An Illustrated Celebration of the Little-Known Mothers, Brothers, Friends, Wives, and Other Unsung Champions Behind Geniuses
By Maria Popova
There is something quite wonderful about witnessing one human being selflessly bolster the creative achievement of another, especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator — from the man who helped Bukowski quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer to the way Ursula Nordstrom nurtured young Maurice Sendak’s talent. But those who blow quiet, steadfast wind into the sails of genius clash with our narrow mythology of solitary brilliance — not to mention that as we so readily dismiss creative contribution on the accusatory grounds of “privilege” today, we weigh the material advantages but forget that the loving and staunch support of human capital is often the greatest privilege of all. And for many people we’ve come to celebrate as geniuses, such human capital was precisely what made their achievements possible — a vital aid rather than a detractor of their greatness.
That’s precisely what illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman and her collaborators Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe celebrate in The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (public library | IndieBound) — an illuminating inventory of the little-known champions behind a wide range of cultural icons and an homage to the gift of what Robert Krulwich once so poetically termed “friends in low places.” Each story is told by a different writer and illustrated by a different artist, all of astounding range and talent.
Among these enabling unknowns are George Washington’s dentist, Alan Turing’s teenage crush, Emily Dickinson’s dog, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, and Roald Dahl’s mother. Indeed, as immeasurably heartening as the project is, there is also a heartbreaking undertone reminding us how consistently women are sidelined in history — throughout the book, the most frequently recurring roles of these silent supporters are of wife and mother, who doubled and tripled and quadrupled as assistant, caretaker, editor, publicist, and a great many more utilitarian and creative duties.
In the foreword to the book, Kurt Andersen shares his fascination with Friedrich Engels, “one of history’s most extraordinary and improbable secret accomplices, a promising young man who signed on as second fiddle to an unpromising young man who became one of the nineteenth century’s most famous and consequential men of all.” The latter, of course, was Karl Marx. Alongside illustrations by the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton, Andersen writes:
At twenty-three, Engels befriended a cranky, excitable, scrounging twenty-five-year-old journalist and rabble-rouser — Marx — and became his lifelong collaborator (The Communist Manifesto, Capital) and patron. And in order to fund his bourgeoisie-loathing BFF’s bourgeois lifestyle, Engels kept his lucrative capitalist-tool day job for the next quarter century. I’m a fan of Fitzgerald’s line about living with contradictions — “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” — but Engels’s life is a gobsmacker.
Rothman and team write in the introduction:
Behind every great person there is someone who enabled his or her ascension. These friends, relatives, partners, muses, colleagues, coaches, assistants, lovers, teachers, and caretakers deserve some credit… When you consider your own life, there are dozens of people who have guided you along your path — whether a teacher from fifth grade who finally got you to raise your hand in class, a family friend who gave you your first camera, or that whiskey-sipping neighbor who’d tell you stories of his childhood. These relationships shape our lives, some lightly and others with more impact.
Many of these electrifying batteries of support spring from great romances. Paris Review contributor Lauren Acampora tells the story behind the love of Vladimir Nabokov‘s life, thickly entwined with his momentous contribution to the literary canon:
Their first meeting in 1923 was the stuff of legend: She wore a black satin mask on a bridge in Berlin and recited his own poetry to him. From that moment, the young writer Vladimir Nabokov felt that Véra Slonim was destined to share his life. In one of the passionate letters of their courtship, he wrote, “It’s as if in your soul there is a preprepared spot for every one of my thoughts.” For the next fifty-four years, he was nearly inseparable from the brilliant, elegant, and self-effacing woman who became Mrs. Nabokov.
Over the half-century that followed, Véra Nabokov dedicated her life to bolstering her husband’s genius, in which she believed resolutely and which she felt honored to nurture and protect — rumor even has it that she carried a handgun in her purse to protect her husband from assassination at his public appearances, which sounds decidedly less implausible given Véra learned to shoot an automatic weapon as a teenager and was allegedly involved in an assassination plot against a Soviet despot.
Among her many roles, Véra was amanuensis, translator, chief correspondent, teaching assistant, literary agent, chauffeur, Scrabble partner, and butterfly-catching companion. She was the first reader of all her husband’s works, as well as critic, editor, and inspiration. Many suspected she had a hand in the writing itself; some believed Véra was the true author.
Whether or not Véra authored any of the work will forever remain a matter of speculation, but she did save her husband’s magnum opus from destruction on several occasions when, exasperated by its narrow-minded reception, he attempted to burn Lolita. She was the first reader of all his work and his lifelong inspiration. The inscription on every single one of his novels reads, simply, “To Véra.” So intense was their psychic bond that they even shared the uncommon neurological condition synesthesia. When Nabokov’s obituary stated that “their dedication to each other was total,” it was a statement of simple fact rather than bombast.
