Whoever has not got a good father should procure one.
Our early experiences shape our character and the way our lives unfold, and a poor start can, of course, blight a person’s prospects forever. But there is a more mysterious path that leads from truly dreadful beginnings to quite extraordinary achievement. As the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies put it: “A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.”
Some of the most famous people in history had childhoods that were wrecked by a dead, absent, or impossible father. We have chosen eight, but the list could have been twenty times as long. Once you start to notice, they sprout up everywhere: Confucius, Augustus Caesar, Michelangelo, Peter the Great, John Donne, Handel, Balzac, Nietzsche, Darwin, Jung, Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley—all of them victims of what psychologists would call inappropriate parenting.
In the five hundred years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) has become our model for the solitary genius, the ultimate Renaissance man. The common wisdom is that, as with Shakespeare, we know his work in great detail but next to nothing about his life. This is a myth. In fact, and again as with Shakespeare, we know much more about Leonardo than we do about the vast majority of his contemporaries. We know he was illegitimate, the son of a notary in the small Italian hill town of Vinci, and that his mother, Caterina, was either a local peasant or an Arabic slave (recent analysis of the artist’s inky fingerprints tends to suggest the latter). His father, Piero, quickly married off Caterina to a bad-tempered local lime-burner* and the young Leonardo found himself abandoned. His father went on to marry four times and sire another fifteen children; his mother also had new children of her own and refused to treat Leonardo as her son. Worse still, as a bastard, he was prevented from going to a university or entering any of the respectable professions, such as medicine or law.
Leonardo’s response was to withdraw into a private world of observation and invention. The key to understanding his genius isn’t in his paintings—extraordinary and groundbreaking though they are—but in his notebooks. In these thirteen thousand pages of notes, sketches, diagrams, philosophical observations, and lists, we have one of the most complete records of the inner workings of a human mind ever committed to paper. Leonardo’s curiosity was relentless. He literally took apart the world around him to see how it worked and left a paper trail of the process. This was firsthand research: He had to see things for himself, whatever that meant. He personally dissected more than thirty human corpses in his lifetime, even though it was a serious criminal offense. This wasn’t motivated by any medical agenda: He just wanted to improve the accuracy of his drawing and deepen his understanding of how the body worked (he ridiculed other artists’ depictions of human flesh, saying they looked like “sacks of nuts”). Out of the notebooks flowed a succession of inventions, some fantastical but others entirely practical: the first “tank,” the first parachute, a giant siege crossbow, a crane for emptying ditches, the very first mixer tap for a bath, folding furniture, an Aqua-Lung, an automatic drum, automatically opening and closing doors, a sequin maker, and smaller devices for making spaghetti, sharpening knives, slicing eggs, and pressing garlic. It was here, too, that Leonardo recorded his remarkable insights into the natural world: He was the first to notice how counting tree rings gave the age of the tree and he could explain why the sky was blue three hundred years before Lord Rayleigh discovered molecular scattering.
Each page of the notebooks looks like an excerpt from a vast handwritten visual encyclopedia. Paper was expensive so every inch was covered in Leonardo’s neat script, all of it written back to front, which means you need a mirror to make it intelligible. No one knows why he chose to write this way. Perhaps as a lefthander he found it easier writing right to left; perhaps he didn’t want people stealing his ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s the perfect physical representation of his awkward genius. Leonardo didn’t really care about fitting in or what others thought. He was a vegetarian when almost no one else was because he empathized with animals (one of his obsessions was setting free caged birds). Despite being commissioned by some of the most powerful grandees in Europe, he rarely finished any project he started. What mattered to him was to be free to do his own thing, to achieve the control over his life that had eluded him as an abandoned child:
It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
Most of us picture him as he appears in the one authenticated self-portrait: a sixty-year-old, bald, and bearded sage, a loner. But the young Leonardo was something quite different. His contemporary, the biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), was unambiguous: He was a man “of physical beauty beyond compare.” And that wasn’t all, he was freakishly strong:
There is something supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might. With his right hand he could twist an iron horseshoe as if it were made of lead.
And a charmer:
In his liberality, he welcomed and gave food to any friend, rich or poor … his speech could bend in any direction the most obdurate of wills.
But cross him and you’d have to deal with his “terrible strength in argument, sustained by intelligence and memory.” This is Leonardo, the gay Florentine about town, who was anonymously accused (and acquitted) of sodomy, whose teenage pupil and companion was known as Salai (“limb of Satan”), the precocious artist whose collection of pornographic drawings was eventually stolen from the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle, according to the art critic Brian Sewell, by a distinguished German art critic in a Sherlock Holmes cloak:
There is no doubt that the drawings were a considerable embarrassment, and I think everyone was very relieved to find that they’d gone.
The older sage and the racy young Adonis were both products of the same self-confidence. It was driven by study, by his attempt to come up with his own answers, the process he calls saper vedere, “knowing how to see.” “Learning,” he once wrote, “never exhausts the mind.” It was what had sustained him as a child and there were times when it still gave him childlike pleasure. Once, in the Vatican, he made a set of wings and horns, painted them silver, and stuck them on a lizard to turn it into a small “dragon,” which he used to frighten the pope’s courtiers. On another occasion, he cleaned out a bullock’s intestines, attached them to a blacksmith’s bellows, and pumped them up into a vast malodorous balloon, which quickly filled the forge and drove his bewildered onlookers outside.
Leonardo was brilliant, but he was not infallible. He didn’t invent scissors, the helicopter, or the telescope, as is frequently claimed. He was very bad at math—he only mastered basic geometry and his arithmetic was often wrong. Many of his observations haven’t stood the test of time: He thought the moon’s surface was covered by water, which was why it reflected light from the sun; that the salamander had no digestive organs but survived by eating fire; and that it was a good idea to paint his most ambitious painting, The Last Supper, directly onto dry plaster (it wasn’t; what you see today is practically all the work of restorers). Also, because his fame in the years after his death was almost exclusively tied to a small body of thirty completed paintings, he was to have almost no impact on the progress of science. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that his notebooks—and their revolutionary contents—were fully deciphered.
