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Adler, Polly (16 April 1900?–09 June 1962), prostitution madam and author, was born Pearl Adler in Yanow, Russia, the daughter of Morris Adler, a tailor, and Gertrude Koval (called “Isidore” and “Sarah” in her autobiography). Later in life Adler also used several aliases, including Joan Martin and Pearl Davis. When Adler was twelve, her family arranged for her to be tutored by the local rabbi in the hope that she would receive a scholarship to study at a Gymnasium in Pinsk. A year later, before learning the results of the scholarship competition, Adler’s father sent his daughter to live in the United States. Traveling alone, thirteen-year-old Adler arrived in New York in December 1913....

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Alexander, Edward Porter (26 May 1835–28 April 1910), Confederate soldier and author, was born in Washington, Georgia, the son of Adam Leopold Alexander, a planter and banker, and Sarah Hillhouse Gilbert. Educated by tutors in his wealthy family’s household, Alexander entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1853 and graduated third in the class of 1857. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant of engineers on 1 July 1857 and was promoted to second lieutenant on 10 October 1858. Marked from the first as a promising officer, he taught at West Point immediately upon graduation, accompanied ...

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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Steve Allen Used with the permission of Bill Allen, Meadowlane Enterprises, Inc.

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Margaret Anderson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112044).

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Anderson, Margaret (24 November 1886–19 October 1973), editor and author, was born Margaret Carolyn Anderson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of Arthur Aubrey Anderson and Jessie Shortridge. Anderson’s father was a railway executive who provided a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and three daughters. Anderson, whose chief interest as a young woman was music and literature, was soon regarded as the rebel of the family. After three years at Western College for Women in Ohio, she dropped out and made her way to Chicago, hoping to find work as a writer. After various stints as a bookstore clerk, print assistant, and part-time critic, Anderson decided to start her own literary journal. With little money but a great deal of enthusiasm and support from friends, Anderson founded the avant-garde ...

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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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Antin, Mary (13 June 1881–15 May 1949), author, was born in Polotzk, Russia, the daughter of Israel Antin, a scholar and unsuccessful shopkeeper, and Esther Weltman. The assassination of Czar Alexander II three months before her birth unleashed a series of brutal pogroms and increased restrictions on the employment, residency, and education of Jews. These events formed the background of Antin’s childhood, a world she recalled as divided in two, between Polotzk and Russia, Jews and Gentiles, with the constant presence of anti-Semitism....

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Ashbridge, Elizabeth (1713–16 May 1755), Quaker minister and autobiographer, was born Elizabeth Sampson in Middlewich, Cheshire, England, the daughter of Thomas Sampson, a ship’s surgeon, and Mary (maiden name unknown). What little is known about Ashbridge’s life is elicited almost entirely from her brief but compelling autobiography, ...

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Ashe, Arthur (10 July 1943–06 February 1993), tennis player, author, and political activist, was born Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Arthur Ashe, Sr., a police officer, and Mattie Cunningham. Tall and slim as a young boy, Ashe was forbidden by his father from playing football; he took up tennis instead on the segregated playground courts at Brookfield Park, near his home. By the time he was ten he came under the tutelage of a local tennis fan and physician from Lynchburg, Walter Johnson. Johnson had previously nurtured Althea Gibson, who would become the first African American to win Wimbeldon, in 1957 and 1958, and his second protégé would prove no less successful....

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Barr, Amelia Edith Huddleston (29 March 1831–10 March 1919), author and teacher, was born in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, the daughter of the Reverend William Henry Huddleston and Mary Singleton. When Barr was young, her family moved often, according to her father’s assignment as a Methodist minister. Although her early education was frequently interrupted by relocations, returns on the Reverend Huddleston’s investments allowed Barr to attend the best private schools wherever the church sent the family. Furthermore, reading sophisticated books and treatises to her father reinforced her formal schooling and contributed to an excellent early education. This childhood security ended abruptly in 1847, when a family friend absconded to Australia with the Reverend Huddleston’s fortune, and Barr had to earn her own living as a “second teacher” at a school in Downham Market. Soon the family’s monetary situation improved and enabled Barr, in 1849, to attend Normal School in Glasgow to learn the Stowe teaching method, with its emphasis on moral training, lifelong learning, and understanding rather than rote learning. Marriage, in 1850, to Robert Barr, a prosperous young Scottish wool merchant, ended her teacher-training program. Nevertheless, teaching, on a formal or informal basis, was an important part of Barr’s life for the next twenty years....

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Blackford, Charles Minor (17 October 1833–10 March 1903), lawyer and author, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the son of William Matthews Blackford, an editor, and Mary Berkeley Minor. He shaped his life by both emulating and rejecting his parents’ lives and wishes. Although trained in law, Blackford’s father pursued a career in politics and in 1846 moved the family to Lynchburg to take a job as a newspaper editor. Thus his father subjected the family to a precarious living based on party patronage but encouraged his five sons’ interest in political and literary lives. His mother held strong antislavery beliefs and pressured her sons to seek their fortunes away from the taint of the South. Charles was educated at home and at boarding schools; he completed his education at the University of Virginia, earning an L.L.B. in 1855....

