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Who would you invite to a vegetarian dinner party? From Leonardo da Vinci to Lea Michele, history is full of fascinating characters who have given up meat for reasons of health or philosophy. To celebrate World Vegetarian Day on October 1, we’ve rounded up our favorite biographies and memoirs by an eclectic group of artists and activists. These seven people might have nothing much else in common, but they’d make our guest list for a fabulous meat-free dinner party.
“Thank God I thrive on variety,” writes Rue McClanahan in her riotous memoir My First Five Husbands … And the Ones Who Got Away. The larger-than-life Southern Belle, who made Blanche Devereaux of "The Golden Girls" into an icon of sass and sex appeal, had long been a vegetarian and animal rights activist. Her autobiography tells a classic coming-of-age tale of a small-town girl from Oklahoma who travels to the big city with a passion for acting -- and romance. After her first husband left her with a young son, McClanahan continued to hustle her way to stardom, kissing plenty of frogs along the way, until she finally settled down happily with husband number six (at least at the time of writing the book -- they separated in 2009, a year before McClanahan passed away).
We’d seat McClanahan next to modern dance legend Isadora Duncan, who led a similarly scandalous life in pursuit of love and artistic fulfillment. She told her story in the autobiography My Life -- now available in a new, unexpurgated edition, with an introduction by New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella. Born in San Francisco, Duncan lived a restless life in Europe and the Soviet Union before her tragic death in a car accident in 1927, aged fifty. She was determined to elevate dance to a preeminent position among the arts and free it from the rigid techniques of classical ballet. Inspired both by ancient Greek styles and modern athletics, she created a new art form, emphasizing free, natural movements and barefoot performance. She established schools across Europe and in New York where her dancer protégées helped to spread her ideas -- although her own beliefs were not always consistent, she wrote that “the children of my schools were all vegetarians, and grew strong and beautiful on a vegetable and fruit diet.”
Another revolutionary in her field, and among the most famous living scientists, the primatologist Jane Goodall has transformed our understanding of how chimpanzees behave -- and in the process, forced us to reconsider what makes humans unique. As a scientific outsider, Goodall’s ideas -- including the conviction that chimpanzees could communicate, solve problems, demonstrate emotion, and even make and use basic tools -- met with a great deal of resistance, but her perseverance eventually triumphed. In her enlightening biography, Meg Greene tells the story of Goodall’s journey from her childhood in England and early training as an anthropologist, to her role today as an expert on chimpanzee social behavior and an advocate of vegetarianism on conservation, health, and humanitarian grounds.
The Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee is not, by all accounts, a particularly gregarious dinner guest, but he has been an outspoken defendant of animal rights and a longtime vegetarian, as well as a groundbreaking writer. In his trilogy of fictionalized memoirs, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, now collected as Scenes from Provincial Life, Coetzee portrays the early life of a young aspiring writer in South Africa as a story of ambition and alienation, big dreams and bitter failures. The stories become increasingly experimental (Summertime is presented as notes toward a biography of a deceased John Coetzee) and freely cross back and forth between experience and imagination.
There might be more famous musical vegetarians (Morrissey, and half of the Beatles) but we’d choose to get musical accompaniment from the inventive and cerebral Elvis Costello, who has been vegetarian since the early 1980s, and recently joined forces with Paul McCartney to promote vegetarian foods. In his biography, Complicated Shadows, Graeme Thomson offers a detailed portrait of the notoriously private and prickly musician, from his childhood in London and Liverpool, his early success with The Attractions, his stormy romantic life, and his undiminished creative output (critics are currently singing the praises of his just-released collaboration with The Roots, “Wise Up Ghost”).
Who better to be master of ceremonies than legendary host of "The Price is Right"? Bob Barker has had one of the longest careers in showbiz as a game show and variety host, and no doubt has plenty of backstage gossip to share. He was also one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of animal rights, and a vegetarian since 1979, inspired by his wife, Dorothy Jo. After her death in 1981, Barker intensified his commitment to animal-rights activism as a way of honoring her legacy. His autobiography, Priceless Memories, written in collaboration with Digby Diehl, is largely a greatest-hits compilation, moving from Barker’s childhood in Washington State, South Dakota, and Missouri, to his WWII naval service, and through his move to California and remarkable fifty years in the entertainment business.
Robin Quivers gives as good as she gets as Howard Stern’s right-hand woman. In her new book, The Vegucation of Robin, the radio host, actress, and keen amateur racing driver shares the story of her struggle to kick the high-fat, high-carb eating habits that had left many of her family members fighting diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. In no-nonsense fashion, her book chronicles her battle to stick to a healthier diet based on plants and grains rather than burgers and fries, and includes nearly 100 of her favorite vegan recipes; it serves as a wake-up call to readers who are trapped in unhealthy patterns yet have no idea how to change their habits.