Leonardo died in France at the age of sixty-seven. The legend has it that his new patron, King Francis I, sat by his bedside, cradling his head as he lay dying. It’s tempting to see this symbolically as the abandoned child finally getting the parental love he never had as a boy. But whatever he lacked, he had more than made up for it. As the king said: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo.”
In theorizing about the effects of a difficult childhood, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) heads the field. He wrote a biography of Leonardo in 1910 based around a childhood memory Leonardo recounts in his notebooks:
While I was in my cradle a kite came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.
From this Freud spins an extraordinary tale of repressed memories of the maternal breast, ancient Egyptian symbolism, and the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile—and reaches the conclusion that Leonardo was gay because he was secretly attracted to his mother. This seems a tediously familiar interpretation now but was daringly original at the time. And, as always, Freud does make some good points. Moving on to Leonardo’s relationship with his father, Freud suggests that, much as his father had abandoned him, Leonardo abandoned his “intellectual children”—his paintings—in favor of pure scientific research. Leonardo’s inability to finish anything and his childlike absorption in research are ways of insulating himself from the fear-inducing power of his father.
If Freud felt he had found the key to Leonardo, it’s probably because it was a key issue in Freud’s own life. Freud wasn’t abandoned by his father, but he felt deeply betrayed by him. Jacob Freud was a wool merchant whose business failed when the young Sigmund was only a toddler. This plunged the family into poverty and meant they had to move from the relative comfort of Freiberg, in Moravia, to an overcrowded Jewish enclave in Vienna. As the eldest of eight, Sigmund was exposed to the difficulties that poverty imposed on his parents’ marriage. Young Sigmund resented his father’s mediocrity, his inability to hold down a job, and the fact that he had been married twice before. A precocious reader, he soon found other heroes to act as surrogate fathers: Hannibal, Cromwell, and Napoleon. At the age of ten he was permitted to name his younger brother, and chose Alexander, after Alexander the Great. Later, he would name one of his own sons Oliver, after Oliver Cromwell. In contrast, he adored (and was adored by) his mother, who called him her “darling Sigi” even into his seventies. But this maternal devotion wasn’t without its problems. When he was two and a half years old, “his libido was awakened” by seeing her naked on a train. From this, Freud acquired a lifelong terror of traveling on trains. More important, he experienced firsthand the most notorious of all his theories: the Oedipus complex—the repressed desire to kill one’s father and sleep with one’s mother. For his final Greek exam at school, Freud chose to translate Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex.
Sex was to dominate Freud’s life, in one way or another, from then on. When he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, his first major research project involved trying to untangle the sex life of the eel. Despite dissecting more than four hundred specimens, he was unable to find any evidence that male eels had testicles. Had he done so, psychoanalysis might never have happened. Frustrated by fish, he turned to neurology and began to formulate the theories that would make him famous. This was important to Freud. As a young medic, he was still preoccupied with the childhood idea of himself as a hero. He told his fiancée, Martha, that he had destroyed fourteen years’ worth of notes, letters, and manuscripts to obscure the details of his life, confound future biographers, and help establish his personal mythology.
It is often claimed, with some justification, that Freud reduced all human psychology to sex, so it is surprising to discover he didn’t lose his virginity until he married at the age of thirty. By his own admission, his sexual activity after marriage was minimal (he was convinced it made him ill). His first crush, at thirty, was on the mother of a friend. He much preferred to keep women at a safe emotional distance: he was twenty-five before he had his first girlfriend. The closest he came to love during his first years at his university was his friendship with another male student, Edward Silberstein. In fact, throughout his life, Freud had friendships with men, which look very much like infatuations or romances. Often, the intimacy would be followed by a dramatic falling-out and the breaking off of all communication. The most famous example of this is his relationship with Carl Jung. In the early days of their relationship they would spend up to thirteen hours a day walking and talking. But mutual paranoia started to creep in. Freud believed that Jung subconsciously wanted to kill him and take his place, and fainted on two separate occasions when Jung started talking about corpses. For his part, Jung suspected he had sexual feelings for Freud. In 1913 their relationship ended in an acrimonious split that left the “brutal, sanctimonious” Jung floundering in a near-psychotic state for the next five years.
For a man who theorized endlessly about the family, Freud was a peculiar and far from attentive father. Rather than talk to his children at meals, he would place his newest archaeological curio in front of his plate and examine it. (He once claimed he read more archaeology than psychology, and his office was stuffed with Neolithic tools, Sumerian seals, Bronze Age goddesses, Egyptian mummy bandages inscribed with spells, erotic Roman charms, luxurious Persian carpets, and Chinese jade lions.) To educate his children about the facts of life, he sent them all to the family pediatrician. He believed so fervently that every son is driven toward deadly competition with his father that his own sons weren’t even allowed to study medicine, let alone psychoanalysis. In contrast, he exhaustively psychoanalyzed his youngest daughter, Anna, who shared with him her sexual fantasies and her forays into masturbation.
Freud suffered throughout his life from depression and paranoia. On the recommendation of his therapist friend Wilhelm Fleiss, he attempted to treat his mood swings with cocaine. Fleiss had elaborated a tenuous theory that every illness, from sexual problems to disease, was determined by the bones and membranes of the nose and that cocaine could alleviate their symptoms. Freud was delighted with his early results, even encouraging his fiancée to take some “to make her strong and give her cheeks a red color.” After a close friend became seriously addicted, he reduced his consumption in favor of cigars, soon developing a twenty-a-day habit. It killed him eventually, but not before he’d suffered the agony of thirty operations for mouth cancer. Eventually, his entire upper jaw and palate on the right side were removed, and his mouth had to be fitted with a plate to allow him to eat and speak. Undeterred, he would lever his mouth open with a clothes peg to wedge a cigar in. He died three weeks after the start of World War II, his doctor easing his passage with massive overdoses of morphine.
