The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 6

Welcome to Part 6 of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from Number 4 to Number 1. Please check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 for more on America’s greatest weirdos. Also, if you think this is the final post, you’d be mistaken. After we finish the countdown, I’ll post the honorable mentions followed by a post of also-rans, i.e., people I considered and rejected for not being weird or great enough. After that, I will include a people-to-watch-for post to discuss potential future inductees who have yet to shed their mortal coil, if you know what I mean.

Finally, there will be a single post about two individuals whom I could not include on this list. Both were undoubtedly great. Both were loony-bin weird. But one straddled the centuries, and I decided that he belonged more in the 19th rather than the 20th. The other was simply too notorious for this list. He was originally on it, but I removed him after determining that he should not be considered “merely” weird. He was something far worse.

Anyway, announcements are boring. On with the show.

4. Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)

File photo of former chess champion Fischer

Genius. Prima donna. Champion. Folk hero. Recluse. Kook. Fugitive. Madman. The great chess player Bobby Fischer had been called all these things. But was he weird? Oh, yes.

Welcome to Part 6 of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from Number 4 to Number 1. Please check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 for more on America's greatest weirdos. Also, if you think this is the final post, you'd be mistaken. After we finish the countdown, I'll post the honorable mentions followed by a post of also-rans, i.e., people I considered and rejected for not being weird or great enough. After that, I will include a people-to-watch-for post to discuss potential future inductees who have yet to shed their mortal coil, if you know what I mean.

Finally, there will be a single post about two individuals whom I could not include on this list. Both were undoubtedly great. Both were loony-bin weird. But one straddled the centuries, and I decided that he belonged more in the 19th rather than the 20th. The other was simply too notorious for this list. He was originally on it, but I removed him after determining that he should not be considered “merely” weird. He was something far worse.

Anyway, announcements are boring. On with the show.

4. Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)

File photo of former chess champion Fischer

Genius. Prima donna. Champion. Folk hero. Recluse. Kook. Fugitive. Madman. The great chess player Bobby Fischer had been called all these things. But was he weird? Oh, yes.

Fischer began with tremendous promise. His “game of the century” in 1956 is truly a thing of beauty. He sacrificed his queen against an international master and won brilliantly as black. He was only 13 years old.

Fischer made such a splash when he was young that that's how many remember him.
Fischer made such a splash when he was young that that's how many today still remember him.

He won the US Championship 8 times out of 8 tries from 1958 to 1967. One year he did it without losing or drawing a single game. He was world's youngest grandmaster at 15 years and 6 months (a record not beaten until 1991). After some setbacks in the 1960s, he went on a tear against the world elite not seen before or since, winning 39 out of 65 games from 1970 to 1972, and losing only 5. His victory in the 1972 title match against Boris Spassky wasn't really all that close. At his height, he was considered the greatest chess player who ever lived. He also generated more interest in chess than anyone in history. For as long as people play the game of chess, they will remember Bobby Fischer. 

Bobby Fischer at his height in the early 1970s
Bobby Fischer at his height in the early 1970s

But Bobby had always been strange. Before he won the title, he would make outrageous demands of tournament organizers. He would voice conspiracy theories. He could be aloof, contemptuous, arrogant. Once, when advised to see a psychiatrist, young Bobby replied that a psychiatrist ought to pay him for the privilege of working on Bobby Fischer's brain. In 1964 he did not play a single game of serious chess.

After he won the title, however, things started to get weird. He stopped playing chess. He also intensified his relationship with the controversial (and some would say cultish) Worldwide Church of God. By the mid-70s he was espousing his well-known anti-Semitism and foisting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on his shrinking cadre of friends and fans (despite being a Jew himself). While living as an impoverished recluse in Southern California he would repeatedly turn down multi-million dollar offers to return to chess.

