In the grand scheme of things, America is still a very young country—yet its contributions to the world are almost unparalleled in the modern era. Whether through science and technology, arts and entertainment, business and economics, or philosophy and academia, the United States has produced some truly legendary individuals in almost every major area. However, just because certain people happen to be legendary in one aspect of life does not mean that they are so in all of them—on the contrary, many legends’ lives outside of the public eye are chaotic, tragic, mysterious, or just plain weird. From the shocking to the unbelievable and everything in between, here are explosive facts about the secret lives of American legends and what the public might not know about them.
1. What Would Huck Finn Do?
Mark Twain is one of America’s all-time favorite authors and humorists, but his life was not all fun and games. He lost his younger brother in a tragic 1858 steamboat accident—a disaster which Twain claimed to have foreseen in a nightmare a month prior. This mysterious and sad episode sparked the writer’s lifelong interest in paranormal psychology.
2. By Design
Although he is likely the most successful architect in American history, Frank Lloyd Wright largely failed to reap the rewards of his success during his lifetime. Thanks to his tendency to spend all his earnings on expensive clothing and cars, Wright spent much of his adult life penniless and on the verge of bankruptcy.
3. School Didn’t Get in the Way of Their Education
Orville and Wilbur Wright, AKA the Wright Brothers, invented the first airplane yet both failed to complete high school. After Wilbur was injured playing hockey, he dropped out of school. Soon after, his brother followed suit.
4. Tooth, Justice, and the American Way
Although myths and legends would make it seem like George Washington had superhuman physical strength, America’s first president had a lifelong struggle with poor dental health and had to wear dentures of one kind or another for this entire adult life.
5. Unlike Father, Unlike Son
Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is a figure of unparalleled fame in American history, but even with all he contributed to society, scandal plagued his life. The revolutionary philosopher and inventor fathered a child out of wedlock. He never let the public find out who the mother was, and he was very secretive about how young William came to be.
After raising the child with his wife, Deborah, the father and son had a falling out over the fact that, believe it or not, the younger Franklin became an anti-revolutionary activist and supporter of the British monarchy that his father dedicated his life to fighting. The feud between them was so serious that Benjamin actually cut William out of his will over this issue!
6. A Jobs Well Done?
Despite being one of the richest businessmen in American history, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs never donated a single penny of his money to charity.
7. Just Made It
American pilot Charles Lindbergh is famous for pulling off the world’s first ever transatlantic flight—yet few people are aware that his heroic journey nearly ended in disaster. The legendary flyer not only had trouble staying awake during the long flight, but even started hallucinating after a while. He ended up intentionally trying to nudge the ocean with the front of his plane, hoping to splash water onto his face and snap himself out of it.
8. Big Brother Is Watching You
Many believe that J. Edgar Hoover owned the world’s largest collection of “adult” photos. As the first and most influential Director of the FBI, he secretly used his power to acquire and store naked images of as many people as he possibly could—especially celebrities.
9. That’s How It Always Starts
For almost a century, rumors have alleged that Joe Kennedy Sr., the patriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, initially earned his family’s fortune through bootlegging of alcohol.
10. Fake News
As the founder of the Ford Motor Company and a pioneer of mass car production, Henry Ford is one of the all-time symbols of American ingenuity and achievement. Unfortunately, Ford also published a newspaper famous for frequently arguing that a conspiracy to damage the United States was taking place within the country’s Jewish community.
11. One Heck of a Story
Classic American author Ernest Hemingway thought that the FBI was spying on him. Many think that tis paranoia likely contributed to his eventual decision to commit suicide. Although many dismissed his strange suspicions during his lifetime, later, the disturbing truth came out. Research uncovered that the FBI actually did have a secret file on the writer!
12. What Did You Just Say??
Despite having created some of the world’s first audio recording devices, inventor Thomas Edison was completely deaf in one ear and extremely hard of hearing in the other.
13. Beating the Market
Today, most people recognize Nebraska’s Warren Buffett as the greatest and most respected stock market investor of all time—however, his talents were not always this appreciated. As a young man, admissions rejected his application to Harvard Business School due to the fact that he did not come across as a “leader.”
14. Movie Night
Woodrow Wilson, the president whose leadership guided America to victory during WWI, once held a private White House screening of Birth of a Nation—a film that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan hate group.
15. Seeing the Future?
One of the most important names in American music history is rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly. Although he only lived for 22 years, his life was not without its mysterious side. Just a few weeks before the fatal plane crash that would take his young life, both Holly and his wife woke up distressed in the middle of the night.
