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“They’re a little eccentric” is a phrase I suspect most of us have heard used to describe a certain kind of memorable person. For me, it evokes my childhood dentist — an elderly man who favored colorful bow ties and humming loudly as he worked, and who once wagged his finger in my face and gravely advised, “never marry a woman who makes you chop wood.” I still don’t quite know what he was getting at.
But what do we really mean when we call someone eccentric? The word renders a verdict of harmlessness: A person’s style, conduct, or mannerisms may be memorable, but not concerning. And truthfully, we need people who are a bit of a character (to use an equally common euphemism). Their difference reinforces our sense of stability, their peculiarity a necessary splash of color in a landscape of conformity. We love to hear about them, to speculate why they are as they are — the odder, the better. Whether in documentaries like Grey Gardens or the five stories collected here, well-reported tales of quirkiness always invoke a small thrill, vaulting their subjects out of the realm of local gossip and into a wider imagination.
However, it’s no accident that every entry here concerns individuals who are, to varying degrees, rich or famous. The sad truth is that the lives of the everyday working class are seldom celebrated, and least of all those whose habits and personalities fall outside of the bounds of “normal.” To quote a character in Ellen Raskin’s novel The Westing Game, “the poor are crazy, the rich just eccentric.” Wealth affords many privileges in life, among them the indulgence of oddity, and such indulgence is only magnified in the face of celebrity. Behavior that would be considered problematic becomes acceptable, even admired as a natural by-product of genius. (See: Andy Kaufman; Bjork; and, at least up to a certain point, Kanye West).
Whatever your take on the meaning of “eccentric,” these stories — sad, inspiring, tragic, and incredible as they are — provide a fascinating glimpse into the minds of those whose lives are anything but conventional.
The Day Bobby Blew It (Brad Darrach, Playboy, July 1973)
Every sport has its enigmatic geniuses, players of supreme natural talent whose volatile nature as often as not trips them up. Remarkably often, a pattern repeats: The young upstart appears as if they had ridden down on a lightning bolt, shakes up the landscape and transcends the limits of the sport, yet somehow never quite reaches the heights they could have, and should have, achieved. In boxing, “Prince” Naseem Hamed shot to fame on the back of extraordinary talent mixed with equally extraordinary theatrics, only to fall frustratingly short of all-time greatness, abruptly walking away from a sport he no longer loved. In soccer, mercurial French footballer-cum-poet Eric Cantona, an eccentric genius if ever there was one, lost the captaincy of his national team thanks to a bizarre display of temper. Basketball, of course, has Dennis Rodman, a player who eternally walked a tightrope between outrageous skill and self-implosion. Pick any sport you like and there will always be numerous examples; in chess, however, Bobby Fischer stands alone.
The World Chess Championships of 1972 were memorable for several reasons. Russia had dominated the competition for 24 years prior, and no American had won since the 19th century. The world was in the middle of a Cold War. The man who held the crown, 25-year-old Russian Boris Spassky, had learned how to play on a train while escaping Leningrad during World War II. Yet, Spassky’s opponent might have been the most memorable element. Bobby Fischer was the definition of a prodigy: At 14, he had won the U.S. Championship with the only recorded perfect score in the history of the tournament. Fifteen years later, he carried the hopes of a nation upon his shoulders. But which Bobby Fischer would turn up — the confident, happy young man, or the paranoid, furious recluse? Would he, in fact, turn up at all? Chess aficionados will already know this story, but Darrach writes with such insight and elegance, transporting us to a world of fantastic intrigue and unbelievable pressure, that even if you know the outcome, this article is a thrill from start to finish.
I was 2600 miles northeast of the Yale Club when the crisis broke. I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, waiting for Bobby to fly up for the match. Spassky was waiting, too—he had arrived eight days before—and so were 140–150 newspaper, magazine and television reporters from at least 32 countries. They were getting damn tired of waiting, in fact, and the stories out of Reykjavik were reflecting their irritation.
Frank Sidebottom: The Man Behind the Mask (Jon Ronson, The Guardian, January 2014)
Those of us who grew up in England during the ’80s and ’90s will surely remember Frank Sidebottom, a bizarre character who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, lighting up various children’s TV shows and briefly enjoying his own series before disappearing back to the strange realm from which he had emerged. What made Sidebottom so singular was the fact that he wasn’t human. Rather, he was human, but his head wasn’t: Atop his shoulders sat an inflatable plastic oval, which Sidebottom never removed.
Watch Sidebottom’s first appearance on national TV.
At the heart of this fantastical story, here recounted by firsthand witness Jon Ronson, lies an astonishing quote from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” What begins as a tale about an eccentric, imaginative musician soon becomes one of identity, acceptance, and the blurring of the line between fiction and reality.
I never understood why Chris sometimes kept Frank’s head on for hours, even when it was only us in the van. Under the head Chris would wear a swimmer’s nose clip. Chris would be Frank for such long periods the clip had deformed him slightly, flattened his nose out of shape. When he’d remove the peg after a long stint I’d see him wince in pain.
