitute but, like the Biblical Lazarus, his descendants rose again.

Family members made a fortune in New York real estate before turning to public service, with Henry Sr. becoming an Ambassador, Henry Jr. a confidant of FDR and Secretary of the Treasury, and Robert the longest-serving District Attorney in Manhattan’s history. We get a detailed look at New York's interlocking spheres of society, finance, and politics, and at how the Morgenthaus, as Jews, found acceptance despite the antisemitism of the time.  

By Andrew Meier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Morgenthau as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


An "epic and intimate" (David M. Kennedy) portrait of four generations of the Morgenthau family, a dynasty of power brokers and public officials with an outsize—and previously unmapped—influence extending from daily life in New York City to the shaping of the American Century.

"A work of important and enduring history...from the making of New York, to the Greatest Generation, to surviving one of the toughest jobs in law and order: Manhattan DA.  The Morgenthau name and the contributions of this historic family will endure forever." --Tom Brokaw

After coming to America from Germany…

Book cover of Zabar's: A Family Story, with Recipes

Why did I love this book?

Zabar's, New York's world-famous food emporium, is the achievement of another Jewish immigrant family.

Author Lori Zabar's grandparents, before they were a couple, fled pogroms in Russia (now Ukraine) and made their way to New York. Together they worked at a variety of small food stores before starting their own in 1934. From then on, Zabar's helped define the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The story here is one of hard work and eventual success in a family-run business, expanded to include dedicated non-family employees. The book also contains recipes, including two of my personal favorites - latkes and kugel. 

By Lori Zabar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Zabar's as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating, mouthwatering story (with ten recipes!) of the immigrant family that created a New York gastronomic legend: “The most rambunctious and chaotic of all delicatessens, with one foot in the Old World and the other in the vanguard of every fast-breaking food move in the city" (Nora Ephron, best-selling author and award-winning screenwriter).

When Louis and Lilly Zabar rented a counter in a dairy store on 80th Street and Broadway in 1934 to sell smoked fish, they could not have imagined that their store would eventually occupy half a city block and become a beloved mecca for quality food…

Book cover of Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama

Why did I love this book?

After the Civil War, the South was in turmoil, with ruined farms, destitute people, and existential uncertainty about the future.

John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama was one who stepped forward to ensure that little would change. He voted against the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and helped institutionalize convict leasing. As author Kari Frederickson writes, "Confederates may have lost the war, but white men like Bankhead were determined to thwart any possible political or social revolution."

Other Bankheads continued in the same vein including Marie who, as director of the Alabama state archives, embraced the Lost Cause narrative, rejected symbols of Reconstruction, and, in the name of state’s rights, opposed voting rights for women. Learning about this family’s success in molding the post-war South gave me new insight into issues of today.

By Kari A. Frederickson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Deep South Dynasty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The sweeping story of an ambitious and once-powerful southern family.

From Reconstruction through the end of World War II, the Bankheads served as the principal architects of the political, economic, and cultural framework of Alabama and the greater South. As a family, they were instrumental in fashioning the New South and the twentieth century American political economy, but now the Bankhead name is largely associated only with place names.

Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama is a deeply researched epic family biography that reflects the complicated and evolving world inhabited by three generations of the extremely accomplished-if problematic-Bankhead family…

Book cover of The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family

Why did I love this book?

We all know of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters who, before the Civil War, left their South Carolina home and became well-known abolitionists in the North.

But the family also included their brother Henry, a brutal, slave-holding man, his three children by Nancy Weston, an enslaved woman in his household, and their descendants. Two brothers became part of the post-Civil War Black elite and one descendant, Angelina Weld Grimké, made a name for herself as a poet during the Harlem Renaissance.

In addition to reexamining the legacy of Sarah and Angelina, author Kerri Greenidge reminds readers how families were formed under the sword of slavery and that recovery from its wounds is incomplete, even today. 

By Kerri K. Greenidge,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Grimkes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah and Angelina Grimke-the Grimke sisters-are revered figures in American history, famous for rejecting their privileged lives on a plantation in South Carolina to become firebrand activists in the North. Their antislavery pamphlets, among the most influential of the antebellum era, are still read today. Yet retellings of their epic story have long obscured their Black relatives. In The Grimkes, award-winning historian Kerri Greenidge presents a parallel narrative, indeed a long-overdue corrective, shifting the focus from the white abolitionist sisters to the Black Grimkes and deepening our understanding of the long struggle for racial and gender equality.

That the Grimke…

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