The best novels about female stars who made a difference

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up in Los Angeles, I was fascinated from an early age by Mexican cinema, but my interest in Dolores del Río really blossomed when I wrote the novel Frida. Del Río was part of Frida Kahlo’s entourage, but unlike her friend, del Río was elegant and refined. Highly intelligent, she was dissatisfied with the vapidity of Hollywood and longed to make a real contribution to society. At Georgetown University, I taught courses on Latin American culture, and the Mexican Revolution, which influenced painting, literature, and cinema, was central to the classwork. Thus, I was very familiar with Del Río and her historical context long before I began writing. 


I wrote...

Miss del Río: A Novel of Dolores del Río, the First Major Latina Star in Hollywood

By Bárbara Mujica,

Book cover of Miss del Río: A Novel of Dolores del Río, the First Major Latina Star in Hollywood

What is my book about?

The Mexican revolution (1910-1917) forces Dolores’s family to flee their comfortable life in Durango and settle in Mexico City, where, at sixteen, she marries Jaime del Río. After suffering a devastating miscarriage, she meets Edwin Carewe, an American director, at a party. He recognizes in her a natural performer and invites her to Hollywood. Dazzlingly beautiful, she becomes a star almost overnight—but still must grapple with misogyny and racial prejudice. In the years preceding World War II, xenophobia makes it difficult for foreigners to find roles, so Dolores returns to Mexico, where she becomes a key figure in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. She also starts the first system of Montessori-inspired daycare centers in Mexico—bettering the lives of thousands of working women. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Only Woman in the Room

Bárbara Mujica Why did I love this book?

Having written my own book, I was anxious to read about other stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Only Woman in the Room, the story of Hedy Lamarr, didn’t disappoint. Hedwig Kiesler was an Austrian stage actress when Fritz Mandl, a wealthy arms dealer, began to court her. Of Jewish background, Hedy’s parents thought Mandl would protect the family from the rising Nazi threat. As Mandl’s wife, Hedy attended meetings in which weaponry and the secret maneuverings of the Third Reich were discussed. She was “the only woman in the room.” No one expected her to understand the conversations, but Hedy had a keen interest in science. After she escaped Austria and landed in Hollywood, becoming the famed Hedy Lamarr, she devised a plan to thwart the Nazi war machine.  

By Marie Benedict,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Only Woman in the Room as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

THE USA TODAY BESTSELLER

Bestselling author Marie Benedict reveals the story of a brilliant woman scientist only remembered for her beauty.

Her beauty almost certainly saved her from the rising Nazi party and led to marriage with an Austrian arms dealer. Underestimated in everything else, she overheard the Third Reich's plans while at her husband's side and understood more than anyone would guess. She devised a plan to flee in disguise from their castle, and the whirlwind escape landed her in Hollywood. She became Hedy Lamarr, screen star.

But she kept a secret more shocking…


Book cover of Marlene

Bárbara Mujica Why did I love this book?

A novel about Marlene Dietrich held a natural attraction for me, as Dietrich was one of Dolores del Río’s close friends in Hollywood. Gortner paints a vivid picture of decadence in pre-War Berlin, where Dietrich finds work in music halls. There, she meets Joseph von Sternberg, who casts her as the lead of The Blue Angel, the film that launches her career. As antisemitism grows in Germany, von Sternberg, who is Jewish, leaves for Hollywood, and Dietrich follows him. Paramount Pictures finds in her the answer to MGM’s sexy Swedish star, Greta Garbo, and casts her in one hit after the other. When Hitler approaches her to make propaganda films for the Nazis, Dietrich courageously rebuffs him, opting instead to become an American citizen and entertain Allied troops. 

By C.W. Gortner,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A lush, dramatic biographical novel of one of the most glamorous and alluring legends of Hollywood's golden age, Marlene Dietrich-from the gender-bending cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the lush film studios of Hollywood, a sweeping story of passion, glamour, ambition, art, and war from the author of Mademoiselle Chanel. Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, Maria Magdalena Dietrich dreams of a life on the stage. When a budding career as a violinist is cut short, the willful teenager vows to become a singer, trading her family's proper, middle-class society for the free-spirited, louche world of Weimar Berlin's…


Book cover of Blonde

Bárbara Mujica Why did I love this book?

I have never had much interest in Marilyn Monroe, but as an author of biofiction, I was curious about the narrative techniques Oates used to recount her life. To my surprise, I found myself profoundly moved by Monroe’s story. Oates depicts the young Norma Jean Baker as an intelligent but innocent girl propelled into the limelight by her looks. Abandoned by her father and abused by her mother, she craves affection, clinging to those who appear to love her but only want to use her. Studio magnates transform her into Marilyn Monroe, a thoroughly artificial creation. By switching strategically from first- to third-person narrative, Oates brilliantly captures the conflict between the breathy, sensuous star, and the real Norma Jean underneath, insecure and uncomfortable with the phoniness of her Hollywood persona.   