John McAfee: The Prophet of Paranoia (Stephen Rodrick, Men’s Journal, September 2015)
The tech zillionaire class is a modern phenomenon that tends to divide opinion. Depending on which side you listen to, the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are either visionary gurus transforming our society into a better, more desirable model, or childlike narcissists who treat the world and everything in it as disposable playthings. As ever, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. The late John McAfee, who made a fortune from virus-protection software at a time when most had never even heard of the term, came to prominence in an era before the Tony Stark model of entrepreneur-as-hero entered the public imagination.
Again, we come to a crossroads. Was John McAfee a delusional paranoid or a tech-security messiah, hounded by government operatives and mysterious cartels desperate to protect their shadowy interests? Undeniably, he’s a fascinating figure, and the tales of guns, SWAT teams, wild flights, and deaths as recounted to journalist Stephen Rodrick are compelling, even as his readily apparent narcissism and deeply problematic trappings (such as his self-described “teenage harem”) are highly disturbing.
At dawn, we land in Atlanta, and the six-hour drive to Lexington passes in a haze. The Blazer fills up with cigarette smoke as Pool and McAfee check their arsenal: a Smith & Wesson .40, a .380 Ruger, and another three or four handguns in the front seat. “I like to have a small one in my waistband,” says McAfee. “Sitting on the toilet is a real vulnerable position.”
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Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe (Von Merlind Theile, Der Spiegel, October 2009)
Singer and dancer Josephine Baker would have been just as big a star, if not bigger, in the modern age of social media. Her talent, unconventionality, lifestyle, and beauty brought her fame and fortune at a time when few Black women could even dream of such a thing. She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, became a celebrated performer at the Folies Bergère in Paris, received a medal for her work assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and was rewarded by the NAACP for her activism.
Baker was also temperamental, unhappy, and the instigator of a bizarre and unethical plan to combat racism that almost defies belief. In this absorbing piece, we learn of a side to Baker’s character that is little known to many. It is, if we needed one, a sharp reminder that celebrities are just as flawed as the rest of us, that good intentions don’t always lead to good results, and that a life led with all limits removed rarely, if ever, turns out well.
In photos taken at the time, the chateau looks more like an orphanage than a real home. The children slept in a room in the attic, in eight small beds lined up in a row. Whenever Baker returned home, even if it happened to be at 3 a.m., she would wake the children and demand affection.
When I Was Young and Uneasy (Edith Sitwell, The Atlantic, March 1965)
I suspect all parents find tales of unhappy childhoods difficult, even disturbing, to read. We want nothing but the best for our offspring, especially if we have not enjoyed a peaceful and stable upbringing ourselves. The saving grace of this piece is the beautiful prose with which poet Edith Sitwell recalls her formative years growing up in a famously eccentric and almost casually cruel household. The various characters and events as described by Sitwell resemble appalling fictions, their grotesquerie landing somewhere between Charles Dickens and H. P. Lovecraft.
You can read a potted biography, and a selection of Edith Sitwell’s poems, at the Poetry Foundation’s website.
During her adult life, Sitwell was divisive, controversial, flamboyant, gracious, and scornful. She possessed a heart capable of absorbing and displaying the most delicate beauty, hardened perhaps, by her upbringing in a family so well off that it was able to wallow in a pit of morbid peculiarity. Her poetry is wonderous; her literary analysis revelatory. Many thousands of words have been written concerning Edith and the Sitwells, but almost certainly none as moving and striking as those you will discover here, written by her own hand.
I remember little of Mr. Stout’s outward appearance, excepting that he looked like a statuette constructed of margarine, then frozen so stiff that no warmth, either from the outer world or human feeling, could begin to melt it. The statuette was then swaddled in padded wool, to give an impression of burliness.
‘The Whole Place Is so Full of Mysterious Questions’ (John Reppion and Joshi Herrmann, The Liverpool Post, February 2021)
Sometime in the 1990s, a small group of amateur historians in Liverpool, United Kingdom, made a startling discovery. Local rumors had long circulated concerning a network of tunnels, even an entire subterranean world, hidden beneath the streets of the city’s Edge Hill area. The group was able to verify that a number of underground entrances did indeed exist, on land previously owned by a mysterious recluse named Joseph Williamson. Excavating by hand, they could not possibly have imagined what they were about to discover.
Read more about the man and his “underground city” at the illuminating website Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels.
Born in 1769, Williamson worked his way up through the ranks at a tobacco factory owned by the wealthy Tate family of sugar importers. Williamson married into that family, took ownership of the factory, and prospered. He retired when in his 40s, and here is where the story proper begins. For reasons that are still unclear (and still heavily debated), Williamson, utilizing a small army of employees, began carving out immense underground chambers beneath his homes. It must have taken a large amount of his fortune and a huge portion of his time. But why? When you’re rich, perhaps nobody asks. It’s known that Williamson was secretive about his tunneling activities, never revealing their true purpose. Fine arches led nowhere; certain passages were carved out and then filled in. All activity ceased with his death, and the labyrinth remained untouched until the locals whose voices you will hear in this excellent article rediscovered this giant conundrum.
“The whole place is so full of mysterious questions — an awful lot of questions that nobody will ever be able to answer,” Stapledon told The Post. “When you look at some of the structures underground, you think: How the hell did he create these? What the hell was he doing building all this stuff?”
Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, U.K. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.
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