A poet, a painter, a novelist, an inventor, a scientist, a movie director, an actress, a chess master, a rock star, and a business magnate, all enormously successful in their professions and world famous, had something else in common as well: each was a recluse.
Why, we might wonder, could men and women with so much talent, who had earned such acclaim, shun society and choose to live alone? Of course, most people would find such a largely solitary existence undesirable, even unbearable. The ten famous recluses, past and present, on this list, however, embraced solitude, living their lives apart from society, all of them for reasons of their own.
10 Virgil (70 BC–19 BC)
The Roman poet Virgil is the author of many classic works of literature. However, he is best known, perhaps, for his epic poem The Aeneid, which recounts the Trojan hero Aeneas’s travels throughout the Mediterranean world and the Trojans’ victory over King Latinus. By anyone’s measure, his works, as well as their continuing cultural influence, would be counted as huge successes. So why would the author of such masterpieces decide to become a recluse?
One account of the poet’s life, Master Virgil by J. S. Tunison, suggests that Virgil lived a solitary life in order to enjoy the studious, contemplative life he needed to compose his poetry. Unlike his friend and mentor, the Roman poet Horace, who was approachable, sympathetic, charming, and witty, Virgil, perhaps by nature, was someone whom “only his most intimate friends could approach.” On the rare occasions when he might be seen on the streets, he would flee from even his admirers and their shouted praises. Whereas Horace was a man of the world, Virgil was a man of books who seems to have preferred the solitary activities of reading and writing to the company or adulation of others.
9 Michelangelo (1475–1564)
Michelangelo is regarded as one of the greatest sculptors and painters of all time. His statues, which include Pieta, David, and Moses, and his paintings, especially those that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, are famous worldwide. He is also considered a superb architect, having designed such famous buildings, in whole or in part, as the Palazzo Farnese; the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill; and St. Peter’s Basilica, among others. Superb accomplishments, indeed, and they have earned him a place in history among the great contributors to art and culture.
Nevertheless, despite such colossal accomplishments, Michelangelo became a recluse in his later years. According to John Addington Symonds’s second volume of The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo, recognizing that he was socially awkward, was likely uncomfortable among others. He was skeptical, if not cynical, about supposed admirers, who might flatter him simply to obtain honor by associating themselves with him. He admitted that, at times, he found that even the Pope annoyed and wearied him “by begging too much of [his] company.”
Michelangelo, who himself might have had “a haughty sense of personal dignity,” also admitted that he did not always remember to follow etiquette, donning his hat in the presence of His Holiness or speaking his mind too freely in the presence of visitors of high rank. Michelangelo was a man of strong opinions, especially concerning the arts, and tended to speak freely, even when doing so might offend his social or political superiors. By keeping to himself, he avoided this faux pas and was, at the same time, able to be himself.
8 Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)
As a young woman, Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett lived the good life, although the luxury to which she was accustomed was marred by a controlling father. She admitted he was a very wealthy man. Unfortunately, he was also very possessive, a personality trait that would become more problematic for his daughter a few years later after she fell in love with a fellow poet.
Until the age of 22, she was in excellent health and enjoyed both horseback riding and other outdoor activities. She was studious and “well educated for a girl,” studying Shakespeare, Dante, and both Greek and Latin. Then her family moved to Wimpole Street in central London, where she “became virtually a recluse, having contracted some vague illness that confined [her] to [her] room.” Withdrawn from society, she lived in isolation for a number of years, occupying herself with writing poetry.
In 1838, Seraphim, her first book of poems, was published. The publication of other poems soon followed, and she became one of the more famous poetesses of the day, a status that led to her introduction to her fellow poet, Robert Browning. “I could not believe my lucky stars,” she confessed, “that such a worldly and sophisticated man could love me in this way.”
Despite her father’s wishes to the contrary, the couple was married after a two-year engagement during which they read their work to one another, their love, presumably, deepening. They married in secret and went abroad, to Italy, a week after. Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning was certain that her father would disinherit her. The couple’s son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born in Italy, their adopted country. A recluse by necessity, she became an exile by choice.
7 H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937)
In 1919, Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft met Sonia Greene at a convention of the National Amateur Press Association. Both were aspiring writers, and they seem to have hit it off at once, as Lovecraft began visiting her soon after.
Their romance must have been inspiring, for Lovecraft’s first short story, “Herbert West—Reanimator,” was published in a 1922 issue of Home Brew, after which the author began submitting stories to Weird Tales regularly. Then, in 1924, the couple married, living in New York. Biographer John L. Steadman characterizes them as an odd couple: “Sonia was glamorous and extroverted, while Lovecraft was reclusive and introverted.” The couple lived separate lives, Lovecraft having moved to “his beloved New England” in 1926, and Sonia filed for divorce two years later.
