Creative geniuses are usually honored and mythologized in history books. We seldom read about their dark sides or their somewhat bizarre behaviors and habits. Here are some little known facts about some of the well known creative thinkers, authors, artists, inventors and innovators in history.
EINSTEIN’S MARRIAGE CONTRACT. In Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein, he reveals the great physicist as a smooth operator when it comes to picking up ladies. Einstein was quite the ladies man. At one point Einstein’s cousin, Elsa, who is the object of his intense affection, writes to him and asks for a photograph as well as a book that explains the theory of relativity. Einstein writes back: “There is no book on relativity that is comprehensible to the layman. But what do you have a relativity cousin for? If you ever happen to be in Zurich, then we (without my wife, who is unfortunately very jealous) will take a nice walk, and I will tell you about all of those curious things I have discovered.” Baby, I’m your relativity relative.”
The relationship progressed. Einstein became estranged from his wife. The biography reprints a chilling letter from Einstein to his wife, a proposed “contract” in which they could continue to live together under certain conditions. Indeed that was the heading: “Conditions.”
A. You will make sure
1. that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
2. that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
3. that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.
B. You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons…
There’s more, including “you will stop talking to me if I request it.” She accepted the conditions. He later wrote to her again to make sure she grasped that this was going to be all-business in the future, and that the “personal aspects must be reduced to a tiny remnant.” And he vowed, “In return, I assure you of proper comportment on my part, such as I would exercise to any woman as a stranger.”
THINK HORIZONTALLY. Truman Capote would supposedly write supine, with a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in another. In a Paris Review interview, Capote explained: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
THIS IS THE LIFE FOR ME. Author William Faulkner drank a lot of whiskey when he was writing. It all started when he met Sherwood Anderson when they were both living in New Orleans (Faulkner was working for a bootlegger). In a 1957 interview, Faulkner explains their relationship: “We’d meet in the evenings, and we’d go to a drinking place and we’d sit around till one or two o’clock drinking, and still me listening and him talking. Then in the morning he would be in seclusion working, and the next time I’d see him, the same thing, we would spend the afternoon and evening together, the next morning he’d be working. And I thought then, if that was the life it took to be a writer, that was the life for me.”
“GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE NOW” Ludwig van Beethoven was famous among his contemporaries for more than just his hauntingly beautiful compositions. He also had a nasty temper and often alienated his household staff and most of his friends. He fought with everybody, including landlords, relatives, and friends. As a result of his temper tantrums, he had trouble keeping maids and servants because he’d often throw things at them or accuse them of stealing. According to his acquaintances, he also wore dirty clothes and left food out to rot, which perhaps also explains why he never married.
“I AM THE CAPTAIN.” Lyndall Gordon writes in T.S. Eliot: A Modern Life, that in the early 1920s, T.S. Eliot only answered to “Captain Eliot” in his hideaway above Chatto & Windus, a publishing house on St Martin’s Lane; however, at another hideaway on Charing Cross Road, visitors were asked to call him “The Captain.” In his upstairs office, Eliot usually tinted his face green with powder to look cadaverous for visitors.
WHO NEEDS SLEEP? Leonardo da Vinci had a lot going for him, what with the still-unmatched talent and cultural importance and, you know, Mona Lisa. But he was a weird mix of perfectionist and procrastinator, and sometimes he’d work for hours on one minuscule detail while leaving the larger scope of a project untouched. To keep himself going for as long as possible, he practiced polyphasic sleep which is the practice of taking short naps multiple times in a 24-hour period. He slept no more than two hours a day. Polyphasic sleep is common in many animals, and is believed to be the sleep state of our ancient ancestors when they needed most of a 24 hour day to hunt and gather food for their daily survival.
POWER NAP. What is it about genius and a disdain for sleep? Thomas Edison was another who believed most people sleep far too much and are unproductive as a result. Thomas Edison was a fan of the power nap. He gave it a good twist, though, which he claimed was integral to some of his best ideas. Edison would sleep sitting upright in his chair, elbow propped on the arm with a handful of marbles. He would think about his problem until he fell asleep, and soon enough he would drop the marbles on the floor. When the racket wo4ke him up, Edison wrote down whatever was in his head, regardless of what it was—creative solutions, new ideas, a reminder to pick up milk on the way home.
FEAR OF PEARLS. Another genius who rarely slept was the inventor Nikola Tesla. Early on in his career, his work started mid-morning and continued with few to no breaks until 5 a.m. the next day. The inventor and engineer also had strange aversions to pearls, overweight women, certain clothes, human hair and sex. What he did love were numbers divisible by three, to the point that he wouldn’t stay in a hotel room with a number that didn’t fit that guideline. Tesla felt driven to perform repetitive behavior in sets of three. For instance, after walking around a block once, Tesla would feel compelled to do so two more times. He also preferred to dine alone, due to his meticulous compulsion to clean his plates and silverware with 18 (divisible by 3) napkins before a meal. (Afterwards, he would calculate the cubic contents of all the food on his plate before eating.) He was strictly celibate and felt himself a better inventor for it, preferring the company of pigeons—he actually likened his love for one pigeon in particular (a white pigeon he claimed came to his hotel room every day) to the love he’d have for another person. When the pigeon died, he felt that his ability to work died with her.
ALWAYS FACE NORTH. Charles Dickens was a quirky guy. One of his required writing-time necessities was a desk that faced due north, and even when he slept he took every precaution to ensure that his body was aligned with the poles—head at the northern end, feet toward the south. In addition to his bizarre directional work and sleep arrangements, Dickens also liked to hang out at the morgue, where he watched people work on incoming bodies. He followed his “attraction to repulsion” to crime scenes, too, where he’d try to analyze the locations to solve murders. Whether any of this was helpful to his literary plots is second to the regular practice of thinking creatively to solve hard problems. (That said, there’s no report that Dickens ever solved a murder.)
DON’T BREATHE.Nobel Prize-winner and Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, who has more than 3000 patents to his name, has a Plexiglas board installed in his pool. He thinks underwater and takes notes on his board, a process he calls “creative swimming.” And while it seems silly to take notes underwater when there are perfectly serviceable desks available, Nakamatsu believes that depriving his brain of oxygen underwater sparks his creativity.
And lastly, Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in a drawer in his office, because he said he was unable to write without the aroma of rotting apples.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.