All Your Heroes Are Assholes … And That’s Okay
There was a time when you could admire someone — an actor, musician, inventor, writer or any other celebrity — simply for their work. You could listen to a song and never know if the people performing it beat their wives or seduced underage groupies. You could watch a movie and be blissfully unaware that the leading actors were raging racists. A celebrity’s private life was truly private.
Many film studios orchestrated “private lives” to present to the press while going to great lengths to hide a celebrity’s true private life. Some went as far as to send actresses off for secret abortions to cover up affairs and paired up various couples to hide the homosexuality of one — or both — people. Simply put, you never knew anything of substance about the celebrities you enjoyed.
And maybe it was better that way.
Over the past decade or so — and certainly within the past few years — it’s become virtually impossible to remain blissfully ignorant about the entertainers you love. I know because for a long time I had a hard and fast rule about not wanting to know anything about celebrities I liked. I wouldn’t read interviews. I avoided articles and wouldn’t read liner notes. If someone I liked made the news for an outlandish comment or questionable act, I dodged the story. I just cranked up the song, read the book, watched the movie, and enjoyed a bit of entertainment without worrying what kind of personal ethics the creator had. I didn’t care — and I knew I would likely find something I didn’t like.
I was vigilant because early on, I had learned one of my first personal heroes was a bit of an asshole. Albert Einstein was a childhood hero and as I grew up, I moved beyond the Young Reader versions of his biographies. Once I started reading articles and books geared for an older audience, it didn’t take long to learn Einstein was an awful husband and father. And I don’t mean like ‘not the best guy’; I mean just a garbage person when it came to personal relationships.
He cheated on his first wife and their marriage was absolutely miserable. At one point, in an effort to repair the marriage, he presented his wife with a list of demands that included “you will stop talking to me if I request it” and “you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way”. He also refused to travel with her or be content “sitting at home”.
The marriage didn’t last long and once he was divorced, Einstein went on to marry his cousin. A new wife did not, however, lessen Al’s desire to sleep around. He wasn’t the best father either. Known for being cold and distant, he preferred to bury himself in his work and occasionally doled out scraps of attention and threads of affection.
Einstein isn’t alone when it comes to being a bit of a prick while also securing his place in history as a genius and revered hero. Many of our most beloved heroes never would have survived the scrutiny of today’s detail-hungry public. Their stories prove that people are rarely all good or all bad and that, sometimes, it’s better to not know everything about the people who entertain, inform and, yes, even shape our lives.
Thomas Edison — Great Inventor and Giant Asshole
Thomas Edison is widely known as a businessman and inventor. He is often described as “America’s greatest inventor”. What many people don’t know, however, is that Edison was also a deeply unpleasant man.
As a young child, Edison began developing hearing problems after a bout of Scarlet Fever. Later in his career, however, he changed the story to claim his hearing loss was the result of being struck by a train conductor after his chemical laboratory caught fire in a box car. Years later he changed the story again and said the conductor hadn’t struck him on his ears but had in fact lifted the young Edison up by his ears.
While the origins of Edison’s hearing loss were clearly up for debate (to him at least) there was never any debate on whether or not it played a pivotal role in his development. It drove him to reading as a young man and he ultimately read, according to his own estimation “the entire library”.
His difficulty with hearing also made his conversations with people one-sided, often being little more than a monologue. It wasn’t just that Edison had a hard time hearing, he didn’t want to listen in the first place. “All the things that I have needed to hear,” he said, “I have already heard.”
Edison is credited with inventing some of the most revolutionary items in history. The problem is that he didn’t actually invent all of them. He had a team of junior assistant inventors working under him and would routinely patent their inventions as his own. This arrangement wasn’t shady on its own (it’s how much of research happens even today), but Edison was accused of underpaying his inventors for their contributions. One such inventor was Nikola Tesla, a man with whom Edison would engage in one of the longest running and most dramatic scientific feuds in history.
Tesla and Edison were still working together when the feud over Alternating Current (AC) or Direct Current (DC) electricity was born. Edison promoted DC as a safer way to deliver energy. Tesla’s ideas about AC would allow energy to periodically change direction, making it a better way to deliver large amounts of energy to certain areas like cities.
Edison remained steadfast in promoting DC power, often claiming it was safer than AC power. Still, many people were flocking to AC power since it was cheaper. At the same time, George Westinghouse developed a new light bulb and began selling them alongside Edison’s bulbs. The increase of competition both in the delivery of electricity and the hardware was too much for Edison to bear.
Edison claimed Westinghouse’s bulb was too similar to his and buried him in lawsuits. He also wrote a pamphlet titled “A Warning from the Edison Electric Light Company”. The 84-page booklet warned that anyone buying electric equipment from Edison’s competitors were infringing on Edison’s patents. He warned purchasers would find themselves mired in lengthy court battles.
It was an ironic stance for a man who had once advised “Keep on the lookout for novel ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working with.” Clearly, it was a business model he endorsed only for himself.
