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What The Children Of Controversial Historical Figures Had To Say About Them

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Vote up the most captivating accounts from the children of divisive historical figures.

When learning about historical figures, we often see a textbook summary of a few paragraphs detailing key dates, events, and actions that made them historically important. But looking at the textbook version of these figures can make it hard to see them as real, three-dimensional people, with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children of their own.

Whether they went down in history as a hero or a villain (or, as in the case of some of these controversial historical figures, both) they had lives behind the scenes that don't necessarily fit the narrative of their public persona. From political leaders to spies to kingpins to scientists - these polarizing historical figures showed a different side to their families, particularly to the people who called them "Mom" or "Dad."

Some of the children of these big names in history had a lot to say about their parent's legacy, while others struggled to carve their own path away from their famous family name. But no matter what memories were shared, these firsthand accounts from the kids of controversial historical figures made us see them in a whole new light.

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  • Pablo Escobar Advised His Son Not To Do Drugs
    Photo: Sebastián Marroquín / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    At the height of Pablo Escobar's power, he controlled 80% of the international cocaine trade. The Colombian kingpin maintained control over his empire with ruthless acts of violence, assassinating journalists, police, and politicians that stood in his way. Still, Escobar was known to give generously to the community, and is remembered by some Colombians as a Robin Hood-like figure.

    Escobar's son, who changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín, was 16 years old when his father was slain by Colombian National Police in a manhunt in 1993. He recalled:

    I spoke to him ten minutes before. He said, “I’ll call you later.” That was the last time I heard his voice. I didn’t know he was dead until a journalist told me on television. I went mad. I threatened the country and said that if my father was truly dead, I would kill everybody. Of course, I regret those words now.

    Regarding his father's offenses and legacy, Marroquín stated:

    I want to make clear that my father is 100 percent responsible for his criminal acts. But I also want to make clear that, as a father, he was a wonderful man. We were very close friends. He always talked to me very straight and without any doubts.

    In terms of how their lifestyle is portrayed, Marroquín says shows like Narcos aren't very accurate:

    The first years of my life were full of memories like playing soccer with my dad and having big meals together. But, after the assassination [of Colombia’s minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara] we went into hiding and he was often not with us. It wasn’t anything like how the Netflix series Narcos portrays it. 

    Not only does the show glorify the violence in order to make money, but it also gets facts wrong. For instance, we weren’t staying in mansions - where obviously the authorities would be looking - but rather in small and dingy homes. I remember thinking at the time, What’s the use of all my father’s money if he still has to live like this?

    Marroquín also remembered his father's straightforward conversation with him about illicit substances, which made up his business:

    When I was eight years old... he sat me down and told me about drugs. He explained to me every drug that was available and the consequences of doing them. He said, “A great man is the one who doesn’t do drugs.” But he knew I was surrounded by [them]. All my friends had tried them. So he said, “When you become curious about it, just call me and we will do them together.”

    By the time we had this conversation, my father was moving mostly cocaine, a lot of it. It was the biggest business in the world. But the only drug he tried personally was [cannabis]. He never tried heroin because he was very aware of how addictive it could be. He was very aware of that.

    2,322 votes
  • Joseph Stalin's Favorite Daughter Defected From The Soviet Union
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Known to many as one of the biggest mass murderers in history, and to his supporters as a WWII hero, to Svetlana Alliluyeva, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was simply a doting dad.

    Nicknamed the "little princess of the Kremlin" and "little sparrow," Alliluyeva was often said to be her father's favorite child. But things changed after her mother's passing. As a 6-year-old, Alliluyeva was told that her mother had passed of appendicitis; it wasn't until she was 15 that she learned she'd taken her own life.

    In her book Twenty Letters to a Friend, Alliluyeva wrote that "the whole thing nearly drove me out of my mind. Something in me was destroyed. I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father.”