By Joyce Carol Oates,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The National Book Award finalist and national bestseller exploring the life and legend of Marilyn Monroe

Now a Netflix Film starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale and Julianne Nicholson

In one of her most ambitious works, Joyce Carol Oates boldly reimagines the inner, poetic, and spiritual life of Norma Jeane Baker—the child, the woman, the fated celebrity, and idolized blonde the world came to know as Marilyn Monroe. In a voice startlingly intimate and rich, Norma Jeane tells her own story of an emblematic American artist—intensely conflicted and driven—who had lost her way. A powerful portrait of Hollywood’s…


Book cover of Josephine Baker's Last Dance

Bárbara Mujica Why did I love this book?

As Hollywood’s first Latina star, Dolores del Río broke down barriers for Hispanic women, just as Josephine Baker opened doors for Black women. Baker arrived in Paris just when French artists were cultivating Primitivism, and French intellectuals were fascinated with Africa. Performing her Danse Sauvage in the Revue Nègre and then at the Follies Bergères, Baker became an instant sensation and fabulously wealthy. She owned homes, clubs, cars, and even an airplane. When World War II erupted, she became a spy for the Resistance. Later, when she returned to the U.S., she became a civil rights activist. Sherry Jones brings to life this extraordinary woman, who triumphed over poverty, prejudice, domestic violence, and even Nazi racial targeting.  

By Sherry Jones,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the author of The Jewel of Medina, a moving and insightful novel based on the life of legendary performer and activist Josephine Baker, perfect for fans of The Paris Wife and Hidden Figures.

Discover the fascinating and singular life story of Josephine Baker-actress, singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist, member of the French Resistance during WWII, and a woman dedicated to erasing prejudice and creating a more equitable world-in Josephine Baker's Last Dance.

In this illuminating biographical novel, Sherry Jones brings to life Josephine's early years in servitude and poverty in America, her rise to fame as a showgirl in…


Book cover of Finding Dorothy

Bárbara Mujica Why did I love this book?

I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Letts’s behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite films. The story revolves around the efforts of Maud, the widow of Frank Baum, author of the original novel, to ensure that MGM remains true to Frank’s vision. At first, the choice of Judy Garland to play the lead seems totally wrong, as the girl is too old for the part. However, when Maud hears Judy rehearsing “Over the Rainbow,” she recognizes an authentic longing. Furthermore, Judy is receptive to Maud’s suggestions and wants to play the role right. Although Judy seems confident on set, Maud recognizes in her an unhappy, insecure girl who is struggling to cope with the death of her father and is dominated by her overbearing mother.   

By Elizabeth Letts,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Behind the most famous movie ever made is a tale of love, magic and one incredible woman

Hollywood, 1938: As soon as she learns that M-G-M is adapting her late husband's masterpiece, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for the screen, Maud Gage Baum sets about trying to visit the set.
Nineteen years after Frank's passing, Maud is the only person who can help the producers stay true to the spirit of the book - because she's the only one left who knows its secrets...

But the moment she hears Judy Garland rehearsing the first notes of 'Over the Rainbow', Maud…


You might also like...

God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

By J.M. Unrue,

Book cover of God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

J.M. Unrue Author Of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an old guy. I say this with a bit of cheek and a certain amount of incongruity. All the books on my list are old. That’s one area of continuity. Another, and I’ll probably stop at two, is that they all deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances—those curveballs of life we flail at with an unfamiliar bat; the getting stuck on the Interstate behind a semi and some geezer in a golf cap hogging the passing lane in a Buick Le Sabre. No one makes it through this life unscathed. How we cope does more to define us than a thousand smiles when things are rosy. Thus endeth the lesson.

J.M.'s book list on showing that somebody has it worse than you do

What is my book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The heart of the book continues with "The Reunion," a touching narrative about high school sweethearts reuniting, stirring up poignant memories and unspoken feelings. "The Therapy Session" adds a lighter touch, presenting a serio-comic exchange between a therapist and a challenging patient. In "The Fishing Trip," a father imparts crucial life lessons to his daughter during an eventful outing, leading to unexpected consequences. "Mortality" offers a deeply personal moment as a mother shares a cherished, secret story from her past with her son.

The collection then takes a romantic turn in "The Singles Cruise," where two individuals find connection amidst shared stories on a cruise for singles. Finally, "Jesus and Buddha in the Garden of Eden" provides a satirical, thought-provoking encounter in the afterlife between two spiritual figures. The book concludes with "The Breakup," a nuanced portrayal of a young couple's separation, told from both perspectives, encapsulating the complexities of relationships and the human experience.

God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

By J.M. Unrue,

What is this book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in movie stars, Marilyn Monroe, and African Americans?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about movie stars, Marilyn Monroe, and African Americans.

Movie Stars Explore 43 books about movie stars
Marilyn Monroe Explore 10 books about Marilyn Monroe
African Americans Explore 725 books about African Americans