In the end, Freud got what he’d craved since his childhood—heroic status and universal fame—but not quite in the way he envisaged. Just as he saw Leonardo’s life as a movement away from the sensuousness of painting to the intellectual stimulus of science, so he was convinced that he was, in psychoanalysis, moving away from the neuroses of art in order to found a brave new science. In truth, while anyone who participates in therapy today owes a great deal to Freud’s methods, his grand theories don’t hold water. He is best read not as an experimental scientist but as a detective novelist who pieces together bits of evidence to come up with a cunning, all-consuming solution. As a psychological storyteller, he has few equals and it’s hard not to regret his decision to turn down Sam Goldwyn’s offer of $100,000 in 1925 to consult on a major Hollywood love story. But our real lives are rarely so neat as the stories we tell about them. As Voltaire once remarked: “Men will always be mad, and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all.”
Unfortunately, Freud never set down his thoughts on another great genius with a grisly childhood, Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Newton was the son of an illiterate Norfolk yeoman who could not even write his own name and who died four months before his son was born. At birth, according to his own memoirs, Newton was so small that he could fit into a two-pint pot and so weak he was forced “to have a bolster all around his neck to keep it on his shoulders.” His mother married the Reverend Barnabas Smith when Isaac was three. Smith hated him on sight and refused to have him in the house, so he was sent to live with his grandmother. Like Leonardo, he became isolated and withdrew into his own world, building and inventing. In Grantham, he frightened the townspeople by flying a lantern with a kite attached. He also made a sundial by fixing pegs to the wall of his schoolmaster’s house. It became known as “Isaac’s Dial.” He hated school, where he was bullied and usually came near the bottom of the class. Some measure of his unhappiness can be seen in the long list of sins he made as a teenager: “Putting a pin in John Keys hat to prick him,” “Stealing cherry cobs from Edward Story” and “Denying that I did so,” “Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter,” and the revealing “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.”
Reverend Smith died when Newton was seventeen and his mother responded by pulling him out of school so he could farm their land. He hated farming even more than school. It bored him. So, asked to watch the sheep, he would end up building a model of a waterwheel while the sheep wandered off and damaged the neighbors’ fields. On one occasion he was walking a horse home when it slipped its bridle; Newton didn’t notice and walked back with the bridle in his hands. All he wanted to do was study. His mother gave up and sent him back to school, where he astonished everyone by graduating with top marks.
From there he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. His Cambridge career, while not a disaster, was hardly a sparkling success—probably because he spent most of his time reading Descartes, Copernicus, and Galileo, men whose radical ideas fell well outside the curriculum. When the university closed as a precaution against plague in 1665, Newton returned to his farmhouse in Lincolnshire. Over the next eighteen months, entirely on his own, he went on to discover the laws of gravity and motion and formulate theories of color and calculus that changed the world forever. His discoveries in mechanics, mathematics, thermodynamics, astronomy, optics, and acoustics make him at least twice as important as any other scientific figure who has ever lived, and the book that eventually contained all his most original work, Principia Mathematica (1687), is arguably the most important single book in the history of science. When he returned to Cambridge, still only twenty-six years old, he was elected the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (a position held for thirty years by Stephen Hawking). Three years later, in 1672, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and acclaimed as one of the most brilliant men of the age.
What happened to Newton over those two years staring out across the fens remains a mystery. His obsessiveness suggests he may have suffered from a mild form of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome. Whether that’s true or not, Newton was certainly odd. He often forgot to eat and, when he did, he did so standing at his desk. At times he would work in his laboratory for six weeks at a time, never letting the fire go out. Frequently, when entertaining guests, he would go into the study to get a bottle of wine, have a thought, sit down to record it, and become so preoccupied that he forgot all about the dinner party. He was obsessed with the color crimson. An inventory of his possessions lists a crimson mohair bed with crimson curtains, crimson drapes, crimson wall hangings, and a crimson settee with crimson chairs and crimson cushions. He was famously paranoid, keeping a box filled with guineas on his windowsill to test the honesty of those who worked for him. He had a nerdish dislike of the arts, calling poetry “ingenious nonsense,” and on the one occasion he went to the opera he left before the performance ended. Yet he was vain enough to sit for more than twenty portraits, and his sense of his own uniqueness was never in doubt. He once constructed an anagram, Jeova sanctus unus, out of the Latin version of his name, Isaacus Neutonus. It means “God’s Holy One.”
There are obvious connections here with the confidence and self-absorption of Leonardo, and with the absentmindedness of a later thinker, such as Einstein. All three took themselves very seriously; all three may have had neurological quirks; all three either missed out on or hated formal education. Significantly, of the three, Newton had the toughest childhood and he was also the one who found friendship hardest. All the contemporary accounts reveal a cold, austere, and exasperating man. Even his servant recalled him laughing only once, when he was asked what was the use of studying Euclid. The slightest criticism of his work drove him into a furious rage, and his life was blighted by vicious feuds with other eminent mathematicians, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Robert Hooke. He had one love in his life—a young Swiss mathematician named Nicolas Fatio de Duillier. The end of their affair caused Newton to have the first of a series of nervous breakdowns, and he almost certainly died a virgin.
Despite these personal failures, the public man was a notable success. He was the first natural philosopher to be knighted and was for many years president of the Royal Society despite achieving nothing of great scientific worth after 1696. In that year, he accepted the post of warden of the Royal Mint. Instead of accepting this as the purely honorific position it was meant to be, Newton took his new role very seriously and attacked it with his customary fanaticism. He spent his days reforming the currency to save the British economy from collapse. In the evenings he lurked in bars and brothels tracking down counterfeiters—whom he then personally arranged to have hanged, drawn, and quartered. He was twice elected MP for Cambridge University but the job held no interest for him; the only comment he made during his entire political career was a request for someone to open the window.