But not all of the love stories in the book subscribe to the Happily Ever After myth. One of the most touching is that of computing pioneer Alan Turing, who laid the foundations of artificial intelligence and paid with his life for being queer. But the dawn of artificial intelligence was built on the loss of another life as well.
Writer Nas Hedron tells the story of a British boy named Christopher Morcom — Turing’s teenage crush — who pulled young Alan out of his notoriously awkward shell:
Alan was a terrible conversationalist — before Chris, he’d had no friends at all — but he and Chris shared the language of mathematics and began setting problems for each other and comparing solutions… Alan wrote that Chris made everyone else seem ordinary. He made a point of sitting with Chris in classes, and though he had no interest in music, he joined the gramophone society, a music appreciation group of which Chris — a piano player — was a member, so they could have more time together. Alan never spoke of his romantic feelings, but they talked passionately about science and mathematics, and Chris brought a discipline to Turing’s work that had never been there before.
When Morcom died of bovine tuberculosis, his death devastated Turing beyond measure and sent him down an obsessive spiral. As he struggled to understand how a mind as brilliant as Chris’s could just cease to exist with the death of the brain, he inevitably began probing the relationship between the two and the foundation of consciousness. Hedron elegantly captures the lifelong impact of the tragedy:
This line of thinking, about intangible thoughts housed in tangible brains, would run through each of Turing’s accomplishments.
Chris’s death was what prompted Turing’s voracious reading on such wide-ranging subjects as biology and logic, the pursuit of which precipitated his landmark 1936 paper envisioning the “universal thinking machine” — the springboard for our modern technological and philosophical tussles with artificial intelligence.
Returning to the subject of Russian literary wives, undoubtedly the most remarkable of all is Anna Dostoyevskaya, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s second wife. The origin story of their love looks at first blush to have taken a page out of another Russian literary titan’s classic — she was a 19-year-old stenography student who came to work for the already famous 45-year-old author and at first considered the idea of romance laughable. “Nothing can convey the pitiful appearance of Fyodor Mikhailovich when I met him for the first time,” she wrote. “He seemed confused, anxious, helpless, lonely, irritable, and almost ill.” He, on the other hand, was quick to propose marriage — but she declined, citing her desire to “live an independent life.” It was an ideal that ran in the family — her sister, Sofia Kovalevskaya, was the first Russian female scientist, and young Anna herself the first Russian philatelist.
In telling their unusual story, Igor Levshin offers an illuminating aside on the professional women who invented typewriter art, which illustrates both the differences between Anna and Fyodor and her own vibrant nonconformity:
Stenographers were very different from the typists who came half a century later. Stenography was a high-tech radical innovation and the stenographers Dostoyevsky was used to were a special sort of women. In Russian they were called nihilistki — “women who believed in nothing.” They smoked a lot (like Dostoyevsky himself) and had spectacles. She did not. He liked that she happened to not be a nihilistka.
When they did eventually get married, Dostoyevsky’s gambling problem ran the family into debt, which he attempted to solve by inventing a “foolproof” system for winning at roulette. Anna was clearly the rational head of the family — instead, she set out to revolutionize the publishing industry by turning her husband into Russia’s first self-published author, an ambitious and radical proposition. Anna studied the book market meticulously, researched the best vendors in the country, negotiated with art directors, and masterminded a distribution plan. Soon, Dostoyevsky was a national brand. Today, many consider Anna the first Russian female publisher and the first Russian businesswoman.
Then there are the mothers. Roald Dahl called his, Sofie Magdalene Dahl, “undoubtedly the absolute primary influence” on his life. In his memoir, he extolled her storytelling talents and recounted how she used to tell him tales of mythical Norwegian trolls — creatures that would come to reverberate throughout Dahl’s beloved children’s books. Indeed, writer Jackie Levitt notes in the book, Roald took his own first steps in storytelling in the letters he wrote to his mother, which he began at the age of nine at boarding school and continued for the remainder of his mother’s life, writing to her whenever he was away — even during his gremlin days during WWII.
The story of Andy Warhol’s mother, Julia Warhola, serves as a potent reminder of just how important presence is in parenting. A sickly child, Warhol stayed home with his mother much of the time. To keep him close by, she used to place a bed at the edge of the kitchen. John Niekrasz writes:
This sickroom, looking in on his mother’s kitchen workshop, became Andy Warhol’s first art studio.