They had each simultaneously experienced nightmares involving plane crashes and explosions that separated them from one another. Little did either of them realize how eerily creepy this would soon become…
16. That Old Gang of Mine
Despite being America’s most famous hardened gangster of all time, the notorious Al Capone also had a soft side. When he wasn’t too busy organizing massacres against his rivals, Capone ran a Chicago soup kitchen to feed the city’s neediest citizens during the Great Depression.
17. It’s a Miracle
John D. Rockefeller was America’s original success story, starting from humble beginnings and becoming one of the richest and most influential people in the world by the late 19th century. And when I say humble beginnings, believe me—I do mean very humble! In fact, the oil mogul turned philanthropist’s father was a professional con artist.
He traveled from town to town with his young son selling snake oil and other useless “miracle potions” to unsuspecting victims.
18. What Gives You the Right?!
In addition to serving as America’s fourth president, James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution.” This might seem ironic after you read this next fact! Madison actually opposed the idea of creating a Bill of Rights to include in the nation’s founding document.
19. Always Fight for What You Don’t Believe In
Most of us know that in the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant led the Northern army while General Robert E. Lee led the South in what would ultimately become the fight to abolish slavery. Amazingly, though, each of these men privately agreed with the opposing side’s view on the issue of slavery! Grant denied supporting the idea of abolishing slavery, while Lee considered the practice a moral wrong.
20. All in the Family
Although they are one of the most famous First Couples in American history, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were actually related to each other—fifth cousins once removed, to be precise. On the bright side, at least Eleanor never had to choose between her maiden name and her married name!
21. Making Himself at Home
Legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright once had an affair with the wife of a client—even abandoning his own family and shipping out to Germany to spend some time with her.
22. She Can Do Better
Many people name Jackie Kennedy as America’s favorite First Lady—yet she almost missed her chance to be. Prior to her marriage to JFK, Jackie had been engaged to a stockbroker. Luckily for all fans of hers, she decided to call the wedding plans off after determining that her fiancé was “boring and immature.”
23. Kindred Spirits
President Abraham Lincoln allowed mediums to perform mystical seances in the White House during his presidency. It was mostly to humor his wife, Mary Todd, and her fascination with “spiritualism.”
24. I Put a Spell on You
The public has long wondered whether some kind of supernatural hex hangs over America’s most famous political clan, the Kennedys—after all, how else can one explain so many assassinations, fluke deaths, and tragic accidents in one family? Well, according to some, this theory may not be so far off—an urban legend going back to the 1930s claims that Joe Kennedy Sr., the patriarch of the family, had a fight with a mystical rabbi during a boat ride.
In response, the rabbi allegedly placed a curse on Kennedy and his children, “damning him and all his male offspring to tragic fates.”
25. Saved by the Bell
Legendary jazz performer Louis Armstrong thought he was in big trouble when security guards selected him for bag inspection at a New York airport in 1958. He had a stash of pot hidden inside his luggage. Luckily, then-Vice President Richard Nixon spotted him in line just before the search was to begin. Outraged that airport officials would treat an American legend, Nixon volunteered to personally carry Armstrong’s bag through customs.
So yes, a very conservative future president once unwittingly took pot across the U.S. border, thanks to a very liberal jazz legend.
26. A Pretty Big Coincidence
America’s second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both passed on the same day in 1826 just hours apart from one another. As surprising as that may be, it gets even crazier. The date that these two Founding Fathers both passed on? The Fourth of July.
27. A Close Call
The world was shocked and saddened when someone assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Little did most people realize, this was not the first time that someone had attempted to take his life. Ten years earlier, someone viciously attacked King at a New York City book signing. Had he passed on that day, as he almost did, the world would never have heard his famous “I Have a Dream” speech or seen his leadership make the Civil Rights Act a reality.
28. Gold Rush
Frederick Law Olmsted is easily one of America’s most influential visionaries of all time. He designed Central Park, the Capitol Hill landscape, the Niagara Reservation, and many other iconic settings in both the United States and Canada, Although his expertise in landscape architecture took many years of dedication to perfect, the process was not without its little blips.
Olmsted briefly took a leave of absence from his designing career to travel west and try his hand at gold mining. Unfortunately for his hopes of quick riches, the venture was not successful.
29. What Happens in Vegas
Bugsy Siegel is one of America’s deadliest gangsters of all time. Nevertheless, in the late 1940s, he wanted to join a legitimate business venture that could help reform his lifestyle and public image. In the end, he selected the fledgling casino and hotel industry in what would ultimately become the Las Vegas Strip.
So yes, that means that every time you take a trip to “Fabulous Las Vegas,” you have a murderous gangster to thank!
30. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Slaves?