But Newton also had a second, secret life. He was a practicing alchemist. Of the 270 books in his library, more than half were about alchemy, mysticism, and magic. In the seventeenth century, alchemy was considered heresy and a hanging offense. In conditions of utmost secrecy, he spent the bulk of his working life trying to calculate the date of the end of the world as encoded in the Book of Revelation, unravel the meaning of the prophecies of the Book of Daniel, and relate the chronology of human history to the population cycle of the locust. Rather like Freud assuming he would be feted as a great scientist, Newton believed that it would be for his religious theories, rather than for his work on optics or motion, that he would be remembered. After his death, Newton’s family discovered vast trunks of these religious and mystical writings containing more than a thousand pages covered with 1.5 million words of notes, as well as two completed books. They were so embarrassed about them that they either destroyed them or kept them hidden without admitting to their existence. A huge cache came to light as recently as 1936.
It would be easy to dismiss Newton’s mystical writings as the ravings of a man who had lost his intellectual bearings. In fact, it was his belief in a creator-god that “governs all things and knows all that is or can be done” that drove his scientific breakthroughs as well as his biblical and alchemical studies. Had he not been open to the notion of an unseen mystical force controlling the universe, he might not have made his most famous discovery: the mathematical proof of the existence of gravity.
If Newton paid for his lonely, fatherless childhood with a debilitating social awkwardness, it also left him peculiarly equipped for intense, solitary work. The mathematician and engineer Oliver Heaviside (1850–1925) provides an even more extreme example of this. While not quite in the Newtonian league in terms of scientific achievement, without Heaviside we would have no long-distance telephones and a much less precise understanding of the behavior of electrical and magnetic fields. Though he isn’t a household name, Heaviside did for electromagnetism what Newton did for gravity: describing observable physical phenomena using mathematical equations.
Heaviside was born into poverty in Camden Town, London. His father was a gifted engraver, producing the woodcuts that illustrated the serialization of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers in the Strand magazine, but the house was poky, cold, and dark, with most of the windows boarded up because of the window tax. Thomas Heaviside was prone to violent outbursts and tended to pick on Oliver, the youngest of his four sons, because he refused to behave like other children. Some of this was due to Oliver’s partial deafness, caused by catching scarlet fever as a toddler, but the following heartbreakingly short school essay by the young Heaviside paints a dismal picture of life at home:
The following story is true—There was a little boy, and his father said, “Do try to be like other people, don’t frown.” And he tried and tried but he could not. So his father beat him with a strap; and then he was eaten up by lions.
His deafness also meant it was hard for him to play easily with other children, so he attended the all-girls school run by his mother. He disliked most academic subjects but was encouraged in a love of science by his uncle, Charles Wheatstone, one of the inventors of the telegraph. As a result, he was regularly at the top in the natural sciences but near the bottom in geometry, which he hated because it only involved learning proofs: There was no room for innovation. Even as a child, Heaviside preferred to work on his own and his faith in his ability to solve problems alone often appeared boastful to his classmates. This was to cost him dearly later in his life.
He left school at sixteen but continued to study hard, teaching himself Morse code, German, and Danish. Through his uncle, he got a job at the newly formed Great Northern Telegraph Company based first in Denmark and then at Newcastle. It was to be the first and last paid job Heaviside ever had.
He started well enough, devising a clever system for locating the precise damage in a telegraph wire using mathematical formulas. But then he overdid it by asking for a huge pay raise. When this was refused, his response was to announce his retirement—at the age of just twenty-four. His family and colleagues were horrified, but this was to be the pattern of his life from then on—people admired his dazzling intellect but found him touchy and hard to read. Just as Newton had retreated to the fens at the same age, Heaviside moved back to the family home in London, barricaded himself in a gloomy upstairs room, and dedicated himself to private study. His subject was the brilliant but impenetrable work of the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, whose Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism had just been published:
I saw that it was great, greater, and greatest, with prodigious possibilities in its power. I was determined to master the book. I was very ignorant. I had no knowledge of mathematical analysis (having learned only school algebra and trigonometry which I had largely forgotten) and thus my work was laid out for me. It took me several years before I could understand as much as I possibly could. Then I set Maxwell aside and followed my own course. And I progressed much more quickly.
Heaviside emerged with something extraordinary. He had reduced the twenty equations in which Maxwell described how electric and magnetic fields behave down to just four. These, perhaps rather unfairly, are known as Maxwell’s equations and are one of the cornerstones of modern physics. They inspired Einstein to call Maxwell the greatest physicist since Newton, but it was Heaviside’s work that had made them intelligible.
Heaviside spent most of the next thirty years locked in his room, surfacing only for long solitary walks. His family would leave trays of food outside his door, but when he was deeply immersed in work he could survive for days on nothing more than bowls of milk. His deafness worsened and he suffered from a condition he called hot and cold disease, in which a fear of hypothermia led him to wrap himself in several layers of blankets and wear a tea cozy on his head. He also kept the temperature of his room so high that most visitors started to feel faint after a few minutes in his company.
Despite these eccentricities, the work he produced continued to amaze and baffle. He devised a new form of calculus that is now considered one of the three most important mathematical discoveries of the late nineteenth century. He solved the problem of how to send and receive messages down the same telegraph line, and how to transmit an electromagnetic signal over a long distance without distortion. This was patented in the United States by AT&T in 1904 and long-distance telephone calls became a reality. In an article for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1902, Heaviside predicted the existence of a conducting layer in the earth’s atmosphere that would allow radio waves to follow the curve of the earth. It was eventually discovered in 1923 and named the Heaviside layer in his honor.
These breakthroughs brought Heaviside some fame but almost no money. The result was that he became more reclusive, even refusing to attend the ceremony for his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891. In 1897, aged forty-seven, he finally left home and moved to Newton Abbot in Devon. He didn’t like country life much, complaining about his “prying” neighbors who “talk the language of the sewer and seem to glory in it.” By and by he gained a reputation as a grumpy loner who lived on tinned milk and cookies. His one release was the new craze of cycling. He designed and built his own bicycle with footrests under the handlebars so he could go “scorching” down steep hills, folding his arms, sitting back, and using the weight of his body to steer. He was hospitalized twice, once after a close encounter with a chicken.