    Alliluyeva subsequently said her father "broke [her] life twice," the first instance being when he sent her older boyfriend, a Jewish journalist named Aleksei Kapler, to a labor camp in the Artic Circle, as he didn't approve of the relationship. The second was when he insisted she pursue history rather than literature and arts, saying "Bohemians!... You want to be with Bohemians?"

    Stalin passed of a stroke in 1953. Though Alliluyeva said she still felt love and grief for her father, she wrote of his passing:

    God grants an easy death only to the just... The death agony was horrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed the very last moment, he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry, and full of the fear of death...

    In 1967, Alliluyeva came to the US and became the Cold War's most famous communist defector. Of her father's notoriety, she told the press:

    Of course I disapprove [of] many things, but I think that many other people who still are in our Central Committee... believe the role should be responsible for the same things for which he alone was accused... if I feel somebody [is] responsible for those horrible things, killing people... [it] was and is the party, the regime, and the ideology as a whole.

    Despite the freedom she sought in the US, Alliluyeva found she could never escape her father's shadow, saying:

    I don't any longer have the pleasant illusion that I can be free of the label "Stalin's daughter." You can't regret your fate, though I do regret my mother didn't marry a carpenter.

    She later told the Wisconsin State Journal, "Wherever I go, here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever, Australia, some island, I always will be a political prisoner of my father's name."

  • Winston Churchill's Daughter Said He 'Always Came First, Second, And Third'
    Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Though heralded as the savior of Britain (and sometimes the world) from fascism, the "bulldog" prime minister, Winston Churchill, had a darker side. His political career was marred by his strong imperialist and reportedly racist views. One notable example was the Bengal famine in 1943, when Churchill refused to send aid as millions of Indians under British rule starved to death, which he blamed on them for "breeding like rabbits." 

    Churchill's youngest daughter, Mary Soames, described her father as a "very self-centred" man who "lived life on his own terms." She recalled that as a child she was mostly left in the care of her mother's cousin, "Nana," as her father's career dominated her mother's life: 

    When it came to holidays... it was always Nana who took me. Holidays are a great part of childhood, and that is where Mummy lost out because of the intensity of her life with Father. He always came first, second, and third.

    Of her parent's marriage, Soames remembered:

    Mummy could be very freezing and cutting if she was angry. Yet she wasn’t at all a cold figure. Underneath, she was really boiling with passion. She once threw a dish of spinach at my father, though she wasn’t a bad-tempered woman and recovered very quickly. Father, on the other hand, was frightfully noisy when he lost his temper...

    My parents weren’t social. Their world was a trade world. One lived one’s life by the sitting and rising of the House of Commons. They weren’t part of society - their friends came mainly from politics... And they despised cafe society.

    It was during the 1930s, Soames said, that she "became aware of the great issues in which my parents were involved." When WWII broke out, she was 17, and joined a mixed-sex anti-aircraft unit. Her father, who Soames said had always treated her as an intelligent adult, believed that too many men were being used to operate anti-aircraft batteries when women could do the job instead. Her biggest trouble came when transferring to a new unit:

    I knew they’d be saying: "Here’s Churchill’s daughter - she won’t be scrubbing any floors!" You had to start all over again and make the point that you weren’t just there to polish your nails. It was much easier when I was in the ranks. Once you were an officer, it was far more of a struggle to be accepted. I remember my terror whenever I was sent to a new unit.

    Soames would go on to play an important role in the years to come, serving as her father's personal aide at summit conferences, including the 1945 Potsdam Conference attended by Churchill, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin.

  • Albert Einstein Could Be Cold And Aloof Or Loving And Involved
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Known for his theories of relativity, Albert Einstein is renowned beyond the world of physics as one of the brightest minds in history. But a closer look at Einstein's personal life shows a darker side to the physicist. His treatment of his first wife, Mileva Maric, can be gleaned from his letters:

    A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances... You will expect no affection from me... You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.

