10 Geniuses Who Vanished or Went Into Hiding
There’s a quote attributed to EB White that goes, “Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” The list below appears to confirm that, with stories about geniuses who disappeared, geniuses who vanished, and, yes, some geniuses who seem to be some flavor of what people used to call, insensitively, “crazy.”
But the plural of anecdote, as they say, isn’t data. These so-called mad geniuses aren’t a homogeneous group of crackpots. Some of these geniuses went into hiding for perfectly sensible reasons, such as to flee the Gestapo or avoid pushy and privacy-invading press. Others simply vanished without a trace, leaving behind a mystery as looming as the brilliant work they left behind.
Russian math god Dr. Grigori Perelman collected the super-prestigious $1,000,000 Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize in 2010 for proving the Poincaré conjecture, and earned the super-awesome nickname “Mathsputin” for rejecting the prize to continue living in squalor with his probably pissed off mother and sister in St. Petersburg. The Poincaré conjecture states, “Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere,” which you have to admit sounds a bit like rejected Pootie Tang dialogue unless you’re a Good Will Hunting-level math wizard.
The wild-bearded Perelman, who turned down teaching offers from Princeton and Berkeley, reportedly lives “extremely humbly,” which is wee bit of an understatement: an “astounded” neighbor said in 2010 that Perelman “only has a table, a stool and a bed with a dirty mattress.” Slightly more recent reports indicate Perelman has “all [he] needs,” and just doesn’t want the attention, likening it to being “on display like an animal in a zoo.”
After Perelman’s sudden flight from obscurity to fame, he more or less disappeared from public view, so much so journalists went looking for him. Brett Forrest of British newspaper The Telegraph conducted a stakeout to find the reclusive genius in 2012, and apparently made brief contact with him. Meanwhile, Perelman’s Wikipedia page is full of bizarre conjecture like “Some Russian news outlets have indicated that Perelman has had a job in Sweden since 2014” and “In April 2011, Aleksandr Zabrovsky, producer of President-Film studio, claimed to have held an interview with Perelman… A number of journalists believe that Zabrovky’s interview is most likely a fake… ”
Photo: The Sidis Archives / Public Domain
Proto-Doogie Howser William James Sidis (1898-1944) was an impossibly gifted lad: he could reportedly read the New York Times before he was two, knew several languages at six, and even invented his own language before being accepted into Harvard at age 11. The Wes Anderson-character-come-to-life had other interests, too, including writing French poetry, novels, and “a constitution for a utopia.”
But it was his astounding math skills that really wowed the grown-ups at Harvard, where he lectured, at age 11, on four-dimensional bodies. He graduated cum laude at age 16, but never really used his degree. After toiling in grad school, law school, and a professorship, Sidis went into hiding, bouncing from job-to-job and city-to-city, seeking to become a “regular working man.”
He wrote the occasional odd book, often using pseudonyms, including a book all about streetcar tickets under the name Frank Folupa, which his biographer calls “arguably the most boring book ever written.” In 1937, he successfully sued the New Yorker for writing a sneaky piece about him he thought “made him sound crazy.” He died in 1944 from a brain hemorrhage, the same thing that killed his father.
Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Fair use
No list of reclusive geniuses would be complete without Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger, who famously left Manhattan in 1953 to live on a “90-acre compound” in Cornish, NH. He remained there until his death in 2010, at age 91.
Salinger’s most famous character, Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield, wanted to live in “a little cabin somewhere with the dough [he] made and live there for the rest of [his] life,” far from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.” If Caulfield was speaking for Salinger, the author got his wish, for the most part. In his first year in Cornish, he let local kids interview him for the “High School” section of the local paper, but the editors instead gave the interview prominence as a feature. Feeling betrayed, Salinger built a six-and-a-half feet fence around his property.
Salinger broke his legendary silence in 1973, speaking to the New York Times about his attempts to prevent his uncollected stories from being published without his consent: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain
Like JD Salinger before him, author Thomas Pynchon is one of the world’s most famous reclusive literary geniuses, except Pynchon has maintained a relatively steady output of novels (Against the Day, Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge) and even film adaptations (Inherent Vice) since his long, post-Gravity’s Rainbow drought in the ‘70s. Despite this, there are only four known photographs of Pynchon in circulation.
Gravity’s Rainbow earned Pynchon a Pulitzer consideration in 1974 (overruled by the advisory board for being “turgid” and “obscene”), and the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, which he declined via letter: “The Howells Medal is a great honor, and, being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don’t want it. Please don’t impose on me something I don’t want.”
Pynchon has successfully remained out of the public eye his entire career, but he appeared, oddly enough, three times on The Simpsons in animated form. He even sent Executive Producer Matt Selman feedback on his first appearance, cutting a line where he calls Homer a “fat ass.” Pynchon wrote to Selman, “Homer is my role model and I can’t speak ill of him.”
Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain
Chaim Soutine, an acclaimed Russian Expressionist painter of Belarusian-Jewish origin, vanished from Paris and the public eye in 1941 to escape the Gestapo. For two years, he traveled, battling a stomach ulcer, with his girlfriend Marie-Berthe Aurenche, sleeping in forests, bouncing from hotel-to-hotel, constantly changing accommodations to avoid detection.
