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10 Famous Writers With Unsavory Second Careers
Writers lead crazy lives. Some, like Hunter S. Thompson or Graham Greene, even make this real-world insanity an integral part of their public image. But then you have the writers who are crazy in ways you wouldn’t have expected. Some writers, in their time away from the typewriter, do stuff most of us would class as morally murky.
10George Orwell Was A Government Informer
Although he was officially a socialist, most people probably associate Orwell with antiauthoritarianism. His most famous novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are dire warnings about state intrusion in our lives, and his terrifying Thought Police satirized government informers in the creepiest way possible. Yet outside his fiction, Orwell wasn’t totally opposed to state interference. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he even helped the British government spy on its own citizens.
In 1949, a frail Orwell volunteered to draw up a list of suspected communists and Russia-sympathizers for the UK’s Foreign Office. Included among the 135 names on Orwell’s list were left-wing government figures, playwrights, poets, the mayor of New York, and Charlie Chaplin. Alongside each one, Orwell scrawled personal information, ranging from comments like “v. stupid” to assumptions about their political leanings and racial background. The annotations were so specific that journalist Alexander Cockburn later claimed they showed a deep mistrust of Jews, black people, and homosexuals.
Although there’s no evidence Orwell’s list was ever used to persecute anyone, it still caused many commentators to question why a man so dedicated to ideas of personal liberty would deliberately spy on his political bedfellows.
9P.G. Wodehouse Was A Nazi Propagandist
Decades after his death, P.G. Wodehouse’s classic comic novels continue to draw in new fans and spawn countless BBC adaptations. In a good year, as many as 44 of his books can still get republished in new editions, an impressive number for an author who once produced broadcasts for Nazi Germany.
In 1941, Wodehouse was living in France when it fell to the Third Reich. Interned and placed in a Berlin prison camp, he was approached by a former Hollywood actor to make broadcasts across the Nazi network. Thinking it a chance to assure his fans he was still alive, Wodehouse agreed. Although his five subsequent broadcasts were famously whimsical and took care not to promote German interests, Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions decided they still may have aided the enemy and issued orders to try the author for treason if he ever returned home.
While Wodehouse lived out the rest of his life as a free man in the USA, files released decades later seem to show he may have accepted German payments for his radio work. To this day, a question mark continues to linger over his true motives in producing the broadcasts.
8Cervantes Was A Hated Tax Collector
Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote invented the modern novel and may have even inspired a lost play by William Shakespeare. But in his time, Cervantes was more than just a brilliant novelist. He was also a hated tax collector who enacted cruel government policies.
In the 1590s, Spain was reeling from the destruction of the Armada at the hands of the British. Desperate to keep up with his Empire-building and New World–conquering, Phillip II levied new taxes against his subjects. Excessive, unfair, and coming on top of an already hefty tax burden, these new taxes devastated the poor, caused resentment among the population, and were eventually increased further under Phillip III.
During this period, Cervantes decided to become a tax collector. It wasn’t easy. The provinces were so furious about the new taxes that Cervantes was excommunicated from at least two small towns and arrested in two others. He also faced resentment wherever he went, an experience that would be reflected in his subsequent writings.
7Edgar Allan Poe Was Court-Martialed
Now recognized as a literary genius, Edgar Allan Poe spent most of his life in poverty, stumbling from one bad situation to another. While he never sank so low as to aid the enemy or spy on his acquaintances, this long period of drunken wandering in his life did wind up with him getting officially court-martialed by the US military.
On May 3, 1830, a young Poe entered West Point with soldier experience under his belt, hoping to graduate as a lieutenant within six months. It didn’t work out. To Poe’s surprise, his previous soldiering counted for nothing, and he was expected to last out the full four years. At the same time, his foster father slowed down payments to the young author, leaving Poe in penury. Since he wasn’t allowed to leave West Point without express consent from his guardian (who wouldn’t give it), Poe decided the only way out was through dismissal.
Starting on January 7, 1831, Poe began a campaign of disobedience that put him on a crash course with his superiors. After a whole month of failing to report for class or duty, the military court-martialed Poe and threw the book at him. Poe was disgraced and thrown out of the US military.
Oddly, this wasn’t quite the end to his military adventures. Only a couple of months after his court-martial, Poe begged West Point’s superintendent for a recommendation so he could go fight the Russians in Poland. He was refused.
6Joe Shuster Drew Fetish Porn
As one of two creators of Superman, Joe Shuster had a hand in the creation of a modern icon. Aside from drawing all the early strips, Shuster also wrote many of the most iconic plotlines, helped Jerry Siegel develop the characters, and then redrew those characters in S&M fetish porn for a quick buck.
In the late 1940s, Shuster and Siegel had a major falling out with the comics industry, who were paying them almost nothing for creating Superman. Following an expensive lawsuit, the two found themselves out of pocket, out of work, and rapidly heading for the poverty line. It was in this context that Shuster began working for Nights of Horror.
An S&M magazine with close ties to organized crime, Nights of Horror was the very definition of seedy. However, it also paid well and regularly, so Shuster jumped for it. Working anonymously, he used his comics background to draw several very NSFW images, featuring carbon copies of Superman and Lois Lane doing things childhood heroes rarely do in public view.
