The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 10

So here it is. The final installment of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. In previous posts we counted down the top twenty and then the ten also-rans. We also discussed the Americans who missed out on the glory for either being not great enough or not weird enough.

Check out parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 of this series.

In our final post, we will take on two individuals who missed the cut for their own unique reasons but still deserve mention when outlining the pantheon of American weirdness. And when it is all over, we’ll provide a list of folks to look out for; that is, those Americans who are still with us but could potentially make the grade once they weird their way out of this life and into the next.

John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943).

DrKellogg

Ever have a crazy uncle or neighbor who could never stop spouting the most bizarre ideas as if they were the gospel truth? Sacrilege, embarrassment, doubt, common sense, feh. Guys like that have no time for any of that sissy stuff, or for listening to anyone else for that matter. They know what they know, they want you to know that they know what they know, and they want you to know what they know too. At parties they usually end up standing by themselves in a corner, hogging all the dip.

Anyway, if loud and opinionated lost souls ever had a patron saint, it would be John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was a great man in that he singlehandedly initiated the healthy living craze that is still chugging along today. He came out of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and brought with him all the prosthelytizing passion you would expect in such an organization. In his home state of Michigan he founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a place where the sick and the not-so-sick would go to convalesce their way back to health. (The place was cleverly spoofed in the 1994 film, The Road to Wellville, by the way). Kellogg published nearly 50 books on what he called “biologic living,” and, in his heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, was one of the most influential medical authorities in the world.

So here it is. The final installment of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. In previous posts we counted down the top twenty and then the ten also-rans. We also discussed the Americans who missed out on the glory for either being not great enough or not weird enough.

Check out parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,  8, and 9 of this series.

In our final post, we will take on two individuals who missed the cut for their own unique reasons but still deserve mention when outlining the pantheon of American weirdness. And when it is all over, we’ll provide a list of folks to look out for; that is, those Americans who are still with us but could potentially make the grade once they weird their way out of this life and into the next.

John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943).

DrKellogg

Ever have a crazy uncle or neighbor who could never stop spouting the most bizarre ideas as if they were the gospel truth? Sacrilege, embarrassment, doubt, common sense, feh. Guys like that have no time for any of that sissy stuff, or for listening to anyone else for that matter. They know what they know, they want you to know that they know what they know, and they want you to know what they know too. At parties they usually end up standing by themselves in a corner, hogging all the dip.

Anyway, if loud and opinionated lost souls ever had a patron saint, it would be John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was a great man in that he singlehandedly initiated the healthy living craze that is still chugging along today. He came out of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and brought with him all the prosthelytizing passion you would expect in such an organization. In his home state of Michigan he founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a place where the sick and the not-so-sick would go to convalesce their way back to health. (The place was cleverly spoofed in the 1994 film, The Road to Wellville, by the way). Kellogg published nearly 50 books on what he called “biologic living,” and, in his heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, was one of the most influential medical authorities in the world.

It was the parrot that did all the work. Kellogg was just there to give him something to stand on.
Really, it was the parrot that did all the work. Kellogg was just there to give him something to poop on.

Many of Kellogg’s doctrines centered around the then-radical idea that diet and exercise are central to healthy living. He was also adamantly opposed to smoking. Well, yes, such good practices are taken for granted today, but not so much in the late 19th century when many physicians promoted fatty foods and cigar smoke as being good for you. Due to this man’s energy and singular purpose, millions worldwide learned how to take steps to ensure longer and healthier lives. He was also fearless and imaginative when it came to technology. Some of his contraptions seem silly today, like his electrotherapy coil cages and light bulb baths. On the other hand, he did improve upon and popularize mechanical exercise machines, which are ubiquitous today. He was also one of the first physicians insisting upon sterile environments in which to work. Other Kellogg inventions include peanut butter, inhalers to treat nasal passages, and the electric blanket.

Kellogg was also a top notch surgeon, setting a world record in the 1890s with 165 operations in a row without a fatality. His list of well-known patients included President Taft, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison.

All this, and he helped invent the corn flake breakfast cereal with his brother Will Keith in 1895. Yes, Kellogg was a great man. But he was every bit as weird if not weirder.

Um, so why are you stanging in my Corn Flakes, kid?
Um, so why are you standing in my Corn Flakes, kid?

First, there was his preoccupation with poop. Kellogg breathlessly studied the feces of chimpanzees and gorillas to prove the efficacy of a vegetarian diet. And he would not shut up about constipation, insisting upon a solid bowel movement after every meal. Then there was the pernicious sin of self abuse (i.e., onanism, “the silent killer of the night”) which he tirelessly campaigned against. He once claimed that masturbation had a worse effect on humanity than war, plague, and small pox, and prescribed circumcision without anesthesia to cure men and boys of it once and for all. (Yes, that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?)

He was also one of the first to claim that choking chickens caused “dimness of vision”. Hairy palms, not so much, it seems.

And for women, it was worse. To keep them from going blind, he recommended applying carbolic acid to their private parts or, even worse, clitorectomies.

Sex, of course, was hardly better in his eyes. He would constantly warn married couples against sexual “excesses”, whatever they may be. He also bragged that he never consummated his marriage with his wife. Not surprising from a guy who wrote a book on his honeymoon and then decided to adopt 40 children. Can’t say John Harvey Kellogg didn’t practice what he preached.

Other wackadoo ideas include insisting that men at his spa wear exercise diapers, placing sandbags on the underweight as they slept, and building enema machines that squirted yogurt.

No, I am not going to show you the enema machine squirting yogurt.
No, I am not going to show you the enema machine that squirted yogurt.

So, if John Harvey Kellogg was so great AND so weird, why is he not on the list?

Well, it was close. But basically, he did most of his great work in the 19th century, and so belongs there rather than in the 20th. Kellogg certainly remained influential and active in the early 20th century, but by then he was mostly continuing all the things he had started in the 19th. He was hit hard by the Great Depression and was forced to sell his sanitarium. By this time, the medical establishment had caught up with him, and in many cases surpassed him. By clinging to his original ideas up until the end of his life, he began to seem more like a Victorian relic, and his ideas more faddish than cutting edge.

He died in 1943 at the age of 91. This was 9 years short of his goal but still proof that there might be something to this healthy living schtick after all.

Ezra Pound (1885-1972).

PoundMugShot

Despite being undeniably great and undeniably weird, Ezra Pound was quite frankly too notorious to be celebrated as a great American weirdo. Pound was always at least a little weird. It was only by middle age, when he embraced fascism and became a rabid anti-Semite, did things begin to descend beyond weirdness. By the time he was an old man, he spent 11 years in an insane asylum and didn’t particularly want to leave.

No serious effort to prove Pound’s greatness as a poet and literary figure will be made here because any effort here will not do the man justice. So instead, you’ll have hits greatest hits, so to speak. Pound was one of the leading lights of 20th Century poetry. Upon arrival in England in 1908 he took it upon himself to revolutionize the world of letters. He co-founded literary movements (most notably Imagism and Vorticism), edited literary magazines, and tirelessly championed great writers such as T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Frost, and James Joyce when they were all still unknowns.

Pound with James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn
Pound with James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn

Loyal and dogged, Pound went to great lengths to ensure that the works of these and other writers saw print. He was also a brilliant editor, placing his famous red pen all over “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other great works of Western literature.

It is said that Ernest Hemingway taught Pound how to box while Pound taught Hemingway how to write. Hemingway was the better pupil it seems, noting that Pound “habitually leads with his chin and has the general grace of a crayfish.” Given Pound’s later insanity, these words were prophetic in more ways than one.

Gotta keep that chin down, Ez.
Gotta keep that chin down, Ez.

Inspired as much by classical Chinese and Japanese poetry as by anything in the Western canon, Pound’s own work placed clarity and precision above all. His most famous works include Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), and his massive 120-section epic, The Cantos, which he labored over for more than 50 years. Pound was also an influential essayist and a successful yet highly controversial translator of foreign and ancient literature.

In his prime, Pound’s contemporaries recognized his genius, but also knew him as a bit of a showboater and spaz. Pink coats, green trousers, sombreros, hand-painted ties. Ezra Pound knew how to make a splash in more ways than one. T.S. Eliot once said that Pound’s manic behavior gave the impression of someone trying to explain to a deaf person that the house is on fire. Pound even challenged a prominent critic to a duel because the man dared to call for a return to the simplicity of William Wordsworth.

By the mid-1930s however a sad note crept in. Pound became increasingly erratic, paranoid, and, well, weird. Pound’s daughter described her father during this time as “visibly fighting a wasp nest in his brain”. In essence he embraced an economic doctrine called Social Credit which among other things condemns turning money into a commodity that can be bought and sold. From here he descended into vicious anti-Semitism and began publicly supporting fascist regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. He lived in Rome during the war and was a vehement propagandist for the Axis, writing hundreds of letters, articles, and speeches, and spouting vile diatribes over Italian radio. After the war, he referred to Hitler as a martyr.

From 1947 to 1958 Pound was institutionalized. During this time, he was reclusive and refused treatment. His friends noticed how he would constantly fidget and twitch and could never stay on a single topic for long. When his fascist supporters visited him, he insisted they call him “Grampaw.” He never really apologized for his anti-Semitism nor for his words and actions during the war. Despite this, he still kept a quirky sense of humor. Shortly after his release from the mental hospital, Pound quipped, “No wonder my head hurts; all Europe fell on it.”

Many say that by cheerleading so stridently for the Nazis, Ezra Pound was no better than the murderers and lunatics I have decided to keep off this list. I agree with this argument. But given Pound’s tremendous and varied contributions to English literature and the fact that his wartime speeches were so loony and incoherent, he at least deserves an explanation as to why he should never be included in the 20 Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century.

Ezra Pound: too notorious to be weird

People to keep an eye on:

Kenneth Anger (1927- ). Influential underground filmmaker. Gay counterculture icon. Pagan. Thelemite. Occult figure.

Kary Mullis (1944- ). Nobel prize winning biochemist. Dropped a lot of acid. Believes HIV does not cause AIDS. Believes in astrology. Surfer dude. Speaks to glowing green raccoons.

Dennis Rodman (1961- ). NBA All star. Greatest rebounder in basketball history. Cross-dresser. Body-piercer. Childrens book author. Personal friend of Kim Jong Un, the personal dictator of North Korea.

Thank you for reading!

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 9

According to Merriam-Webster, an also-ran is a “a horse or dog that finishes out of the money in a race”. For our purposes however also-rans are those individuals we considered for the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century list but ultimately declined to include.

Here you can find parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of this series.

In part 8 (Part 1 of the Also-Rans), we included those who were great but not quite weird enough. Now in Part 2 we include those who undoubtedly embodied Teh Weird, but could never be mistaken for great despite their fame or their impact. Four names. Enjoy.

Francis E. Dec (1926-1996)

dec

Francis Dec might top a list of the weirdest American weirdos, but his lack of greatness, in my opinion, keeps him from glory. He was a disbarred lawyer who lived as a recluse in New York City from the late 1960s till his death. He wrote volumes of bizarre, paranoid screeds and mailed them to media outlets the world over. His bete noir apparently was something called the “Worldwide Mad Deadly Communist Gangster Computer God.” He also wasn’t very keen on blacks, Jews, communists, and Catholics.

Dec has become a cult figure among underground and alternative types, and is considered an outsider artist by some. His bizarre writings and conspiracy theories found their way into R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine in the early 1980s. His tapes have been sampled on television and radio. He has even inspired CDs and plays. But given the overall psychotic and negative nature of his work, Francis Dec shouldn’t be considered great by any standard, let alone enough to make the list. It is the sheer intensity of the man’s weirdness and the odd staying power of his rants however that warrants his mention on these pages at all.

According to Merriam-Webster, an also-ran is a “a horse or dog that finishes out of the money in a race”. For our purposes however also-rans are those individuals we considered for the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century list but ultimately declined to include. Here you can find parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of this series.

In part 8 (Part 1 of the Also-Rans), we included those who were great but not quite weird enough. Now in Part 2 we include those who undoubtedly embodied Teh Weird, but could never be mistaken for great despite their fame or their impact. Four names. Enjoy.

Francis E. Dec (1926-1996)

dec

Francis Dec might top a list of the weirdest American weirdos, but his lack of greatness, in my opinion, keeps him from glory. He was a disbarred lawyer who lived as a recluse in New York City from the late 1960s till his death. He wrote volumes of bizarre, paranoid screeds and mailed them to media outlets the world over. His bete noir apparently was something called the “Worldwide Mad Deadly Communist Gangster Computer God.” He also wasn't very keen on blacks, Jews, communists, and Catholics.

Dec has become a cult figure among underground and alternative types, and is considered an outsider artist by some. His bizarre writings and conspiracy theories found their way into R. Crumb's Weirdo magazine in the early 1980s. His tapes have been sampled on television and radio. He has even inspired CDs and plays. But given the overall psychotic and negative nature of his work, Francis Dec shouldn't be considered great by any standard, let alone enough to make the list. It is the sheer intensity of the man's weirdness and the odd staying power of his rants however that warrants his mention on these pages at all.

Sidney Gottlieb (1918-1999).

gottlieb

Whenever you see a movie in which the CIA hatches secret plots which cause nasty things to happen to innocent people, you have Sidney Gottlieb to thank. Known as the “Black Sorcerer”, Gottlieb was a military psychologist and chemist who schemed to assassinate world leaders and performed experiments in mind control, which were somewhat, uh, less than ethical.

He joined the CIA in 1951 when the Cold War was just ramping up and soon began researching “behavioral engineering of humans”. Basically he administered LSD to unwitting subjects to see if mind-altering drugs can aid interrogations. He claimed he wanted to “crush the human psyche to the point that it would admit anything.” He would target prostitutes, prisoners, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable types who'd have a hard time in court if they ever decided to get theirs from the CIA.

Gottlieb was also the genius who in 1960 proposed assassinating Fidel Castro with a poisoned cigar, an exploding conch shell, a poison fountain pen, and a poisoned wetsuit.

Sidney Gottlieb's weirdness is only exacerbated by some of his seemingly normal habits. He loved folk dancing, yet he had a club foot. After his retirement in the early 1970s, he worked in a leper colony in India, raised goats in Virginia, and tended to the dying at a hospice.