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Bowers, Bathsheba (1672–1718), spiritual autobiographer and Quaker preacher, was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of Benanuel Bowers and Elizabeth Dunster, English Quakers who had resettled in Boston at the end of the seventeenth century to escape the Anglican faith of her father’s father. Because Bowers’s adolescent years were disrupted by the ruling Puritans’ persecution of Quakers, she and at least two of her eleven siblings were removed to Quaker Philadelphia, were Bowers spent most of her adult life....

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Braden, Anne (28 July 1924–06 March 2006), civil rights activist and journalist, was born Anne Gambrell McCarty in Louisville, Kentucky, to Gambrell and Anita McCarty. Because her father was a traveling salesman, she grew up in various southern states, but mostly in rigidly segregated Anniston, Alabama. Her conservative white Episcopal parents fully embraced  the norms of southern racial hierarchy, and they remained comfortable throughout the Depression years of her childhood, but the young Anne, idealistic and devoutly religious, was troubled by the suffering around her. After graduating from Anniston High School in 1941, she left home to study literature and journalism at two Virginia women’s colleges, first Stratford Junior College and then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where she discovered the life of the mind in a serious way and first met critics of racial segregation. In 1945, upon graduation from Randolph-Macon, she returned to postwar Alabama as a newspaper reporter, first for the ...

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Browne, Benjamin Frederick (17 July 1793–23 November 1873), druggist and author, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of Benjamin Browne and Elizabeth Andrew, occupations unknown. Browne attended classes beginning in 1797 in a school run by Madame Babbidge. He served as apprentice to apothecary E. S. Lang for five years (1807–1812), immediately after which the outbreak of the War of 1812 destroyed all commerce moving through the port of Salem....

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Burroughs, Stephen (01 January 1765?–28 January 1840), rogue, imposter, and author, was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, the son of Eden Burroughs, a Presbyterian minister, and Abigail Davis Burroughs. Burroughs recalled in his autobiography that he was “the terror of the people where I lived, and all were unanimous in declaring, that Stephen Burroughs was the worst boy in town, and those who could get him whipped were most worthy of esteem.” When not perpetrating pranks on his neighbors, Burroughs spent his time reading novels and daydreaming, and at the age of fourteen he ran away from home to enlist in the Continental army. His father derailed his plan to enlist, but in characteristic fashion Burroughs tried again and again, eventually succeeding. After taking part in several skirmishes, however, Burroughs's military ardor cooled, and his father managed to obtain his son's discharge....

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Cantwell, Mary (10 May 1930–01 February 2000), writer, was born Mary Lee Cantwell in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of Leo Cantwell, a man of Scottish descent who worked as a production manager in a rubber plant, and Mary Lonergan Cantwell, a former teacher and the descendant of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants. As described in her nostalgic memoir ...

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Chessman, Caryl Whittier (27 May 1921–02 May 1960), criminal and writer, was born in St. Joseph, Michigan, the son of Serl Whittier Chessman, whose occupations were varied and who spent some time on welfare, and Hallie Cottle. Because of his mother’s precarious health, Chessman and his parents moved to southern California a few months after his birth. Chessman was a sickly child, suffering from attacks of pneumonia, asthma, and encephalitis. (Psychiatrists suggest that his bout with encephalitis may have precipitated his psychopathic tendencies.) A serious car accident in Los Angeles in 1929 left his aunt dead, his mother paralyzed from the waist down, and Chessman with a broken nose and jaw. Overwhelming medical bills forced the family onto welfare, and he obtained a paper route to help out....

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Childs, George William (12 May 1829–03 February 1894), publisher, biographer, and philanthropist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. The names of his parents are not known. In Recollections (1890), his autobiography, Childs shrouds his family origins in mystery, making no reference to his parents or early childhood, beginning instead with an explanation of how he had had from a young age “a rather remarkable aptitude for business.” At twelve he worked a summer job as an errand boy in a Baltimore bookstore for two dollars a week. He reflects in ...

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Chona, Maria (1858–1936), oral autobiographer, was born in the village of Mesquite Root, part of the Papago Indian Reservation west of Tucson, in what is now the state of Arizona. At the time of her birth, the reservation was part of the Gadsden Purchase, a large parcel of land in the American Southwest that had been acquired by the United States from Mexico in 1853. Chona was the daughter of José Marie, chief of the Tautaukwañi Papago, who were known to English-speaking settlers as the Bean People or Desert People; the name of Chona's mother is unknown. José Marie was the principal war chief among all the Papago tribes and led frequent raids against neighboring Apaches. He was also a lover of gambling, according to his daughter, who nicknamed him "Con Quien" ("the Gambler")....