It may be no coincidence that his stories feature reclusive characters, such as Robert Suydam, the “reclusive scholar living in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn” (“The Horror of Redhook”), and even an extraterrestrial emissary of the Great Old Ones, who “becomes a reclusive scientist” after taking up residence on Earth.
6 Greta Garbo (1905–1990)
A sensation even among Hollywood glitterati,acted in films with such other notable stars as Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Fredric March, Maureen O’Sullivan, Basil Rathbone, Robert Taylor, Charles Boyer, and Melvyn Douglas. As an actress, one might expect her to have been vivacious, outgoing, and at ease in the company of others. The opposite is true, as Ingrid Bergman found out when she sent Garbo flowers and an invitation to join her for Swedish evenings when they could enjoy “meatballs, aquavit, candles and relaxed conversation in their native tongue.” Garbo accepted—three months later, as Bergman was leaving town. Bergman mentioned Garbo’s strange behavior to director George Cukor, a friend of Garbo’s, who laughed, saying, “Of course, Greta wouldn’t have sent the telegram unless she was certain you were leaving.”
Garbo’s career was based, in large part, on her popularity as a talented actress, but, paradoxically, she ignored fan mail, refused to sign autographs, and wouldn’t attend movie premieres. She retired at age 36 after negative reviews for her last film, the 1941 romantic comedy Two-Faced Woman. After that, she lived a reclusive life until her death at age 84.
Had the bad reviews for Two-Faced Woman or something else caused her reclusiveness? Garbo herself may have provided a clue. “I want to be left alone,” she said, and, for more than half a century, she kept mostly to herself, refusing interviews because of “her deep fear of reporters and other strangers and her insistence on guarding her privacy.” Garbo’s reasons also included that she was “able to express myself only through my roles, not in words, and that is why I try to avoid talking to the press.”
5 Bobby Fischer (1943–2008)
Chess master Bobby Fischer defeated Soviet champion Boris Spassky in 1972. In a sense, the world saw Fischer as an embodiment of the United States and Spassky as the personification of the Soviet Union. When the men clashed on the chessboard, it was as if the countries they represented were also at war. Who would win? Spassky, playing for the Fatherland, or Fischer, playing for Uncle Sam? When Fischer triumphed, he became a hero in the eyes of millions, but his adulation was short lived.
A 1992 rematch with Spassky, played in Yugoslavia, defied U.S. sanctions against the Serbian government. Warned that his playing would constitute a violation of the sanctions, Fischer, who stood to earn $5 million for playing the rematch, spat on the U.S. Department of Treasury’s cease-and-desist order. Later, Fischer “made anti-American statements” following the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001.
The U.S. government responded by revoking his passport and seeking his return. He was arrested in Japan and jailed for eight months before Iceland “offered him refuge.” By 2005, Fischer was living in Iceland, where “he became the Howard Hughes of chess.” Fischer seems to have become a recluse to avoid the legal consequences he would likely have faced if he had returned to the United States.
4 George Harrison (1943–2001)
His disenchantment with changes in popular music, the stresses of performance, and his desire to live authentically as himself, rather than as a member of the Beatles, led George Harrison to live a reclusive life after the band broke up in 1970.
He believed that he had gained spiritual wisdom that he wanted to share with the world. He had come to understand himself. “I know what I feel,” he said. His music reflected his views, which were mystical and metaphysical. His son’s birth also seems to have reoriented him. Harrison regarded Dhani, who was born in 1978, as an angel and a treasure who brought joy into his life. He expressed this view through his song “Unknown Delight,” the title alluding to his belief that Dhani showed him joy beyond any he’d ever experienced before and would continue to bring joy that was also unknown.
At the same time that he was finding balance and harmony in his personal life, Harrison was becoming more and more disillusioned by “the state of popular music in the mid-1980s.” He retreated from the music scene, refusing even to perform at the Live Aid concerts with such friends as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Who, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, and others. During this period of relative withdrawal, he was content to write and record some songs, appear in the film Water, and join a few friends in performing at concerts. Nevertheless, “he took full advantage of his extended sabbatical to escape from the routine pressures of celebrity status.”
In a time of assassinations, Harrison also felt unsafe, even among the admirers who mobbed him and the other members of the Beatles. “The whole magnitude of our fame made me nervous,” he admitted. Just being a Beatle was also wearing on him. He found that fighting “for his place in the band and his songs’ place on its albums was exhausting,” he found. Screaming fans also bothered him, not just during performances, but also for long afterward. “If you had 2 million people screaming at you, I think it would take a long time to stop hearing that in your head. George was not suited to it,” Harrison’s second wife and widow, Olivia, said.
