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America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

by Joshua Kendall

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When most of us think of Charles Lindbergh, we picture a dashing twenty-five-year-old aviator stepping out of the Spirit of St. Louis after completing his solo flight across the Atlantic. What we don't see is the awkward high school student, who preferred ogling new gadgets at the hardware store to watching girls walk by in their summer dresses. Sure, Lindbergh's


When most of us think of Charles Lindbergh, we picture a dashing twenty-five-year-old aviator stepping out of the Spirit of St. Louis after completing his solo flight across the Atlantic. What we don't see is the awkward high school student, who preferred ogling new gadgets at the hardware store to watching girls walk by in their summer dresses. Sure, Lindbergh's unique mindset invented the pre-flight checklist, but his obsession with order also led him to demand that his wife and three German mistresses account for all their household expenditures in detailed ledgers.
Lucky Lindy is just one of several American icons whom Joshua Kendall puts on the psychologist's couch in AMERICA'S OBSESSIVES. In this fascinating look at the arc of American history through the lens of compulsive behavior, he shows how some of our nation's greatest achievements-from the Declaration of Independence to the invention of the iPhone-have roots in the disappointments and frustrations of early childhood.
Starting with the obsessive natures of some of Silicon Valley's titans, including Steve Jobs, Kendall moves on to profile seven iconic figures, such as founding father Thomas Jefferson, licentious librarian Melvil Dewey, condiment kingpin H. J. Heinz, slugger Ted Williams, and Estee Lauder. This last personality was so obsessed with touching other women's faces that she transformed her compulsion into a multibillion-dollar cosmetics corporation.
Entertaining and instructive, Kendall offers up a few scoops along the way: Little do most Americans know that Charles Lindbergh, under the alias Clark Kent, sired seven children with his three German "wives." As Lindbergh's daughter Reeve told Kendall, "Now I know why he was gone so much. I also understand why he was delighted when I was learning German."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this quirky history, journo Kendall (The Forgotten Founding Father) profiles a “ticker-tape parade of American icons” in an effort to understand how their “obsessions and compulsions... fueled their stratospheric success.” Across a range of disciplines, from sexuality to sports, these seven legendary figures revolutionized their fields, and they all likely had obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). Kendall draws upon the good and bad in each of his subjects to paint vivid portraits of “patron saint of polymaths” Thomas Jefferson, marketing genius Henry Heinz, legendary librarian Melvil Dewey, sex scholar Alfred Kinsey, aviator Charles Lindbergh, cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder, and baseball star Ted Williams. Kendall explores how each of these “obsessive innovators” changed the world through sheer force of will by harnessing their personal eccentricities and foibles. From Heinz’s need to measure things, to Kinsey’s broad sexual desires and Lauder’s addiction to touching faces, Kendall delves into flaws that crystalize as strengths, showing en route what made these individuals tick. It’s a compelling look at how personality disorders can rule and ruin a life, and how those who come to terms with their constraints can achieve great things. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, William Morris Endeavor. (June 25)
The Boston Globe
Kendall is a gifted storyteller and his book is full of fascinating details about numbers fetishes, fear of germs and sexual promiscuity.
Mr. Kendall is a careful writer, and a gifted storyteller . . . [The Forgotten Founding Father is] an engaging, almost novel-like read.
The LA Times
"The Man Who Made Lists" is brisk and vivid, with Kendall coloring between the lines left by history.
From the Publisher
We all learn that a few virtues-ingenuity, vision, focus, hard work, tenacity-are key to individual success. Joshua Kendall slightly but fascinatingly shifts our understanding of those motherhood-and-apple-pie virtues to tell a chillier story of American exceptionalism: in the country that privileges individual achievement above all, the most exceptional people are apt to be persnickety, monomaniacal freaks, driven by (and perhaps doomed to) an abiding loneliness in their pursuits of perfection. Turns out it's hard to be an American hero.

— Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers and Heyday

Joshua Kendall ranks with John Aubrey (Brief Lives), John Gunther (Procession), and Winston Churchill (Great Contemporaries) in his ability to render lives in exquisite miniature. His special gift, however, is locating the vein of obsession in his cast of famous men and women that drives, inspires, or perverts them. Passion in life? Yes. But as Kendall acutely demonstrates, passions that led to greatness sometimes arise from the dark worlds of near-madness, too.

— Charles J. Shields, author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life and the New York Times bestseller Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Sit back and enjoy! Kendall's pages all but turn themselves. AMERICA'S OBSESSIVES is an insouciant romp through the hidden lives of a fascinating group of iconic Americans. Kendall's prose is witty; his points are sharp; and though he discusses familiar figures (including Thomas Jefferson, Alfred C. Kinsey, Charles Lindbergh, and Ted Williams), his insights will surprise you. Can private demons produce the manic energy and compulsive drive often found in men and women who achieve greatness? Kendall makes the case with gusto. His portraits will stick with you.
-James H. Jones, author of Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life"

AMERICA'S OBSESSIVES is-forgive me-compulsively readable. Joshua Kendall takes the reader on an eye-opening and, at times, hair-raising tour through the personalities of heroic, reckless, crude, half-mad, and supremely accomplished people. Ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Estée Lauder, this diverse tribe of American icons shared a common trait-they were all, as one of them said, "born with a disposition to run things whenever [they] could get a chance."
-Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves"

Joshua Kendall convincingly and entertainingly reveals another important side to the psychology of the world's movers and shakers: obsession. Some of our greatest leaders and innovators are driven by an internal anxiety in a way that benefits their creativity, and that helps the world. This is another blow against that stigma against mental abnormality, which is the last great prejudice of humankind."
-Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH, professor of psychiatry; director, Mood Disorders Program, Tufts Medical Center; and author of A First Rate Madness

A compelling look at how personality disorders can rule and ruin a life, and how those who come to terms with their constraints can achieve great things.

— Publisher's Weekly Starred Review

Readers will delight in the weirdness that the author has unearthed.


Kendall keeps the pages flying with graceful prose rich in intriguing details drawn from his extensive research."

— Booklist"

Kendall's book covers a range of American thinkers and achievers... and meticulously pulls out the threads in each of their personalities that evidence an undeniable interweaving of the obsessive and the brilliant."

— Forbes

Kendall is a gifted storyteller and his book is full of fascinating details about numbers fetishes, fear of germs and sexual promiscuity.—The Boston Globe

His profiles reveal the startling secrets behind these iconic figures' extraordinary accomplishments while explaining their unique quirks and paradoxical idiosyncrasies."

— Washington Post

Kirkus Reviews
Kendall (Associate Fellow/Trumbull College, Yale Univ.; The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, 2010, etc.) returns with a collection of minibiographies of obsessive personalities who transformed American life. The author begins with Steve Jobs (whom he calls "a tad mad"), then moves on to some other "fragmented individuals" to see where they came from, how they functioned and how they contributed. And what a motley crew: Thomas Jefferson, Henry Heinz, Melvil Dewey, Alfred Kinsey, Charles Lindbergh, Estée Lauder and Ted Williams. Kendall immediately notes the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder; his subjects are among those with the latter, though the two disorders are "cousins." Throughout, the author's diction fluctuates between the clinical and the conversational. Instances of the latter include Kinsey was a "neatnik," Ted Williams, "an emotional basket case." Readers will delight in the weirdness that the author has unearthed. Jefferson was an obsessive organizer and tinkerer; Heinz insisted on absolute cleanliness; Dewey was in love with numbers--and with nubile librarians; Kinsey had orgies in his house at Indiana University; Lindbergh had four separate families (several in Germany); Lauder could not keep her hands off people's faces and was secretive about her background; Ted Williams did well in high school typing class and was guilty of "nonstop nonsensical chatter." Kendall ends with some conventional comments about how we should admire what's admirable about these folks--and that America has benefitted and will benefit from the obsessives among us. Based on the evidence here? Probably not a good idea to marry one. Do we care if a professionally successful person is a psychological mess? Not, it seems, if we get out of it a great smartphone or a well-organized library. Kendall delivers a mostly engaging history of a handful of America's "obsessive innovators."