The love for a teenage girl got him to do what money couldn't. Unfortunately, she didn't love him back. Even more unfortunately, the 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugolaslavia made him wanted by the US government since he was breaking a UN embargo by playing there. But Bobby didn't care. He publicly spat on the order forbidding him to play. This act caught up with him 12 years later when he was finally arrested in Japan.

The shocking photo of Fischer when arrested in 2004
The shocking photo of Fischer when arrested in 2004

Fischer's horrendous anti-American, anti-Semitic tirades after the September 11th attacks sealed the deal for most of us. So did his friendly letter to Osama bin Laden. This left many people wondering why. Fischer was a lost in a nasty miasma of paranoid weirdness that only seemed to go away whenever the cameras did. When in the spotlight, he never stopped calling himself the World Chess Champion, he never stopped calling his successors Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov frauds, and he never stopped ranting about the Jews. Maybe that was his way of telling us he wanted to be left alone? Because when he was alone he was somewhat less weird. This is the Fischer his friends remember, the man who doted on his Japanese wife and Filipino step-daughter. This was also the man who in the 1990s developed Fischer Random, an ingenious chess variant still in competitive play today.

In 2008, Fischer died after refusing treatment for a kidney condition because the religion he no longer followed forbade it. He was a weirdo, all right. But it was those years when he was singlehandedly taking on the Soviet chess machine with all its resources and political advantages and underhanded tactics and beating it like a kid brother that made him truly great. He showed the world what a properly prepared and motivated individual can do against an entrenched bureaucracy. So it seems you can beat City Hall after all. You just have to be a genius and really really weird to do it.

 3. L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986)

 LRonHubbard

L. Ron Hubbard is most famous for being the founder of the Scientology religion as well as for developing Dianetics, a revolutionary form of therapy which, among other things, prevents mental illness, cures minor diseases, and raises one's IQ. Supposedly. Hubbard was also a successful pulp science fiction writer who wrote hundred of stories and knew genre greats such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. It is said that in his prime Hubbard could crank out over 2,000 words an hour writing fiction.

And he did it all with a feather.
And he did it all with a feather.

Most scientologists see him as a great visionary and philosopher and remain intensely loyal to him to this day. Many non-scientologists see him a quack, a charlatan, and a fraud. Hubbard’s claim for greatness rests in his unshakable cult-charisma and his vast and intricate imagination which not only netted him a brand new religion but enabled him to sell millions of books worldwide.

Works by L. Ron Hubbard
Works by L. Ron Hubbard

But a weirdo he was. While in California before publishing his breakthrough book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Hubbard had practiced sex magic rituals with fellow weirdo Jack Parsons, stole his girlfriend, swindled Parsons over a yacht deal, and was arrested once for petty theft.

In 1950 however Dianetics brought him instant fame, as he claimed he could cure people of almost anything. He coined terms such as 'engrams' and 'the clear' to describe how the mind works and outlined intricate ways in which a person can reach a zen-like state of clarity. He even invented a machine called the electrometer which supposedly measures the “mental mass and energy” of a person’s mind. Hubbard used it to prove that fruits feel pain, asserting once that tomatoes “scream when sliced.”

Produce abuse: the face of a notorious tomato torturer L. Ron Hubbard
Produce abuse: the face of a notorious tomato torturer

Hubbard quickly cashed in on all this attention by writing more books and selling licensure and therapy sessions. Dianetics then grew into Scientology with all its rules and terminology dealing with reincarnation, galactic confederacies, and immortal beings called thetans which inhabit our bodies and are slowly losing their supernatural powers. Hubbard’s behavior and that of his followers was so strange that many nations would either investigate his church, refuse to recognize it, or ban it altogether.

To operate outside the laws of various nations, Hubbard took to the seas, dubbing himself the “Commodore” of his “Sea Organization”. He ran a tight ship, and if any of his followers said or did the wrong thing, they could face draconian punishments such as being tied up and thrown overboard for a certain amount of time.

“…an open smile on a friendly shore…”

Paranoia set in by the 1960s as Hubbard squabbled with enemies and friends alike over his religion. It got ugly. It got litigious. At one point he even instructed his followers to infiltrate and burglarize government offices. He spent his final years in hiding along the West Coast of America.