Gandhi Was a Sex Addict and a Hypocrite
Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most widely recognized activists in the world. Known primarily for his nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi led the Indian independence movement against British rule. He is widely regarded as a humanitarian, activist and advocate for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable.
But Gandhi’s personal life was often at odds with his public persona. Gandhi was married to his wife, Kasturba, in 1883. He was 13 at the time and his wife was 14, which was the norm in their home of Gujarat. By all accounts, the young couple enjoyed an active sex life and it soon became clear Gandhi had an extremely high sex drive.
When Gandhi’s father was on his deathbed, Gandhi left his bedside to have sex. When he returned, his father was dead. The grief of losing his father and the guilt from not being there for his last moments weighed heavily on Gandhi and he began to see sex as ‘repugnant’. Still, he continued having sex with his wife and the couple eventually had four sons.
In his writings and speeches Gandhi claimed he saw men and women as equals. But, again, his actions said something else. He once discovered a young man had been harassing two of his female followers. Gandhi dealt with the situation by cutting the girls’ hair off. He claimed this would ‘sterilize’ the ‘sinner’s eye’ and said it was the responsibility of the two women to stave off sexual assault. He shared the story in his writings and advised Indian women to carry the responsibility for sexual attacks.
“I have always held that it is physically impossible to violate a woman against her will,” he wrote. “The outrage takes place only when she gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her…It is my firm conviction that a fearless woman, who knows that her purity is her best shield can never be dishonored. However beastly the man, he will bow in shame before the flame of her dazzling purity.”
Gandhi’s sex drive, however, had not abated. But, at the age of 38, he took the vow of brahmacharya. The vow is an important one to Hindus as they believe life is impossible without it: the vow demands living a life dedicated to growing spiritually and includes a vow of chastity.
Living simply and releasing his possessions was easy for Gandhi, but the celibacy bit was a more difficult. He dealt with the problem by starting a series of “experiments” within his ashram. He would have men and women — including young boys and girls — sleep naked with each other while remaining perfectly chaste. His subjects would bathe together and sleep naked, though they were normally segregated during the day. No one was allowed to be sexual or suggestive in any way and even sexual talk was punished.
While he claimed these experiments would encourage chastity in others while also testing his self-control, his subjects didn’t appear to fare well. In several documents, the subjects are described as being in their late teens or early twenties and all are described as being depressed and seemingly under Gandhi’s control, willing to do anything he asked. There are also several stories about women “weeping uncontrollably” from time to time and exhibiting other classic signs of psychosis. Still, no real help was offered and while Gandhi claimed anyone could choose to leave, it was clear to some that he was manipulating the participants.
In 1947, a friend of Gandhi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, wrote a letter to another of Gandhi’s friends, Kishorlal G. Mashruwala. The letter expressed concern about what was happening within Gandhi’s following. “When I first learnt about Gandhi’s experiment in which a girl took off her clothes and lay under the same cover with him and he tried to find out if any sexual feeling was evoked in him or his companion, I felt genuinely surprised. Personally, I would not tempt myself like that and more than that, my respect for [women] would prevent me from treating her as an instrument in my experiment.” While it was clear from his letter, Bose thought some sort of intervention was needed, nothing was done.
In the end, Gandhi’s personal secretary tried to take a stand when he threatened to leave unless Gandhi met some demands. In R. P. Parasuram’s 16-page letter, he expressed anger about Gandhi engaging in sexual activity beyond his dubious ‘experiments’. His demands included that Gandhi refrain from “sleeping with any member of the opposite sex”, “being massaged by any member of the opposite sex”, and “placing your hands on the shoulders of girls when walking.” Gandhi rejected every demand and dismissed his concerns, replying “I cannot concede your demands. Since such is my opinion and there is a conflict of ideals, you are at liberty to leave me today.”
But let’s not forget his wife in all this. In addition to sleeping around or, at the very least, perving over girls a third his age, he was also practicing raging hypocrisy when it came to his wife’s health. When his wife was sick with pneumonia, British doctors told Gandhi a shot of penicillin would heal her. Gandhi refused to have “alien medicine” injected into her body, and she died soon after. Fast-forward to years later when Gandhi became sick with malaria. Steadfast rules and adherence to dogma went quickly out the window as he allowed doctors to save his life with Quinine.
Walt Disney Was a Misogynist and a Nazi Supporter
Disney World promotes itself as ‘the happiest place on Earth’ and they’ve built an empire around ‘family fun’. Add to that their impressive resume of family movies and the Disney company is pretty much as wholesome as it gets.
Except that its founder was a massive bigot.
Walt Disney had a vision for his company and a determination to make it successful. He wielded a lot of power both in terms of creating and changing public opinion and even the aspirations of young children. Along with many of his peers at the time, Disney saw men as the driving force behind creativity and didn’t see that there was room for women to contribute. He received a letter from a young woman who wrote to him about becoming an animator in his studio. “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen,” he wrote back, “as that task is performed entirely by young men.”
