Phia Rilke’s infant daughter had died a year before she gave birth to her son. She named him René Maria—sometimes referring to him as Fräulein, Margaret, and Sophie—and gave him dolls to play with, dressing him as a girl until he was six years old. The poet did not start using Rainer instead of René until he was in his twenties.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow attended Bowdoin College—both class of 1825—at the same time as Franklin Pierce, who was a year ahead of them. The fourteenth president of the United States was at Hawthorne’s side when the author died in 1864. Longfellow served as a pallbearer at the funeral.
Lorenzo de’ Medici once observed a young sculptor complete the head of an old and wrinkled faun whose mouth he had rendered open. While astonished at the craftsmanship, Lorenzo pointed out that old men never have all their teeth. Once the great patron of the arts had left, the artist knocked out one of the teeth; when Lorenzo returned and saw the statue again, he was so taken with the new version that he decided to adopt the artist, whose name was Michelangelo.
William Blake’s wife reminded the poet in old age, “You know, dear, the first time you saw God was when you were four years old, and He put His head to the window and set you a-screaming.” Allen Ginsberg said that in 1948, while a senior at Columbia University, he was visited by the voice of Blake, which revealed to him the power of poetry—this was after he had read one of Blake’s poems while masturbating.
“The death of a newborn child before that of its parents may seem an unnatural, but it is strictly a probable, event,” observed Edward Gibbon in his Memoirs. He was his parents’ first child; the next six all died in infancy. Some twenty years earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year…This is nature’s law; why contradict it?”
“As a young man, he was totally asexual,” Luis Buñuel recalled of Salvador Dalí, elaborating in a parenthetical comment, “Of course, he’s seduced many, particularly American heiresses; but those seductions usually entailed stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the women’s shoulders, and, without a word, showing them to the door.”
Gertrude Stein recalled that on the copy of her final exam for a class taught by William James she wrote, “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” She then left the room. The next day a note arrived from Professor James that said, “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself”—and then awarded her the highest mark in the course.
Joseph Conrad recalled, “It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now, ‘When I grow up I shall go there.’”
The first lines spoken by the old shepherd in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale are, “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”
The critic Vladimir Stassov recalled that when the composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky “were still young men living together in one room…The piano could be heard, and the singing would start, and with great excitement and bustle they would show me what they had composed the previous day, or the day before or the day before that—how wonderful it was."