Some people handle fame and fortune very differently than one might think. It isn’t all glamour and happiness. For some, money and status is a torturing, inescapable hell that drives people beyond the realm of sanity. For others, it is just a means to an end; a way to support lavish lifestyles and dreams.
It is always interesting to see how people react to fame and fortune. Some people embrace the spotlight, some people shy away and slink off into infinite obscurity, becoming little more than a shell of their former self. It isn’t always wealth or fortune that drives people over the edge, and everyone who becomes reclusive isn’t insane. Far from it, in fact, as some fortunate ones hide themselves away to retain their sanity, away from the public eye.
This is a list of ten of the most popular - or at least bizarre - wealthy recluses in society’s collective memory, with some back story and (hopefully) some explanation as to why they do what they do.
10 Amancio Ortega
Amancio Ortega is currently the third richest person on the planet, worth $64 billion. The Spanish billionaire is best known as the founding chairman of the Inditex fashion group, with the world’s largest clothing and apparel chain, Zara, being its flagship company. Besides his wealth - and maybe because of it - Ortega is a low-profile executive with some quirks.
Up until 1999, no photograph of him had ever been published. He goes to the same coffee shop everyday and eats lunch in his company’s cafeteria with his employees. He wears a simple blazer and gray pants to work (none of which are Zara’s products), and he refuses to wear ties. His rag-to-riches story and his extreme secrecy have even led to books being published about him.
9 Dave Chappelle
In 2006, Dave Chappelle was called “The comic genius of America” by Esquire. Things turned upside-down for the comic after his early retirement from his smash-hit comedy series, Chappelle’s Show. Chappelle famously left during production of the third season, because he was unhappy about the direction the show had taken and about his celebrity status.
In 2005, Chappelle went to South Africa, where he became a recluse for several weeks, out of the eyes of the media. Tabloids speculated that his departure was caused by drug addiction, mental health issues, or an outright conspiracy by black leaders to force him out of comedy.
In 2010, TMZ reported that Chappelle faced more issues after “freaking out” and “grabbing the pilot’s arm” in a private flight from New Jersey to Ohio. Considering that no criminal charges were filed and the stringent regulations of passenger behavior after 9/11, this incident (and subsequent coverage) appears to be part of an ongoing narrative created and perpetuated by the media to depict him as an unstable drug addict. Despite all of the allegations of crack-smoking and mental health problems, Chappelle has continuously cried false on any sort of “meltdown.” I, for one, believe him.
8 Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett was the musical visionary behind Pink Floyd. He co-created the psychedelic band and dominated the front-line as lead singer and lead guitar for their first few years. In 1968 he left Floyd and was briefly hospitalized for mental health issues that were aggravated by overuse of psychedelic drugs. Barrett’s gradual implosion and instability were hinted at in his music long before he left the band.
Before leaving Pink Floyd and recording two solo albums, Barrett was known to wander around aimlessly on stage, staring at his guitar like he’d never seen one before. He was hard to follow, musically, constantly rearranging and rephrasing his compositions. All of this was disheartening for the band. His dementia and onstage paralysis soon crumbled into outright shell-shock. He became reclusive in 1978, lived off of Pink Floyd royalties, and for 30 years lived out of the public eye in his mother’s house until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2006. He spent his time by gardening and painting and being absorbed (or trapped) in his own mind.
7 Huguette Clark
Huguette Clark was a Manhattan billionaire and philanthropist, born in 1906. She died in 2011 at the age of 104 and left behind a fortune of over $500 million. Her source of riches came from her father, the copper tycoon William Clark, who was second in wealth only to the oil mogul John Rockefeller.
Huguette spent most of her time with her dolls and playing her violins (including The Virgin, one of the most prized Stradivari in the world). Her reasons for becoming a recluse are unknown. Some speculate it was the death of her elder sister in 1919, or of her mother in 1963, her divorce in 1930, or simply her wealth. Regardless, she spent the last 22 years of her life living in a hospital, under false names, rather than one of her three enormous mansions that were strangely kept immaculate. She detached herself from relatives and only allowed her lawyer and her accountant to visit her. She once called money “The menace of happiness.”
6 Ida Mayfield Wood
Perhaps the least famous recluse on this list, Ida Mayfield Wood’s story is one of the most spectacular. After this Southern belle turned into a New York socialite by marrying Benjamin Wood in the 1850s, she gained access to the cultural elite, and excelled at saving and making money through stocks. At the height of the Financial Panic of 1907, Ida withdrew the balance of her account, nearly $1 million, and stuffed it into a bag. She declared she was “tired of everything,” and checked into the Herald Square Hotel and vanished from public.
At Herald Square, she would scream that she was a prisoner in her own home, complained about the expensiveness of the food her nurses brought her, lived off of milk, crackers, bacon, eggs, raw fish, and Cuban cigars, and would smear petroleum jelly all over her face everyday for hours. She didn’t bathe for years. People thought she was senile.
