What makes people famous? Generally, it is people who do their work in the presence of many others, or who do their work in such an exceptional fashion that many others go and put themselves in front of them so that they are at that point doing their work in the presence of many others. And what rarely gets mentioned in our history books is how these visionaries kicked back after a hard day of being awesome and relaxed. Unsurprisingly, these visionaries’ pastimes were often as eccentric and ahead of their time as they themselves were. Here are a few examples.
Mark Twain Was A Joan of Arc Fanboy
It’s hard to think of Mark Twain having any hobbies beyond dropping sick burns and combing his moustache. But for most of his life, he spent his free time being president, vice-president, and treasurer of his very own Joan of Arc fan club.
According to his official biographer, Twain’s obsession started when he was a young printmaker and stumbled upon a page describing Joan of Arc floating the breeze. His infatuation with the French martyr grew such that he subsequently spent 12 years traveling across Europe snaffling up every piece of research that he could find about her life. If Twain were alive today, he’d be submitting regular pieces to fanfiction.net in which they rode off into the sunset together to start an organic farm outside of Toulouse.
The result of this massive research bender was Personal Recollections Of Joan Of Arc, a biography written from the in-universe perspective of a fictional servant of Joan, Sieur Louis de Conte. The book recounted every moment of Joan’s life from childhood, her fateful one-on-one with The Almighty, to her taking up arms against the English.
But Twain, who took worshipping Joan of Arc as serious as a heart attack, didn’t want readers to pick up a copy of the book expecting his trademark wit and flair for the dramatic. He therefore arranged for it to be serialized in Harper’s Magazine and credited to the fictional de Conte. This foolproof plan worked for roughly 10 seconds. Twain’s popularity caught up with him, much to the disappointment of his fans.
Twain didn’t care. He continued to champion his crush, to the point where he would publicly berate fellow authors for portraying Joan as a peasant girl as opposed to a radiant, heavenly beauty she was in his head. Fortunately, Twain lived long enough to see Joan adopted as a figure of strength by the suffragette movement. But of all the joy worshipping Joan of Arc gave him, this one must have been the greatest: While giving a lecture to the Society of Illustrators in 1905, the organizers secretly arranged for a Joan of Arc impersonator to enter the room, wordlessly glide towards him, and hand him a laurel wreath, before wordlessly gliding out again. For the first time in his life, Mark Twain didn’t have a snappy comeback.
Charles Dickens Turned His Dead Cat Into A Letter Opener
Charles Dickens was a complex man with many loves. But most important of them all was the affection he felt for his cats. His house was crammed full of them. One cat trained itself to snuff out candles in a desperate bid for attention. The favorite was a small deaf cat called Bob. The two were inseparable, leading Dickens to once ask, “What greater love than the love of a cat?”
When Bob passed in 1862, Dickens was distraught and ached for a way to immortalize his faithful friend. Perhaps dedicate a book to him, or give one of his unfortunate protagonists a feline companion to traipse through the London sewers with? As an author, he had plenty of options, which is why we’ll never understand why he had Bob’s paw removed, stuffed, and turned into a letter opener. And not just any letter opener, however, but one with an ivory blade inscribed with “C.D. In Memory of Bob 1862,” because sometimes history writes National Treasure sequel plots for you.
Nikola Tesla REALLY Loved Pigeons
Nikola Tesla had a reputation for being one of the craziest people in the history of science. But this was a man whose genius was thwarted every step of the way. Tesla was sabotaged by his rivals, pursued by the government, and even had all of his work burnt to a crisp. And while he didn’t possess the necessary social skills to hug away his sadness and frustration, he did have many non-human friends to turn to – especially pigeons.
Tesla spent much of his adult life living in New York City. He lived out of a small hotel room because getting someone else to change his sheets gave him more time to science. Also, people like Edison kept him quite poor. At the stroke of midnight, he would walk down to the New York Public Library and feed the multitudes of pigeons waiting for him. But when this arrangement became unfeasible, he would simply fling open the windows of whatever hotel he was staying in, fling seed around the room, and invite the birds inside.
Unsurprisingly, the hotels didn’t like this. His devotion to his pigeons cost Tesla tenancy at the St. Regis, the Hotel Pennsylvania, and the Hotel Governor Clinton. When he moved into the New Yorker, the hotel toyed with evicting him for his bird-feeding shenanigans, but decided against it when they realized that the bad publicity would cost them more than the warehouse of bleach they would need to clean his room every day.