Disney’s misogyny may seem extreme to us now, but he was really just a product of his time. Women were only just beginning to assert themselves as a force to be reckoned with professionally. So perhaps we could forgive Walt his narrow views on what qualified as acceptable work for women.
But then there’s the whole Nazi thing.
There have been rumors that Disney was a blatant anti-Semite, but there are conflicting accounts. While stories about Disney using slurs or disparaging remarks are murky, he definitely went out of his way to spend time with Nazi supporters.
Disney animator Art Babbitt shared a story that took place shortly before America entered World War II. “There was a small, but fiercely loyal, I suppose legal, following of the Nazi party,” he said. “There were open meetings, anybody could attend and I wanted to see what was going on myself. On more than one I occasion I observed Walt Disney and Gunther Lessing [Disney’s lawyer] there, along with a lot of prominent Nazi-afflicted Hollywood personalities. Disney was going to these meetings all the time.”
Disney’s reputation as a Nazi sympathizer was further cemented in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On the night of November 9, 1938, SS Troops and Nazi supporters went on a rampage, destroying Jewish owned businesses and terrorizing citizens. The event sent shock waves throughout the world, generating headlines and scathing editorials. The British newspaper The Times wrote “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”
In the aftermath of the event, Walt decided to personally host Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was promoting her film Olympia, a documentary about the Olympics being held in Germany. Disney fawned over the director, giving her a tour of the studio. Riefenstahl was eventually asked to leave the United States as backlash grew over her Nazi ties. Before leaving, she said of her time with Disney that it was “gratifying to learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews.”
Dr. Seuss Drove His Wife to Suicide
Most people know that Dr. Seuss was known originally as Theodor Geisel. What many don’t know is that he was originally married to a woman named Helen … and he wound up driving her to suicide.
The two met when Geisel began studying at Oxford. After seeing his notebooks, Helen encouraged him to abandon his plans to become an English professor in favor of becoming an artist. She later said, “Ted’s notebooks were always filled with these fabulous animals. So I set to work diverting him; here was a man who could draw such pictures; he should be earning a living doing that.”
With Helen’s encouragement and support, Geisel returned to the States and began sending drawings to every publishing house and magazine he could think of. The couple struggled, but in 1927 Geisel landed a job creating cartoons for the humor magazine Judge. This gave him the stability he needed in order to propose to Helen and the two were married within the month.
Geisel began working under the name Dr. Seuss from the beginning. He soon began to experience success with his editorial cartoons and later — and most famously — his books. Helen continued to stand by his side and is largely credited with continuing to support and encourage him throughout his career. The two collaborated often, and in 1947 together they earned the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
In the mid-1950s Helen began to experience a variety of illnesses. The woman who had stayed by Geisel’s side was fighting for her life.
Geisel, meanwhile, began an affair with Audrey Stone Dimond, a nurse and friend of the couple.
By 1967, Helen had struggled through 13 years of chronic illnesses, including a bout with cancer. Physically exhausted from more than a decade of sickness, Helen was also emotionally spent, unable to take the pain of Geisel’s relationship with Dimond. In October of 1967, Helen decided enough was enough and committed suicide. Her note mentions, not her sickness, but her sadness over the destruction of her relationship:
“Dear Ted, What has happened to us? I don’t know. I feel myself in a spiral, going down down down, into a black hole from which there is no escape, no brightness. And loud in my ears from every side I hear, ‘failure, failure, failure…’ I love you so much … I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you … My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed … Sometimes think of the fun we had all thru the years …”
Helen died by her own hand of an overdose of barbiturates on October 23, 1967.
Geisel and Dimond were married the following summer.
All of our heroes — intellectual, spiritual or otherwise — are mere mortals. None of these stories are designed to make you throw out your children books, disillusion you to the merits of peaceful resistance or abandon your scientific pursuits after being inspired by the people profiled here. The contributions of every person listed here have improved our lots in life — from Edison’s inventions and Einstein’s theories to Gandhi’s message of strength through peace and the enduring joy of Green Eggs and Ham.
The fact is, good people sometimes do shitty things and, conversely, sometimes shitty people do amazing things. No one is all good or all bad. Our heroes, like us, are humans. Imperfect. Inspired. Sometimes a bit of a jerk.
The men and women who work tirelessly to create a better world often fall short when we examine their own lives. People make bad choices but that shouldn’t always detract from their contributions. Edison’s inventions helped usher in an age of modern life. Disney’s body of work and the parks that bear his name have become pop culture icons and known for inclusivity. The work of Dr. Seuss not only continues to entertain children today, the Dr. Seuss foundation, established by his second wife Audrey, uses the profits to promote the arts, encourage literacy and provides funds for educators to “to beautify their surroundings — inside or outside — in the spirit of the Lorax.”
The world is a tough place and evolution favors the selfish. We have evolved past a time where people need to be ruthless to simply survive, but that evolutionary root remains strong. The people who excel at entertaining, educating and enlightening often fall short in other areas.
Much in the same way cleanliness is next to godliness, human excellence appears to reside next to dicketry.