Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fine Lines

Composer, author, actor, and wit Oscar Levant (1906-72) once remarked, “There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” It is not at all certain the first the first part of his quip is true, but there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence to the effect. In his book, The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy (1995), psychologist Arnold M. Ludwig collected enough for various tables and graphs. Are very numerous anecdotes data? Not really, but after a certain point they become compelling anyway. Since Amazon offers the book at the steep (and curious) price of $99.41, I recommend finding it in the library. It is both an interesting and entertaining read.

We all have our idiosyncrasies, but the great innovators in theory, technology, and the arts often carry quirkiness to a level on a par with their achievements. Isaac Newton was a social recluse in whom sexual appetite was apparently absent. (Voltaire claimed Newton was a virgin.) There was nothing lacking in the appetite of Richard Feynman, who did his best work (including his theory of Quantum Electrodynamics) in strip joints, yet this behavior, too, is a bit odd; one would think the scenery in such places would be distracting, but he found it inspirational. Thomas Watson, after co-inventing the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell, converted to Islam, enrolled in MIT to study geology just for the fun of it, became a follower of communist philosopher Edward Bellamy (though not to the point of selling his AT&T stock), and then successfully took to the stage as a Shakespearean actor. George Eastman (the Kodak camera fellow) loved nothing more than to bake pies in an upstairs kitchen in the mansion he shared with his mother. Thomas Edison invented and successfully marketed so many world-changing products that we tend to overlook his many silly ideas, such as his concrete furniture. He made concrete beds, concrete cupboards, concrete bureaus, concrete phonograph cases, and whole poured concrete houses. He even made a concrete piano. He was so confident of the appeal of concrete products that he built his own cement plant in Stewartsville, NJ. As anyone else could have predicted (if anyone told him, he didn’t listen), concrete home furnishings didn’t catch on. Steve Jobs, to take a more recent example, bought a new Mercedes sports coupe every six months just so he wouldn’t have to get permanent license plates.

For some reason, successful financial managers and industrialists tend to be much more conventional, which suggests financial genius might be of a different type than that of inventors, artists, and scientists. A few (though not many) are flamboyant, but that is not the same thing as quirky; there is nothing unconventional, for example, in Donald Trump’s taste for expensive homes and younger women. Howard Hughes was flaky, true enough, but that seems to have been genuine mental illness that developed slowly due to injuries sustained in a plane crash; besides, he might qualify more as an inventor. Most of the best known industrialists – JP Morgan, JD Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, et. al – were decidedly ordinary family men, however revolutionary their business models were. Olive Beech (co-founder Beech Aircraft) and Ruth Handler (former president of Mattel, and the designer of the Barbie doll) also lacked more than the usual number of peculiarities (as far as is publicly known). Edward Stotesbury, JP Morgan’s right hand man, was such a non-entity that historian Alva Johnson calls him “a dignified hole in the atmosphere.” Fortunately he acquired a colorful wife, as someone with 75 million in 1912 dollars often is able to do, even with the disadvantage of a low barometric reading. Eva proceeded to spend $50 million of the sum on new houses. She entertained on a grand scale; on one occasion she hosted a half-million dollar alligator hunt to acquire the materials for new luggage for her and her guests. When the Crash of ’29 hit, Edward unavailingly tried to scale back her entertainment budget to $50,000 per month ($1 million per month in today’s dollars). Still, I’m not sure that a talent for spending money, even one as extraordinary as this, really qualifies as a quirk in the usual sense.

Somehow, despite my own abundant share of idiosyncrasies, the next breakthrough in theoretical physics, the next world changing patent, and the next great American novel all continue to elude me. Apparently, brilliance may engender eccentricity, but the chain of causation doesn’t work in reverse. (The image of pushing on a chain comes to mind.) Maybe becoming a hole in the atmosphere is a more achievable ambition. Who wouldn’t like $75 million?

Randy Newman I'm Different


  1. I think that touch of insanity is what helps these folks think differently enough to innovate. I'm wondering if the same things occurs for great warlords or military leaders. It seems that some dictators and emperors sure had some quirks of their own.

    1. Maybe, though in some cases that just might be the corruption of power. Not everyone handles well the license to do anything.