Towards the end of his life, Tesla retreated more and more into his homeless lady shtick. After he was knocked down by a taxi and rendered unable to walk, he was so afraid that his beloved pigeons would go hungry he would dispatch Western Union couriers to his usual haunt to dump out his birdseed, continually haranguing them by telephone until it was done.
It gets a lot sadder when you learn that Tesla actually fell in love with one of these birds, a beautiful all-white specimen that could, allegedly, find him wherever he was in the city. That’s not us being hyperbolic when we talk about love, either. As he described it, “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.” When the bird became sick, Tesla stopped going to work at his lab just to tend to her. And when she died, he lost all will to live, even turning his back on his scientific pursuits.
Louis Armstrong Really, Really Loved His Laxatives
It’s always a thrill to receive something from a celebrity, like a handshake, an autograph, or a cocktail napkin with a room number written on it. But big fans of jazz virtuoso extraordinaire Louis Armstrong could sometimes get something much more intimate of his in the mail: a picture of Satchmo shitting on the toilet, happy as a clam.
Let’s put all of this butt stuff into context. For most of his adult life, Louis Armstrong was a yo-yo dieter: He’d lose an immense amount of weight, gain the weight back, lose it again, and so and so forth. He achieved most of his dramatic weight loss through a constant use of laxatives, particularly Pluto Water – a brand of mineral water with bowel-loosening side effects. However, it was hard to transport and even more difficult to find while out on the road. At a loss for a new way to give his wind section some oomph, Armstrong stumbled onto a new product called Swiss Kriss.
How does it work? According to the man himself, the first time he used Swiss Kriss resulted in something that “sounded like applause” and forced him to crawl back to bed when the performance was finished. Yeah, we prefer his earlier work in that regard.
Satchmo was hooked. Before starting his Swiss Kriss regimen, he was the heaviest he’d ever been. Within one year, he’d lost 100 pounds. So many fans wrote to him asking for his secret that he had to have custom-printed cards made up of him with his cheeks touching porcelain. This wasn’t a paid sponsorship by the way, which is probably the same dedication that made him one of the best musicians of all time. Have you ever loved something enough that you decided to spread the word by sending pictures of you spreading your cheeks? Louis Armstrong did. And that’s why he was the greatest.
H.G. Wells Was The First Ever War-gaming Nerd
H.G. Wells was probably the most influential early science-fiction writer on how we look at the genre today, writing about time travel, genetic experimentation, dystopias, and bikes becoming the dominant way of transportation. But being an Edwardian sci-fi writer was by no means the nerdiest part of Wells’ life. That honor goes to when he decided to invent tabletop wargaming on a whim.
One night, Wells and his friend Jerome K. Jerome (where’s this guy’s biography, right?) were sitting around the house when they decided to make a game out of firing a toy cannon at some toy soldiers they had laying around. It was pretty fun, but that wasn’t enough for Wells. Inspired by the war simulation used to train officers in the Prussian army, Kriegsspiel, Wells set about building a proper game with rules because, as a proto-wargamer, he had to know precisely how many turns it took to capture a cannon before the fun could start.
By the end of the night, Wells had designed the first recreational wargame, Little Wars. The basics were at first simple. You created a battlefield terrain from whatever everyday household objects they had laying around, such as books, candlesticks, and servants. Using a formula of Wells’ invention, damage would be dished out, pieces would be captured, and someone would wind up going to the POW camp (a shoebox). It was a brutal game, too. The cannons that they used, for instance, actually fired inch-long pegs that easily decapitated the hollow figurines in their desperate charge.
But Wells became annoyed by their battlefield constantly being disturbed by “a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors. They regarded the objects upon the floor with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things.” The typical social setup of the British parlor, with its coarse carpets and noisy girls, just didn’t work for Wells. He and Jerome decided to seclude themselves and using their combined model-building smarts, creating everything from houses to bridges to trees, giving their game both an awesome look and the ability to recreate real-life skirmishes such as the Battle of Gettysburg.
This eventually became a book entitled Little Wars, which soon kickstarted a countrywide trend for fake-blowing stuff up. This was Wells’ hope. He was a pacifist and hoped that Little Wars would go old-timey viral so it would give everyone an outlet for their murderous tendencies and prevent another devastating conflict. As he described it, “You only have to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”
Little Wars was published in 1913. The Great War kicked off in 1914. Guess he should have made the game shorter, easier to assemble, and sooner.