3 Pete Maravich (1947–1988)
Professional basketball player Pete Maravich learned the basics of his sport from his father, “Press.” Maravich could be found practicing for hours every day, honing his skills at dribbling, passing, and shooting. In North Carolina and South Carolina, he was “The Pistol”; later, as a college player, he’d become known as “Pistol Pete” because of his ability to shoot from the hip. When his father, who’d coached basketball at Clemson University, became the head coach at Louisiana State University, Pete joined the team, establishing every scoring record at LSU. He won, among other honors, the Naismith Award. In 1970, he signed with the Atlanta Hawks, agreeing to play for five years in exchange for $1.9 million. As a player for the New Orleans Jazz, he continued to excel. However, after signing with the Boston Celtics, Maravich was benched in support of Larry Bird. Before the next season, he “announced his early retirement.”
For two years, he was a recluse as he battled depression and alcoholism. Following his conversion to Christianity, he became “determined to use his celebrity to promote his new faith.” Unfortunately, eight years following his retirement and after being named to the NBA Hall of Fame, Maravich collapsed during a pickup basketball game and died of a congenital heart defect.
2 Paul Allen (1953–2018)
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, won many awards and other honors, but he also lived a reclusive life. The CBS television show 60 Minutes compared his isolated lifestyle to that of another famous recluse, Howard Hughes. According to Allen’s tell-all book Idea Man, he departed Microsoft after he discovered that co-founder Bill Gates was maneuvering to “dilute” his stock. So instead, Allen left the company with a third of the stock at full value, which was worth about $40 billion.
He spent considerable money on his many varied interests, funding his own personal rock band to jam with; purchasing the electric guitar that Jimi Hendrix used at Woodstock for $750,000; “subsidizing” an antenna farm devoted to searching for communications from extraterrestrials; acquiring a Shakespeare portfolio; buying the Seattle Seahawks football team and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team; investing in the Hollywood studio Dreamworks; buying a yacht, complete with its own submarine, that’s longer than a football field; financing the Allen Institute for Brain Science; and acquiring an expensive collection of “vintage warplanes.”
Allen sued a long list of major companies, including AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Netflix, Google, Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube, for patent infringement, a decision that did not increase his popularity with the Silicon Valley elite. In her 2011 60 Minutes interview with Allen, Leslie Stahl described him as a “recluse,” comparing him to Howard Hughes.
Although Stahl provided no explicit explanation for Allen’s reclusiveness during her interview, the context of the question-and-answer session suggests the sometimes-antagonistic relationship that he had with Gates before and during Allen’s struggle with cancer might have contributed, if not caused, Allen’s preference for social isolation. Allen said that working with Gates could be “like hell. Gates was always pushing him, harder than anyone else, to achieve. Allen and Gates frequently engaged in hours-long shouting matches, and he tired of Gates’s “browbeating” and “personal attacks” and felt as though Gates were marginalizing him.
Allen was in the middle of radiation treatments when he discovered Gates’s stock dilution attempt, prompting him to leave Microsoft. It seems that Allen had finally had enough of the mercurial and abusive Gates, and, although they continued to be friends, Allen kept Gates and most other people at a distance. He preferred to tend to his hobbies and other personal interests, many of which involved only himself or a small group of other people.
1 Thomas Ligotti (1953– )
Thomas Ligotti, who insists on being called a horror writer, developed “a lifelong panic-anxiety disorder” at age 17 when he discovered “the monstrous nature of everything.” He related to the work of such writers as Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. He realized his view of the world was not the only one based on the idea expressed in Poe’s “Ligeia,” that “horror [is] the soul of the plot.”
In an interview (conducted by e-mail), Ligotti sheds some light on the darkness of his fiction and his own reclusiveness. His muse, he said, is “pain,” but “hatred and hurt” also move him to write when his emotional state does not forbid him from doing so. (He struggles with “bipolar depression,” and a bout with irritable bowel syndrome resulting in “intestinal agony” took him to the emergency room.) Writing horror stories seems to provide catharsis, relieving some of his pain and stress.
Ligotti’s other comments in the interview suggest the reasons for his social isolation. “I couldn’t possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists.” His idea of a perfect world is one in which “everyone has experienced the annulment of his or her ego” and nothing besides food, shelter, and clothing” would be needed. Ligotti admits that he is “completely detached from anything, including myself and anyone around me” and that “doing anything just seems plain stupid, which in my opinion it ultimately is.”