In 1909, increasingly disabled by gout and jaundice, and ostracized by his neighbors, Heaviside decided to move into a small cottage in Torquay to be nearer his brother, Charles. Mary Way, Charles’s sister-in-law, joined him as his housekeeper. Despite referring to it as his “Torquay marriage,” Heaviside insisted the couple kept a safe distance, only coming together to argue about what to eat or the temperature of the house. Over the next seven years, his controlling behavior became intolerable. Mary was unable to leave the cottage and he forced her to sign a series of contracts that forbade her from even speaking to anyone else. In the end, she was rescued by her family, who found her in a near-catatonic state, a prisoner in her own home.
After Mary’s departure, Heaviside went into a steep decline. His letters to friends and family were signed, inexplicably, “W.O.R.M.” He replaced all his furniture with large granite blocks, and lived in a kimono. He stopped washing himself and cleaning the house but spent a lot of time ensuring he had perfectly painted cherry-pink fingernails. The cussedness he had once reserved for other scientists he now visited on the local gas board, or the Gas Barbarians, as he called them. He stopped paying his (enormous) bills and was frequently cut off. He once attempted to restore the supply himself and ended up causing an explosion that left him with serious burns on his hands and face. In 1925 he died after falling off a ladder, and the walls of his cottage were found papered with unpaid bills.
It was a sad end for a man whose originality had earned him a place on the 1912 Nobel short list alongside Einstein and Max Planck. His unshakable belief in his own ideas was something he shared with Newton and Freud, but Heaviside’s withdrawal from the world was absolute and he does seem to have sunk into serious mental illness in his final years. It’s impossible to judge whether this also damaged the quality of his work because the product of his neolithic furniture/pink nails period—the manuscript of the concluding part of his Electromagnetic Theory—was stolen by burglars shortly after his death. It’s a tantalizing prospect. Given his track record, the chances are it was stuffed with brilliant new insights. As his friend and fellow physicist G. F. C. Searle concluded, Oliver Heaviside was “a first-rate oddity though never, at any time, a mental invalid.”
Madness was part of the birthright of a Byron. The one we all know about, the 6th Baron Byron, George Gordon (1788–1824), just one in a long line of rogues and rebels that stretched back to the Conquest. His great-uncle William—known as the Wicked Lord—killed his cousin in an argument over the best way of hanging game. “Foulweather Jack,” his grandfather, was an admiral with a knack for sailing into storms, a talent that his son and grandson inherited. Byron’s father, “Mad Jack,” was a handsome libertine who had married his mother, Catherine Gordon, because he needed her money. He died when George was four, leaving him nothing except debts and funeral expenses. The odds of the young aristocrat growing up to live a quiet and sober life were slim and he didn’t disappoint, becoming in his turn a bisexual, an incestuous poet, and the living embodiment of romanticism.
Byron’s father’s death meant his mother was forced to return to Scotland, and he spent his early years in Aberdeen. He was an only child and his relationship with his mother was not a happy one, as she suffered from terrible depressive mood swings. At the age of nine he was deflowered by his governess, who would visit his bed at night and “play tricks with his person.” Far from enjoying the experience, it left him filled with feelings of “melancholy” and she was later sacked for beating him. Like Freud—who was understandably fascinated by Byron—he grew up obsessed with Napoleon and kept a bust of him on his desk at school. He amused himself by reading and claimed to have read four thousand novels by the age of fifteen.
Byron’s way of dealing with his difficult early life is in marked contrast to the solitariness of a Newton or a Heaviside. He flung himself into the world, shocking his fellow undergraduates at Cambridge by keeping a bear in his room, drinking burgundy from a human skull, and consorting with choirboys. Immediately after college, he set off on a long, decadent European Grand Tour, which got as far as Turkey and during which he and his friends wrote, drank, and slept with a large number of both boys and girls.
The publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage meant Byron returned in 1812 to find himself famous. Rather like the young Leonardo, he cultivated his newfound celebrity by making sure he looked the part, insisting on white linen trousers, which he would wear only once and order in batches of two dozen at a time. He also ordered silk handkerchiefs in batches of one hundred, even though, at nine guineas, each set cost the annual salary of the average domestic servant at the time.
The early poems created a new kind of hero, which we now call Byronic: moody, rebellious, smart, sophisticated, and promiscuous, with a troubled past and a cynical view of life. Byron did his best to live up to it, although he wasn’t particularly tall, had a club foot that gave him a pronounced limp, and found it difficult to control his weight, frequently putting himself on starvation diets:
I especially dread, in this world, two things, to which I have reason to believe I am equally predisposed—growing fat and growing mad.
Despite this, Byron was irresistible to women. The archive of John Murray, his publisher, contains locks of hair posted to him from the heads and pubic regions of more than a hundred women (including, most famously, Lady Caroline Lamb). Byron would sometimes reciprocate, although he was more likely to send a tuft cut from Boatswain, his Newfoundland dog. Lurking behind all his dealings with women is the feeling he didn’t like them much—as one wag put it: “He had to get off with women because he could not get on with them.” The one exception was his half sister, Augusta Leigh. They had an affair and eventually a child together, and it seems likely that he decided soon afterward to get married to someone else in order to reduce the risk of scandal.
This proved disastrous. For reasons that he was never able to explain properly, he decided to propose to Annabella Milbanke, the rather prim, math-loving cousin of his former mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb. He claimed he was attracted to her because she didn’t dance (Byron couldn’t because of his deformed foot). The union was doomed from the start. He spent the journey to the church singing Albanian drinking songs, refused to kiss her during the service, and later confessed he’d been fantasizing about an old flame throughout the ceremony. They spent several weeks honeymooning at Seaham Hall, near Durham. The house was freezing cold and the only display of anything resembling affection Byron showed took place shortly after they’d arrived, when he roughly consummated the marriage on the drawing room couch. Even the wedding cake was inedible: It had been baked a month earlier and had gone stale. Soon after the honeymoon, just to rub things in, the newlyweds visited Augusta. During their stay, Byron banned his new wife from the drawing room and slept in the marital bed only when Augusta’s period began. More humiliations followed, including his threatening her, while she was pregnant, with a loaded pistol. To no one’s great surprise, Annabella left him on grounds of mental cruelty a year later. The subsequent court case, with its rumors of marital violence, incest, and sodomy, destroyed Byron’s social reputation and forced him into an exile on the Continent, from which he never returned.
