Over the years, some of history’s grandest, strangest or greatest people have occasionally crossed paths. Sometimes, their meetings are nothing special. Other times they’re little moments of oddness seemingly designed to beguile and befuddle fans for generations to come. Guess which type this article is about:
10. JD Salinger was Dumped for Charlie Chaplin
In 1941, JD Salinger was a 22-year old kid about to be sent off to war. He was still a decade away from publishing his seminal novel Catcher in the Rye, and wasn’t yet displaying any of the traits that would mark him out as a literary genius.
Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, was one of the most famous men in the world. Aged 52, he’d just finished his career-defining sound comedy The Great Dictator, mocking Adolf Hitler. The two men were at that time so far apart in terms of achievement that even imagining them in the same room is impossible. But Chaplain and Salinger did more than just meet. Days after Salinger was sent to war, Chaplin stole his girlfriend.
At the time, Salinger was seeing Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. She was a mere 16 years old, awkward enough for a 22-year old Salinger, and crazy-young for a middle aged Chaplin. Yet, Oona and Chaplain wound up marrying, and staying together until Chaplin’s death. Salinger meanwhile, was driven by their breakup to start writing Catcher in the Rye. A great moment for world literature, a terrible one for Salinger’s sex life.
9. Hitler Was Nearly Hired as a Scenery Painter by Bertolt Brecht
Around twenty years before Chaplin copped off with Salinger’s girl, the Little Tramp’s evil German double was skulking around Berlin, trying to make it as an artist. For all he would later become a genocidal maniac, Adolf Hitler was at this point more interested in beauty than extermination. He was also interested in making money. This interest led him to apply for a job painting scenery for Bertolt Brecht.
During the Weimar-era, Brecht was one of Germany’s great dramatists. His avant garde plays broke down boundaries and changed what theatre could be. In short, he was a ‘decadent’ artist, the sort the Nazis despised. We’re going to go out on a historical limb here, and suggest that the reason for this hatred might be that Brecht totally refused to hire Hitler.
In a 1990s article, the LA Times wrote of a Weimar-era Brecht production that Hitler was “unfortunately” not hired – suggesting it may have been a close-run thing. However close he really came to working for Brecht, we don’t know, but we like to think Hitler’s terrible interview was the point when he decided to start heaping all his woes on ‘degenerate’ art.
8. Phillip Larkin Sabotaged George Orwell’s Evening
The author of 1984, George Orwell is today widely-admired as one of the greatest writers in the English language. His stock wasn’t always quite so high, though. His socialist beliefs and shabby lifestyle put him at odds with a lot of the British establishment in the 1940s.
Among them was poet Philip Larkin. Then a 19-year old man studying at Oxford, he considered Orwell an absolutely awful writer. So when Orwell came to give a speech at an Oxford club Larkin was a member of, he saw the perfect opportunity to let Orwell know what he thought of him. He didn’t simply tell him. That would have been too kind. Instead, he set out to sabotage Orwell’s evening in the subtlest way possible.
According to Larkin’s own account, he was tasked with taking the great writer to dinner and organizing his hotel. He deliberately chose the crappiest hotel in town, and went out of his way to make dinner suck as badly as possible. To make matters worse, he was also in charge of Dylan Thomas’s simultaneous visit, and gave him the poshest hotel just to make Orwell jealous. Larkin later called it an exercise in “practical criticism.”
7. Groucho Marx Had a Terrible Dinner with TS Eliot
A snobbish intellectual, TS Eliot was known as the greatest poet of his day, thanks to serious, experimental works like The Waste Land. However, there was a side to Eliot no-one knew about. He was a crazy-big Marx Brothers fan. So much so, that he wrote Groucho a letter, begging for a signed portrait.
This is where things get odd. It turned out that Groucho, too, had an unlikely side. He was a wannabee-intellectual, who absolutely adored TS Eliot. After he sent Eliot his portrait, the two became fervent pen pals. Then one day, they made the fateful decision to meet for a dinner date.
The dinner was an absolute disaster. Eliot showed up expecting to hear endless wise crasks, and had prepared his own, awful jokes. Groucho showed up expecting an evening of polite, brainy conversation, and had prepared his own, awful, literary theory on King Lear. When each man realized what the other was after, both sank into a deep despair and refused to engage. After that awful evening, they never spoke to one another again.
6. Arthur Conan Doyle Pushed Houdini Into Skepticism
The name Houdini immediately conjures feats of magic and escapism. In his heyday, though, the magician was nearly as famous for something else. He liked nothing more than to turn up at a psychic reading and tell everyone how the trick was done. For this you can thank Arthur Conan Doyle.
The creator of arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was surprisingly into the supernatural. He believed in ghosts, fairies, and pretty much everything else paranormal. When he first became friends with Houdini, this difference of opinion didn’t bother the two men until, that is, Conan Doyle invited the magician to a séance run by his wife.
For whatever reason, Mrs Conan Doyle decided to try and contact Houdini’s dead mother. Bad move. Houdini could see right through the cheap tricks she was using, and was deeply insulted. It didn’t help that Conan Doyle’s wife produced a letter written in English and told Houdini his mother’s ghost had written it – despite Houdini’s mother knowing nothing about the language. Although Houdini didn’t say anything at the time, the pair later publically fell out over spiritualism, ending their unlikely friendship.