Despite being an important Founding Father of the United States and the man who famously preached democracy and equality in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson not only kept dozens of slaves, but even dated one of them. Many question whether such a relationship could be considered consensual.
31. We All Love Lucy
Although most of us know Lucille Ball as the “First Lady of Television,” she sadly viewed herself as anything but that in the later years of her life. When an attempt in the 1980s to create a new show for her failed to gain traction, Ball took it very personally. Her insecurity and heartbreak over the feeling of rejection threw her into a devastating emotional struggle that kept her away from the spotlight for much of her later life.
32. The More the Merrier
As one of the pioneers of both jazz and pop music, George Gershwin composed many of the romantic standards that we still enjoy to this day—though he didn’t always live by their messages himself! Gershwin enjoyed chasing after multiple (sometimes married) lovers at a time and living the playboy lifestyle, once responding to the question of why he was single with “Why should I limit myself to only one woman when I can have as many women as I want?”
Seems like a far cry from the lyrics to “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You!”
33. Old Habits Die Hard
George S. Patton was one of America’s leading generals during WWII. However, just because we won the conflict, don’t assume that he wasn’t a pretty weird guy! Patton believed in reincarnation and was vehement that he had personally participated in multiple ancient battles during his previous lives.
34. Don’t Be Cruel
As the “King of Rock and Roll,” there is little that the public does not know about American music legend Elvis Presley. In spite of that, some might not be aware of one particularly odd habit that he had. In his spare time, Presley would sometimes dress up as an officer of the law, pull speeding cars over with the help of a siren, and pretend to give out “tickets” before revealing that the ticket was really an autograph.
Yes, it is against the law to impersonate an officer. No, we don’t know how the surely weirded out victims of this bizarre activity reacted to these antics.
As Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland was one of the most famous stars of Old Hollywood. Unfortunately, her life was not always a happy stroll down the yellow brick road. Garland’s studio bosses forced her to have an unwanted abortion when she was pregnant with what would have been her first child—to ensure that the pregnancy would not affect her ability to perform in upcoming films.
36. Following Doctor’s Orders
Even if the name of voice actor Mel Blanc does not really ring a bell, you are definitely familiar with this legend’s enormous contribution to American pop culture. As the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” Blanc gave the world cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Woody Woodpecker, among countless others.
At the height of his popularity, Blanc got into a horrific car accident that left him in a coma. After remaining unresponsive for two weeks, a doctor jokingly addressed him as Bugs Bunny when asking him how he was feeling one day. Miraculously, at the very mention of the name Bugs Bunny, Blanc suddenly perked up and blurted out, “What’s up, Doc?”—the first words he had spoken since the crash.
Somehow, the memory of his famous character managed to stir him back to consciousness. So, not only do we owe him a debt of gratitude for his characters, but he owes his characters a debt of gratitude too—they may have saved his life!
37. It’s a Small World After All
What can possibly be wrong with Walt Disney, one of the leading pioneers of family-friendly entertainment in American culture? Well, just one month after Kristallnacht—the infamous and deadly “Night of Broken Glass” during the Holocaust—Disney extended a personal invitation to a leading Nazi propagandist and welcomed him to his studios as a personal guest.
38. No Small Feat
The nation’s first president, George Washington, only set foot outside the territory of the United States once in his entire life—he took a trip to Barbados with his brother as a young man, where he contracted smallpox and nearly lost his life more than twenty years prior to the American Revolution.
39. It’s Not How Much You Have, It’s How You Use It!
Although New York’s Vanderbilt family is one of the country’s wealthiest dynasties, they’ve squandered the vast majority of the family’s fortune over the course of the last century. The only family members who have remained wealthy are the ones who have since succeeded in their own new business endeavors.
40. A Pretty Grim Picture
He’s not a cultural icon, but painter Jackson Pollock went through life dirt poor—never earning more than $10,000 for any of the very paintings that now go for hundreds of millions. Pollock was so low on cash that he often resorted to stealing. He could not even afford to travel home to attend his father’s funeral. With that said, his father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned him as a child, so maybe that part wasn’t the end of the world!
41. A Little White Lie
Many people know about Alexander Hamilton thanks to a hit musical. In real life, the Founding Father lied about his age in order to get into Princeton as a “prodigy.”
42. Taking Up a New Interest
In the late 1930s, people weren’t as fond of legendary American aviator Charles Lindbergh as they once had been. Why, you ask? Because, after briefly visiting Germany to escape all the attention, Lindbergh returned as an outspoken Nazi sympathizer who publicly argued against America’s involvement in WWII—on the grounds that it would “destroy the treasures of the white race.” Yikes.
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