They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, which may be why we are so fascinated by people who choose to remain absent from the rest of society. Either that, or we are just really nosey and can’t stand the thought of talented and interesting people being intensely private or solitary. We are all familiar with the stereotype of the tortured genius who can change the world, but struggles to be a part of it: The quiet, brooding and super-intelligent prodigy, who achieves new heights of success in their chosen profession or sets new records in their field, but can rarely (if ever) bring themselves to leave the house. It is usually characters in inspirational stories and feel-good movies, overcoming their social shortcomings to achieve amazing things. As common as this stereotype is in fiction, we rarely hear or think about the real-life people who inspire the trope, yet there have been massively successful people in all professions and walks of life who have made a massive impact, yet choose solitude over the limelight. This is a look at some of the inspiring geniuses and incredibly talented people who achieved huge success in their field, yet lived a reclusive life.
Bobby Fischer is considered by most to be the greatest chess player of all time. Already a US national champion in his early teens, he became the youngest ever grandmaster of the game and the youngest person to qualify for the world championship at just 15. He won the world championship in 1972 but forfeited the title in 1975, not playing again in public for 20 years. The only time he surfaced in the meantime was in 1977 when he played against (and defeated) an MIT-designed chess-playing computer. After that, he seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. As we are told in the book ‘Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall’ by Frank Brady, “In 1992, a 49-year-old Bobby Fischer emerged from a 20-year seclusion to play for a $5 million prize against Borris Spassky in Sveti Stefan, Yugoslavia”. It is very possible that the world wouldn’t have heard from Fischer again at all if it had not been for the massive price tag on the line. Unfortunately this led to a whole mess of other circumstances resulting in Fischer living out the rest of his days away from his home country and fading voluntarily back into relative obscurity.
Ted Williams started off hungry for fame and success, which he found as a baseball player for the Boston Red Sox where he earned the nickname “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived”. He set records for batting average and on-base percentage, amongst a whole laundry list of accolades and achievements throughout his days as a player before moving on to become a coach. Over the years, he grew a hatred of the sports press and began to hate attention from journalists and fans alike. He moved to Florida for a more solitary existence and while some reports claim that his life was not entirely reclusive, he certainly avoided the media and fans, leaving his celebrity days far behind him. As a famous article about him said, “…he came to know, better than most men, the value of his time. So over the years, Ted Williams learned to avoid annoyance. Now in his seventh decade, he had girded his penchants for privacy and ease with a bristle of dos and don’ts that defeat casual intrusion. He is a hard man to meet”.
Alexander Grothendieck was a German-French mathematician who has been called the Einstein of Mathematics and was hailed as a visionary and revolutionary mind in the field. He won several prestigious awards throughout his career (although he didn’t always accept them) and published volumes of literature on various fields of mathematics. Unfortunately, as summarised in his obituary in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, “in the 1970s he effectively abandoned his brilliant academic career and, in 1991, disappeared altogether; he was later reported as “last heard of raging about the devil somewhere in the Pyrenees”…” The story goes that he had been living in the Pyrenees with his partner, but one day he burned all of his paperwork and manuscripts and left without warning, cutting ties to family, friends and former colleagues. He was heard from very seldom after that, although strangely he did resurface to try to erase all of his past work from existence in 2010, requesting that all of his books be removed from libraries and never be republished.
Grigori Perelman is a Russian mathematician who, much like our previous entrant, was considered to be a revolutionary maths genius after having solved a problem (known as Poincaré’s conjecture) that had stumped the world’s elite minds for almost a century. The puzzle was so difficult in fact, that it took several mathematicians a few years to be able to actually corroborate that he had solved it. This earned him the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal and also a million dollar reward from the Clay Mathematics Institute. He surprised everyone when he turned them both down, opting instead to live in a small, allegedly squalid and cockroach-infested apartment with his elderly mother. There was a report of a journalist speaking to Perelman through a closed door in 2010, where he was quoted as saying “I don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo. I’m not a hero of mathematics. I’m not even that successful; that is why I don’t want to have everybody looking at me.” While another report stated that “Perelman refuses to talk to the journalists camped outside his home. One who managed to reach him on his mobile was told: “You are disturbing me. I am picking mushrooms.“
Burkhard Heim was a German theoretical physicist who overcame incredible odds to rise to great success in the scientific community. Despite losing his hands, most of his sight and damaging his hearing in an explosion at the age of 19, he went on to develop revolutionary ideas in the pursuit of a unified theory of physics. It was a combination of his disabilities and his reported inability to work well with others which led him to become increasingly reclusive and engross himself in his work. In ‘The New Worldview of the Physicist Burkhard Heim’ by Illobrand von Ludwiger, we learn that “If you ask physicists for their opinion about Burkhard Heim, you will hear judgments such as “misfit, odd loner, dubious dreamer, weirdo”, but also “the new Einstein, Germany’s Stephen Hawking, an ingenious thinker, someone who should be nominated for the Nobel Prize.”