It is easy to dismiss Gottlieb as CIA super villain. There are those however who point out that during the Cold War the United States faced an enemy which fielded a murderer's row of assassins, rapists, war criminals, and mad scientists who made Sidney Gottlieb look like a choir boy. Some dirty deeds needed to be done by the United States. Others, not so much. Either way, Gottlieb's reputation is too unsavory in my opinion to put him on the list, despite having one of the weirdest careers of all time.

Harry Harlow (1905-1981)

harlow3

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who first demonstrated how important mother love is to the cognitive development of infants. In the 1940s and 1950s he stood against B.F. Skinner and the Behavioralists by claiming that there's more to mother-baby relationships than just milk and that “contact comfort” from mom helps prevent baby from having social problems later in life. Sounds sweet and wonderful, doesn't it? Well, he did it all by torturing monkeys.

Torturing. Monkeys.

This guy was unbelievable. He would take infant monkeys away from their mothers and supply them with surrogate mothers made of wire or cloth. He would raise infant monkeys in isolation chambers for up to 24 months. These chambers he affectionately referred to as “pits of despair”.

Oh, yeah. Harlow wasn't really into using technical lingo to disguise some of the uglier aspects of his studies. Euphemisms are for wimps, apparently. If Harry Harlow wanted to torment a monkey's mother, he'd put her in a device called “the Iron Maiden”. If he wanted to force two monkeys to copulate, he'd put them on something he called “the rape rack”.

It is said that Harry Harlow was responsible for giving rise to the Animal Liberation Movement. It’s easy to see why.

I guess Harlow’s science was sound since he won a number of awards and was the president of the American Psychological Association from 1958-1959. And I have no idea how weird he was in his personal life. Maybe he had his own teddy bear shrine in his basement and sang odes to Cthulu while playing badminton all alone and naked in the rain. Then again, maybe not.

Either way, Harry Harlow was not going to make it onto my weirdo list. Why? Dude tortured monkeys. That’s why.

Anton Levay (1930-1997)

antonlavey

Ever heard of Mephistopheles? That's the Devil to you. Bald. Dark goatee. Eeeeevil stare. Yeah. Anton Levay certainly looked the part. He was a founder of the Church of Satan, so he'd better. He was a celebrity in West Coast circles for a time during the 1960s and 1970s after he wrote the Satanic Bible, which laid out the main principles and rituals of Satanism. Known as the “Black Pope”, it was his deep knowledge of the occult and literate defense of our carnal natures as well as his flair for anything demonic that gave him his fiendish charisma and his church staying power.

If you need more proof that Anton Levay was a weirdo, look to his sleeping companions: baby lions. He claimed he also slept with a young Marilyn Monroe, which curiously no one other than Levay seemed to be able to corroborate. A big part of Levay's weirdness was his pathological lack of scruples when it came to building the Anton Levay legend. Almost everything he ever said about himself was a lie.

1) Slept with Jane Mansfield? Huh?
2) Played oboe in the San Francisco Ballet orchestra? Well, was there ever even a…
3) Was San Francisco's City Organist until 1966? But San Francisco never had a…
4) Learned of the Dark Arts from his Transylvanian Gypsy grandmother? Do you actually expect me to buy…
5) Served as a technical advisor on the set of Rosemary's Baby? But his name is not printed on the…
6) Was a multimillionaire? Oh, yeah. Right!

So Levay weird? Yes. Levay great? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite, actually. Levay claimed to be an animal lover, yet he abused and neglected his pets. He claimed to be a loving family man, yet it is said he abused his wives and children. By the late 1970s it is said he was living off of handouts from his father and friends. And despite Levay's claims of a multitude of followers, the Church of Satan under his leadership never exceeded 300 members. Read more about the Anton Levay “legend” here. No way we sully the weirdos list with one such as this.

Next up, Part 10: The final weirdo post. Here we’ll provide a list of the living who may one day make it on this list. Also we'll discuss two final weirdos. One spanned both centuries but belongs more in the 19th and the 20th. The other was as great as he was weird but was too notorious to celebrate on the list. Hope you tune in.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 8

So in the vast dissertation that is the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century, here is where we list the also-rans, the folks who were considered and rejected because they simply could not cut it as great weirdos. In all cases, these people were offbeat or quirky enough to at least have their names come up in the conversation. But alas, they fell short.

Here you can find parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In this installment we discuss those who were undoubtedly great, but just not weird enough.

Tammy Faye Bakker (1942-2007)

TammyFaye

Much maligned as a member of the Christian Right, Tammy Faye is best remembered these days for the mascara-black tears she cried when her husband and PTL Club co-founder Jim Bakker was convicted of mail and wire fraud in 1988. This however does not do the woman justice. With irrepressible charm and a voice big enough to fill a cathedral, Tammy Faye was a pioneer in Christian broadcasting in the early 1960s and a vital force in the Holy Rollin’ Empire for over 25 years. She co-founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the PTL Club and basically wrote the book on how to spread the word of God over the airwaves. And she meant every bit of it. Despite a taste for opulence and ostentatious makeup, Tammy Faye really was a sweet, caring, sympathetic individual who earned the love of millions. She also preached understanding and compassion for homosexuals and especially AIDS victims during the 1980s, a time when such topics were strictly taboo among serious Christians. For this alone she would deserve a spot on the list…if only she were weird. And weird she wasn’t.

So in the vast dissertation that is the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century, cialis here is where we list the also-rans, remedy the folks who were considered and rejected because they simply could not cut it as great weirdos. In all cases, cheap these people were offbeat or quirky enough to at least have their names come up in the conversation. But alas, they fell short.

Here you can find parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In this installment we discuss those who were undoubtedly great, but just not weird enough.

Tammy Faye Bakker (1942-2007)

TammyFaye

Much maligned as a member of the Christian Right, Tammy Faye is best remembered these days for the mascara-black tears she cried when her husband and PTL Club co-founder Jim Bakker was convicted of mail and wire fraud in 1988. This however does not do the woman justice. With irrepressible charm and a voice big enough to fill a cathedral, Tammy Faye was a pioneer in Christian broadcasting in the early 1960s and a vital force in the Holy Rollin' Empire for over 25 years. She co-founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the PTL Club and basically wrote the book on how to spread the word of God over the airwaves. And she meant every bit of it. Despite a taste for opulence and ostentatious makeup, Tammy Faye really was a sweet, caring, sympathetic individual who earned the love of millions. She also preached understanding and compassion for homosexuals and especially AIDS victims during the 1980s, a time when such topics were strictly taboo among serious Christians. For this alone she would deserve a spot on the list…if only she were weird. And weird she wasn't.

Let's see: She had highly questionable fashion sense, she was addicted to Diet Coke, and she had permanent eyeliners tattooed to her face (quite possibly because she was a cancer patient). She also had an almost surreal ability to bounce back from embarrassment. Nah. If you think Tammy Faye Bakker was God's own weirdo, you picked the wrong holy roller.

Lester Bangs (1948-1982)

lester_bangs-cfacb

Commonly considered one of the greatest if not the greatest rock critic of all time, Lester Bangs was certainly great enough to make the list. He was a brilliant, if somewhat undisciplined, writer who cared passionately about music and cultural matters. He was a driving force in the growing critical consciousness of rock fans, writers, and artists throughout the 1970s. Punk, classic rock, disco, heavy metal, didn't matter. Any major band caught resting on its laurels would get pummeled by the blistering prose emanating from Bangs' typewriter.

Bangs approached music criticism with a kind of profane urgency that's still being imitated today. Aesthetics was almost literally food and drink for him, and he applied his own brand of it in ways that were startlingly original. Check out his series of interviews with Lou Reed or his long expose on the Clash for some of the best music criticism you can find. And his take on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks truly does that beautiful record justice.

Thing is, however, Lester Bangs wasn't weird. He had demons to face, sure. He drank too much, had a temper, and abused drugs in order to survive the emotional roller coaster that was his life. But these failings are relatively common. Further, as he got older Bangs did make honest efforts to come clean and get his life in order. Lester Bangs would only be considered a weirdo because he was a great champion of weird music. But that, to be sure, is not the same thing.

Roy Cohn (1927-1986)

CohnEsquire

Roy Cohn was a piece of work. A brilliant piece of work, no doubt. I pity the attorneys who had to face him across a courtroom during his 35-year law career. Cohn rose to prominence during the Red Scare in the 1950s when he served as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. To his credit, Cohn was instrumental in convicting many suspected communists and Soviet operatives. Ever hear of what happened to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? That was Cohn's handiwork. As a result, Cohn became a champion of the Right and the bane of the Left.

It is said he had a photographic memory and practiced law as if it were total war. As a result, people lined up to get on his good side, and Cohn, party animal that he was, enjoyed every bit of it. Cohn liked his friends like he liked his clients: rich and famous. In private practice his clients included big time Mafiosos, the New York Yankees, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Want to know where Donald Trump found his abrasive personality? Look no further than Cohn, who represented The Donald in the 1970s.

As one might expect, Cohn wasn't exactly a choir boy. Once in 1975 he entered the hospital room of a dying millionaire, put a pen in the poor man's hand, and tried to get him to sign a will naming Cohn as a beneficiary. Sleazy episodes like this eventually caught up with him and got him disbarred in the mid-1980s.

In 1986, Roy Cohn shocked the nation by dying of AIDS. Yes, he was a homosexual and had been closeted for decades. When he worked with McCarthy, he had targeted government officials and celebrities for their homosexuality. But homosexuality (closeted or otherwise), hypocrisy, and sleaze does not make one a weirdo. The only weird thing about Cohn I could find was that he never admitted he had AIDS. To anyone and everyone he talked to, even up to his dying day, it was liver cancer. Got that? Liver cancer.

There is really no bottom to the resentment the American Left harbors against Roy Cohn. In the end, however, it was Cohn who had the last laugh. He died completely broke and owing the IRS millions. No way you can ever call a guy like that weird.

Charles Fort (1874-1932)

CharlesFort

What is it like to be the skeptics' skeptic, the person who is open minded about everything, the guy who entertains any theory no matter how outlandish? Well, to answer these questions, one need not look much past the biography of Charles Fort. Because the truth is out there. And maybe they just don't want you to know it.

Charles Fort was a highly influential writer of supernatural and unexplained phenomena. In fact, he invented the genre. UFOs, crypto-zoological findings, poltergeists, disappearing people, frogs falling from the heavens, you name it. Fort literally spent years in the New York Public Library amassing data on strange, mysterious events occurring throughout history. Then he published highly original (if somewhat ridiculous) theories to explain them. For example, he once posited that the reason why extra-terrestrials never visit Earth is because we humans are their property, and they control us unseen. Go ahead and try to disprove that one.

His books were considered non-fiction thrillers and were enormously popular. They question everything, and use the paranormal to challenge the fundamentals of science. Fort was always on the lookout for facts hidden within facts. As such, his books have almost never gone out of print. The term “fortean”, as in the Fortean Society, is defined as “Pertaining to extraordinary and strange phenomenon and happenings.” So, yes, when you have a word and a society named after you, you are great enough for the list.

Despite writing about weird things, Charles Fort really wasn't weird himself. By all accounts he was a shy, polite, and, well, normal guy. After traveling the world, he lived a fairly conventional life. He was unassuming and did nothing to encourage his cult status which materialized around him. He wouldn't even join the Fortean Society despite their invitations. Furthermore, there are many who believe that Charles Fort didn't take himself very seriously and indeed was conning us all. Perhaps his theories really weren't theories. Perhaps instead they were satire of our abject deference to science and its all-encompassing claims. So even with the author himself, not all is as it seems. How's that for a fact within a fact?

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

 steve_jobs_apple

If Steve Jobs had truly been weird, he would have been number one on the list with a bullet. It can be argued that no single man has had such an positive impact on so many lives in the past 40 years than Jobs. As the co-founder of Apple Computers in the late 1970s, Jobs' genius for design and computer interfaces initiated the personal computing age. He anticipated users' needs and instincts with the friendly, intuitive, point-and-click environment of the Macintosh. It is well known that Microsoft, erm, absconded with much of the technology that went into the Macintosh in order to build the Windows operating system.

Later, as the CEO of Pixar in the 1990s Jobs was an integral part of the digital film revolution. Great films such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles might not have happened at all if not for Jobs.

These accomplishments alone would have been enough for Jobs to top our list, but he was just getting rolling. Throw in how he revolutionized the music industry with the iPod and iTunes, throw in the marvelous iPhone, throw in the iPad and the incredible array of apps that you can get for it, and you have a man who pretty much characterizes the culture of the early 21st century.

Jobs' enemies may consider him weird but he really wasn't. Yes, he had a thing about not bathing. Yes, he was a prima donna. Yes, he was obsessive about his organic diet. Yes, he could be much the autocratic asshole. Yes, he was a pathological perfectionist. His biographer often referred to his “reality distortion field”. This could serve him well when pushing his engineers to nearly break the laws of physics to meet a tight deadline. It didn't serve him so well when it prevented him from treating his cancer as early as he should have.

Steve Jobs had eccentricities to be sure, but they never really morphed into weirdness. In fact, they only got better over time. If I ever get over this weirdo thing and start compiling a list of plain old great Americans, then I will reserve a very high place for Steve Jobs.

Timothy Leary (1920-1996)

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Highly influential proto-hippie, Timothy Leary was a groundbreaking psychologist who experimented with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs during the 1950s. And, well, let's just say that where most scientists become absorbed in their work, Leary's work became absorbed in him. This, and some rather unethical behavior involving undergraduates led to his abandoning academia altogether in the early 1960s. He then set himself on a mission to corrupt the nation's youth with his hedonistic ideals.

“Tune in, turn on, and drop out” was his mantra, and soon he became the godfather of the hippie movement, the anti-war movement, the summer of love, you name it. His California home became ground zero for all sorts for chemically assisted high jinks, including parties, orgies, further “experimentation”, and getting arrested by local DA G. Gordon Liddy. Later antics involved a run for the California governorship against Ronald Reagan, a bed-in with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a daring jail break with the Weather Underground terrorists and a stint in Algeria as a prisoner of the Black Panthers, yet another terrorist organization. Overall, Timothy Leary saw the inside of 29 jails worldwide.

To Leary's credit, he wrote a lot, publishing 20 books. His topics went beyond psychology and drugs and covered philosophy, mysticism, space travel, and other far out topics. In the 1980s he became pals with arch nemesis G. Gordon Liddy, and the two hit the lecture circuit to great success. He also seemed to have a sense of humor about himself and remained popular until his dying day.

