Historical figures tend to become one-dimensional in our minds over time. We remember Princess Diana’s beauty and generosity, Andy Warhol’s artistic genius and George Gershwin’s unmistakable melodies, but we don’t always acknowledge their personal struggles. Veteran journalist Claudia Kalb asks us to do just that in Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder, a collection of 12 seemingly disparate stories of luminaries in architecture, science, politics and more.
While none of Kalb’s individual mini-biographies is startling on its own (we’re hardly surprised to learn that President Lincoln faced depression), when combined, they raise some interesting questions, among them whether mental illness and creative genius are intimate bedfellows. When we read about the endless collection of detritus left behind by Warhol, for instance, we may recognize a hoarding disorder, but also a man who saw objects in a different light and treated them with a reverence many of us do not. We wonder if Frank Lloyd Wright could have continued to create his unique architecture through years of financial ruin if he hadn’t had some sort of narcissism driving his work.
Kalb doesn’t just look at the possible positive effect of mental illness on creativity, though. She also examines the ways psychological disturbances can tragically cut short creative endeavors. From Marilyn Monroe to Howard Hughes, Kalb shows how early experiences may have set the stage for an ultimate breakdown. We don’t come away wishing mental illness on anyone, only discovering that it can, indeed, happen to even the most talented among us.