5. Orson Welles Met Hitler, Didn’t Realize Who He Was
Brecht isn’t the only celebrity who once had a run-in with Germany’s most notorious dictator. Before the Nazi party took power, a young Orson Welles was on a school trip to the region when the teacher decided to take his class to a nearby tavern. It just so happened that the tavern was being used as a hall for speeches on fascism and racial purity. As you might expect, the Nazis were present. According to his own account, Orson Welles was ushered in and given a seat. It just so happened that the guy sitting nearest him was Adolf Hitler.
Incredibly, Welles later claimed that sitting next to a genocidal maniac was deeply boring. Apparently Hitler had so little charm or personality, that Welles couldn’t remember a single detail about him. It was only when the Nazis rose to global prominence over a decade later that Welles realized who he’d been sat next to all those years ago.
4. Proust, Joyce, Stravinsky Meet, All Hate Each Other
You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more-stellar gathering than the one that took place in Paris on May 18 1922. Two arts patrons invited the writers Marcel Proust and James Joyce, and the composer Igor Stravinsky, to all come to a 40-person shindig together. It should have been one of the greatest meetings of minds in history. Instead, the three geniuses utterly hated each other.
The trouble began when Joyce rolled in blind drunk at 11pm, wearing disheveled clothes. He promptly fell asleep with a glass of champagne in his hands. Meanwhile, Proust cornered Stravinsky and tried to get him talking about Beethoven, who Stravinsky hated. The two fell out and Proust went and woke Joyce up to talk to him instead.
Almost immediately, they fell out too. Joyce apparently wanted to smoke and talk about pretty girls, while the homosexual Proust would rather eat truffles and talk about duchesses. They wound up insulting one another’s writing, then both had to take a cab home together, thinking the entire way about how much they hated each other.
3. Chaplin and Gandhi Get Awkward Together
When he wasn’t busy stealing other men’s girlfriends, Charlie Chaplin apparently liked to rub shoulders with the great and good. One day, in 1931, he wound up rubbing shoulders with perhaps the greatest and the goodest of them all: Mahatma Gandhi.
The circumstances of the meeting are a little weird. According to Chaplin, Gandhi’s entourage invited him over for a meeting while they were in London. But other accounts claim Gandhi had no idea who Chaplin was and had never heard of his films. However it happened, the two men wound up sitting in a house in London together, surrounded by the press, at which point things got awkward.
Apparently, Chaplin was completely ignorant of Indian politics and had only a vague idea what Gandhi believed in. The crowd of reporters also overwhelmed both men and they couldn’t think of anything to say to one another. In the end, they wound up sitting in silence, before making some awkward, stilted conversation about farm machinery (of all things). On the plus side, apparently Gandhi ended the meeting by saying Chaplin was “a very charming man.”
2. The Graham Greene/Oscar Wilde Connection
English novelist Graham Greene was born in 1904. Oscar Wilde died in 1900. The laws of basic physics would suggest they never met. That’s certainly true, and we’re not trying to con you here. But Wilde did once meet Greene’s father, and the story is so good we thought we’d share it anyway.
It was the late 19th century, and Greene’s father was sharing coffee with another man in Naples. A stranger, who overheard their English, asked to join them. Greene’s father agreed, and for the next hour the stranger charmed them both with his fantastic, witty conversation. As the minutes danced by, he ordered more and more drinks, each of them increasingly expensive. At long last, he got up and gave a flamboyant goodbye and left. It was at this point Greene’s father and his companion finally clicked that they’d been talking to an exiled Oscar Wilde. It was also at this point that they realized he hadn’t left anything for his drinks. The famous playwright had stiffed them for the bill.
Recounting the story in one of his books, Graham Greene took a kinder view. Referring to Wilde’s sparkling conversation, he claimed the impoverished writer had been “paying for his drink in the only currency he had.”
1. JM Barrie’s All-Star Cricket Team
You’re probably aware of fantasy football, where players can create teams composed of history’s greatest players. You may not be aware that its literary equivalent once really happened. In the early 20th century, Peter Pan author JM Barrie decided to create a literary cricket team. It comprised some of the biggest stars the world has ever seen.
Known as the Allahakbarries (after the Islamic cry “Allahu Akhbar” combined with Barrie’s surname), the team was captained by Barrie. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the superstar bowler. Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne shared batting duties with Jeeves and Wooster writer PG Wodehouse. Rounding out the team was Three Men in a Boat author Jerome K Jerome, along with two now-forgotten genre writers who were massive in their day: AEW Mason and EW Hornung. The rest of the team was filled out with politicians and local bigwigs, including the government official who tried to crush the Irish Easter Uprising in 1916.
Crazily, the team could have been even bigger. Both Conan Doyle and JM Barrie were acquaintances of Oscar Wilde, who sadly died before the team was formed. To us, the idea of all these British and Irish superstars enjoying a jolly game of cricket together of a summer’s evening is just lovely. Aww.