This month, we celebrate the lives of two great cultural eccentrics: Albert Einstein and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale. The German-born theoretical physicist, who smoked cigarette butts he picked up off the street, would have been 135 today. Grey Gardens resident Little Edie’s unusual life is being revisited during a Film Forum screening of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert Maysles (who sadly passed away earlier this month) and brother David Maysles. Since Einstein and Little Edie have left us with so many strange and fascinating stories, we’re looking at the lives of other famous eccentrics who did it their way.
The Italian heiress, fashion icon, muse, and arts patroness used her fortune to fund her lavish and eccentric lifestyle in Venice (her former home is now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection). When Casati wasn’t posing for elite artists like Man Ray, Umberto Boccioni, and Erté (it’s said she spent millions on artwork of herself), she was lounging at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal with a menagerie of exotic pets — albino blackbirds, which she dyed different colors, two cheetahs that accompanied her on her outings, and snakes that she often wore as jewelry. Casati’s parties were legendary, and she wore flashy costumes designed by the greatest fashion houses of the time — but she often left the house naked under fur coat. Her servants often wore nothing, their bodies painted in gold leaf. Tall, thin, with a striking pale face, Casati adorned herself with peacock feathers, dyed her hair to match her mood, painted her features with black kohl, and used belladonna eye drops to dilate her pupils. By the 1930s, she was penniless. After she moved to London, she spent what money she had left on booze and “occult trappings,” according to the Telegraph. “Ever the fashionista, she was sometimes seen rummaging through bins for scraps of fabric, dressed in threadbare clothes, a mangy fur hat and a scarf made of newspaper.”
She had no architectural training, but Sarah Winchester designed one of the greatest architectural curiosities ever built. Widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, Sarah believed her family was cursed by the ghosts of people killed with Winchester rifles. After discussing her fate with various spiritualists and mediums, it was determined she should build a house for herself (and the spirits) in California. The catch was, if construction ever stopped on the home, she was told she would die. Day-to-day construction started in 1884 (some say workers were employed in shifts around the clock) and ended with her death in 1922. Winchester’s bizarre design was a complex maze of doors, windows, and staircases that often led to nowhere. The home is now a National Historic Landmark.
English opera house Glyndebourne sits along the countryside of East Sussex and belonged to wealthy opera patron John Christie. The music lover was known for taking out his glass eye during performances or at the dinner table, cleaning it, and putting it back in his eye socket. One summer during an opera performance, Christie sliced the sleeves off his formal dinner jacket when the heat became too much to bear. A proud Germanophile, Christie often wore lederhosen to dinner parties and required his guests to do the same. It’s believed he owned 180 handkerchiefs and 110 shirts, but his favorite fashion item in his closet was a pair of ratty tennis shoes that he often wore with his formal attire.
French avant-garde composer and pianist Erik Satie referred to himself as a phonometrician (someone who measures sound) rather than a musician. He wrote under a female pseudonym (Virginie Lebeau), became the official composer of secret society the Rosicrucian Order, adored velvet suits, and become deeply involved with the Dada movement (he even built a readymade with Man Ray, The Gift). After his death, he left behind hundreds of compositions, stacked inside his residence at Arcueil in Paris, which no one ever visited. There, it was discovered that Satie owned an inordinate number of umbrellas and two grand pianos, stacked on top of one another.
Founder of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, novelist, poet, and actress Dulcie Deamer became Australia’s first female boxing journalist. She was nicknamed the “Queen of Bohemia” during the Roaring Twenties, due to her popularity at the local artist balls and vaudeville scene. Her prized leopard-skin costume is from the 1923 ball, where she performed splits and danced for audiences. She was fascinated by the Stone Age and wrote a number of stories set during the time period. She believed Stone-Age “men were strong and women were even stronger.” Many of her exploits are detailed in her autobiography, The Queen of Bohemia.
Amateur soprano Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t hold a note to save her life, but she regularly performed at clubs and the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. At 76, she performed for a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall. Born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Jenkins took voice lessons that ultimately never improved her singing. But she still took the stage in the most elaborate costumes, which she usually designed herself (using odd materials like tinsel), and wigs. (She lost her hair due to mercury treatments for syphilis, contracted by her first husband she married at 17. He was 16 years her senior.) Critics and audiences were cruel to the tone-deaf singer, but she believed she was just as talented as all the renowned sopranos of the time and shrugged off claims that she was the worst singer in the world.
Known as Le Pétomane, which translates to “fartomaniac,” French entertainer Joseph Pujol was known as a flatulist — a professional farter. Pujol used his abdominal muscles to push air into his rectum, rather than passing intestinal gas. He featured his flatulent act at the Moulin Rouge and other famed Parisian nightspots, during which he would often blow out a candle from several yards away and perform famous songs.
Henry Darger, writer and celebrated outsider artist, became famous after the discovery of his 15,145-page, single-spaced manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, and drawings and paintings of hermaphroditic little girls, illustrating the book. Darger was famously reclusive and lived a simple life as a custodian. He collected trash, wore rags, and attended Catholic Mass daily.
Victorian-era painter Richard Dadd had an obsession with fairies and other magical beings, the subjects of many of his artworks — all finely detailed with miniaturist accents. Dadd believed his father was the devil and eventually murdered him, which saw the artist locked up in asylums for most of his lifetime. After a trip through Egypt, Dadd believed he was under the influence of the god Osiris. Contemporary researchers suggest that Dadd was possibly a paranoid schizophrenic, which contributed to his eccentric behavior.
Screaming Lord Sutch
English musician and founder of the political group the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, Screaming Lord Sutch worked with music luminaries like Keith Moon and fellow eccentric Joe Meek. His shock rock stage show with his band the Raving Savages predates that of Alice Cooper (and modern performers like Marilyn Manson), featuring coffins, bizarre costumes, and bloody antics. The performer campaigned in more than 40 elections and lost them all, proposing to keep pubs open all night and breeding fish in wine so they were already pickled. His American model girlfriend Thann Quantrill helped promote his political party by riding naked on horseback through town.