Thursday, April 1, 2010


Check out this article I found on ONLINE UNIVERSITY LOWDOWN

They fascinate and frustrate with their reluctance to give interviews, sign autographs, accept academic honors in person, and other acts that preserve privacy. Creative types blessed with considerable talent who voluntarily fall out of the public eye and skirt the media or find themselves wallowing in obscurity and adapt to the situation at hand by stepping aside pique the imagination of their fans and contemporaries alike. Some occasionally allow themselves the rare modest degree of publicity before returning to a homeostatic private state. Others retreat completely and correspond only in writing. No matter their motivations or preferences, these artists and writers only become more fascinating with the decision to live their lives shunning the overrated trappings of fame, fortune, and glory.

1. J.D. Salinger

Best known as the brilliant mind behind the undeniable classics Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, Jerome David Salinger began his gradual isolation from public scrutiny shortly after publishing the former – his very first novel – in 1951.
Following an interview with the local high school newspaper in Cornish, New Hampshire, the fascinating but troubled author seemed to only regularly associate with the venerable Judge Learned Hand and his family…and even then it seems as if his relationships with the latter experienced heavy strain. He married Claire Douglas in 1955 and had two children with her, Margaret (b. 1955) and Matthew (b. 1960). Douglas dropped out of Radcliffe shortly before her graduation at his insistence, but the pair would come to face numerous hardships. Long stretches of time apart and Salinger’s troubled spiritual journey – which included a quick succession of different faiths and religions in a veritable whirlwind of vastly different beliefs and lifestyles – drove significant emotional wedges between the two. Douglas would even grow jealous of her daughter and how much affection Salinger heaped on her, at one point even planning a murder-suicide to escape him. He took advantage of his reclusive status to warn up-and-coming young female writers of the dangers of fame, subsequently striking up romantic liaisons with them. The most visible and open of these was Yale student and Seventeen writer Joyce Maynard, who dropped out of school to cohabitate with him for a year before his second marriage to a nurse whose engagement he shattered. Salinger died of natural causes on January 27, 2010.

2. Harper Lee

2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Harper Lee wrote the beloved and controversial semi-autobiographical novel To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 – and it remains a bestseller to this day, dissected in high schools and colleges alike as an
extremely important work of American literature that shed light on bigoted race relations in the South. Following the novel’s publication, she refused to make any public appearances or grant interviews and published little besides a couple of short essays. Lee would, however, assist her close friend and fellow writer Truman Capote on the research trip to Kansas that would later become his 1966 debut novel In Cold Blood. In spite of her reluctance to open up to the media, Lee still accepted a few awards and honors for her contributions to literature. However, she never made any speeches or addresses, though occasionally she would voice concern in writing on subjects of censorship and the decline of books and reading. Some of the recognition she graciously received includes being named to the National Council of the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the ATTY Award, the Los Angeles Public Library Award, being inducted in the Alabama Academy of Honor, and the aforementioned Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lee divides her time between New York City and Monroeville, Alabama, seeking privacy and relative anonymity rather than a fully hermitic lifestyle.

3. Bettie Page

Because of her vivacious career as an iconic pin-up model and performance artist, many from the current generation are shocked to find out that the fun and flirty Bettie Page spent decades wallowing in obscurity and reclusiveness. A victim of
depression and schizophrenia, she retreated into herself following her meteoric ascent as a famous model, actress, and burlesque dancer that ended abruptly in 1957. Some attribute it to her conversion to Christianity, others to the obscenity trials that branded the erotic photography and videos as offensive material (though most of it would of course be considered PG-13 by today’s standards), still others to her failing mental health. Page would go on to flounder about in numerous Christian organizations and colleges, some of which denied her permission to go on missionary trips due to her divorce. She almost completely retreated from public scrutiny and suffered from a series of erratic marriages until 1979 when she was arrested for assaulting her landlady during a nervous breakdown. The State of California placed Page in a psychiatric hospital for 20 months, but upon her release instigated another altercation which led to an 8-year institutionalizing. It would not be until the 80’s when her popularity began its resurgence, a fact of which she remained unaware during the incarceration. After emerging from the hospital in 1992, completely broke, “The Queen of Pin-Ups” was stunned and pleased by her newly established cult following. While she certainly granted interviews and openly discussed her life, experiences, and philosophies, Page notoriously kept her visage hidden with the belief that she wanted her ardent fans to remember her as she was – though a couple of photographs of the aged performance artist taken before her 2008 death still float about the internet.