Does this all sound like an interesting life? Well, that's because it was. But that doesn't make Leary weird. He was into psychology. He was into drugs. And he was into spreading the word about both. He never really wavered from that. Given his albeit whacky parameters, most of what Leary did and said was perfectly consistent and rational. As a cultural icon he was certainly great enough to make the list, but he didn't come out of left field often enough to be considered weird.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

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Any conversation about great American weirdos will sooner or later get around to H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a major pioneer of weird fiction, and the world he created was so intricately and convincingly weird that one would have to assume that Lovecraft was weird as well.

Lovecraft certainly would be great enough to make the list. He is still read with great interest today, and unlike his contemporaries such as Bram Stoker and Edgar Rice Burroughs, there is very little that is considered dated or quaint about him. No one, and I mean no one, evokes foreboding better than Lovecraft. His most famous creation, Cthulu, is this malevolent, tentacled cosmic entity that threatens to destroy mankind. Cthulu also causes a tremendous amount of anxiety, an idea which Lovecraft capitalizes on beautifully. What also separates Lovecraft from the horror writers of his day was his inspired and theretofore unheard of use of astronomy and mythology. This and a rather florid style of writing enabled him to create a wholly original mythos that made him one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Throw in the six film adaptations, the widespread Lovecraftian themes found in heavy metal music, the dozens of gaming appearances from Dungeons and Dragon to World of Warcraft, as well as Lovecraft's immortality on the internet, and you'd have a great American weirdo…if only Lovecraft had been weird.

Well, Lovecraft was a bit of an oddball and he was certainly uptight. He suffered a lot from anxiety, especially when it came to money. Coming from New England, he had a thing about immigrants, the loud, swarthy southern European types who seemed hell bent on taking over his pristine Anglo-Saxon world. Then again, he married a Jewish girl, so go figure. His racism is well known, but hardly out of the ordinary considering the time period. If Lovecraft was weird, he did a real good job of keeping it in check. I'm more inclined however to believe that he simply wasn't weird.

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Harvey Pekar

There is an old Yiddish saying that goes something like, “better a false good morning than a sincere go to hell.” I have a feeling that Harvey Pekar didn't agree with this sentiment very much. Pekar's story is well known. He worked as a file clerk at a Cleveland hospital for 30 years. Meanwhile he self-published his own comic book American Splendor which was the ongoing saga of his life. It was a critical success if not a commercial one, and gained Pekar worldwide fame and respect in the indie comix world. It also made him the subject of the excellent biopic American Splendor in 2003.

Pekar's talent was making the mundane interesting, and it helped that he was thoughtful and sufficiently introspective. And when the subject matter was heavy enough, he could be downright poignant, such as in 1994's Our Cancer Year. Team him up with great artists like R. Crumb or Joe Sacco, and you got yourself some good reading.

In public, however, Harvey Pekar often came across as a crank. He seemed to want to dispense with niceties and just get to the point. There was zero pretension about Harvey Pekar, and that may have lead to some odd and brusque behavior. Check out his series of David Letterman interviews to get a feel for how trying Harvey Pekar could be when he thinks he can knock you down a peg. This no nonsense attitude may have helped Harvey Pekar become great, but did it make him weird? Nah, just honest.

Man Ray (1890-1976)

Man

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, Man Ray figured out early on that he was an Old World kind of artist. And by Old World, I mean cutting edge modern. After World War I he moved to Paris and hung out with a who's who of cubists, dadaists, surrealists, whateverists. Basically, he was front and center among the art avant-garde. Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Salvadore Dali, Antonin Artaud, Rene Clair, Luis Bunuel, they all knew and worked with Man Ray.

Ray made his bread and butter as a fashion photographer. He was also an accomplished painter and illustrator and he directed a number of noteworthy surrealist short films. But it's his work as a photographic artist that constitutes the bulk of his reputation today. Ray was a master at manipulating the photographic medium to control the unsettling tone of his images. He was known for rendering images by placing objects on photosensitive paper and he perfected a darkroom process called solarization to add a bizarre, ghostly quality to his work.

Many celebrate the work of Man Ray as embodying the spirit of revolt against bourgeois aesthetics of the day. Others however see his work as just plain weird.

Consider the following. “The Gift” is nothing more than nails glued to the business end of an iron. Ray would put little wooden dummies in sexual positions and photograph them. He would do the same with humans and dare you to draw the line between eroticism and porn. Torture, amputations, self-flagellation, erotic rituals, these were some of his themes. Others included nudes with gunshots wounds, nudes in bondage, nudes as musical instruments, nudes as ocean waves, nudes as nudes. He was really into this nude thing, you see. And he was good at it, so he never failed to make a strong impression.

Oh, and he was really into women's armpits, the hairier the better.

So with output this weird you'd think this guy's gotta be weird too. Well, not so fast. Other than genius and a strange obsession with the Marquis de Sade, Man the man seemed like a relatively normal guy. I searched everywhere and couldn't find anyone complaining about the weirdness of Man Ray. It seems he left it all in his work.

Joseph Rhine (1895-1980)

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Joseph Rhine was a botanist who became the world's first parapsychologist. In other words, he scientifically studied what’s known as Extra Sensory Perception, or ESP. His methodology included putting designs on the backs of cards and having people guess what they were. Anyone who could attain positive results at a greater rate than chance would be considered having ESP. Rhine was spoofed in the movie Ghostbusters, just so you know.

Rhine founded the Parapsychology Department at Duke University and for a time was considered a legitimate scientist. It was a weird discipline, sure, and you'd think that the guy singlehandedly spearheading it would be pretty weird too. But apparently not. I poked around and couldn't find anything weird about him. He was inspired to do all this extra-sensory stuff by an Arthur Conan Doyle speech about speaking with the dead. It is said he falsified his data and selectively published his findings in order get the results he wanted. Other than that Joseph Rhine seemed like a pretty normal guy, that is, if you consider making a science out of hocus pocus to be normal.

Next up, Weirdos Part 9: More also-rans. The undeniably weird who missed the cut because they were undeniably not great.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 7

Welcome to Part 7 of the 20 Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We’ve counted down from number 20 (Buckminster Fuller) to number 1 (Howard Hughes). Now I’d like to present a small list of honorable mentions, 10 people who were either weird but not quite great enough, or great but not quite weird enough. Like the top 20, these weirdos were born in the United States and made most of their fame during the 20th Century. You will notice a few Woot weirdos in this post (designated with an *), which is where I first heard of most of them (thanks, Woot!). Anyway, so here goes:

John R. Brinkley* (1885-1942)

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You can’t cure nothin’ in this world without a pair of good ol’ goat testicles. Or so thought “Dr.” John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley is best remembered a quack doctor who found his fifteen minutes of fame during the 1920s due to his assertion that he could cure impotence and other ailments by transplanting goat testicles into humans. Men, women, didn’t matter. He received his medical degree from a shady diploma mill and was known to operate while inebriated and often in less-than-sterile environments. Brinkley was also a radio advertisement pioneer and constantly promised to enhance one’s, um, sexual prowess on air. This, combined with his natural showmanship, helped attract patients worldwide and earn him a fortune.

Welcome to Part 7 of the 20 Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We’ve counted down from number 20 (Buckminster Fuller) to number 1 (Howard Hughes). Now I’d like to present a small list of honorable mentions, 10 people who were either weird but not quite great enough, or great but not quite weird enough. Like the top 20, these weirdos were born in the United States and made most of their fame during the 20th Century. You will notice a few Woot weirdos in this post (designated with an *), which is where I first heard of most of them (thanks, Woot!). Anyway, so here goes:

John R. Brinkley* (1885-1942)

JohnBrinkley

You can’t cure nothin’ in this world without a pair of good ol’ goat testicles.

Or so thought “Dr.” John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley is best remembered as the quack doctor who found his fifteen minutes of fame during the 1920s by asserting that he could cure impotence and other ailments by transplanting goat testicles into humans. Men, women, didn't matter. He received his medical degree from a shady diploma mill and was known to operate while inebriated and often in less-than-sterile environments. Brinkley was also a radio advertisement pioneer and constantly promised to enhance one's, um, sexual prowess on air. This, combined with his natural showmanship, helped attract patients worldwide and earn him a fortune.

After his medical license was revoked in the early 1930s, Brinkley managed two failed but respectable bids for the Kansas governorship. To help his campaigns he relocated to Del Rio, Texas and opened the first border blaster radio station in Mexico. Along with his indefatigable medical huckstering and campaign speeches, he played country music, enhancing the careers of genre greats such as Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. It is said his signal was so powerful you could hear it in Canada. He also considered running for President, but thankfully a psychic's reading convinced him otherwise.

Things came crashing to a halt in the late 1930s when Brinkley was exposed as a charlatan by the American Medical Association. The malpractice lawsuits flooded in, as well as federal investigations for tax fraud. Brinkley declared bankruptcy in 1941 and died a year later. Weird, and somewhat important if only for his and country music as well as for shepherding the Del Rio economy through the Depression. In the end however being a great charlatan does not a top 20 weirdo make.

Howard Finster (1916-2001)

HowardFinster

Folk artist, outsider artist, naive artist. Howard Finster was best known by the world as one of these. To his congregations, however, he was a passionate fire and brimstone Evangelical preacher who claimed he saw visions. This started at 3 years old when he had a visit from his dead sister. When he was 60, he received another. “Paint sacred art,” it said. Despite having no training whatsoever, that's what Finster did, embarking on an odd and noteworthy career that got him on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and his work on the covers of a Talking Heads album and an R.E.M. album.

He made over 10,000 paintings in his career, most of which focus on religious outreach. Today, Finster originals can fetch thousands on the internet. The weirdness bleeds into his sculpture gardens, which he made out of junk. He built an eight-foot concrete shoe and on it wrote a verse from Ephesians, “And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” Also displayed is a jar with a boy's tonsils. So there's that. Finster was certainly odd and quirky. The visions make him weird, for sure. But he'd have to be Picassoesque to crack the top twenty. Instead, he's Finsteresque. Check out his work here.

Henry Ford (1863-1947)

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Every school child in America knows why Henry Ford is considered a great American. What they don't know, however, is that with just a little more weirdness, Ford would have been considered a great American weirdo as well. Ford's claim to greatness goes beyond obvious and almost into the tautological. Before Ford, automobiles were expensive playthings for the rich. After Ford, well, we're still living the After-Ford era in which geographic separation between people and where they want to be isn't quite the hurdle it once was. Really, with his innovations in the moving assembly-line which produced the first affordable automobile (his Model-T), few in history have had such a profound and positive impact on humanity as Henry Ford.

But was he weird? He was eccentric, certainly. Sure, there was the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford that was available at every Ford Dealership worldwide. Ford famously published many of his anti-Semitic essays in the Dearborn Independent, as well as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There was also his lunatic management style. During an 8-hour day, workers at the Ford Auto Plant received 15 minutes for lunch as their only break. They were also forbidden to talk, sing, whistle, or sit during the day. Ford did pay about double the going rate with his famous $5 a day pledge, but did that give him the right to hire a sociological department to inspect the homes of employees and interview their friends and neighbors? Ford seemed to think so. Toss in his belief in reincarnation, his surrounding himself with thugs in his later years, as well has the pathological undermining of his unfortunate son Edsel, and you begin to wonder about Ford.

Perhaps Ford’s biggest claim to weirdness is Greenfield Village. On one hand it was a perfectly honorable outdoor museum containing transplanted or recreated historic buildings such as Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the Wright Brothers’ workshop. On the other hand, it was a time capsule for Ford’s childhood. He recreated the house he grew up in down to almost perfect detail, including his mother's china. Schools and shops too. It was where he would go to escape. Ford would also hire people to live in Greenfield Village to make it seem like he really was reliving his past. He would even have them act out scenes from his childhood for his amusement. If Henry Ford had been poor, his grand obsessions probably wouldn't have manifested at all, and he would have seemed normal. But since he was rich and could indulge in whatever creative pastime he wanted, normal is not exactly the word one would use to describe the man. Henry Ford is a great example of how eccentricities can creep into weirdness when you have more money than God.

George Ellery Hale (1868-1938)

GeorgeElleryHale

A pioneering solar astronomer and professor of astrophysics, Hale was very close to cracking the top twenty. He certainly was great enough. He invented a solar telescope called the spectrohelioscope and with it discovered solar vortices. He was also the first to determine that sunspots were magnetic. Hale had a thing for telescopes, and he liked 'em big. In 1908, he built a sixty-inch telescope, and nine years later constructed one that was 100 inches. Both were the largest in the world at time. He also oversaw the construction of what would be the 200-Inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego. Although he didn’t live to see it completed, it was the world’s most productive research telescope for forty years and was instrumental in expanding our knowledge of the universe. Hale also founded many significant observatories across the country as well as various astronomical organizations and journals.

He was a rare breed of scientist: pathologically energetic, highly imaginative, talented in research, and a genius at raising money. No history of 20th century astronomy can be complete without a chapter dedicated to the prodigious contributions of George Ellery Hale. The weirdness of the man can be seen in how he treated astronomy almost like a religion. Hale referred to himself as a “sun-worshipper”. He referred to the observatory he build in Mount Wilson as “the Monastery” and embellished the place with Egyptian symbols. He and his astronomers would hold rituals there. Of course, women were not allowed. He was often institutionalized later in life due to his chronic nervousness and odd behavior (he'd hear voices and refer to his physicians as “wizards” or “Satanic holinesses”). It is said he also claimed to receive frequent visits from an elf who would advise him on personal matters.

So if he was this great and this weird, why didn’t Hale make the top 20? For one, he knew he had a problem and tried to rectify it. For the most part he voluntarily entered sanitariums. That alone suggests he was more normal than weird. Also the mention of an elf occurs in a single letter, and there is doubt whether he meant it literally or figuratively. Hale's first biographer indicated it was literal, but many later suggest otherwise. So with doubt comes the benefit, and Hale stays out of the pantheon of weirdness.

Carrie Nation* (1846-1911)

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I was really glad to see that Woot included Carrie Nation in their list. If you paid attention in your high school American History courses, you'd probably remember an anecdote or two about a crazy woman on the forefront of the temperance movement who liked to storm into saloons and smash bottles of alcohol with a hatchet. That woman was Carrie Nation.

Of course, this was all religiously inspired. She claimed she was the personal bulldog of Jesus, yapping at whatever He didn’t like. She experienced visions of the Good Lord instructing her to admonish the sinful with her “hatchetations”. Sometimes she’d lead a gang of women into these lecherous lairs. Other times she’d go it alone. Jail never deterred her since she could always afford bail with money she earned from her speaking engagements and from selling mementos of herself. At nearly six feet tall, she was one fearsome woman. It is said that former heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan would run and hide whenever Carrie Nation crashed into one of his watering holes.