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Grand Central Publishing
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Read an Excerpt

America's Obsessives

The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

By Joshua Kendall

Grand Central Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Joshua Kendall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4555-0238-7


Politics: Thomas Jefferson

Omniscient Organizer

A mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity.

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to his daughter Martha, May 21, 1787

On the morning of Monday, July 1, 1776, Thomas Jefferson had, it can safely be said, a lot on his mind.

On that fateful day, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia was to consider the resolution, first introduced on June 7 by his fellow Virginian Richard H. Lee, to dissolve "all political connection between [the Colonies] and the state of Great Britain." And as soon as that resolution passed, as Jefferson expected it would, his draft of the Declaration of Independence, which he had completed the previous Friday, was due to come to the floor for a vote. Hypersensitive to criticism, the assiduous thirty-three-year-old wordsmith dreaded the thought of any tinkering with his text. (In fact, for the rest of his life, Jefferson would be bitter about the "mutilations" that his congressional colleagues were about to make, which reduced its length by about 25 percent.) He was also unnerved because the war effort of the new nation-to-be was not going well; the American troops in Canada, who lacked essential provisions due to a shortage of money, had just been hit by a smallpox epidemic. "Our affairs in Canada," Jefferson wrote later that day to William Fleming, a delegate to Virginia's new independent state legislature, "go still retrograde."

The six-foot-two-and-a-half-inch delegate with the angular face, sandy complexion, and reddish hair was also dogged by a host of domestic concerns. He was still recovering from the sudden death—her illness lasted less than an hour—of his fifty-six-year-old mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, three months earlier. For most of April and the first part of May, Jefferson was detained by incapacitating migraines at Monticello, his five-thousand-acre estate, then a two-week journey by horseback from Philadelphia. And with his frail wife, Martha, pregnant for the third time in six years, he felt, as he informed Virginia's de facto governor, Edmund Pendleton, on June 30, that it was "indispensably necessary ... [to] solicit the substitution of some other person" to take his seat in the Continental Congress by the end of the year. As it turned out, an anxious Jefferson couldn't even wait that long; on September 2, he would submit his resignation and return to his "country," as he still called his native Virginia.

Amid all the uncertainty and anxiety that he faced early on that sweltering July morning, Jefferson did a surprising thing. He started what turned out to be a massive list. For Jefferson, as for other obsessives, list making was a passionate pursuit that could help him get his bearings. Flipping his copy of The Philadelphia Newest Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1776 upside down, he wrote on the first interleaved blank page at the back, "Observations on the weather." Below this heading, he set up three columns, "July, hour, thermom." At 9 a.m., he recorded 81 ½. With the debate on Lee's resolution taking up most of the day, Jefferson did not do another temperature reading until 7 p.m., when he recorded 82. But for the rest of that momentous week and for years on end, he would record the temperature at least three times a day. On the fourth, when the mercury hit 68 at 6 a.m. before reaching a fitting high of 76 at 1 p.m., he even managed to squeeze in a total of four readings. On the day that the Declaration was signed, Jefferson also made the fifteen-minute trek from his room at Seventh and Market to John Sparhawk's book and gadget store on Second Street, where he shelled out 3 pounds, 15 shillings (the equivalent of several hundred dollars today) for a new thermometer. On Monday the eighth, as he recorded in the account book, which he kept on the interleaved pages in the front half of his almanac, he returned to Sparhawk's to purchase a barometer for 4 pounds, 10 shillings.

Jefferson had been fascinated by meteorology ever since his undergraduate days at William and Mary. In Williamsburg, he had befriended Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, a London-born Fellow of the Royal Society, who was well connected in scientific circles. In 1760, Fauquier, who possessed the latest versions of the major scientific inventions of the day— the thermometer, telescope, and microscope—had begun a weather diary (which was limited to just one reading a day). Inspired by this adolescent hero, Jefferson would establish himself as an international authority in the field. In a chapter in his scientific treatise, Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1785, Jefferson summarized some preliminary findings. In the age-old debate about climate change that dated back to the ancients, Jefferson (like another prominent Southern politico who served as vice president exactly two centuries after he did) came down squarely on the side of "global warming." (But in contrast to Al Gore, who has warned of the dangers associated with greenhouse gases, Jefferson was hypothesizing about how events such as deforestation could be "very fatal to fruits.")