Of course, Scientologists will reject almost all of the above. For example, Hubbard never joined that California magic cult. No, he infiltrated it as a spy for the Navy. And he didn’t steal Jack Parsons girlfriend, he rescued her (and later married her). For Scientologists, Hubbard was The One, a great man and a great leader. That he was both is undeniable. Depending on whom you talk to he either spiritually divined or cynically contrived a bona fide, out-of-this-world belief system. Today there are around 8 millions Scientologists worshipping in some 3,000 churches in 54 countries. You have to be great to produce numbers like that. You also have to be more than just a little bit weird.

I mean, who wouldn't follow this guy to the ends of the Earth?
With shades like that, who wouldn't follow this guy to the ends of the Earth?

2. Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956)

AlfredKinsey

Perhaps the one thing the enemies and allies of Alfred Kinsey can all agree on was that the man was pretty weird. Known as the “father of the sexual revolution” or the “Columbus of sex”, Kinsey’s studies on American sexuality were about as landmark as you can get. Since when do 800 page scientific reports shoot to the top of the bestseller lists? This is basically what happened when Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). And the world really hasn’t been the same since.

Kinsey’s purported approach was to simply report the facts of human sexual behavior in scientific fashion. He interviewed thousands of subjects and had a way of making them feel at ease so that they would, um, bare all.

Go on. Go on. I'm all ears.
Go on. Go on. Don’t be shy.

He had a canon of around 500 survey questions, some of which got curiously nitpicky about sexual deviancy. To his credit, Kinsey took confidentiality seriously and recorded all his answers in nigh-unbreakable code. His books contained statistics that shocked, inspired, and infuriated Americans. Did you know that 1 in 10 white American males are exclusively homosexual? If you did, it’s because Alfred Kinsey told us so. Alfred Kinsey told us a lot of things.

“Well, you take your thing, and you go from here…to here. See?”

Today sexuality is everywhere – magazines, movies, television, music, video games, internet. All this pretty much began when Alfred Kinsey got Americans talking about sex. By not taking a moral stand on it all, however, he changed what was considered moral (and normal) about it. When his books were published obscenity laws were still being enforced and sodomy was a punishable crime. Kinsey's work helped allow millions of otherwise law-abiding people to be open about their sexuality, to be more knowledgeable about their sexuality, and to not fear persecution.

But with all his attention on sex, you had to know something else was going on. Although he had a wife and family, Kinsey was by no means the wholesome dad he was making himself out to be. As a young eagle scout he'd share his collection of nudist magazines with scouts in his tent. As a professor of zoology between the world wars he'd take students on camping trips where they would engage in group masturbation sessions. Once an established sex scientist, he and his inner circle would swap wives and film pornographic movies in his attic. It was all part of his “research”, you see.

Nothing to see here. Just a bunch of good old American scientists practicing good old American science. Yes, sir!
Nothing to see here. Just a bunch of good old American scientists practicing good old American science. Yes, sir!

More troubling however are the accusations of scientific fraud. He detractors claim that he skewed his samples hard towards sexual deviancy in order to get his shocking results. Many subjects were prison inmates. He would even collect data through the mail – including testimony from pedophiles and rapists whom he neglected to report to the police. There is evidence that Kinsey even wrote back to these people encouraging them to send him more data. What many found just as reprehensible was that his reports catalog the sexual activity of not just adolescents, but small children as well. This includes infants as young as 5 months. Comparisons to Josef Mengele abound.

Really, Alfred. Really? Really?
Really, Alfred? Really?

For many, however, Kinsey is a hero. People around the world wrote to him and thanked him for helping them become more sexually fulfilled. Stigmas were no longer stigmas, thanks to Kinsey. Certainly magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy were inspired by him. So was the gay liberation movement. Women's lib, to an extent. The pill, definitely. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association . Sexual repression is a thing of the past in many parts of the world. For all this, we can thank Alfred Kinsey.