It’s true that she spent most of her life in the 19th century, but Carrie Nation didn’t really get going as a one woman prohibition crusade until early in the 20th. That’s pretty much when weirdness got serious. Suspecting that President William McKinley was a closet alcoholic, she publicly approved of his assassination in 1901. Yes, she was that weird. And with the historical importance of being forever associated with the Temperance and Prohibitionist movements, you’d think she’d make the top twenty, yes? Well, the 18th Amendment which enforced prohibition in 1920 was repealed in 1933, so her historical impact is more a history for history’s sake kind of thing rather than something we can still feel today. Plus, I didn’t think it was right to put someone in the top twenty simply because she liked destroying things and barking at sin, even if she defended it with a fearsome mean streak and visions of a vengeful God. This, in my opinion, isn’t enough to warrant a place in the rarefied air of the top twenty weirdos.

Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)

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Yes, the “gonzo” journalist. Sports writer. Firearms enthusiast. Pyromaniac. Political hack (you-to-pieces) reporter. The “least factual and most accurate” writer on the campaign trail. All around party animal. Friend and foe alike refer to this man both as an asshole and a weirdo. The first part might be right, but the second might be taking things a bit too far. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a meandering tale of drug abuse and (some would say astute, others puerile) ruminations on the decline of American culture first saw print in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1972. Those who were mourning the end of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s had found a new hero in Thompson. Basically, Thompson couldn't stop acting irresponsibly in entertaining ways. He also couldn't stop beating the snot out of his dead hobby horse Richard Nixon. This, and a brutally cruel yet effective sense of humor turned him into an icon for cynical hipsters the world over.

But was he weird? Well, that depends on whom you ask. He liked to blow things up on his Colorado compound. The local sheriff's office can attest to that. So can actor Johnny Depp who once stayed with Thompson and learned that his impromptu bedside table was in fact a crate of dynamite. Thompson invented the game of shotgun golf and liked to autograph his novels with bullet holes. He was always drinking, smoking, or doing something. He also loved a good practical prank. He was famous for spitting fire at parties. To celebrate Jack Nicholson's birthday, Thompson showed up at Nicholson's door firing a gun in the air while playing a cassette recording of a pig being eaten alive by bears. Also involved were a million-watt spotlight and a frozen elk's heart. So, yes, a case can be made for Thompson's weirdness.

On the other hand, this behavior can be described simply as that of a man who loved his vices, refused to grow up, and had a pathological disdain for anything conservative unrelated to the Second Amendment. Perhaps he was simply trying to live up to that gonzo reputation he constructed for himself. Perhaps he reveled in all the attention. Hunter S. Thompson was definitely excessive to the point of leaving normal in the dust. But much of his antics appear rather boilerplate compared to the more genuine weirdos in the top twenty.

Rube Waddell* (1876-1914)

RubeWaddell

Rube Waddell was a strange, childlike, oaf of a man who just happened to be one of the greatest Major League Baseball pitchers who ever lived. He led the American League in strikeouts from 1902 to 1907. In 1904, he struck out 349 batters, still a record for American League lefthanders. He currently ranks 10th on the Major League Baseball all-time Earned Run Average (ERA) list (2.16). He is also 19th in shutouts (50). Waddell’s fastball was crushing, but his curve was something else entirely. Legendary baseball manager Connie Mack once said that Waddell had “the fastest, deepest curve” he’d ever seen. Waddell was so confident in his abilities he would invite his outfielders to sit down and watch him strike out the side.

Such was Waddell’s weirdness, however, that teammates and management were always glad whenever he was traded away. He would often fight with teammates. He'd show up minutes before a game and remove his street clothes while still on the field. He never did wear underwear. He poured ice water on his arm before pitching out of fear of burning the catcher's glove. During games, his mind tended to wander. It is said he could be distracted if his opponents held up puppies or shiny toys. He also loved fire engines and had to be restrained by his teammates from leaving a game every time one drove by the field. Off the field, he was just as weird. Of course, he drank too much. He claimed to have lost track of how many women he'd married. In the off-season he would wrestle alligators. Commentators today speculate that Rube Waddell suffered from everything from autism to ADHD to mental retardation. Regardless, no one was quite sure what he would do next. Eventually coaches and players had had enough. He was kicked out of the majors in 1910.

Rube Waddell is a celebrated baseball pitcher, and his prowess on the mound could match anyone's. This makes him as great as he was weird. So why did he miss out on the top-twenty glory? The complicated answer is that it would be counter-intuitive and anti-thematic to include one such as Waddell who placed minimal importance in advancing mankind in its inexorable quest for truth or beauty. Simple answer: he was too dumb.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

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Andy Warhol was one of those artists who inched past being merely eccentric. So he wasn't quite as weird as one would think, given his controversial output and lifestyle. On the other hand, he's Andy Warhol, so he deserves a honorable mention. Along with Grandma Moses, Jackson Pollack, Norman Rockwell, and Georgia O'Keefe, Warhol belongs on that Mount Rushmore of great 20th Century American painters. His work upended the art world at the time of his arrival in the mid-1950s with their preoccupation on material things, on celebrity, and on sex. There is a kind of mass-market cheapness to his work. At the same time, however, Warhol belied a unique ambition, painting objects and people in ways no one had ever thought of before, ways that really should be beneath the attention of a serious artist. Except not anymore, thanks to Andy Warhol. No one person personifies pop art better than Andy Warhol.

Today, his works are nearly priceless. All this and the Velvet Underground make Warhol one of the greats. But was he weird? Well, he was an openly and obsessively stylish gay man who was also a practicing Orthodox Catholic. Certainly less weird now than in the 1950s when it caused a big splash. He claimed he was a virgin, but for some reason had to be treated for STD's. He also made weird movies, such as the appropriately named Sleep, which was 321 minutes of nothing but a man sleeping. Academy Awards were not exactly forthcoming.

Warhol’s biggest claim to weirdness, however, was his compulsive hoarding. Warhol kept a box next to his desk where he would place all sorts of objects. He would seal and date the boxes at the end of each month. The contents of these boxes include all sorts of strange items including a mummified foot and Caroline Kennedy’s birthday cake. There are 610 of them in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Warhol also kept a massive collection of objects such as biscuit jars, taxidermy items, perfume bottles, cowboy boots, dental molds, white wigs, and God knows what else. Yes, he loved to wear white wigs. It is said that at the time of his death, only two rooms of his five-story Manhattan home were habitable. What surprised me the most about Andy Warhol's personal biography however was how dull it was it. He really wasn't terribly weird. He just had enough money to feed his eccentricities and to appear weird to many. By the 1980s he was making his paintings to sell for big bucks like any good American. That there was anything but weird.

Ed Wood* (1924-1978)

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Ehhhhhh. Ed Wood was a talentless hack of a filmmaker who is barely noteworthy enough to make it as an honorable mention. The only reason why he is remembered today is because of Tim Burton's excellent 1994 biopic of Wood. Yes, Wood was weird. He was a heterosexual cross dresser who had a fetish for angora fabric. While fighting the Japanese during World War 2, he'd wear a bra and panties under his uniform. Performing for the circus he would act as the bearded lady, pumping his nipples full of air to affect breasts. Whenever you saw him out on the town in full drag, it wasn’t him. It was his alter ego Shirley. But one cannot attain glory on weirdness alone.

In his day, Wood was pretty much ignored and then forgotten. He had no talent, you see, and he was not great. I'm sorry, but Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, his two best known films, are amateurish and dull. And no amount of posthumous kitsch-cult revisionist fandom is going to change that. Still, he was ahead of his time with the subject matter of Glen or Glenda. The docudrama was essentially a plea for sexual tolerance, inept as it was. It took an intrepid spirit to make such a film in 1953. So there's that. Ed Wood's legacy lives on as well in the Church of Ed Wood, a legally recognized religion with over 3,000 baptized adherents who claim Ed Wood as their savior. The religion started as a joke, but now, who knows? They claim to be serious, although somehow I doubt it. It is this recognition along with his cult status that squeezes Ed Wood into the honorable mentions of the Twenty Greatest Weirdos of the 20th Century.

Father Yod* (1922-1975)

FatherYod

James Edward Baker. Interesting guy. Really interesting life. A decorated marine during World War II. A stunt double in Hollywood. A jujitsu expert. After taking out two guys in self-defense it is said that Baker had his hands registered as deadly weapons. By the 1960s, however, he got seriously into the mystic. He became a Vedantic monk and later a follower of Sikh yoga practitioner Yogi Bhajan. By the late 1960s, Baker changed his name to Father Yod and founded a religious commune in Hollywood Hills, California known as the Source Family. He also opened one of the world's first vegetarian organic restaurants on the Sunset Strip, which he used to finance his sex farm, er, religious activities with the scores of nubile young beauties who just happened to wander into his groovy world. You see, the aforementioned Mister Yod began to suspect that the Y in his name really should a be a G. And if God wants to marry 13 of these nubile young beauties, who’s going to stop Him? In fact, Father Yod believed he was the father of the impending Age of Aquarius. Perhaps that's what got him cracking on populating New Age one baby at a time (it's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it).

They say throughout the 1970s his commune was teeming with women who were either pregnant or nursing. It was a three bedroom house, yet over a hundred lived there. Sleeping arrangements resembled beehives. Father Yod led his acolytes in rituals which involved mediation, sex magic, and, of course, worshipping Father Yod. It will come as a shock to some that this involved copious amounts of marijuana. Remember how Man gave names to all the animals? Well Yod gave names to all of his followers. First names included such far out examples as Isis, Sunflower, Orbit, and Prism. The last name was always Aquarian. Middle names were brief and to the point. They never ventured beyond “The.” Except for Father Yod’s. In the early 1970s, he rechristened himself YaHoWa. He also started a psychedelic rock band called YaHoWa 13. Yeah, I don’t know where he came up with the number thirteen either.

Anyway, they recorded 65 LPs, released 9, and Allmusic.com deems all but one to be mediocre. So here’s a guy who maybe wasn’t weird or great enough to crack the top twenty but had enough chops in both categories not be ignored. Father Yod deserves credit for starting the organic food craze which is still going strong. Further, his cult, if you can call it that, preached not just peace and love, but healthy living, kindness to animals, and an undeniably positive spiritualism. We take it for granted that many Californians are like that now. They weren’t before Father Yod.

Next up, Part 8: the weirdos that weren’t. All the people I considered and rejected for weirdo glory.

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.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 5

Welcome to Part 5 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 8 to number 5. Please visit Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 for more of this series. So, to continue…

8. Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)

Andy Kaufman

You know how comedians like to rip humor out of thin air? In unscripted routines they always try to one-up each other with jokes or put downs. You have to be very quick-witted to pull that off. But that’s how Andy Kaufman was all the time. He never, ever stopped looking for The Funny. “He was always on,” a friend once said. Even those who knew him weren’t always sure if he was putting them on. Therein lies his genius, and his weirdness. “Where is the real Andy?” they’d ask. The answer was never clear.

Welcome to Part 5 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 8 to number 5. Please visit Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 for more of this series. So, to continue…

8. Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)

Andy Kaufman

You know how comedians like to rip humor out of thin air? In unscripted routines they always try to one-up each other with jokes or put downs. You have to be very quick-witted to pull that off. But that's how Andy Kaufman was all the time. He never, ever stopped looking for The Funny. “He was always on,” a friend once said. Even those who knew him weren't always sure if he was putting them on. Therein lies his genius, and his weirdness. “Where is the real Andy?” they'd ask. The answer was never clear.

Andy Kaufman found ways to make people laugh that no one had ever imagined before. His schtick, if you can call it that, would typically involve assuming some bizarre yet wholly original persona who attempts some kind of ill-conceived performance art…and fails miserably.

KaufmanPersonae

Foreign Man (i.e., Latka Gravas from Taxi), with his excruciating naiveté and his pathetic “eemeetations” and his “Tenk you beddy much.” The “Inter-Gender” World's Wrestling Champion, with his flagrantly chauvinistic taunts and his “I'm from Hollywood” claims and his farcical feuds with professional wrestlers. Tony Clifton, the shrill, obnoxious and phenomenally untalented nightclub singer with his appalling salmon-colored tuxedo, uninterrupted stream of crude insults, and his wholly unsubstantiated delusions of grandeur. The list goes on.

Kaufman would even appear before audiences as “himself”, unshaven and forlorn, bemoaning his career misfortunes and his recent divorce and then panhandling the audience for pocket change.

Andy Kaufman on skid row
Andy Kaufman on 'skid row'

His idea would be to bomb and bomb and bomb some more, and then, when the audience couldn't possibly hate him any further, he would kill. He would do a spot on imitation of Elvis, or something devilishly clever with the congas, or speak gibberish to the audience for 8 minutes and make it work. “You're funny, kid,” Johnny Carson once told him. “I don't know how you do it, but you're funny.”

Neither do we, Johnny. Neither do we.
Neither do we, Johnny. Neither do we.

Of course, it wasn't really Andy. But when was it ever really Andy? On or off the stage, Andy Kaufman stayed in character no matter what. As Foreign Man he'd ask a string of inane questions before a long line of people while ordering ice cream. He'd walk around in his wrestling tights under his clothing. As Tony Clifton, he antagonized his Taxi co-stars to the point of being forcibly thrown out off the set. He would pick up girls in character and spend entire weekends with them never once letting on. Andy Kaufman never let on.

Somehow this must have had a cosmic connection to the Transcendental Meditation movement, which Kaufman joined as a youth. He would spend hours mediating every day. He once hectored the Mararishi himself about comedy and sex.

Noted Comedy Philospher and Concupiscence Pontificator
Andy Kaufman’s personal comedic philospher and concupiscence pontificator

Kaufman also subscribed to an odd “macrobiotic” diet of fruits and grains and vitamins and whatnot. This was perhaps why he was so confident the cancer in his lungs wouldn't kill him. The first thing he wanted to do after the diagnosis was to go on television and brag about how he got cancer for Christmas.