The work was wrongly blamed for inspiring a series of murders, and the Supreme Court even upheld a ban against it. Thanks to his anonymity, Shuster survived with his reputation—if not his dignity—intact.
5Descartes Was An Amateur Vivisectionist
French genius Rene Descartes contributed much to modern thinking, including the most famous philosophic quote ever: I think, therefore I am. He also expounded a rationalist, mechanist philosophy he was only too happy to take to ridiculous extremes. Believing that animals lacked feelings or souls, Descartes maintained that they were incapable of suffering. Instead, they merely simulated the appearance of pain. He demonstrated this theory by pinning them to boards and cutting them open without anesthetic.
He didn’t just do this once as an experiment. It was a full-time hobby. During his investigations, he sliced open dogs, small mammals, and even his wife’s pets. He also expounded on the benefits of vivisection to anyone who’d listen, his mechanist philosophy encouraging plenty of others to copy his gruesome experiments.
4Gabriel Garcia Marquez Was Castro’s Unofficial Ambassador
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and writer of one of the greatest novels in history, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was also a journalist who tirelessly campaigned against the endemic violence in his native Colombia. Believing in journalism’s power to change society and improve people’s lives, he bitterly opposed dictatorships on the continent, including the ferocious regime of Augusto Pinochet. This only makes his fascination with Fidel Castro’s oppressive Cuba even stranger.
While plenty of left-wing writers in Latin America acted as apologists for the Cuban regime, only Marquez had the clout to be heard on the world stage. A close friend of Castro, the Colombian writer used his position to pen articles painting Cuba as a socialist paradise and to gloss over the worst abuses of the regime. He also made many grand pronouncements about the love of the Cuban people for their leader, ignoring the reality of show trials, prison camps, and executions. As The Economist has noted, this willful ignorance turned him into an unofficial ambassador for Cuba, a propaganda coup beyond Castro’s wildest dreams.
3Ezra Pound Joined Mussolini’s Fascists
Even if you’ve never read any of Ezra Pound’s poetry, you’ve likely seen his influence. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, and William Butler Yeats all owed their careers or the development of certain novels to Pound. They weren’t the only ones the mad poet helped. In the dark days leading up to World War II, Pound decided to also lend a helping hand to Benito Mussolini.
Convinced that usury was the greatest of the planet’s evils, and that Jews were responsible, Ezra Pound traveled to 1930s Italy and became an open fascist. When World War II broke out, he went even further. From 1941 onward, he delivered increasingly crazy broadcasts from Rome to Allied forces, attacking Roosevelt, the American war effort, and all people of Jewish heritage. He even wrote two poems praising the fascist fighting spirit. After the war, when he escaped trial and execution by claiming insanity, he continued to preach racist ideology to inmates at his psychiatric hospital, eventually becoming friends with an ardent segregationist.
Despite living until 1972, Pound never apologized for his fascist past. When visiting Italy after his psychiatric discharge in 1958, his first action on Italian soil was to give a fascist salute.
2Forrest Carter Joined The Ku Klux Klan
If you’re over a certain age, you may just remember a book called The Education of Little Tree. A supposedly true coming-of-age tale about a young Cherokee boy who learns important life lessons from his grandparents in the country, it became a founding New Age text and still attracts rave reviews. Yet the author, Forrest Carter, wasn’t exactly the sweet little boy he painted himself to be. “Forrest” was really Asa Earl Carter, a prominent neo-Nazi terrorist.
Carter was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who penned George Wallace’s infamous “segregation forever” speech. In the 1950s, convinced that the Ku Klux Klan was becoming too soft, he founded the KKK of the Confederacy, who gained notoriety when they attacked Nat “King” Cole and publicly castrated a black man, pouring turpentine on his wounds. He later ran for local governor on an openly neo-Nazi platform and developed into a hate preacher. At one point, he even got involved in a shoot-out with fellow Klansmen over finances, a move that saw him indicted for attempted murder.
Then, one day, he just quit. Out of the blue, Asa transformed into Forrest and began playing the part of a Cherokee author. Why he did it and whether he had made a conscious decision to move on from his racist past we’ll never know. Carter died in 1978, still known as Forrest to his friends.
1Yukio Mishima Led A Failed Coup
Yukio Mishima’s brilliant Confessions of a Mask practically invented Japanese gay literature, while later works saw him nominated on four separate occasions for the Nobel Prize. However, his genius hid a darker side. Mishima felt postwar Japan had lost its way and should have never surrendered. He also thought everyone should live by the bushido code of the samurai and advocated extreme nationalism. In 1968, he even founded a militia movement. But his craziest moment came in 1970, when he and four members of his militia tried to overthrow the government.
Marching into the Japanese Self-Defense Forces headquarters in downtown Tokyo, the group seized control of the commanding general’s office. From there, Mishima stepped out onto a balcony and delivered a speech intended to inspire the assembled soldiers to launch a coup against the government. Instead, they laughed at him. In response, Mishima took out his samurai sword and committed seppuku, disemboweling himself before being decapitated (after a couple of botched blows) by a member of his own militia.