The idea of turning your back on wealth, fame, and society is incomprehensible for many. Notoriety isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however, and for some people, the pressure of their lives in the spotlight seems to have been too much for them.
No one really understands why some people feel the need to withdraw from the world. It seems that some of the following may have suffered from mental health conditions, while others appear to have been perfectly happy to remain inside their homes for years at a time—even when they had enough wealth to do anything that they could want.
Huguette Clark was the daughter of a copper tycoon. She had immense wealth, with an estate worth over $300 million, but her life was not richer for it. Instead of surrounding herself with beautiful things, Clark chose to spend the last 20 years of her life in a hospital room, despite the fact that she wasn’t sick. She allowed very few visitors and had no personal possessions except her clothes, her dolls, and her collection of violins (which, to be fair, did at one point include Stradivarius’s greatest masterpiece, known as “The Virgin”). She owned a number of homes, including a Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan and a mansion in California, but preferred the sterile environment of the hospital.
The cause of Clark’s reclusiveness is not known, but she once called money “a menace to happiness.”
After her death in 2011, Huguette Clark left over $30 million to her nurse, but this was challenged by distant relatives who hardly knew Huguette, and the nurse ultimately received nothing (but was able to keep most of the $31 million in gifts she’d received from Clark over the years.)
Ida Wood had been a New York socialite at the very end of the 19th century, but in 1907, she suddenly withdrew from the world and moved into a room at the Herald Square Hotel with her sister and daughter and hid herself away. Each day, the bellhop would knock at the door and ask if the sisters wanted anything. Ida Wood would open the door a crack and request the same things—evaporated milk, crackers, coffee, bacon, and eggs. Each day, she would tip him ten cents and tell him that that was all the money she had in in the world.
The daughter died in 1928. In 1931, Ida Wood, now in her nineties, suddenly opened the door wide and called for help. Her sister was dying. When staff entered the hotel suite, they found that the bathroom had been turned into a makeshift kitchen, and the suite was filled with empty cracker boxes and rotting food.
Among the debris, they also found share certificates, bonds, and cash stuffed into shoeboxes, as well as diamond necklaces hidden inside the empty cracker cartons. Ida Wood even had $500,000 in $10,000 bills pinned to the inside of her nightgown.
That all seems incredible, but Ida Wood’s life was a series of incredible incidents. She met her husband after writing to him, at that time a stranger, to propose an affair, offering him “agreeable intimacy” and presenting herself as the daughter of a wealthy and aristocratic family. In fact, she was the daughter of poor Irish immigrants. She made her money in a deal with her husband, who was a gambling addict. Every time he won at the tables, he shared the winnings with her 50–50, but if he lost, he also paid her half of his losses. When he ran out of money, she would loan it to him in return for shares in his newspaper business.
He died virtually penniless, while she kept a fortune hidden inside empty cracker boxes.
Emily Dickinson grew up in a prosperous family in Massachusetts, where her father was a respected lawyer. The family were well-known in social circles, but Emily never wanted to be part of that world. After a miserable first year of college, she left and spent the rest of her life in her father’s house, leaving it only to visit a doctor on rare occasions.
Dickinson never married, though she did have friends. It is thought that she must have been in love at one time, because the poems for which she is famous appear to be addressed to a lover, but no one knows who it may have been. Dickinson appears to have made a definite decision to live this way, and though many have sought to find the reason in her work, it is not clear why.
Dickinson died in the house in 1886 and was buried in the white clothes that she always wore.
Nikola Tesla was certainly a genius. The benefits of his pioneering work on electricity are still being felt today. His reputation was never as high as that of his rival, Thomas Edison, mainly because Edison was a relentless glory hunter who was not averse to taking credit for other men’s ideas.
For Tesla, however, it was the idea that was important. He seemed to have little interest in celebrity or even money. While his inventions have generated millions or even billions of dollars, he seems to have benefited little from them. Tesla had an eidetic memory, could speak eight languages, and rarely made notes while inventing, as he didn’t need them, despite the fact that they would have been handy for establishing patents.
It is true that Tesla was always a little eccentric. He almost certainly suffered from OCD. He obsessively washed his hands and would only eat food that had been boiled. He had strange phobias, such as an aversion to pearls, which led to anxiety when speaking to society ladies. He believed that his greatest ideas were borne out of solitude, so he became solitary.
Tesla’s poor business skills led him to fritter away his fortune, and he spent his last years moving from hotel to hotel and skipping out before paying the bill. He once offered one of his inventions in lieu of cash—a box which, he claimed, contained a death beam but which was too dangerous to be opened. Not one of his more useful inventions.
Tesla died in one of his hotel rooms in 1943. He was, as he had always been, alone.
It is probably fair to describe Bobby Fischer as a troubled genius. The chess prodigy became a national hero when he beat the Soviet grand master at the height of the Cold War to become World Chess Champion in 1972 and a traitor when he defied US sanctions to play a rematch in Belgrade during the Balkan Wars 20 years later.