As an immigrant family in suburban Pittsburgh, with no TV or radio, Julia and young Andy turned to art-making as their most reliable coping mechanism for the poverty and alienation in which they lived. It was Julia who first exposed Andy to the pop-culture aesthetic by buying him comic books with whatever little money they had. He was fascinated by the pictures in them and began cutting and rearranging them. Warhol was well aware of this formative influence and made a habit of giving his mother creative credit. Half a century later, Warhol told his official biographer:
The tin flowers she made out of those fruit tins, that’s the reason why I did my first tin-can paintings. My mother always had lots of cans around, including the soup cans. She was a wonderful woman and a real good and correct artist.
In his early twenties, Andy moved to New York City to try to make it as a commercial illustrator. He had trouble finding work, so Julia prayed for him every day and, when she could, sent letters with a one- or five-dollar bill enclosed. In the spring of 1952, Julia learned that Andy was nearly destitute. She left her home in Pittsburgh to live with her son in his squalid apartment on East Seventy-fifth Street. They had to share a bedroom, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, but with Julia there to take care of him and the household, Andy was able to spend long hours making art at the kitchen table.
That was also the period when they began collaborating on Warhol’s little-known cookbook while he was freelancing as a children’s book illustrator. But as the art world finally started paying attention, Warhol, image-conscious as he was, began feeling ashamed of his babushka-wearing mother and their codependent relationship grew strained. Niekrasz captures the strange irony of their lives:
Fed up with Andy’s profligate spending and her increasing loneliness, Julia moved back to Pittsburgh. Andy demanded she return to New York and, upon her arrival, Julia expressed frustration at her lack of recognition by yelling, “I am Andy Warhol!
There is also the story of Amelia Earhart and the publishing heir G.P. Putnam, who proposed marriage to her six times before she finally agreed to enter its “attractive cage,” but only on the conditions of an open relationship, which she outlined in a spectacular letter decades ahead of its time. Whether the marriage was one of true love or a pure business arrangement or some combination of the two remains uncertain, but Putnam became Earhart’s tireless publicist who powered her “brand” for nine years, through the Great Depression, as she reached worldwide acclaim, then ensured her status as a cultural legend after her tragic disappearance.
The spouse-publicist is another recurring theme of the book. Alice B. Toklas may have been the love of Gertrude Stein’s life, but she was also the legendary author’s proofreader, typist, cook, chauffeur, and constant intravenous praise drip in moments of self-doubt.
And yet despite Toklas’s many utilitarian roles, their story is an immeasurably romantic one, doubly so because it unfolded against great cultural bias a century before marriage equality. Svetlana Kitto writes:
On the occasion of an early trip to Florence, Gertrude professed her love to Alice with the intention of entreating Toklas into marriage: “Pet me tenderly and save me from alarm. . . . A wife hangs on her husband that is what Shakespeare says a loving wife hangs on her husband that is what she does.” Toklas wept and wept, and accepted: “She came and saw and seeing cried I am your bride.”
Then there is Jack Sendak, Maurice Sendak‘s brother. Long before Ursula Nordstrom cultivated Sendak’s genius, Jack encouraged his brother to keep at his hobby of making small handmade books and they collaborated on making wooden toys. They shared such a deep spiritual and creative bond that Maurice never recovered from Jack’s death in 1995. His brother became the inspiration behind Sendak’s darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, as well as the subject of his bittersweet final farewell to the world.
Not all the spirit-lifters in the book are human — one of the tenderest stories is that of Carlo, the Newfoundland pup Emily Dickinson’s father gave her when she was nineteen, named after the dog in Jane Eyre.
Sara Levine writes:
Carlo was discreet, like all of dogkind, but probably larger than Dickinson. Male Newfoundlands weigh about 150 pounds; Dickinson was five foot three and “small, like the wren.”
The legend of Dickinson as recluse is hard to sustain in light of the time she spent with this boisterous animal. (One poem begins, “I started Early—Took my Dog—” Elsewhere, “Emily with her dog, & Lantern!” a friend recalled, suggesting that Dickinson walked with Carlo at night.) When Dickinson explored Pelham Woods and the surrounding meadows, Carlo tramped along, offering her physical confidence and mental freedom. She praised him for being “brave and dumb.”
For sixteen faithful years, Carlo slept at Dickinson’s feet as she penned some of the most exquisite poetry the world has ever known — a touching testament to what dogs do for the human soul and their enduring status as poetic muses.
The Who, the What, and the When, which goes on to tell the heartening stories of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, Charles Darwin’s colleague, Edgar Allan Poe’s foster father and more, is absolutely glorious in its entirety — enchanting, beautifully illustrated, and immensely ennobling in its essential generosity of spirit in celebrating creative history’s unsung heroes.
Complement it with the equally fantastic first installment, The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, one of the best science books of 2012.
Published October 22, 2014