It wasn’t until her death in 1932 that the truth was learned: Her father wasn’t the sugar tycoon Henry Mayfield, but a poor Irish immigrant. Ida’s real name was Ellen Walsh. Her daughter with Ben Wood wasn’t her daughter at all, but her sister. Everything about her was a fraud - she invented her identity - except for her wealth, when her bag of $1 million was found after her death.
5 Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick is one of the most influential filmmakers in history. He broke new ground in nearly every field, from visual effects and realism in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to his depiction of violence in A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, horror and cinematography in The Shining, and the list goes on.
Despite his success, Kubrick was very low-profile. A British man named Alan Conway successfully impersonated him for years because Kubrick’s appearance wasn’t well known. Biographer Vincent LoBrutto said that his privacy led to stories about his reclusiveness that produced “...a mythology more than a man.” Regardless of his privacy, he was actually a proud family man with three daughters. The filmmaker simply hated being filmed himself. Matthew Modine from Full Metal Jacket explained it like this: “He becomes like the Great and Powerful Oz. This image of Stanley Kubrick is projected onto our consciousness, but he was just a menschy Jewish kid from the Bronx who was hiding behind a curtain.”
4 JD Salinger
Famed author of The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger was a recluse for half of a century, giving his last public interview in 1980. After the success of Catcher, Salinger became reclusive and struggled with unwanted public scrutiny and attention. Salinger adhered to the spiritual, medical, and nutritional tenets of Christian Science. Salinger wrote about privacy, saying that a “writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.” Salinger famously wrote for his own pleasure, and hated publishing, seeing it as “a damned interruption.”
3 Emily Dickinson
Though Emily Dickinson was born to a well to-do family with strong ties, she herself was not very wealthy in her lifetime. Nonetheless, Dickinson is seen as one of America’s most influential poets, and her reclusive lifestyle is deserving of mention on this list. Only a dozen of her cache of over 800 poems were published during her lifetime.
In the early 1860s, Dickinson lived a reclusive life that spurred her creativity, being her most productive years. She took care of her beloved, bedridden mother, which could be one reason for her reclusive lifestyle. Others believed her to be agoraphobic, epileptic, or simply having a “nervous prostrate.” She dealt with death constantly, in her writing and in her family, and she was known for exclusively wearing white dresses in her adult life.
As early as 1867 she would speak to visitors from the other side of her door, and correspond via letters rather than speaking face-to-face. In her life she was known as a gardener more so than a poet. Dickinson died in 1886, and, per her request, her sister Lavinia burned most of her correspondences. Luckily, after finding her notebooks of over 800 poems, Lavinia did not burn these, but instead became obsessed with seeing them published.
2 Nikola Tesla
Tesla, the archetypal “mad scientist,” is one of America’s most well-known inventors, having obtained 300 patents in his lifetime. Beyond his inventions, Tesla had some very peculiar traits. For most of his later life he lived as a recluse in a New York hotel.
He would eat dinner at 8:10 every night, at the same restaurant, usually dining alone. He would squish his toes 100 times for each foot every night, claiming that it stimulated his brain. He walked from the New York hotel where he lived to a park everyday to feed pigeons and take care of injured ones, even inventing a device to support their broken bones or wings. He fell in love with a particular white pigeon, as though it were a woman, claiming that the bird gave his life purpose.
In his later years he lived on milk, bread, honey, and vegetable juices. He spoke eight languages and had an eidetic memory, often memorizing whole books. He claimed to never sleep more than two hours. He hated jewelry, round objects, and overweight people, wouldn’t shake hands or touch hair, and was obsessed with the number three: He’d walk around a block three times before entering a building, and he’d demand 18 napkins at dinner.
1 Howard Hughes
Possibly the most famous recluse in recent history, Hughes was a business magnate, an aviator a filmmaker and philanthropist. He gained prominence in Hollywood in the late 1920s, and was one of the most influential aviators in history. He was also one of the wealthiest and most public people in the world.
Hughes is most remembered, however, for his abnormal and reclusive behavior in later life, caused partly by OCD and chronic pain from numerous airplane accidents. A year after one near-fatal crash in 1946, Hughes stayed in his studio’s darkened screening room for over four months, never leaving. He lived entirely on chocolate bars, chicken, and milk. When he emerged in 1948, his hygiene was terrible, as he hadn’t bathed or cut his hair or nails for weeks. He hid himself away in the top floor of several Las Vegas hotels and would sit naked in his bedroom watching movies. He always ordered steak, potatoes, and peas, but had a special fork to remove the smallest peas.
One of the most glamorous people in the world became an unrecognizable recluse for the last 20 years of his life. Entire movies and lists could be written about Hughes’ strange lifestyle alone (and there have been), but, for now, take our word for it when we say that this was one weird dude.