It is unlikely that Fischer was moved by either description. He was not a man who cared for others’ opinions. He became paranoid, obsessed with conspiracy theories, and angry with the world. Having beaten the best chess players in the world, he seemed to lose his purpose. He no longer played chess but could not find anything else to absorb his mind.
After making inflammatory remarks about 9/11 during interviews, he ended up in Iceland, where he spent the rest of his life as a recluse. He invented his own form of chess, which, with his trademark modesty, he named Fischerandom.
Although in his final years, his appearance had suggested that he was penniless, he left an estate worth several million dollars. He was found dead in his hotel room in 2008. Even in death, however, Fischer rejected the regard of others. He arranged his own secret burial, without regard to the law. His grave was dug during the night, and only five people attended the service, which took place at first light. Even the minister at the church was not informed until it was over.
Theo Albrecht founded his grocery empire, Aldi, with his brother Karl after World War II. They began by running their mother’s grocery shop, which they expanded into a business that made them both multibillionaires.
Theo was kidnapped in 1971. He was freed by his captors after paying a ransom of seven million German marks, 17 days after he had been abducted. He might have been released sooner, but it seems he haggled over the amount and later tried to claim the ransom money as a business expense on his tax return.
After the kidnapping, both brothers kept a very low profile. They were rarely photographed, and they did not give interviews. They traveled separately in cars that never took the same route twice. The two brothers spent at least some of their time on a remote island in the North Sea, where they played golf, grew orchids, and collected typewriters. Both men died in Essen, Germany, Theo in 2010 and Karl in 2014.
At the turn of the 20th century, John Wendel II had a property empire in the heart of Manhattan that would be worth around $1 billion today. He built his fortune on four firm principles—never mortgage, never sell, never repair, and always remember that premium real estate prices on Broadway will move uptown ten blocks every decade.
Wendel had equally firm principles when it came to his family. Their house was in a commercial district, surrounded by shops and hotels, and thus completely unsuitable as a home but worth a fortune. He did not hold with wasting money on fripperies such as electricity, telephones, or newfangled automobiles. There was no fence around the house, and passersby often pressed their noses against the windows to catch a glimpse of the strange inhabitants, who they dubbed the “Weird Wendels.”
Wendel had seven sisters, who all lived in the house with him. Wendel was referred to as “the hermit of Fifth Avenue.” They lived quietly together, refusing to change with the times.
After John Wendel’s death, the sisters remained in the house, until Ella Wendel was the only one left. Only one of the sisters had married—and not until she was well past childbearing age because John Wendel had been concerned about gold-diggers. This meant there was no one to inherit the vast fortune. Despite this, Ella Wendel carried on living exactly as she had before.
She had a fortune valued at $100 million, but she continued to live in the vast house alone, without modern amenities. Her only pleasure seemed to be her dogs over the years, all of which were named Toby. At night, she would walk Toby on a vacant lot that they owned, which, following her brother’s business principle, she would never sell, despite it being worth millions.
After Ella’s death in 1931, over 2,000 “relatives” came forward to claim their share of the inheritance, almost all of whom were totally bogus. A large chunk of the estate was spent in legal fees fending off the claims, and the remainder went to charity.
So, totally worth it.
Eliza Donnithorne is said to be the inspiration for the Charles Dickens character Miss Havisham, the jilted bride who wandered forlornly around her house in her wedding dress, waiting for her groom to return.
Donnithorne moved to Australia during the 1840s with her father, an official of the East India Company, and continued to live there after he died. In 1889, the Illustrated Sydney News published an article about her being left at the altar, leaving her “completely prostrated.”
Eliza had formed an attachment to a young man of whom her father disapproved, and after resisting his attempts to split them up, the couple set a date for the wedding. Mr. Donnithorne was such an important official that a great deal of interest was held in the wedding, and crowds are said to have lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the bride. Eliza Donnithorne, dressed in her finery, waited excitedly at the altar for her lover.
He didn’t show.
The article maintained that she had left the wedding feast upon the table “until it mouldered into dust,” after which she never left the house again. She was said to be mortified at the thought of what people’s reactions. Her only interest was her books, and at her death, she left a large collection of books behind.
She probably avoided the romances.
Marcel Proust was a famous French writer and a celebrated recluse. The author of In Search of Lost Time spent a number of years in an apartment on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris until his death. He rarely went out. Proust suffered from crippling asthma and was said to have been acutely affected by the deaths of his parents and retreated into himself. He soundproofed his workroom with corkboard and put up layers of heavy curtains to blot out daylight so that he could work uninterrupted. He would stay up for days on end, working on his masterpiece, desperate to complete it before his death.
Nevertheless, time caught up with Proust, and the final three volumes of In Search of Lost Time were left in “an advanced but not final stage of revision.”
Proust died in 1922 in his apartment. Though he did not finish his seminal work completely, the final volumes were sufficiently complete to be published after his death, and the novel has become one of the most important pieces of literature in the world.
Pass the corkboard.
Ward Hazell is a writer who travels, and an occasional travel writer.