Phil Spector is widely regarded as the most influential producer in the history of the music industry, having written and produced hits for himself and countless others, including names such as The Beatles, Leonard Cohen,The Righteous Brothers and The Ramones. He overcame a lonely and tragic childhood which included the suicide of his father when he was 9 years old. After a string of huge successes in his early adult life, he retreated back into himself, leaving the music industry behind him for three decades (with only a couple of highly sporadic exceptions). He lived a quiet life and according to a journalist who visited for a rare interview “clearly he was a recluse. You know, he withdrew from the world. There’s the sign on the castle wall: ‘Phil Spector’s Piranese [sic] Castle’ … beside it is the sign that says, ‘Electrified Fence, Security Cameras, Electric Gates, Do Not Step Across This Threshold.’ [He’s saying] ‘Here I am. Don’t come close.‘” Unfortunately, Spector’s bizarre behaviour escalated wildly and he is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.
Pordenone Montanari is an Italian artist who lived in complete isolation for 18 years before his work was discovered purely by chance when a buyer came to view his house. It’s hard to imagine most people being able to stay inside for 18 hours without getting a mild case of cabin fever, let alone 18 years. According to a 2010 piece in The Guardian, he had sold some of his paintings to three banks before he “shut himself away from the world for almost two decades, devoting himself to painting and sculpture and relying on his wife for food and paint supplies.” He even tried to insist at first that any interest in his artwork was a waste of time, but has since gone on to have his paintings and sculptures exhibited in galleries in multiple countries and received high critical acclaim. He has also published a dozen novels and two collections of poetry, which is a lot of talent to have kept hidden away for so long.
Edvard Munch is a Norwegian artist who is best known for his painting ‘The Scream’ (of which, a lot of people may be surprised to find out, there are actually four different versions). Having been ill for large periods of his childhood and into his college years, plus being the product of a strict religious upbringing marred with the deaths of his mother and sister, it was perhaps inevitable that the artist would lead a solitary life. Munch never married and lived alone on his state in Oslo with little contact with the outside world for the last 27 years of his life. He referred to his paintings as his children and hoarded his own work so much that after his death, authorities discovered thousands of pieces of art locked away on the second floor of his home.
Moe Norman was an extraordinary golfer from Canada who many feel should have been the most celebrated and decorated golfer in history, but to say that he was not made for the spotlight would be a gross understatement. He was self-taught and his style was unconventional, but his results spoke for themselves and he enjoyed success wherever he played. Despite offers for representation and management to take his career to the next level, Norman always refused because he just wanted to play the game for the love of it. On his official website, it explains that “he retreated into himself and golf, a solitary pursuit suited for loners. He didn’t learn social graces… He distrusts adult strangers and prefers kids. The idea of having to speak in front of people terrified him.” He even hid by the bank of a river during an award ceremony for a major amateur championship in Calgary because he was “too shy to attend”, explaining later that he never felt like he fit in with people and had an inferiority complex about his intelligence.
Howard Stern, nicknamed The King Of All Media, revolutionised the radio industry several times throughout his career and created a huge media empire which generates millions in revenue and has endured for decades. Yet in spite of this, Howard has largely maintained an intensely private life outside of the studio where he and his guests bare all. This is perhaps best (but not exclusively) illustrated by his often-told story of when he was still building his way to the national audience he now commands: “I was living in a monastery up in Armonk, New York, where (rent) was $100 a month, they would feed me and I had to be in by 10 o’clock at night and I was allowed to live in a room that was half the size of (the studio) with a cot. No radio or television allowed, and everyone there took a vow of silence. So, I was living with monks in a monastery for a year, and for me it was tremendously peaceful…”* He has become more sociable since meeting his wife, Beth Ostrosky, but the majority of his adult life was spent in self-imposed insulation from the fame he cultivated in his business life and he still clearly prefers his own company to that of others. In that respect, he seems to be worlds apart from the gimmick and persona he has created for his radio show. He often speaks openly on the show about how much he likes to be alone and how he would always rather stay home than go out and do anything, to the point where his “boring” life even has its own discussion amongst fans on Reddit. This tendency is also mentioned in his profile on Biography.com, which states “He’s also more of a quiet personality off the radio than might be assumed. His first wife, Alison, whom he divorced in 2001, has praised him as a father and, even today, Stern is more than happy to stay home and play chess rather than hit the clubs or socialize with other entertainment superstars.”
*Quote taken from the History Of The Howard Stern Show episode from Sirius Radio OnDemand.