One of the patterns that links the group of lives in this chapter is how few of them went on to have children of their own. Leonardo and Newton were gay; Heaviside likely died a virgin. Freud did have six children, despite disliking sex, but was only really close—arguably too close—to his youngest, Anna. It is interesting to speculate what Byron would have been like as a father. Against the odds, Annabella did bear him a daughter, Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, generally known as Ada Lovelace(1815–52), but he saw her only once, fleetingly. Thereafter, her mother did everything she could to protect the girl from the legacy of her father’s memory.
Annabella, after her divorce, became a cold and domineering control freak. She delegated the upbringing of her child to three female staff members, whom Lovelace later called the Three Furies. They were spies as well as teachers: Lovelace was allowed no freedom of thought or action and was brought up on an unvarying diet of logic, mathematics, and science but “not and never” poetry. She was twenty before she even saw a portrait of her father.
The repressive parental regime backfired in an interesting way. Lovelace fulfilled her mother’s hopes by developing exceptional gifts as a mathematician, but she also proved herself her father’s daughter by bringing a poetic imagination to bear on mathematical problems. At thirteen, she was doing Leonardo-like calculations for a flying machine. By seventeen she had survived a debilitating bout of measles and run the full gamut of teenage rebellion from migraines and dramatic weight loss to an attempted elopement. She entered society, keen on both dancing and intelligent conversation. As one of the few women at the time who could talk passionately about algebra, she soon had a group of admirers that included the most eminent scientists of the day.
One of these was the mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage, who was then trying to fund his difference engine, an 8-foot-high, 15-ton, 25,000-part mechanical calculator that he had hoped would render obsolete the notoriously inaccurate books of tables on which the whole financial system depended. The reason such tables were unreliable was that they were compiled by people, known as computers. (The first use of the word computer to mean any kind of calculating machine wasn’t until 1897, a quarter of a century after Babbage’s death.) Babbage failed to get his difference engine built, but he was very taken with Lovelace, and over the next few years he shared with her his plans for an even more ambitious project: an analytical engine, a larger, steam-driven calculator that could be programmed by adapting the punched cards recently used to automate French silk looms.
Babbage could see Lovelace’s money and connections would be helpful, but he couldn’t have anticipated how fully she would understand the machine’s potential. Despite being married with three children under eight, she offered to translate a description of the engine produced by the Italian philosopher Luigi Menabrea. Her work so impressed Babbage that he asked for her notes. They turned out to be three times the length of the original text. Published together, the book became an instant bestseller. It was, after all, by Byron’s daughter on a subject women weren’t supposed to understand. It is also a key text in the history of computing. Not only had Lovelace produced the very first computer program—a plan to get the machine to produce the complex sequence known as Bernoulli numbers—she also allowed her imagination free rein, predicting that in the future such an engine might be used to compose music and reproduce graphics and become an invaluable tool for science, commerce, and the arts. More even than Babbage himself, Ada Lovelace saw the awesome potential of what was one day to be known as the computer. In 1979, the U.S. Defense Department named their software language Ada in her honor, and her portrait is on the holographic stickers Microsoft uses to authenticate its products.
Over the next decade, Babbage again tried and failed to get his engine built. Lovelace had other priorities. Because her social status was enhanced by her success, she was busy living up to her Byronic inheritance. Dosed on laudanum or cannabis to dull the pain of a slow-growing cancer, she fell out with her mother and her husband by plunging into a series of intense relationships. She had a brief affair with Dickens and then fell for John Crosse, a professional gambler who inspired her to devise a mathematical system to beat the bookies. There is no record of whether it worked, but her daughter Anne did go on to found the Crabbet stud, from which almost all the world’s purebred Arabian horses now claim descent. Lovelace died at thirty-six, exactly the same age as Byron himself, and for all her mother’s attempts to keep them apart, she was buried next to him.
Lovelace’s story is an interesting variant on the absent-father scenario. Whether consciously or not, she established some kind of harmonic resonance with his memory during her short life, no doubt encouraged by her mother’s hysterical attempts to suppress it. Who knows how the father-daughter bond might have evolved if he had lived? Byron’s life and relationships were notoriously messy, full of betrayal and recrimination. Her story reminds us that sometimes a dead father, particularly an iconic one, might be more useful than a living one.
Hans, the father of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75), died when his son was eleven, but by then the die was already cast. The Danish storyteller responsible for some of the most popular tales ever told endured a life of misery that bordered on the operatic. He was born in an Odense slum, the son of a cobbler and a washerwoman (possibly the only thing he had in common with Stalin). The family lived in a one-room house, and even before his father’s death, the young Hans had been subjected to enough trauma to fill a lifetime of therapy. Several biographers have suggested he may have suffered sexual abuse as a boy; in Andersen’s mostly autobiographical first novel, The Improvisatore, a man called Federico lures a young boy into a cave—and an early teacher called Fedder Carstens, whom Andersen claimed was “fond of me, gave me cakes and flowers and patted me on the cheeks,” mysteriously left town within a year of Andersen’s arrival at the school. As an adult, Andersen had a severe dislike of underground places.
They were a warm family, but his father became obsessed with the idea let slip by his grandmother that the family had once been rich and possibly even royal. This made an impression on the young Hans and fueled his sense of being different from the other children in his neighborhood. As soon as his father died, he was forced to work to support himself. It was a dismal experience. While helping his grandmother at a hospital for the insane, he looked through a crack in a door and saw a naked woman in a room singing to herself. The woman noticed him and threw herself at the door in a murderous rage; the little trapdoor through which she received her food sprang open and she glared at him, her fingers scrabbling at his clothes. When an attendant at last arrived, Andersen was screaming in terror, “half-dead with fear.”