4. Henry Darger

Regarded as one of the quintessential examples of outsider art in the United States, Henry Darger existed in complete obscurity in his lifetime due to his highly regimented, isolated lifestyle – nobody even knew of his lofty literary and artistic
undertakings until his death in 1973 when landlords Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner discovered the thousands of pages worth of manuscripts, sketches, and watercolors he kept to himself. A menial laborer in a Chicago-area Catholic hospital, from the outside it seemed as if Darger’s life was marked with very little deviation and social activity. He attended daily mass, sometimes multiple times, went to work, and picked interesting bits of trash from the streets for use as illustration references. Darger’s most popular work, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, weighed in at 15,145 pages and featured hundreds of illustrations that underscored the importance of preserving childhood innocence, wonder, and naiveté – a theme that carried on into his 5,084-page autobiography The History of My Life and the more obscure 10,000-page novel Crazy House. Due to his tragic and traumatic past, Darger’s work clung to keeping kids safe and the hope and comfort he found in his devotion to Catholicism. Repeatedly denied the ability to adopt a son or daughter of his own, he sought solace in his creations and served as a sort of spiritual protector of the memory of poor, strangled Elsie Paroubek. He even kept newspaper clippings of her terrible demise around as a reminder of the importance of caring for broken and battered children – more than likely this was due to Darger’s own horrific childhood. His popularity exploded following his death, true to the archetype, and came to inspire numerous other artists (both outsider and traditionally trained), writers, and musicians.

5. Emily Dickinson

Widely regarded for her poetic experimentations in slant rhyming, free verse, punctuation and capitalization, Emily Dickinson only published a handful of her
works in her lifetime in spite of writing nearly 1,800. She confined herself to her parents’ home, maintaining a couple of friendships through written correspondence but rarely venturing outside for social interaction. Life, for the unmarried Emily, consisted primarily and satisfactorily of her poetry, keeping house, and gardening, for which she received a gratifying amount of recognition and respect – even compiling her own handy herbarium. She kept close with her family, with a particular love for children, yet almost always declined to participate in any activities requiring travel beyond the house. Though in spite of her reclusiveness, she still reached out to others with kindness and hospitality, sending gifts to loved ones visiting one another as well as long letters and greetings. Her exile seemed to come more from a simple desire to stay at home and keep with her beloved hobbies and comfortable routine rather than the expected misanthropy, mental illness, desire for privacy, or disillusionment with fame and the media. On her rare excursions out, Dickinson would generally clad herself in the white dress that would eventually become her trademark.

6. Stanley Kubrick

The idiosyncratic, influential, and highly talented director of the exceptionally respected films The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove or:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket pioneered a wide number of artistic techniques within his chosen medium – including the Steadicam shot – that pulled from his background in photography. Almost every one of his films, including the oft-criticized Eyes Wide Shut, received nominations or wins for BAFTA Awards, Golden Gloves, and Oscars. A notorious and obsessive perfectionist, Kubrick worked his actors and crew to the bone to ensure the best possible shots and performances. While a project was underway, he would retreat almost completely into isolation to complete it, associating only with his close circle of family (Kubrick was married 3 times) and friends. It is rumored that he would occasionally answer the door masquerading as his own butler in order to inform visitors that the master was away so as to keep away from distractions and prying eyes. Occasionally, Kubrick would acquiesce to an interview request, but skirt around any questions regarding his personal life and rarely acknowledged the media with public appearances. Some of this comes to an aversion to flying, which kept him largely grounded in England for the 40 years prior to his 1999 death. Kubrick’s distaste with the empty elegance of Hollywood also led to many media misconceptions of him as a complete pariah or a misunderstood genius when the reality was – as contemporaries insist – actually neither.

In many ways, these recluses – most especially those with considerable influence on their respective creative communities – attract far more attention and romantic notions by placing their personal lives just outside the media’s reach. The myths and fantasies of what their talents must be up to behind closed doors only afford them more fame than they likely could have achieved if they laid their lives out for everyone to read.


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Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Kathy, Time magazine had a nice piece on Salinger in the last few weeks, too.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
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Karen Cioffi said...

Very interesting post, Kathy.
Thanks for sharing!

Katie Hines said...

Interesting article, Kathy. Some of these people I wasn't familiar with, but they all seem to be rather uh, reticent, to be in the public eye.

NancyCL said...

This is AWESOME! Wherever do you find the time to do all this? Great job my friend...

kathy stemke said...


kathy stemke said...


terri.forehand said...

Great inspiration, and good to be re-introduced to those famous authors. They offer much to those struggling today to be published and accomplished in the world of books.

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Cheryl said...

What a great post, Kathy. I enjoyed reading more about these famous authors and artists.