Ironically it was Elvis himself who pegged Andy when the two met in the early 1970s. “Man, this guy’s got a weird mind,” said the King of the Knave. For Andy Kaufman, all the world really was a stage, and he never left it. Except he did. And when he did at such a tragically young age, many thought it was just another one of his ingenious pranks. Only Andy Kaufman would be brilliant enough, and weird enough, to fake his own death. He actually had done that. In the early 1970s, he once bombed so badly that he put a cap gun to his head and pulled the trigger, to his audience’s horror. So it was understandable if people saw his cancer as just another prop in the ongoing comedy routine that was Andy Kaufman's life. And in some ways they were right. Andy Kaufman did fake his own death since the comedy he gave us will never die.

7. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

PhillipKDick

Philip K. Dick has established his own place within the pantheon of science fiction writers by basically asking two questions over and over: what makes us human? And what is real? He explored these issues in his stories while touching upon elements of theology, metaphysics, dystopia, paranoia, schizophrenia, transcendental experiences, and drug abuse. This all sounds pretty weird because it is pretty weird. But what makes Dick a weird guy rather than merely a writer of weird stories is that he lived all these things. In a sense he was a very autobiographical writer. To him, his themes were real. In his own life he really didn't know whether [insert science fiction trope A here] was really [insert science fiction trope B here] and how this would affect [insert science fiction trope C here]. It's a tough way to live. Despite what one would think about his chosen genre, there was nothing fanciful about Philip K. Dick.

Mind-bending, yes. Fanciful, no.
Mind-bending, yes. Fanciful, no.

Dick wrote 44 novels and 121 short stories over a 30 year career. But his star really began to shine towards the end of it and beyond with the large number of cinematic interpretations of his stories. Blade Runner, Total Recall, and other popular and lasting films as well as standout novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said make the emphatic argument for the man's greatness. Also, in his best works his themes throb bloody hot without ever becoming too obvious. Take his later work, VALIS, in which the protagonist is convinced a young girl is the Gnostic Christian Messiah. When the girl dies, we're never really sure if this is true or if the protagonist is suffering from delusions. Any story in which a hero embarks on a strange journey in which he finds the truths he holds close to his heart to be challenged and twisted, often in cruel and inexorable ways, owes a great debt to the unparalleled imagination of Philip K. Dick.

But, oh, was he weird. This was a guy who would obsess over his dead twin. The poor thing, named Jane, died at two months. A frequent sufferer of panic attacks, Dick visited his first psychiatrist at 6 years old. He was agoraphobic and had fears of certain kinds of food as well. His paranoia is legendary.

At least he wasn't superstitious
At least he wasn't superstitious

He also was an amphetamine fiend, which no doubt fueled his prodigious drive to create. He had secret prescriptions to all sorts of medications. One of his wives discovered this only after their divorce….when she received the equally prodigious pharmacist's bill!

This was the same wife Dick pulled a gun on in a fit of ugly paranoia.

Good thing you didn't zap your wife, Phil
Good thing you didn't zap your wife, Phil.

He also experienced amazing visions which often burned brightly in his fiction. He once claimed he saw an evil, metallic face in the sky, which inspired him to write The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Most famously, when a woman came to his home, sunlight flashed off of her Jesus Fish necklace and left him spellbound. After that he claimed he was clairvoyant.

Have you noticed how artists never seem to run out of ways to visualize the work of Philip K. Dick?
Have you noticed how artists never seem to run out of ways to visualize the work of Philip K. Dick?

Was Philip K. Dick insane? If he wasn't, then he was real close. For example, when his home was ransacked in paramilitary fashion in the early 1970s, he was actually relieved. Why? Because now he could justify his long-standing paranoia. He really did have enemies. And who were these is enemies? Depending on the day, Dick would blame the FBI, the KGB, the Black Panthers, the Nazis, drug dealers, and God knows who else.

Philip K. Dick: With enemies like mine, who needs friends?
Philip K. Dick: With enemies like mine, who needs friends?

But none of that mattered. How much of the truth can we really know anyway? How much of reality can we really trust? These were questions Philip K. Dick never stopped obsessing over. In the end, however, the only realities about Philip K. Dick we can trust are that he was a great writer, and that he was really, really weird.

6. Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

 michaelJackson

No-brainer here. This is one entry that practically writes itself. The “King of Pop,” Jackson is considered the most successful entertainer of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records. He's won 26 American Music Awards, 46 Billboard Awards, 13 Grammies, and many, many others adding up to a whopping total of 495 music awards. He was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as part of the Jackson 5 and once as a solo artist. He is the only pop star inducted in the Dance Hall of Fame. He's sold over a billion units worldwide. His 1982 album Thriller is still the number one selling record of all time (and is at least 15 million sales in front of the second place seller) and is widely considered a classic. He has five albums among the top 75 biggest selling records of all time, including two in the top ten.

Michael Jackson's Mighty Handful
Michael Jackson's Mighty Handful

From 1987 to 1989 his Bad tour spanned 15 countries, reached 4.4 million people, and grossed over $125 million. It was the most-attended, highest grossing tour of all time.

No musical artist is more famous than Michael Jackson. No musical artist has been nominated or awarded more times than Michael Jackson. Indeed, no musical artist has ever been more successful than Michael Jackson.

King of Pop
The King of Pop in his early 1980s heyday

And no major musical artist is weirder than Michael Jackson. The corrosive facial rhinoplasties, the gradual paling of his skin, and the rumors of anorexia were fodder for tabloids and mainstream news for decades.

It seems MJ felt that less was more
Michael Jackson: 1970s to 2000s. The 'Less is More' tour

Neverland Ranch, his personal residence in California, with its private amusement park and exotic petting zoo as well as the giant floral clock and statues of children everywhere, wasn't exactly a bastion of normalcy either. Let's also not forget his ridiculous charges of racism against Sony, his record label, in 2002 which even his attorney Al Sharpton didn't want to get behind.

Then, of course, there were the children. Aside from dangling his newborn son (nicknamed “Blanket”) out of a 4th story window in 2002, Jackson was notorious for his sleepovers with young children. He would fly whole families thousands of miles to his home and go on trips with them and spend hours on the phone with their children. And he would sleep with them. Whether or not he was truly guilty of molesting them remains unclear. In 1993, he was sued for sexual abuse of a minor and then settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. In 2005, he was acquitted of 7 counts of child molestation and 2 counts of giving an intoxicating agent to a 13-year old boy. Since then two jurors say they regret their decision. So who knows?

It's a long way down, Mike.
It's a long way down, Mike.

Perhaps Michael Jackson's intentions all along were noble. Perhaps he never had sexual interest in children. But it was all the hand-holding, and the cuddling, and the intense, intense attention that he gave them (along with all his other excesses) that makes him, well, weird, even with the benefit of the doubt. And consider this: Michael Jackson better be weird. Because if his claims of innocence are not true and he really did molest those children, he wouldn't be merely weird, he'd be a criminal.

Numerous times the man was called the artist of the century. To his credit, he deserved that distinction. The numbers are impossible to deny. Further, he had a tremendous artistic impact on the world of pop, merging R&B with rock in a very singular way, and, in so doing, unifying millions through music. But like his greatness, Michael Jackson's weirdness was impossible to ignore. Consider the Google searches below, which was performed on February 24th, 2013. Apparently many others feel the same way.

MichaelJackson_WeirdVsNormal 

5. Jack Parsons (1914-1952)

jackparsons

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn described the history of science as undergoing periodic “paradigm shifts.” As anomalies persist within a normal science paradigm, certain bold and creative individuals begin to promote a competing paradigm which may eventually replace the existing one. A classical example is the Copernican Revolution, in which scientists finally accepted that Earth revolves around the Sun. A more recent revolution occurred in rocketry in the 1930s. The bold and creative individual responsible for it was Jack Parsons. Well, in this case, “bold and creative” is just a polite way of saying “really, really, weird”.

Before Parsons rocketry was barely even a science. No university offered rocketry courses. Hardly any scientist took it seriously. Parsons, however, fed almost exclusively on science fiction and equipped with a genius for chemistry that matched his intrepid abandon, decided to experiment on his own near his home in southern California. Working entirely out of the confines of mainstream science (Parsons couldn't afford to attend college), Parsons amassed a body of knowledge that laid the groundwork for the space age. It took an obscene amount of trial and error, which Parsons happily endured. He liked blowing things up, you see.

I'd, uh, stand back if I were you.
I'd, uh, stand back if I were you.

In the 1930s Parsons attracted the attention of the scientists at Caltech, and later, as fascism grew in Europe, the military. He co-founded both Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the Aerojet Corporation, two important scientific organizations still going strong today. He made numerous contributions to the science of rocketry, most notably in 1941 using rockets to assist airplanes during takeoff.

The first US plane to fly on rocket power without a propellor
The first US plane to fly on rocket power without a propellor

After the war, he discovered how to launch rockets using solid fuel. This accomplishment was so revolutionary most scientists didn't even think it was theoretically possible. It led directly to the creation of the Polaris and Minutemen rockets of the 1960s. Without Parsons always thinking outside the box, putting US spacecraft in orbit, let alone the Moon, would not have happened when it did, if ever.

Parsons' colleagues always knew he was eccentric. He'd decorate his walls with swords. He'd wear snakes like scarves. He'd stage “duels” in the desert with live ammunition (the man whose bullet gets closest to the other man's head without killing him wins). Then there were all the sick practical jokes with the explosives. But it wasn't until Parsons joined famed occultist Aleister Crowley's Church of Thelema (called Ordo Templi Orientus, or OTO) when things got really weird.

Before every rocket launch you must recite the Hymn to Pan so not to incureth the wrath of the Dark Lord.
Aleister Crowley: Magick guru and triangular fashion consultant

First, there was the wife swapping and the free love. Then there was the rampant drug abuse. Most to the point here however were the Satanic sex magick rituals which led to some truly bizarre behavior. Summoning a redheaded “Moonchild” from the 4th dimension. Baking cakes with menstrual blood. Incarnating earth goddesses. Reciting obscure scripture in obscure tongues. Impregnating statues with vital forces. Dancing naked within pentagrams. Spraying blood intently within pentagrams. Masturbating intently within pentagrams. Yeah. The less said about this very weird chapter in Parsons' life, the better.

Behold the ancient mystery and Satanic splendor of my moobs!
Behold the ancient mystery and Satanic splendor of my man boobs!

Apparently Parsons' colleagues at JPL and Aerojet felt the same way. A weirdo like Parsons could not be expected to front reputable institutions. After World War II (once rocketry became a legitimate science), Aerojet asked him to sell all his shares. Parsons readily agreed since he was shouldering the finances of his OTO lodge in Pasadena. The FBI also had a file on him and ultimately revoked his security clearance. So no more JPL either.

Jack Parsons was a pioneer of a new scientific paradigm. He did this by always shooting from the hip and following hunches rather than working in tandem with other scientists. Ironically, this very same trait also caused his downfall since it prevented him from getting work once this new paradigm has been established. By the end of his life he was making explosions for Hollywood movies and storing chemicals in his home. This was how he met his untimely end, in a horrific accidental explosion. It was the tragic death of a brilliant and fearless man who was just too darn weird for his own good.

Painting of Jack Parsons by his widow Marjorie Cameron
Imagine this gracing the hallowed halls of NASA. Painting of Parsons by his widow Marjorie Cameron.

Next: Weirdos Part 6.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 12 to number 9. If this is your introduction to the series, please visit Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for the rest of the story thus far. You will notice that from here on our subjects will be become more famous and, in some cases, more historically important. I hope you’ll agree with their weirdness as well.

12. Captain Beefheart (1941-2010)

CaptainBeefheart

If the Kingdom of Weirdness needed a drill sergeant, it could do a lot worse than Captain Beefheart. Born Don Vliet in Glendale, California, Captain Beefheart found a way to merge his delta blues roots with free jazz, modern classical, and rock n’ roll in a way no one could ever have imagined. Indeed, with a distinct soulful croak which spanned four and a half octaves, he is perhaps the only rock singer worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with blues icon Howlin’ Wolf. There was really not much of a rock avante-garde prior to the startling arrival of Captain Beefheart in the mid-1960s. But hearing his music, you knew the man was weird. No human being can make music so bizarre and so powerful and still be normal.

Welcome to Part 4 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 12 to number 9. If this is your introduction to the series, pilule please visit Part 1, doctor Part 2, sickness and Part 3 for the rest of the story thus far. You will notice that from here on our subjects will be become more famous and, in some cases, more historically important. I hope you'll agree with their weirdness as well.

12. Captain Beefheart (1941-2010)

 CaptainBeefheart

If the Kingdom of Weirdness needed a drill sergeant, it could do a lot worse than Captain Beefheart. Born Don Vliet in Glendale, California, Captain Beefheart found a way to merge his delta blues roots with free jazz, modern classical, and rock n' roll in a way no one could ever have imagined. Indeed, with a distinct soulful croak which spanned four and a half octaves, he is perhaps the only rock singer worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with blues icon Howlin' Wolf. There was really not much of a rock avante-garde prior to the startling arrival of Captain Beefheart in the mid-1960s. But hearing his music, you knew the man was weird. No human being can make music so bizarre and so powerful and still be normal.

His band members knew it. During late 1960s, while recording his abrasive masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart gained the reputation of being an overbearing perfectionist with unorthodox composing techniques. He would basically tinker on the piano, an instrument he could not play, until he found ideas he liked. Then he would bark at his band members to write them down and arrange them while he scribbled out evocative lyrics that often made no sense at all.

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?”

Aside from all the negative reinforcement, bullying, and humiliation, here's some of the things Captain Weirdo put his band members through while making Trout Mask: He kept them in a house for eight months and forced them to rehearse his idiosynchratic compositions 12 to 14 hours a day. They were not allowed to leave except to buy groceries. He deprived them of sleep and food in order to brainwash them into accepting his musical visions. He encouraged them to get in violent altercations with each other and would reward the winners. He locked a band member in a closet for humming a C. He kept him there for five hours, forcing him to listen to a blues song called “Red Cross Store” nonstop. He forbade them to urinate for certain stretches of time. He threw his drummer down a flight of stairs for not being able to “play a strawberry” on the drums.

What you mean you can't play a banana E flat?
What do you mean you can't play a baloney sandwich in E flat?

While Beefheart's weirdness mellowed as he grew older, his march to greatness only accelerated. True, his music career had its ups and downs in the 1970s. But by the mid-1980s, when he was already suffering from the multiple sclerosis which would eventually kill him, he reinvented himself as a serious abstract expressionist artist, turning his back completely on music. He also became a recluse.