His experience in a clothing mill was no better. His appearance was so effeminate that a group of his coworkers forced him to pull his trousers down in front of the rest of the workforce to see if he was a girl. Later, he signed up as a carpenter’s apprentice, but on his first day at work, the previous episode still fresh in his mind, he could do nothing but stand trembling, blushing, and upset. The other apprentices noticed his distress and taunted him until he fled.
Andersen was an unprepossessing young man. Clumsy, pinheaded, and perpetually dreamy, he walked around with his eyes half closed; people would ask his mother if he was blind. Even his walk was unintentionally comic; one contemporary described it as “a hopping along almost like a monkey.” This physical clumsiness meant he failed to fulfill the one dream that had sustained him since his early childhood: to become an actor. However, Jonas Collin, one of the directors of the Royal Theatre, took pity on him after his audition and offered to pay for him to return to school. The friendship with Collin and his family was one of the few relationships that Andersen managed to maintain through his life—but the return to school was a disaster. At the age of seventeen he was put in the lowest class with eleven- and twelve-year-olds, which, when added to his lanky frame and his dyslexia, made him an easy target for the sadistic bullying of the headmaster, who referred to him as an “overgrown lump.”
Andersen emerged from this in worse shape than before. He was deeply neurotic, tormented by stress-induced toothaches, convinced his addiction to masturbation would lead to his penis’s falling off or drive him mad. He was terrified of open spaces, of sailing, of being either burned or buried alive, and of seeing a woman naked (the result of his experience at the asylum as a child). He was so embarrassed about his skinny, concave chest that he built it up by stuffing newspaper in his shirt.
His love life was equally barren. Not one of his (usually gay) crushes was reciprocated. As his literary fame grew, he began to travel widely and struck up friendships with Mendelssohn and Dickens, and got to know Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Heinrich Heine. But rather like Heaviside’s, there was something about Andersen’s manner that annoyed people. He could be both vain and ingratiating at the same time. After staying with his hero Dickens in 1857, his host stuck a card above the bed in the guest room saying: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family AGES.” Many think that the character of Uriah Heep was based on Andersen. Once he arrived unannounced to visit the other great contemporary master of the fairy tale, Jacob Grimm. Unfortunately, Grimm had never heard of Andersen and showed him the door.
His forays around Europe meeting the rich and famous did not go down well at home, and he was often abused on the streets of Copenhagen with shouts of: “Look! There’s our orangutan who’s so famous abroad!” Even his closest friends, the Collin family, would call him “the show-off,” and it was said that there was no man in Denmark about whom so many jokes were told.
Later in life, Andersen, rich but lonely, took to visiting brothels, paying the girls simply to talk to him. Like Newton and Heaviside, he died a virgin, but bad luck pursued him even beyond the grave. The man he had loved in vain since childhood, Edvard, the married son of Jonas Collin, was originally buried with Andersen (along with his wife), as the writer had requested, but the family later changed its mind and moved them, leaving Andersen to face eternity much as he had lived—alone.
In Denmark, Andersen’s “adult” plays and novels are still read, but it is the fairy tales that have made him famous internationally. Translated into 150 languages, inspiring countless adaptations, and still selling by the millions each year, they are truly universal stories. It is impossible not to see Andersen—the gawky outsider whose love remained unrequited—in the tales of the Little Mermaid or the Ugly Duckling. Perhaps because the unhappiness of his childhood meant he was never able to “grow up” properly in his personal life, his best and most powerful writing was always for children.
In most of the lives in this chapter, the death or absence of a father operated subconsciously in shaping the pattern of the life. In the case of Salvador Dalí (1904–89), it was flamboyantly self-conscious. Dalí set out purposely to annoy and punish his father, who was a respectable lawyer and strict disciplinarian. The young Salvador deliberately wet his bed until he was eight, and developed a lifelong scatological obsession, depositing feces all over the house. To further infuriate his father, he also developed illegible handwriting—in reality, he could write perfectly well. At school, again just to annoy his father, he pretended not to know things.
The generous interpretation is that this was a form of attention seeking. The circumstances of his birth were unusual. His parents had lost their first son—also called Salvador—only nine months and ten days earlier. He had been only two years old, and the parents never fully recovered from the trauma. They talked continually of their lost “genius,” hung a photograph of him over their bed, and regularly took the “new” Salvador to visit the grave. It was all very disturbing for the young Dalí, who was made to feel he was somehow a reincarnation of his elder brother.
He grew up an unusually fearful child, plunging into fits of hysteria if he was touched or saw a grasshopper or, like Andersen, a naked female body (this wasn’t helped by his father’s keeping an illustrated medical textbook on venereal disease on the piano to terrify him). But like all the lives in this chapter he had an exaggerated sense of his own importance, dreaming, as Freud and Byron had done, of becoming a great hero:
At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.
Dalí’s grandiose self-assurance gathered pace during his teens. But for all the posturing, he was prodigiously gifted and able to paint and draw with a classical precision that few of his contemporaries could match. As his mother remarked of his childhood sketches: “When he says he’ll draw a swan, he draws a swan, and when he says he’ll do a duck, it’s a duck.” At the Royal Academy in Madrid, he got himself expelled for refusing to take an oral exam. He wrote in explanation,
I am very sorry but I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them. I know this subject much too well.
His relationship with his father, always strained, deteriorated further after his mother died when he was seventeen. Dalí would call this “the greatest blow I had experienced in my life.” Eight years later, in 1929, things came to a head when his father was made aware of an early Surrealist sketch by Dalí called Sacred Heart, which contained an outline of Christ covered by the words: Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother. His father asked him to renounce it publicly. Dalí refused and was physically thrown out of the family home and told never to return (although he claimed he came back soon afterward with a condom containing his own sperm and handed it to his father saying, “Take that. I owe you nothing anymore!”).
