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)


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)


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.

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)


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.

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)


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.

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.

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 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)


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.

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…

Author: rcspeck

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I'm a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I'm finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don't be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

One thought on “The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 2”

  1. Great choices so far! Some of the Florence Foster Jenkins recordings are also available on an LP entitled “The Glory (????) of the Human Voice: A Faust Travesty”. And you left out the best thing about her: supposedly her last words were “It must’ve been the creamed chicken,” which is so completely ridiculous but fitting.

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