Don Van Vliet before one of his paintings
Don Van Vliet before one of his paintings

Art was nothing new to Captain Beefheart. He had been painting and sculpting since early childhood and even won a children's sculpting competition when he was nine. He was considered a child prodigy in art. Today, his paintings are in high demand, and he is well-regarded in the art world as a primitivist whose works, like his music, are utterly original.

What makes Captain Beefheart even weirder in retrospect was that he often craved commercial success, but would always smother his chances with a wet blanket at just the right moment. At the onset of his career, Beefheart received a lot of attention as the American answer to the Rolling Stones. During a warm up performance for his scheduled breakthrough at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Beefheart decided that no, he did not need commercial success after all. Believing that he just witnessed a girl in the audience turn into a fish, he suddenly stopped singing, straightened his tie, and dove head-first off the ten-foot stage, thereby killing his dreams of fame and fortune and simultaneously launching one of the weirdest music careers of all time.

11. Sun Ra (1914-1993)

SunRa

Sun Ra embodied weirdness like an out-of-body experience, if that makes any sense at all. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he claimed he was a citizen of Saturn, played some of the most spaced-out jazz there ever was, walked around town in full costume (robes, tunics, helmets, you name it), and was basically the founder of his own otherworldly musical cult which lives on to this day. This wasn't an act. Sun Ra had been traversing the astral plane on moonbeams years before the mainstream jazz world began taking notice of him in the early 1960s. And he only got weirder after that.

It would be a lot harder to write about wasn't weird about Sun Ra. He would constantly lecture his band members on his elaborate cosmic theology. He called himself not a musician but a “tone scientist” who brought messages from another realm. He claimed they would ultimately belong in the private library of God. He was a obsessive bookworm, collecting the most arcane and obscure volumes he could find. He would fixate for days on some of the cloudier passages of the Bible and other holy texts. He taught himself hieroglyphics and even taught a course on the subject at Berkeley in 1971. He abstained entirely from drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, women. He obsessed over color and on any given day might not talk to you if you were wearing the wrong one. He was not above wearing the solar system as a hat.

Thought I was kidding, did you?
Thought I was kidding, did you?

He also had a thing for technology and space travel. His compositions could just as easily be inspired by NASA news stories, science fiction, and articles in Popular Mechanics as they could by Duke Ellington or Egyptian mythology.

Why yes, they did wear muumuus in ancient Egypt. What of it?
Why yes, glittering robes like this were worn in ancient Egypt. They also allow air-flow and do not restrict the waist.

Sun Ra never wavered from the weirdness in a career that lasted more than 50 years. But was he great? Well, the critics have mixed opinions about him. Allmusic.com gives 36 of the 88 albums released in Sun Ra's lifetime 4 stars or higher (out of 5).

Some of the best of Sun Ra
Some of the best of Sun Ra

Sun Ra's contemporaries all attest to his talent as a musician and composer. In fact, he often had a hard time finding musicians who could play his pieces. His rather unclassifiable jazz is certainly not for everyone, but if anything, it could keep you guessing. He could fly with the avant-garde (check out The Magic City) or write some jumping swing or even do doo-wop. Sun Ra was also a recording studio pioneer, experimenting with reverb, feedback, fade ins, and distortion as early the mid-1950s, more than a decade before it was cool. He was extremely well regarded among other jazz musicians, and, in the end, even his critics had to admit his music had staying power. Like it or not, the music of Sun Ra was definitely sui generis, one of a kind. But as for the man, the word 'weird' suits him just fine.

Now, if I could just figure out how to put this thing on...
Now, if I could just figure out how to put this darn thing on…

10. William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

Burroughs1

William S. Burroughs seemed to take his weirdness out on everyone through his books. If you're more than a little weird yourself or sympathize with weirdness, then Burroughs is your man. He revolutionized how novels are written and read. He fearlessly championed the rights of gay people and minorities (we live in “a nation of finks”, after all). Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Burroughs initiated the Beat Generation. He has also served as an inspiration for countless writers, filmmakers, and musicians. There were no rules of fiction he could not break and get away with (check out the in his Nova Trilogy). There was no humor that was too black for him (check out his digression on immortality and mummies in The Place of Dead Roads). There were no social mores he could not deconstruct and thereby subvert (check out Naked Lunch, the novel which effectively ended obscenity trials in America). Truly, the influence of William S. Burroughs on modern artistic life is vast.

Burroughs with: David Bowie, Tom Waits, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Francis Bacon, John Waters, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsburg, and Curt Cobain
Burroughs with: David Bowie, Tom Waits, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Francis Bacon, John Waters, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsburg, and Curt Cobain

On the other hand, if you're not weird or don't have much time for weirdness, well, then you may lament the tremendous effect Burroughs did have. A promiscuous drug addict with a high IQ, Burroughs wrote novels that some considered pornographic, and many considered offensive or unreadable. Graphic depictions of pedophilia and child murder tend to make one a wee bit controversial after all. It's funny how these things work.

Any biography of William S. Burroughs reads like laundry list of weirdness. He did an inhuman amount of drugs. Really, it’s a miracle he lived as long as he did. It is said he was interested in the addictive properties of snake venom. He didn't go from boyfriend to boyfriend as much as from obsession to obsession. He once hacked off part of a finger just to impress a man.

He was paranoid about self-defense and kept a copious amount of guns. He installed a shooting range in his basement using what he called a “silencer tube” so he wouldn't wake his neighbors. He was into swords, knives, and snakes as well. Then there was his “shotgun art.” Burroughs would take a shotgun, some plywood, a bunch of paint cans, and, well, you get the picture.

It was all in self-defense, I swear.
It was all in self-defense, I swear.

He also constructed his own orgone box in his backyard. It is said he would crawl into it whenever he couldn't achieve an orgasm.

Oh, and he just adored his cats.

It was purely Platonic, I'm sure.
It was purely Platonic, I'm sure.

What sets Burroughs apart from almost anyone was a radical and rebellious audacity masked by an off-the-rack film noir deadpan. This made him the ultimate misfit. He dressed like a square, but was as round as you could get. He was a homosexual, but disavowed the gay movement. He inspired the beats, the hippies, the punks, but never joined their ranks. He staunchly supported the Second Amendment, yet was no conservative. Even as a junkie, it seemed he took his body to the chemical limit just to prove it should not be done. If William S. Burroughs had been born in a world where everyone was as weird as he, he'd probably strive to be normal, just because.

But that wasn't his world. While it is unclear exactly what world William S. Burroughs did live in, perhaps the following tidbit can offer a clue. In 1951 while drunk at a party in Mexico, he accidentally shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell. Living something like that down for forty-five years can make a man mighty weird.

9. J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972)

Hoover

Imagine 200lbs of weirdness stuck in a 150lb man. Hoover was normal, see? Through sheer force of will he made it so, despite the fact that he was definitely not normal. Hoover's mark of greatness is uncontested. “Singlehandedly” is an overused adverb, sure. But in Hoover's case, he really did singlehandedly convert a small and corrupt Justice Department agency into the FBI, the greatest, most expansive crime fighting force of all time. He also revolutionized crime fighting techniques with his introduction of a vast, intricate filing system as well as fingerprint labs. Sure, by the 1960s he had grown autocratic and corrupt and abused many of his powers. He stayed on as FBI director maybe a decade too long. But in his heyday, when roving gangsters and communist cells were real threats to national peace, Hoover was there to stop them. He also contributed a great deal to domestic security during World War II.

So why is he on this list? It's not merely because he was a closeted homosexual who insisted that his colleague Clyde Tolson follow him around everywhere he went. The two men would ride to work together, dine together, and vacation together even to the point of sharing the same hotel suite. When at the horse races or out for the evening the two were often seen wearing the exact same outfit.

The suits just happened to be on sale at Bloomingdales. Honest.
We just happened to be at Bloomingdales at the same time, and the suits were on sale. Honest.

More importantly, Hoover's suppressed urges grew into bizarre and sometimes dangerous obsessions. He would feed these urges through excessive wiretapping of the private lives of Americans: politicians, actors, celebrities, activists, even ordinary citizens. He did it for the sake of doing it. He couldn't help himself. He would spend hours at home listening to sex tapes or reading steamy transcripts. He had a thing for obscenity, or vicarious sex, really. By 1962 his obscenity files would encompass 18 filing cabinets.

Then there was the casting of himself in his own line of comic books that glorified law and order, the FBI, G-Men, and, most importantly, J. Edgar Hoover.

If the dialogue in that last one was photoshopped I sincerely apologize.
If the dialogue in that last one was photoshopped I sincerely apologize. Found it here.

Of course, if anyone challenged his claim to being normal he wouldn't hesitate to sic the FBI on them. He was like a bulldog that way, looking to crush or humiliate his enemies with the same tireless passion he used to build the Bureau. Many today blame Hoover for the death of poor Jean Seberg, the actress most famous for starring in Jean Luc Goddard's 1960 French New Wave film Breathless. J. Edgar Hoover was Mr. All American, see? It didn't matter that he insisted the shutters in all FBI offices be raised to a certain height, or that his agents be clean shaven and dressed to the nines, or that all his toilets be raised to protect him from germs, or that he liked to sunbathe all day in the nude, or paint Clyde Tolson's toenails. He was, or tried like hell to be, the standard bearer of normal American life. It's just ironic that stuck inside this icon of American normalcy was one of the biggest weirdos of them all.

What, Me Normal?
What, Me Normal?
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Next: Weirdos Part 5.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 3

So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the list…

16. Moondog (1916-1999)

Moondog16

They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.

So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven't noticed, I'm doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the list…

16. Moondog (1916-1999)

Moondog16

They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.

All Moondog, all of the time
All Moondog, all of the time

He moved to the Big Apple in 1947 and New Yorkers recognized his raw talent almost immediately. It wasn't long before he could actually make a living on the streets performing and selling his poetry and recordings. He invented several musical instruments including something called the “oo” and, most

People from where bleach I is way makes. Right Comb shocked see the had lip. I it while and happy fact be than saw because does shown have. Genesis Hair rebel worth idea find shower. Don’t cream acne I if to stays sunscreen…

famously, the trimba.

The trimba
The trimba

His reputation as a fearsome percussionist and innovative composer grew such that within 5 years, he was recording his own works, composing for orchestra, running his own radio program, being profiled in magazines, and being feted by giants in the music industry. Over the years he became friendly with such music luminaries as George Szell, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and Phillip Glass. By the mid-1950s everyone knew Moondog.

He took it to another level in the 1960s as the hippie counterculture really got rolling. Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce performed with him. Bob Dylan wrote about him. An early incarnation of the Beatles was called Johnny and the Moondogs. His song “All is Loneliness” was covered by Janis Joplin. Moondog even made an appearance on “The Tonight Show”. In fact, the spot where Moondog most often worked, 54th Street and 6th Avenue, became known as “Moondog Corner”. In 1989 he conducted a series of concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.

A one, and a two, and a...
A one, and a two, and a…

According to allmusic.com, Moondog produced 12 albums in his lifetime, 7 of which they give ratings of 4 stars or higher (out of 5).

18.5 stars for Moondog
That's 18.5 stars of Moondog right there

Just looking at him however, you knew he was weird. He made all his own clothes, or costumes, really. Togas, tunics, thongs, cloaks, cowls, you name it. He wanted to be the incarnation of the Norse God Odin (but with additional blind eye), hence the nickname “Viking of 6th Avenue”. He didn't wear shoes, just leather squares that he wrapped around his feet. In the snow, in the rain, it didn't matter, he was always on the streets. He actually preferred the streets to any comfy domicile and by 1960 split with his wife and child as a result. He was a tad anti-Semitic and didn't care too much for black people either. Then he would complain about how all his best friends are either Jewish or black. He would also drink from a hollowed-out antler. Where does a blind man find a hollowed-out antler in New York City?

By the mid-1950s Moondog had the world at his feet. Recording studio executives really wanted to market him and put him on a coast-to-coast tour. But he walked away from it all. He was just too darn weird for success, it seems. It's ironic because he did like making money, just on his own terms. Moondog was famous for playing all sorts of exotic instruments, but when asked which one was his favorite, he replied with his trademark wit, “the box that collects the coins.”

So is that an antler in your tunic, or are you just glad to see me?
So is that an antler in your tunic, or are you just glad to see me?

15. Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)

Edgar Cayce

Cayce is mostly forgotten these days, but in his day he was one of the most famous psychics in America. Believers in his abilities claim that as a boy he could memorize books by sleeping with them under his pillow. He could also solve murder mysteries, revisit a person's past lives, predict the future, and offer uncannily sage business advice. But he was most famous for his healing abilities. Typically, he would hear or read about a person's ailment, and then fall into a hypnotic trance during which he would offer eerily accurate prescriptions for treatment. Some of which ran counter to the common medical wisdom of the day. For example, as a young man he reportedly saved an infant dying of convulsions with belladonna, a known poison. He eventually became so well known that he treated such luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin.

Cayce skeptics point to the fact that most of Cayce's prescriptions were common-sensical or involved standard osteopathic treatments of the time. They also point to the fact that Cayce was an avid reader of alternative medical texts and surrounded himself with medical practitioners who could at some point or another assist him with his diagnoses. He also didn't always get it right, such as when he prescribed eating almonds to prevent cancer. What they latch on to most however are his (such as China converting to Christianity by 1968), his bizarre ideas on race, and his intricate and wholly ridiculous opinions on the lost city of Atlantis. In fact, he predicted that by 1958 the U.S. would discover the Tuaoi Stone, the great cylindrical energy crystal which caused Atlantis to crash into the sea ten thousand years ago. Yeah. He also wrote a book about Atlantis but couldn't exactly predict when people would ever get tired of it.

Makes you wish they'd just find that darn island already.
Makes you wish they'd just find that darn island already.

Cayce skeptics of course reject all the folklore and anecdotal evidence supporting Cayce's healing powers. They ignore the fact that Cayce did make many accurate predictions, such as the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and World War 2 among others. They also reject as pure hearsay all the fawning newspaper articles, the thousands of pages of records kept by his wife Gertrude, as well as testimonials left by his patients. But what they cannot reject is the whopping amount of all this evidence. Cayce gave over 20,000 readings in his lifetime. Many, many, many people who dealt with him claimed he did what said he would do, which was successfully treat or heal them. Today, thousands the world over revere him as a prophet, and he has been the subject of numerous books and documentaries. Therein lies the man's greatness.

Why, yes. I did have my finger surgically attached to my earlobe. Why do you ask?
Why, yes. I did have my finger surgically attached to my earlobe. Why do you ask?