The year 1929 proved a turning point for other reasons. It was the year that Dalí joined the Surrealists and made, with Luis Buñuel, the first and best Surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou. The most shocking imagery in the film—an eyeball being sliced open with a razor blade, the dead donkeys on the piano—leaped straight from Dalí’s fertile dream life. This was also the year he first met Elena Diakonova, better known as Gala, the violent Russian nymphomaniac who became his muse, business manager, and chief tormentor. Though she was married to the writer Paul Eluard at the time, Dalí immediately set out to seduce her. He concocted a malodorous paste from fish glue and cow dung, and daubed himself with it so that he smelled like the local ram. He then shaved his armpits and stuck an orange geranium behind his ear. The strategy worked: They remained together as a couple until Gala’s death in 1982.
The relationship probably wasn’t consummated—at least not in the usual way. Dalí was (like Andersen) addicted to masturbation and much preferred to offer the oversexed Gala to other men (a practice known as candaulism, after the ancient Lydian king Candaules, who arranged to have his friend surreptitiously watch his wife undress). In return, Gala looked after the practical side of their lives, as Dalí was incapable of even paying a taxi fare.
By 1936 Dalí had become an international sensation, even featuring on the cover of Time magazine. Fame only encouraged him to stage ever more ridiculous stunts. For Christmas in 1936, he sent Harpo Marx a harp with barbed-wire strings as a present. (Harpo replied with a photograph of himself with bandaged fingers.) When he came to London to deliver a lecture, he wore a full diving suit with plastic hands strapped to the torso and a helmet topped with a Mercedes radiator cap. Sporting a jeweled dagger in his belt, he held two white Russian wolfhounds on a leash with one hand and a billiard cue in the other. He looked fantastic, but it nearly killed him. Dalí hadn’t taken into account the fact that he couldn’t breathe inside his helmet. He started the lecture but soon began to run out of oxygen. The audience didn’t know he was suffocating, and Gala had gone out for coffee. He collapsed and his friends tried to hammer the bolts open on the helmet, to no avail. Finally, when Dalí was nearly dead, a worker was found who freed him with a wrench.
This clownish side to Dalí annoyed the other Surrealists and, in the run up to war, his infantile fantasies quickly lost their charm: “I often dreamed of Hitler as a woman. His flesh, which I had imagined whiter than white, ravished me.” When he declared his support for Franco in 1939, the other Surrealists expelled him. His response was typical: “There is one difference between the surrealists and me. I am a surrealist.”
The other thing that angered his colleagues was his (or rather, Gala’s) knack for making money. André Breton had already christened him “Avida Dollars” (an anagram meaning “I want dollars”) and Dalí himself confessed to “a pure, vertical, mystical, gothic love of cash.” The next two decades saw him transform himself into the first and biggest ever artist-celebrity, living in New York, working with Walt Disney and Hitchcock, designing the Chupa Chups lollipop wrapper, and appearing in a host of TV advertisements. He even created his own range of merchandise: artificial fingernails containing mirrors; Bakelite furniture that could be molded to fit the body; shoes fitted with springs to increase the pleasure of walking; and dresses with anatomical paddings to make women look more attractive. Outrageously, he also signed sheets of blank artists’ paper for $10 each (there may be as many as fifty thousand still in circulation). By the mid-1960s, Dalí had achieved his dream of universal popularity: He was one of the most recognizable people in the world and about as far away from his father’s modest ambition of turning him into an agricultural scientist as it was possible to imagine:
Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.
In 1958, when being interviewed by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes, Dalí had pronounced: “Dalí is immortal and will not die.” It is a fascinating interview, despite the succession of preposterous statements (of which this is but one). What is revealing is not so much what he says but the fact that he refers to himself throughout in the third person. When he claims that “Dalí himself” is his greatest work of art, for once, he isn’t joking. The waxed mustache, the staring eyes, the cape and cane, the dramatic rolling of his r’s: Dalí’s whole life had become a performance.
The messianic braggadocio didn’t last: Dalí’s last years were tragic. He ended up in a stupor of clinical depression, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and cold-shouldered by Gala. To visit her in the castle he had restored and furnished for her, she insisted he apply in writing. When she died, he took to his bed, which in 1984 he managed to set on fire by short-circuiting the button he used to call for his nurse. Eventually, he stopped eating, talking, and drawing completely and finally died of heart failure, aged eighty-four. He is buried in the crypt of his own Teatre-Museu (Theatre-Museum) in Figueres, very close to where he was born.
In many ways, though, Dalí had never really left home at all. Despite the extravagance of his created “Dalí” persona, he remained stuck in the pattern of his childhood: desperate to assert his identity, desperate to impress his father. For all the Freudian window dressing of his art, Dalí didn’t really develop as an artist or a human being. He is not an artist to turn to if you want insight. Interestingly, he once met Freud (whom he often referred to as his real “father”) in London in 1938. The eighty-two-year-old psychologist watched him draw. “That boy looks like a fanatic,” he remarked to a colleague. Dalí was, of course, delighted: He didn’t care what people said about him, only that they talked about him.
We can be certain Freud didn’t intend it as a compliment. The best definition of fanatic as a psychological category comes from Aldous Huxley: “a man who consciously over-compensates a secret doubt.” This is perfect for Dalí, the boy who never escaped the shadow cast by his older dead namesake, but it might apply equally well to Leonardo, Andersen, Lovelace, or even Freud himself. The relentless drive to succeed, the need to become famous, the emotional withdrawal, the sexual hang-ups, all are present and correct. What was their shared secret doubt? Obviously, it adapts itself to the particular circumstances, but all doubted they were good enough to please the angry, absent, or inadequate father who had dominated their formative years. It is one of the great paradoxes, but without those individual acts of overcompensation we might be living in a world without the Mona Lisa, psychoanalysis, space travel, or the machine on which these words were written.
* Lime-burners heated chalk in a kiln to 1,100°C, to make quicklime, the main ingredient of mortar (the forerunner of cement) used in building.
It was an important but badly paid and dangerous job. The dust could cause blindness or spontaneously combust, producing hideous burns. On top of that, carbon monoxide released by the process made the lime-burners dizzy. It was an easy matter to fall into the kiln and be incinerated.