Family biographies where regional history is the star

September 2023

Over the last year I’ve become interested in family biographies, a subgenre of biography, itself a subgenre of nonfiction.

When I had the opportunity to recommend some of my favorite family biographies on the website, I chose these five.

Why these five? Anytime I read a biography, I like to absorb the history of the era and the place, as much as the individual life story. With these books, I found the regional history particularly compelling. In three, we get to see New York City’s formation, from Dutch colony at the tip of Manhattan to sprawling financial, political and culinary center. The other two depict the South, from before the Civil War to ramifications felt today.


Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, Anderson Cooper, Katherine Howe

When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he was the richest man in America but a social outcast. Within two generations, 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.


Morganthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, Andrew Meier

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.

Zabar’s: A Family Story, with Recipes, Lori Zabar

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.

Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama, Kari A. Frederickson

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.


The Grimkés: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, Kerri K. Greenidge

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.

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