Another aspect of Cayce which was, um, weird, was his overall reluctance to benefit from all this. For much of his life, he insisted on working for free. He was also a devout Christian who had serious misgivings about the other-worldly aspects of his gift. His trances often left him physically and emotionally exhausted, but he kept working well into his old age despite knowing it would eventually kill him.

Cayce with his wife Gertrude in his final years
Cayce with his wife Gertrude in his final years

The irony about Edgar Cayce was that when he was awake he was actually a pretty normal guy. But whenever he fell into his famous trances, he became one of the weirdest people in the world.

14. Walter Freeman (1895-1972)

WalterFreeman

Nobody embodies both sides of the morality coin better than Walter Freeman. Having pioneered the lobotomy operation in America in the 1930s and then streamlined it into a casual 20-minute outpatient procedure, Freeman was the center of a truly fascinating yet mortifying chapter of twentieth century psychiatric history. Was he an angel of mercy or a diabolical monster? Did he help the incurably insane or was he preying on vulnerable innocents? People can debate either side, but what isn't up for debate is that he was a really weird guy.

We find his greatness in how he was one of the first to pinpoint a physiological etiology for mental illness. He was also truly moved by the suffering of the insane and wanted to do something about it. In his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, Freeman sold lobotomy to the medical establishment as a procedure of last resort for only the most dire cases. And in those instances, lobotomy, more often than not, worked. The violent, the psychotic, the suicidal became more docile, more manageable, happier even. So what if they had to re-learn how to use the toilet and had difficulties holding down a job? They were in a better place, and so were their families. And if the procedure didn't work, well, it wasn't like the patients were going to get better anyway, so…

Before and after lobotomy, one of Freeman's success stories
Before and after lobotomy, one of Freeman's success stories

At a time when there was no alternative to treating the insane, the lobotomy was often the only option. And the public reaction at first was overwhelmingly positive. In 1949, Freeman successfully lobbied for António Egas Moniz, the originator of lobotomy, to receive a Nobel Prize. Once, when facing his critics (mostly Freudian psychiatrists questioning his ethics) Freeman produced a box of Christmas cards – hundreds of them – all from former patients and their family members. He then challenged anyone in the room to do the same. He had no takers.

By mid-century, Freeman was a star. But that's when the weirdness crept in. After developing the “ice pick lobotomy” (in which he would hammer a long blade called a leucotome into the brain's frontal lobes through the eye socket), he seemed a wee bit too eager to perform his special operation.

This patient is still alive. Read his fascinating story here
This patient is still alive. Read his fascinating story here.

He had no license to perform operations, but would do them anyway, often in his own office. This alienated his longtime partner James Watts, but that didn't stop Freeman. Freeman also ignored his not-so-rare disasters, such as when he rendered poor Rosemary Kennedy permanently incapacitated.

JFK's younger sister before her lobotomy
JFK's younger sister before her lobotomy in 1941

He became a bit of a showman, arriving at hospitals in a wide-brimmed hat and brandishing a cane. He dubbed his own station wagon as “the Lobotomobile”. To mix things up, he would perform lobotomies right-handed, then left-handed, and sometimes with two hands at once. He would use ordinary carpenter's mallets instead of surgical hammers. He always played for the crowd or the press more than he sought the formal approval of colleagues. He ate up all the attention. Once he killed a patient when he carelessly stepped back to pose for a photograph during an operation. He let his leucotome sink too deep into the patient's brain.

No, Walter. Don't say cheese. Please.
No, Walter. Don't say cheese. Please.

Freeman also insisted on filming and photographing his operations and even talking to his patients as he severed their minds away. He referred to photographing his patients as his “magnificent obsession” since he felt before-and-after shots could help vinidcate lobotomy. Driving from town to town looking for people to lobotomize was what he called a “head and shoulder hunt”. He claimed that time passed more swiftly when he was head and shoulder hunting.

What makes Freeman even weirder is that he never let any of his colossal failings deter him, nor did he ever recognize how macabre his magnificent obsession really was. What started as a course of last resort became one of first resort by the mid-1950s, after antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine were quickly rendering Freeman's ghastly procedure obsolete. Rather than concede to more humane measures to treat insanity, Freeman instead moved to California and started selling lobotomies to the unsuspecting public for twenty-five bucks a pop. At his nadir, he lobotomized a four year-old child. Walter Freeman died in 1972, still in touch with many of his patients, people who would have had nothing to do with him had they known exactly how weird he was.

13. Henry Darger (1892-1973)

Henry_Darger

Remember those weird Dungeons and Dragons geeks from our childhood? Remember how they would spend hours cataloging the minutest details of fictitious characters living in imaginary worlds? Henry Darger spent a lifetime doing that. And, reclusive weirdo that he was, he never seemed to come up for air. Self taught as a writer and painter, he left behind a body of work of such breathtaking power and scope that he is now considered one of the greatest if not the greatest outsider artist of the 20th century.

Darger's story is miraculous and tragic at the same time. Placed as a young boy in an abominable institution called the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children where he was worked like a slave, Darger escaped at 16 and walked over a hundred and fifty miles to his home in Chicago. There he got a job as a janitor in a hospital. Aside from a brief stint in the military during World War I, he stayed at this job until his retirement in 1963. His neighbors knew him as strange, reclusive, asocial. He could be heard through the walls of his apartment staging conversations with himself, assuming different dialects or accents for different characters. Yet he would never talk to people. And if you ever forced him to talk to you, he would respond with something completely unrelated. He collected trash. He collected rope and twine. He once started a weather journal of excruciating detail and kept at it for ten years. His autobiography spans 5,000 handwritten single-spaced pages. Only three photographs of Henry Darger exist.

Darger had two major obsessions, his faith in God and a desperate need to protect or avenge children. For years he tried unsuccessfully to adopt, but the state wouldn't let him. Some time around 1911 he lost a newspaper photo of a 5 year-old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered.

Elsie Paroubek, kidnapped and murdered in 1911
Elsie Paroubek, kidnapped and murdered in 1911

This sent Darger on a tailspin of grief and existential angst in which he petitioned God to return the photo. He built a shrine. He threatened to swear and throw things at the crucifix on his wall.

Henry Darger never found the photograph, but this episode inspired him to create his magnum opus, a novel entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is also known as In the Realms of the Unreal for short. This is a 15,145 page fantasy novel containing hundreds of panoramic illustrations and watercolor paintings.

Typical sweeping battle scene from Darger's work
Typical sweeping battle scene from Darger's work

It took him 60 years to write it. It's the story of the Vivian Girls from the Christian nation of Abbieannia. They lead a child slave rebellion against an evil people called the Glandelinians who murder, torture, and abuse children. The events in the story and in the illustratiins go from the beatific to the unspeakably violent. Darger would even catalog the names of the myriad slain as well as the cost in dollars of each battle.

The mythology is as complex as anything from ancient Greece, and at its core is an almost pathological compassion for children. In his paintings girls would often appear with penises. We are not sure if this was some hermaphroditic conceit on the part of Darger or if he was just unaware that girls do not have penises.

girlswithpenises

Throughout his sad, solitary yet extremely productive life, Henry Darger never told anyone about his work. He was just the oddball janitor who lived down the hall. Today however his works are shown in museums where a Henry Darger original can fetch over $80,000. A new copy of the only biography about Darger currently runs for over $2,000! This is testimony of the imaginative power of one very weird man who was broken as a child and spent the rest of his life picking up all the beautiful pieces.

Check out Weirdos Part 4.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. For an introduction and more information on the series please check out Part 1 of this series. So, to begin…

20. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

buckminister-fuller-dome

Genius. Visionary. Autodidact. Nonconformist. This is one well-loved figure in American culture. He was also an architect, engineer, inventor, and author of over 30 books. He was an environmental activist well ahead of his time. He designed the geodesic dome, fuel efficient automobiles, prefab homes, as well as something called the Prefabricated Compact Bathroom Cell. He also figured out how make a 2-dimensional map which accurately represents all landmasses on Earth.

Welcome to Part 2 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. For an introduction and more information on the series please check out Part 1 of this series. So, discount to begin…

20. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

buckminister-fuller-dome

Genius. Visionary. Autodidact. Nonconformist. This is one well-loved figure in American culture. He was also an architect, find engineer, sale inventor, and author of over 30 books. He was an environmental activist well ahead of his time. He designed the geodesic dome, fuel efficient automobiles, prefab homes, as well as something called the Prefabricated Compact Bathroom Cell. He also figured out how make a 2-dimensional map which accurately represents all landmasses on Earth.

dymaxion_map
Clearly longitude and latitude are for sissies.

Buckminster Fuller had more creativity than he knew what to do with. He was also a futurist and a great proponent of sustainable resources. His ideas were in high demand by the US armed forces during World War II. His case for greatness cannot be denied, and he did it all with no college degree, having twice been expelled from Harvard. They claimed he suffered from “lack of ambition.” This apparently was Ivy League geek-speak for “partying too much,” the real reason why Fuller got thrown to the curb.

So why is he on this list? Because he was so abnormally close to his ideas that he became his own Petri dish. While seriously contemplating suicide as a young man, he claimed to have an out-of-body experience in which a voice intoned: “You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.” After this, he decided to embark on a “50 year experiment” to uncover the operating principles of everything. He wanted to see what one man could do to benefit his “fellow passengers on spaceship Earth”. This was undoubtedly a noble calling, but it did lead to some weird behavior. The first thing he did after this epiphany was to live in near silence for two years. And this was while living in poverty with a wife and small child.

And it only got weirder once he started talking again. Since he was a frequent flier, Fuller liked to wear 3 watches so he could keep better tabs on time zones. He would also wear sheets of newspaper for heat insulation. In 1943, he revealed that he slept only two hours a day as part of his experimentation with polyphasic sleep. He also obsessed over documenting his life literally fifteen minutes at a time. No detail was too insignificant for posterity, it seemed. And he never stopped. From 1920 to 1983, he wrote down or collected almost 270 feet of life diary in a giant scrapbook he called the Dymaxion Chronofile.

Dymaxion Chronofile
Dymaxion Chronofile

It was as if the English language weren't good enough for Buckminster Fuller. He always had to come up with new words.

Yes, it is true that Buckminster Fuller was greater than he was weird. Hence his low placement on this list. However, look at some of the weirdness he inspired. Drop Cities were the first hippie communes in the 1960s where many artists and counter-culture types would convene for their “happenings”.

Drop City
Drop City

Places like these were inspired by the architectural ideas of Buckminster Fuller.

19. Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944)

FlorenceFosterJenkins2

We're all told as children to never let anyone or anything stand in the way of our dreams. Yeah, well, aspiring opera diva Florence Foster Jenkins apparently took this a little too much to heart. Jenkins, to put it bluntly, lacked any and all singing talent. Pitch, tone, rhythm, forget it. Her performances could only be heard to be believed. When hitting those excruciating high notes she sounded like a chicken being choked to death. Or perhaps “the mating and/or death squeals of alley cats.” No one outside of a shower stall had ever mangled Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Verdi, and other classical greats like this before. Technical limitations? What technical limitations? No keeping this bird in a cage. She refused to even let language barriers hold her back. Italian, German, Esperanto, didn't matter. She'd botch it all with the same oblivious vigor. And why not? When you're tone deaf, it all comes out like sweet, sweet music anyway.

But what made Jenkins so weird was that she really believed she was great. She put herself on par with the prominent sopranos of her day and carried herself like a real diva. Sure, she was aware of her army of critics. Audiences would laugh at her, often egged on by her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (yes, that was his name). But she didn't care. It was all professional jealousy, you see. One does not stoop to defend oneself against one's inferiors, now does one?

“You? Criticize MY wings?”

As befitting a personage as majestic as Florence Foster Jenkins, her concerts were of course grandiose spectacles. Her self-designed, nigh-Wagnerian costumes included angel wings, fans, tiaras, tinsel, scarves, you name it. One must look one's best for one's fans, don't you know. The woman actually lived the life of a successful operatic soprano and never once realized that she was quite emphatically not a successful operatic soprano.

Only she was. Jenkins' greatness was achieved through her unshakable self-confidence as well as her ability to sell tickets. She started singing when she was 44, and her career spanned 30 years. Sure, early on she financed her own performances (having inherited a fortune). She also took her share of baths at the box office. But after a while, audiences caught on and realized that her off-key shriekings and warblings were a thing to behold. Like rubberneckers at a train wreck, people lined up and forked over hard earned cash to have the once in a lifetime privilege of seeing and laughing at the worst operatic singer of all time. She was kitsch before kitsch was cool. Jenkins' popularity, such as it was, was so great that she even made a handful of 78-rpm records. In 2003 the classical label Naxos collected all her recordings on a CD fittingly entitled Murder on the High C's.

murderonthehighcs
Only $22.83 on Amazon

Jenkins' improbable run culminated in the place where many achieve greatness: Carnegie Hall. October 1944, one month before her death, she performed to a packed house. It is said they had to turn 2,000 people away at the door. She received thunderous applause and went home a success. Was she good? Was she not good? Does it really matter? In the end she achieved the same result as many great singers. So why shouldn't we consider Florence Foster Jenkins great too? What most accomplish with hard work and talent, she accomplished with sheer weirdness. That's something, isn't it?

18. Ruth Norman (1900-1993)

CIMG2766

Oh, what a strange bird she was. Otherwise known as Uriel, the Queen of the Archangels from the Fourth Dimension, Ruth Norman headed the millennial New Age organization known as Unarius. Norman founded Unarius in 1954 with her husband Ernest and then ran things alone after his death in 1971. Norman gained international fame for making outlandish predictions of flying saucer landings that would, of course, never come true. In the mid-1970s, she purchased 67 acres in California where she expected the flying saucers to land. She even predicted how they would land and made a very public $4,000 bet with a British gambling firm that this would happen. You see, these flying saucers represented an intergalactic confederation known as a the “Space Brothers” who intended to restore the lost wisdom of Atlantis to human beings and usher in an era of peace and enlightenment.

space-cad
Hey, Aliens! We're over here!

Did you know that Norman received mental transmissions from Plato, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Louis Pasteur, and over hundred other great spirits of the past? Did you know she wrote the U.S. government offering to use her otherworldly connections to help them win the Cold War? Did you know she was the Egyptian goddess Isis in a past life? She preached past life therapy as a way for people spiritually evolve. She could heal her students in their dreams. She also claimed she was an ambassador for what's called the “Interplanetary Confederation”.