    Though Einstein could reportedly be similarly cruel and aloof toward his two sons with Maric, Hans Albert and Eduard, in other instances he was a loving and involved father. According to Hans Albert:

    When my mother was busy around the house, father would put aside his work and watch over us for hours, bouncing us on his knee... I remember he would tell us stories - and he often played the violin in an effort to keep us quiet.

    As detailed in Walter Isaacson's biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Einstein and Hans Albert later had a rift over Hans Albert's marriage; Einstein deemed his son's older wife to be a scheming and unattractive woman who wouldn't produce physically suitable offspring. However, Einstein eventually grew to accept his son's wife. 

    Einstein's younger son, Eduard, had mental health issues and spent much of his later life institutionalized. Of his father, Eduard said, "It’s at times difficult to have such an important father because one feels so unimportant." He also said his dad wasn't always the most generous with his affection, recalling, "I often sent my father rather rapturous letters, and several times got worried afterwards because he was of a cooler disposition... I learned only a lot later how much he treasured them."

    As for being the son of such a lauded figure, Hans Albert once said:

    It would have been nerve racking if, early in life, I didn't learn how to laugh off the bother of it. What made my father extraordinary, I think, was the tenacity with which he would pursue certain problems even after they worked out wrong. He would always try and try again...

    Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me. He tried to give me advice, but he soon discovered that I was too stubborn and that he was just wasting his time.

  • George W. Bush Wanted His Daughters To Have Normal Lives
    Photo: Records of the White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    George W. Bush's presidency was controversial from the start - an extremely tight race against Al Gore put Bush in office even though he lost the popular vote. During his presidency, Bush became increasingly popular in the aftermath of 9/11; however, this waned after the US invaded Iraq in search of "weapons of mass destruction" that never appeared. He was also criticized for his response to another disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which struck while Bush was on vacation.

    Bush's daughters, fraternal twins Jenna and Barbara, faced their own issues in the spotlight as part of the first family. Both women, who were 19 when their father became president, were caught drinking underage early on in his term. After the media had a field day, Jenna later reflected on how her father reacted: 

    He apologized to me because what we wanted more than anything was to just be normal college kids. So he always would say, "No, you can be normal." He also wanted to give us what we wanted, some space and to grow, and also I think he wanted to give us the chance to make mistakes, not so publicly. He said, "I'm sorry. I promised you you could be normal, and this isn't normal."

    Jenna also stated that even while serving as president:

    [H]is whole thing was like, "Y'all can be normal college kids. You go be you," and then he realized pretty soon after that that we really couldn't be normal college kids. His reactions were always filled with grace and love. He wasn't the type to shame us for acting silly.

  • Margaret Thatcher's Daughter Felt Like Second Best
    Photo: White House photo office / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    "The Iron Lady" managed to go down in history as one of Britain's most beloved prime ministers, yet also one of its most reviled. While some grew rich from her economic policies, her shutdown of industrial unions made her an enemy of the left. 

    In addition to her political career, Thatcher apparently took on a domestic role at home. According to her daughter, Carol:

    All my childhood memories of my mother were just someone who was superwoman before the phrase had been invented. She was always flat out, she never relaxed, household chores were done at breakneck speed in order to get back to the parliamentary correspondence or get on with making up a speech.

    This breakneck speed wasn't without its drawbacks, however. Carol told The Guardian, "My mother was prone to calling me by her secretaries' names and working through each of them until she got to Carol."

    Carol's twin brother, Mark, was rumored to be favored by Thatcher, a claim Carol seems to back up, saying, "He was always more glamorous... In comparison, I was one-dimensional and dull."

    Later in life, when Thatcher bemoaned that she didn't get to see her children much, Carol responded:

    A mother cannot reasonably expect her grown-up children to boomerang back, gushing cosiness and make up for lost time. Absentee Mum, then Gran in overdrive is not an equation that balances.

    Mark and Carol's relationship appears to be strained in more recent years, particularly after a 2015 disagreement over the auctioning off of their late mother's possessions.