“As a young man, he was totally asexual,” Luis Buñuel recalled of Salvador Dalí, elaborating in a parenthetical comment, “Of course, he’s seduced many, particularly American heiresses; but those seductions usually entailed stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the women’s shoulders, and, without a word, showing them to the door.”
Primo Levi wrote that at Auschwitz “a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of” members of the Special Squad, inmates of the concentration camp who were forced to work the crematoriums, “and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration.” One such inmate said, “Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.”
In An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, published in 1785, physician and Founding Father Benjamin Rush wrote that drunkenness, an “odious disease (for by that name it should be called),” appeared with, among other symptoms, “unusual garrulity…unusual silence…a disposition to quarrel…uncommon good humor and an insipid simpering or laugh…disclosure of their own or other people’s secrets…a rude disposition to tell those persons in company whom they know, their faults…certain extravagant acts which indicate a temporary fit of madness.”
Ezra Pound began his radio broadcasts for Benito Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture on January 21, 1941. Familiar with his friend’s admiration for fascism and his vocal anti-Semitism, William Carlos Williams wrote him on November 26 of that year, asking, “Can’t you see that every word you utter reveals to any intelligent and well-informed man that you know nothing at all?…You’re a wonder. Barnum missed something when he missed you.” Postal delivery to Italy was halted in December; the letter was returned to its sender. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted Pound for treason on July 26, 1943.
Samuel Johnson enlisted Tobias Smollett, author of Roderick Random, to help rescue Johnson’s “Negro servant Francis Barber” from naval service—“a state of life,” as James Boswell wrote, “of which Johnson always expressed the utmost abhorrence.” Johnson once said, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” At another time he claimed, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”
In Moscow in 1921, a group of actors formed the Blue Blouses, a theater company that acted out scenarios from the news. Their success inspired the creation of many similar amateur troupes. One joke that emerged from the movement went: Bim and Bom were the most popular clowns in revolutionary Moscow. Bim came out with a picture of Lenin and one of Trotsky. “I’ve got two beautiful portraits,” he announced, “I’m going to take them home with me!” Bom asked, “What will you do with them when you get home?” “Oh, I’ll hang Lenin and put Trotsky against the wall.”
Gone to Greece to fight for the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule, Lord Byron, who financed a fighting force, noted in his journal on September 28, 1823, that he “did not come to join a faction but a nation—and to deal with honest men” and was dismayed to find that “they are such d——d liars; there never was such an incapacity for veracity shown since Eve lived in Paradise.” Nevertheless, he died there on April 19, 1824, after contracting a fever.
On June 15, 1904, a fire broke out on the General Slocum, a steamboat crossing the East River with over thirteen hundred passengers on board, and it sank. Few of the passengers could swim, most were wearing thick layers of clothes, and the life vests were faulty. An estimated 1,021 people died—the deadliest day in New York City’s history until September 11, 2001.
The Cincinnati Commercial complained in 1871 about the game of fly loo, a “detestable canker that destroys men’s souls.” Players selected sugar lumps and bet on which would attract a fly first. “Every afternoon from twenty to thirty of the very flower of our mercantile population retire to a private room and under locks and bolts give themselves up to this satanic game,” the article noted, “while the deserted ladies are languishing for a little male conversation below.”
Analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked in 1926 by his youngest sister to help plan her new house. He quickly became obsessed, taking a year to design the door handles, another for the radiators. Near the project’s completion, he demanded the ceiling be raised thirty millimeters to achieve his desired proportions. “It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods,” wrote another Wittgenstein sister, “than for a small mortal like me.”