The art world discovered his whereabouts in 1943, after Aurenche took more than 24 hours to stealthily drive him 200 miles back to Paris for treatment for his ulcer (they did not trust any local doctors where they were hiding). Soutine died of internal bleeding on August 9, 1943.
Known best for his vivid paintings of animal carcasses, Soutine’s work was wildly popular in New York during the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was championed as a genius by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani (responsible for the portrait of Soutine above) as early as 1917, but his work didn’t find acclaim until a prominent American collector purchased all of his work at once in 1922 (now permanently on display at a museum in Merion, PA).
Child Prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett Vanished Without a Trace
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett disappeared in 1939, at age 26, following a fight with her husband. She has never been seen again. Follett famously authored a novel, The House Without Windows, at age 12. It garnered near-unanimous praise. Anne Carroll Moore, of the New York Herald Tribune, found the story “exquisite,” but wrote, “I can conceive of no greater handicap for the writer between the ages of 19 and 39 than to have published a successful book between the age of nine and 12.” Moore wondered what price young Follett would “pay for her ‘big days’ at the typewriter?”
Follett authored follow-up The Voyage of the Norman D. the next year (“a fine, sustained, and vivid piece of writing”—The Saturday Review), but the week before publication, her father left her and her mother to live with a younger woman. Follett found work as a typist to make up for the income her father took with him. By age 20, she had written two more books, but had no editor and no high school diploma, making it hard to find work.
Follett married outdoorsman Nickerson Rogers in ’34, and found happiness backpacking through Europe and taking dance classes. But in 1939, she wrote to a friend that Nick was cheating on her. On December 7, she disappeared forever, just the character Eepersip from The House Without Windows. Rogers later said he expected her to return, which is why it took him weeks to tell police. The media didn’t learn about Follett’s disappearance until 1966, because Rogers didn’t list her maiden name in the missing person report.
Photo: Photographer Unknown / No Known Copyright Information
Evolutionary biologist Margie Profet spent the ’80s and early ‘90s publishing controversial, but influential, work regarding menstruation, morning sickness, and allergies, including the groundbreaking idea that menstruation has a function, and isn’t just a by-product. She won the six-figure MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” prize in 1993. In 2005, still living off the prize, she cut ties with her friends and family, and was considered a missing person.
Profet, amazingly, resurfaced and reunited with her family in 2012, thanks in large part to a feature in Psychology Today. She said she did not know anyone was looking for her, and had been in “severe physical pain” for years due to an undisclosed illness. She said she didn’t disclose her whereabouts or condition, because she didn’t want to trouble anyone. Unable to work because of the pain, she spent several years in poverty, “sustained largely by the religion she had come to early in the decade.” It’s unclear what that religion is.
Photo: Kanijoman / Flickr
Theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana (1906-1938?) was considered one of the most deeply brilliant men in the world by Enrico Fermi, creator of the first nuclear reactor. Fermi even compared Majorana to Galileo and Newton. So the scientific community was shocked to learn Majorana disappeared without a trace in 1938, shortly after traveling on a ship headed from Palermo to Naples.
There are many theories as to what happened to Majorana, but no real evidence to back them up. Suicide is a popular theory. He wrote a letter to a friend saying he “made a decision that has become unavoidable,” but later sent another letter saying, “Don’t think I’m like an Ibsen heroine, because the case if different. I’m at your disposal for further details.”
Some think Majorana may have been killed by Nazis, joined a monastery, or just decided to start a new life (he did drain his bank account the day before he disappeared).
Architect David Thorne Changed His Name and Dropped Out of Sight
Photo: Bethlehem Steel
Architect David Thorne received so much attention for his work on jazz giant Dave Brubeck’s house in 1954, he changed his professional name in the ‘60s, got an unlisted phone number, and didn’t “resurface” until the ‘80s. Brubek’s mid-century modern house in Oakland was considered a brilliant early example of the dramatic, steel-supported homes that would later fill the Hollywood hills.
Tired of attention from rich developers and “crooks,” Thorne changed his professional name to Beverley Thorne and largely dropped out of sight, quietly doing work that went largely unheralded. In the ‘80s, his profile increased on account of work he did in Hawaii. By 2006, he once again began speaking openly about his 1950s work.
Genius Chef Nick Gill Decided to Disappear
Photo: Photographer Unknown / Hambleton Hall
At just 21, Nick Gill was the youngest-ever British chef to win a Michelin star. He seemed destined for a life of fame and fortune, and was hailed as a culinary genius. By the time he disappeared, at 42, he had been jailed for attacking his ex-wife and lost contact with his two young children. He was also, reportedly, a “heavy drinker and drug user.”
In 1998, he told his older brother, writer and critic AA Gill, “I’m going to go and disappear. Please don’t look for me.” The elder Gill obliged, and Nick hasn’t been seen since. Strangely, a pencil sketch of Nick done by AA showed up for auction at Christie’s in 2014, but AA says it’s not a sign. “I don’t know where it came from. I didn’t pursue it. If Nick wanted to get in touch with me, I’m not hard to find.”
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