Norman certainly dressed the part, her elaborate outfits owing as much to Star Trek as to Elizabethan England. She was big on ostentatious wigs and sparkling tiaras. She liked to wield a scepter. At Unarius headquarters, she sat on a gold-colored throne covered in peacock feathers.

Uriel_in_white
Yes, she had a halo too.

Weirdest of all, she and her followers made full use of their own video studio for proselytizing purposes. These low-budget promotional videos and documentaries are jaw-droppingly awful. They present the Unarians in all their kitschy glory and made the rounds on public access cable everywhere. In one episode, we travel back in time to 160,000 B.C. to witness a true story. It was the seminal moment in the history of Man in which beatific aliens in poorly fitting bald wigs first abducted our knuckle dragging ancestors and sent them spiraling into the splendiferous heavens.

Beckoning from the stars
Beckoning from the stars

Ruth Norman was weird, no doubt. But was she great? Well, for one, she led the same organization for nearly 40 years and managed it well. She knew how to attract followers. She knew how to play to the media. She was also prolific, writing 80 books. She gained global fame and at one point achieved fringe celebrity status. In 1979, she claimed to have 100,000 followers. We know for sure she had 450 paying students by the late 1980s. Further, Unarius, for all its otherworldly kookiness, was a benign, positive organization under Norman's watch. There was nothing seedy about it like you might find in other New Age organizations.

ruth_and_ernest
Ruth Norman in a not-so-weird moment with her husband Ernest

People flocked to Ruth Norman and stayed with her despite her unbroken string of failed prophesies. That's what sheer charisma can do, and Ruth Norman knew how to use it as well as anyone. Remember, kooks are people too, and for nearly 40 years Ruth Norman gave them a home. And a pretty good one it was, considering that by the time of her death, Unarius was worth over a half million dollars. Not bad for a weirdo.

17. Jack Kavorkian (1928-2011)

kevorkian3

Good ol' Dr. Death. Jack the Dripper. One day in the late 1990s, Jack Kavorkian, the self-described “one man death counselor”, decided he wanted to go to prison. Kavorkian was already well known for promoting euthanasia rights, having euthanized close to 130 people over the course of a decade. But that wasn't good enough for Jack. He wanted to take the euthanasia issue all the way to the Supreme Court and figured that wearing an orange jumpsuit in a concrete cell would be the best way to do that. So he actually injected one of his patients with poison, had it broadcast on national television, and then waited for the prosecutors to call. At age 70 that bought him 8 years in the joint.

Which way to the SCOTUS?
Which way to the Supreme Court?

Make no mistake, Jack Kavorkian was a very smart and creative man. He was also fiercely independent—for better or for worse. He taught himself German and Japanese while still in high school. He invented round playing cards and bicycles that don't need chains and envelopes that don't need openers. He wrote 7 books, one on the topic of philosophy. In the late 1970's he quit a career in pathology and sunk his life savings into a feature-length movie based on Handel's Messiah. He produced and directed but didn't have a distributor. So unfortunately the movie flopped. While serving in the army as a medic, he taught himself how to read and play music. He mastered the jazz flute, believe it or not. His one record, called (ahem) A Very Still Life, was released in 1997.

His most important invention however is what made him famous, the so-called “suicide machine”.

The Suicide Machine
Behold! My 18 karat burgundy plaid sweater vest!

Kavorkian first gained national attention in the early 1990s by assisting the suffering or terminally ill to commit suicide (sometimes in the back of his Volkswagen van). But his weird obsession with death was nothing new. In the 1950s, he photographed patients' eyes in their final moments, determining that cornea blood vessels disappear at death. He also proposed organ harvesting and medical experimentation on consenting death row inmates. During the Vietnam War, he experimented with blood transfusions from recently deceased corpses to the living. In one such experiment, he used his assistant as a guinea pig and turned the poor man's eyeballs orange.

Did you know Jack Kavorkian was also an artist? Not surprisingly, he focused on death, sometimes painting with his own blood. Headless corpses, corpseless heads, flowers growing out of the eye sockets of skulls. One painting has a child eating the flesh of a corpse.

kavorkian_art
So what was it with this guy and death?

Jack Kavorkian is great because he was righteous, he had no fear, and he threw himself into his causes full-tilt. He did what he could to undress the taboo surrounding death and dying, and he tirelessly championed a patient's right to die. It was just his ghoulish fascination with it all that made him so weird. He is not higher on this list because he was a lucid and rational thinker who could back up what he did with reasoned arguments. He also turned down more patients than he assisted and made efforts at counseling each one. But whether he was showing up to court dressed as Thomas Jefferson, or running for Congress on kooky platforms (“We gotta destroy the Supreme Court”), or giving interviews while locked in the stocks, Jack Kavorkian was always his own man. And a very, very weird one he was.

Get me outta this thing!
Get me outta this thing!

Weirdos Part 3 coming soon…

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 1

In 2012, an online retailer called Woot had a great idea: They published a list of the 50 Greatest American Weirdos ten at a time. As soon as I found out about it, I was hooked. How could you not be? First, I just love lists. Really, Woot was serving up smoking hot slices of Americana Obscura in every installment. Some weirdos I knew. Most I didn’t or had forgotten since departing from the period of my life when I took notice of such things. It’s hard to describe why the strange habits of famous people captivate me. Perhaps it’s because I was always a little off-kilter myself when I was young. I probably had an undiagnosed case of ADHD and just had to live with it. I always knew there was something wrong with me but I never knew exactly what. Overcoming such things is slow and difficult and never fully accomplished. I’ve always admired people who were quite a bit different than everyone else (and not necessarily in a good way) but still went on to do great things.

Well, having seen Woot’s list I have decided to make my own. I offer 20 names, not 50. Given my time and resource limitations, I will limit my selections to weirdos active and in their prime during the 20th Century. They also must be born on American soil (so no Charles Bukowski, who was born in Germany). Of course, I often disagree with Woot. They seem more interested in chronicling the weirdest or quirkiest American weirdos, not necessarily the greatest ones. Of their 39 weirdos from the 20th Century, I include only 5.

So what should my criteria be?

In 2012, an online retailer called Woot had a great idea: They published a list of the 50 Greatest American Weirdos ten at a time. As soon as I found out about it, I was hooked. How could you not be? First, I just love lists. Really, Woot was serving up smoking hot slices of Americana Obscura in every installment. Some weirdos I knew. Most I didn’t or had forgotten since departing from the period of my life when I took notice of such things. It’s hard to describe why the strange habits of famous people captivate me. Perhaps it’s because I was always a little off-kilter myself when I was young. I probably had an undiagnosed case of ADHD and just had to live with it. I always knew there was something wrong with me but I never knew exactly what. Overcoming such things is slow and difficult and never fully accomplished. I’ve always admired people who were quite a bit different than everyone else (and not necessarily in a good way) but still went on to do great things.

Well, having seen Woot’s list I have decided to make my own. I offer 20 names, not 50. Given my time and resource limitations, I will limit my selections to weirdos active and in their prime during the 20th Century. They also must be born on American soil (so no Charles Bukowski, who was born in Germany). Of course, I often disagree with Woot. They seem more interested in chronicling the weirdest or quirkiest American weirdos, not necessarily the greatest ones. Of their 39 weirdos from the 20th Century, I include only 5.

So what should my criteria be?

Two good examples of top-twenty caliber non-Americans would be classical pianist Glenn Gould and mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing. Both were brilliant and successful. Both made lasting contributions to their fields. Both were great men. Yet they were both very, very weird. Eccentric would be the nice way of putting it.

Glenn_Gould_sarabande_blog
Glenn Gould and his gloves
Gould with his obsessive self-medicating and the scarves and gloves he always wore even in summer and that horrid chair he insisted on carrying around with him.
AlanTuring
Alan Turing at Bletchley Park
And Turing, with that staccato “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” he’d start his sentences with, and the gas mask he’d wear on bicycle rides, and that tea mug he’d chain to a radiator to prevent it from being stolen. Yes, Glenn Gould and Alan Turing were a couple of weirdos. And I mean that with the deepest, most sincere respect. Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is on my desert island list, and Turing’s work as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park was instrumental in determining the outcome of World War II. I know what geniuses both men were. I also regret the early demise of both of them. So I posit that Gould and Turing set the gold standard for any list of great weirdos. The weirdos have to be great. And the great ones have to be weird.

Excluded from such lists, of course, would be those with high marks in one and not the other. I had a neighbor once who seemed to suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome or some sort of personality disorder. He never held a job and would scream into his walls at night. Once he told me that in order to prevent identity theft he’d first shred all his discarded bills and then burn them. No one ever stole this weirdo’s identity. No sir. But like most of us he wasn’t great. So no appearance on the list.

A weirdo must make a lasting impact in order to belong. Roky Erickson is a good example of a near-miss.

rokyerickson
Roky Erickson: “A near whaaa?”

Erickson is a well-known weirdo who, in my perfect world, would rank as number 43 or thereabouts on such a list (Woot, alas, neglected to include him). He was a member the 1960’s psychedelic rock group 13th Floor Elevators. He made strange music, was a vocal proponent of illegal drug use, and suffered from schizophrenia. That lead to some weirdness for sure, such as signing a legal affidavit claiming a Martian was living in his body. But despite being a cult hero in rock music for the past 30 years, he isn’t quite great enough, in my opinion, to crack the top twenty.

Also excluded are criminals, rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. I’m sure Jeffrey Dahmer engaged in some very strange behavior as well. But once you start killing people, or robbing banks, or blowing up buildings, you are not great. You are bad. You have a net negative impact on the world. Therefore, no appearance on the list. There will be no infamy here.

Further, you can’t just be merely odd or have a few strange habits. Comedian Jerry Lewis, according to IMDB, is known for never wearing the same pair of socks twice.

Jerry Lewis: "Hey, laa-dy! Take my socks, please."
Jerry Lewis: “Hey, laa-dy! Take my socks, please.”
Lewis, no doubt, is one of the funniest guys who ever lived and as the former chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association he is certainly a prominent humanitarian. He is great enough to make the list. But 14 socks per week does not a great weirdo make. Being a consummate showman of any stripe will not automatically land you on the list either. You can’t just affect weirdness, you have to be the weirdness. So no Liberace, no Madonna, no Alice Cooper, no Lady Ga Ga. Nor will being flamboyantly gay, sexually ambiguous, sexually deviant, incessantly annoying, or simply an asshole. So fortunately, people like Divine, Marilyn Manson, Pee Wee Herman, Richard Simmons, and Roseanne Barr will be ignored as well. Mental illness alone is also not enough. Ignatius J. Reilly might have made the list, had he, you know, been a real person.
Aww, come on!
Aww, come on!
But his creator John Kennedy Toole was just not weird enough. Sure, Toole fell into depression and eventually killed himself. It’s sad and tragic, but while he lived, Toole was a fairly normal guy. Or at least tried to be. This last point is important. If someone says “I’m weird, but I’m trying like heck to be normal,” then that pretty much disqualifies them off the bat. A weirdo must either be unwilling or unable to get over their weirdness. I’m sure with all her cow-hugging contraptions and bizarre dietary rules and cowboy uniforms, Temple Grandin comes across as plenty weird. But she has spent much of her adult life developing ways for autistic people like herself to function productively in the real world. That is not weird. That is awesome.
Temple Grandin: One of the Awesomest Americans of the 20th Century
Temple Grandin: Not weird
What about those who make weird art or hang out with weird people? Well, what about them? Frank Zappa sure made weird music. His work is basically a cosmic amalgam of rock, blues, doo-wop, modern classical, avant-garde jazz, satire, and God knows what else. He also had the baddest soul patch ever seen on a white man.
Frank Zappa and his soul patch
Frank Zappa and his soul patch
But from what I’ve read the man himself was fairly normal. Regardless of whether one enjoys his music or agrees with his politics, Frank Zappa’s decisions at least made sense and he acted more or less rationally for his own good and the good of others. A guy like that really isn’t weird at all.

My final caveat is to stay away from the living. Their stories aren’t over. 35 years ago, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would have been a shoe-in for such a list. He exhibited all the strange behavior of a great weirdo. He was a paranoid, reclusive genius who often did unpredictable and bizarre things. So what happened? . Today he’s a man dealing with mental illness while still performing quality pop music. I wouldn’t dare call Brian Wilson a weirdo now.

Brian Wilson performing in 2012
Brian Wilson performing in 2012
Still, I want it to be an honor (to some extent) to make it onto this list. So before we move to my top twenty we will need to list Woot’s top 50 Weirdos. Please click over to Woot for some fascinating stuff.

50. Pete Parisi 49. John Humphrey Noyes 48. John “Frenchy” Fuqua 47. Aaron Burr 46. Doc Dart 45. Gene Ray 44. Carry A. Nation 43. Wild Man Fischer 42. Charles Ponzi 41. Maryjean Ballner 40. Crispin Glover 39. Rube Waddell 38. Marjoe Gortner 37. The Ultimate Warrior 36. Hasil Adkins 35. Francis E. Dec 34. Hedy Lamarr 33. Jim Henson 32. Ignatius Donnelly 31. Iceberg Slim 30. Steve Ditko 29. Petey Greene 28. Father Yod 27. Bobby Fischer 26. Marie Laveau 25. John R. Brinkley 24. H.R. 23. Charles Fort 22. Henry Yesler 21. Dock Ellis 20. Henry Darger 19. Howard Hughes 18. Sky Saxon 17. Edith Beale & Edith Beale 16. Wesley Willis 15. Emperor Norton 14. Jack & Rexella Van Impe 13. G.G. Allin 12. Emily Dickinson 11. Dennis Rodman 10. Jack T. Chick 9. Ed Wood 8. H.P. Lovecraft 7. Prince 6. William S. Burroughs 5. John Brown 4. Edgar Allen Poe 3. Andy Kaufman 2. Woody Guthrie 1. Benjamin Franklin

Not a perfect list. There are some omissions, and some folks in my opinion are either not weird or noteworthy enough to belong. Jim Henson? No way. I think G.G. Allin, revolting punk that he was, doesn’t deserve to be there. Emily Dickenson was a recluse, sure, but is that enough to put her at number 12? And Ben Franklin at number 1? Please. Just because he was sexually promiscuous and liked to try weird ideas on for size every once in a while does not make him worthy of topping such a list. Tune in later for Part 2 of my top twenty Greatest American Weirdos.