This is the charitable take on the man. The uncharitable states that he was a pervert who used fraudulent science and deceptive statistics to make the world safe for perversion. Those who knew him best knew that he was pathologically fond of self-abuse. And by self abuse, I mean quite frankly sexual self-torture. It is said that after he lost funding for his work in the 1950s, Kinsey was so distraught he tossed a rope over a ceiling pipe in his basement, tied one end around his scrotum, and grabbed hold of the other end. Then the world's foremost sex expert stepped on a chair, pulled the rope tight, and jumped off. He remained suspended in air for God knows how long. Hard to spin that as anything other than weird.

1. Howard Hughes (1905-1976)

HowardHughes

It seems almost unfair to include Howard Hughes in this list because his weirdness degenerated into madness at a time when madness was nigh-untreatable. Had he been born 50 years later his end probably would have been a lot less weird. In his prime, however, Hughes was a great man, the avatar of the unconquerable American spirit. The world didn’t stand a chance once Howard Hughes got rolling. He had a genius for technology and finance. He was charismatic and indefatigable. He was generous with his fortune. He had historic ambition. It is said he never wore watches because time didn’t matter to Howard Hughes. He could work through the day, through the night. Didn’t matter. Sleep is for the weak, don’t you know. But it was his incipient as well as the lasting effects of a few airplane crashes that eroded this giant of a man into the reclusive weirdo he became in late middle age.

Since he was such a recluse, few photos exist of Hughes in his old age.
Since he was such a recluse, few photos exist of Hughes as an old man.

Very few people can boast of the accomplishments of Howard Hughes. He constructed a radio transmitter when he was 11, a motorcycle when he was 12. He produced and directed Hollywood movies such as Hell's Angels and The Outlaw. He designed and piloted airplanes, engineered the world’s largest helicopter, broke numerous airborne speed records, and made billions in business.

The unstoppable Howard Hughes in his prime
The unstoppable Howard Hughes in his prime

The , which he founded in 1953, remains the largest institute of its kind in the world. Its endowment is currently over $15 billion, and the institute remains on the . Hughes was also an on-par golfer in his youth, an expert dancer, and inventor. He invented the adjustable bed, now universal in all hospitals. Not least in this humbling list of triumphs are his legendary exploits with some of the most beautiful women in the world.

It's people like Howard Hughes who make you realize how little you've accomplished.
It's people like Howard Hughes who make you realize how little you've accomplished.

But his weirdness was pretty much always there: his phobia of germs (he wouldn’t touch doorknobs without tissue paper), his erratic behavior and unpredictable mood swings (after one divorce he burned all of his ex-wife’s furniture), his strange bursts of insecurity (he once offered a teenaged Liz Taylor a million dollars if she’d marry him), his incessant television and movie watching (as early as the late 1940s, he spent four months in a darkened studio room screening movies and never once leaving). Surrounded by aides, he would write thick procedural manuals about how they should open cans of food and do other common chores. Of course, no one could ever touch him or speak to him. He would scotch tape the windows shut and keep the curtains drawn. He’d abstain from bathing and spend entire days naked before his television or movie screen. And this was all before the 1960s when he moved into the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel and officially became a recluse.

By the time of his death, none but a handful of people had even seen Howard Hughes for nearly 15 years.

1948 to 1976: What a difference weirdness makes.
1948 to 1976: What a difference weirdness makes.

His wife divorced him in 1971 after not seeing him for three years. As a result of his various airplane crashes, he had become addicted to codeine and lived in constant pain. He also consumed large amounts of valium. The man who once controlled so much essentially wasted away into a bearded corpse with famously long toenails and 7 broken hypodermic needles lodged in his arms. He passed away from kidney failure en route to a hospital. It’s fitting that the greatest American weirdo died the way he lived best, flying in an airplane.

Next up: Weirdos Part 7: The also-rans.