There’s a quote attributed to EB White that goes, “Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” The list below appears to confirm that, with stories about geniuses who disappeared, geniuses who vanished, and, yes, some geniuses who seem to be some flavor of what people used to call, insensitively, “crazy.”
But the plural of anecdote, as they say, isn’t data. These so-called mad geniuses aren’t a homogeneous group of crackpots. Some of these geniuses went into hiding for perfectly sensible reasons, such as to flee the Gestapo or avoid pushy and privacy-invading press. Others simply vanished without a trace, leaving behind a mystery as looming as the brilliant work they left behind.
- Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain
Chaim Soutine, an acclaimed Russian Expressionist painter of Belarusian-Jewish origin, vanished from Paris and the public eye in 1941 to escape the Gestapo. For two years, he traveled, battling a stomach ulcer, with his girlfriend Marie-Berthe Aurenche, sleeping in forests, bouncing from hotel-to-hotel, constantly changing accommodations to avoid detection.
The art world discovered his whereabouts in 1943, after Aurenche took more than 24 hours to stealthily drive him 200 miles back to Paris for treatment for his ulcer (they did not trust any local doctors where they were hiding). Soutine died of internal bleeding on August 9, 1943.
Known best for his vivid paintings of animal carcasses, Soutine’s work was wildly popular in New York during the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was championed as a genius by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani (responsible for the portrait of Soutine above) as early as 1917, but his work didn’t find acclaim until a prominent American collector purchased all of his work at once in 1922 (now permanently on display at a museum in Merion, PA).
Child Prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett Vanished Without a TraceVideo: YouTube
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett disappeared in 1939, at age 26, following a fight with her husband. She has never been seen again. Follett famously authored a novel, The House Without Windows, at age 12. It garnered near-unanimous praise. Anne Carroll Moore, of the New York Herald Tribune, found the story “exquisite,” but wrote, “I can conceive of no greater handicap for the writer between the ages of 19 and 39 than to have published a successful book between the age of nine and 12.” Moore wondered what price young Follett would “pay for her ‘big days’ at the typewriter?”
Follett authored follow-up The Voyage of the Norman D. the next year (“a fine, sustained, and vivid piece of writing”—The Saturday Review), but the week before publication, her father left her and her mother to live with a younger woman. Follett found work as a typist to make up for the income her father took with him. By age 20, she had written two more books, but had no editor and no high school diploma, making it hard to find work.
Follett married outdoorsman Nickerson Rogers in '34, and found happiness backpacking through Europe and taking dance classes. But in 1939, she wrote to a friend that Nick was cheating on her. On December 7, she disappeared forever, just the character Eepersip from The House Without Windows. Rogers later said he expected her to return, which is why it took him weeks to tell police. The media didn’t learn about Follett’s disappearance until 1966, because Rogers didn’t list her maiden name in the missing person report.
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Evolutionary biologist Margie Profet spent the '80s and early ‘90s publishing controversial, but influential, work regarding menstruation, morning sickness, and allergies, including the groundbreaking idea that menstruation has a function, and isn’t just a by-product. She won the six-figure MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” prize in 1993. In 2005, still living off the prize, she cut ties with her friends and family, and was considered a missing person.
Profet, amazingly, resurfaced and reunited with her family in 2012, thanks in large part to a feature in Psychology Today. She said she did not know anyone was looking for her, and had been in “severe physical pain” for years due to an undisclosed illness. She said she didn’t disclose her whereabouts or condition, because she didn’t want to trouble anyone. Unable to work because of the pain, she spent several years in poverty, “sustained largely by the religion she had come to early in the decade.” It’s unclear what that religion is.
- Photo: Kanijoman / Flickr
Theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana (1906-1938?) was considered one of the most deeply brilliant men in the world by Enrico Fermi, creator of the first nuclear reactor. Fermi even compared Majorana to Galileo and Newton. So the scientific community was shocked to learn Majorana disappeared without a trace in 1938, shortly after traveling on a ship headed from Palermo to Naples.
There are many theories as to what happened to Majorana, but no real evidence to back them up. Suicide is a popular theory. He wrote a letter to a friend saying he “made a decision that has become unavoidable,” but later sent another letter saying, “Don’t think I’m like an Ibsen heroine, because the case if different. I’m at your disposal for further details.”
Some think Majorana may have been killed by Nazis, joined a monastery, or just decided to start a new life (he did drain his bank account the day before he disappeared).