"A change in our climate ... is taking place very sensibly," he concluded, based on his assessment of decades of data collected by himself and others. "Both heats and colds are become much more moderate.... Snows are less frequent and less deep." Jefferson, who bought about twenty thermometers during the course of his life, would continue to gather a wealth of weather data, which he crunched every which way, until 1816. Even during his presidency, he took the temperature at both dawn and 4 p.m. The National Weather Service, established in 1870 as the Weather Bureau, has hailed Jefferson as "the father of weather observers."

But a thirst for knowledge wasn't the only reason why Jefferson began this ambitious new scholarly undertaking at what turned out to be a pivotal moment in world history. Compiling and organizing information, as he well knew, could also help calm him down. "Nature intended me," he later wrote, "for the tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight." Distracting himself from his innermost thoughts was his way of warding off feelings of despair. While Jefferson was a gifted singer, he often used his musical talent, like his ingenuity, to hide from himself. One could "hardly see him anywhar outdoors," his slave Isaac once noted, "but that he was a-singin'." He would even sing while reading. His habitual manner of coping with stress was to do not less, but more. In contrast to most people, who become undone when they take on too much, Jefferson became energized. His constant fear was not having enough to occupy his mind. For Jefferson, whose personal credo was a mishmash of Epicureanism and Stoicism, happiness was synonymous with virtuous work. "Nothing can contribute more to it [happiness]," he later mused, "than the contracting a habit of industry and activity." In contrast, he considered idleness "the most dangerous poison of life." To be fair, his was not an introspective culture; as one historian has put it, eighteenth-century Virginians had "neither the taste nor the skill for self-examination." Even so, the vehemence with which Jefferson avoided experiencing internal distress qualifies him as an outlier.

The pedantic side of this patron saint of polymaths has often been overlooked. Most Americans associate Jefferson only with his staggering intellect. As President John F. Kennedy put it at a White House dinner honoring fifty Nobel laureates a half century ago, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Few are aware that America's "Apostle of Freedom," as President Franklin Roosevelt called the most erudite Founding Father, was as consumed by the petty as he was by the lofty. The nonstop doer was not always discriminating in what he did. Jefferson delighted in gathering factoids, regardless of how meaningful they might turn out to be. He was also eager to communicate what he reaped. "[Jefferson] scattered information," Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania observed in 1790, "wherever he went." During his presidency, he kept a long list with the equally long-winded title, "A statement of the vegetable market in Washington, during a period of 8 years, wherein the earliest and last appearance of each article is noted." As this document reveals, while entrusted with running the country, Jefferson felt compelled to keep constant tabs on the availability of twenty-nine vegetables (and seven fruits) in our nation's capital. The earliest date on which he could enjoy a watermelon at the White House was July 7; the latest was September 4. And when his eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who was about to spend a year studying science in Philadelphia, visited him in Washington in 1807, the president immediately asked the fifteen-year-old to empty out his trunk so that he could personally examine every article. Having completed this inventory, Jefferson took out a pencil and paper in order to make a list of other items that he was convinced the adolescent would need.

Keeping track of minutiae was a lifelong preoccupation. Jefferson kept in his pocket an ivory notebook—a kind of proto-iPad on which he could write in pencil; and when he returned to his study, he would then transfer his data to one of his seven permanent ledger books. In his Garden and Farm books, which he kept for more than fifty years, he recorded all the goings-on at Monticello. "[H]ad the last dish of our spring peas," he wrote on July 22, 1772, in a typical entry in the Garden Book. And in his account books, which he maintained for nearly sixty years, he kept track of every cent he ever spent. "Mr. Jefferson," the overseer at Monticello once observed, "was very particular in the transaction of all his business. He kept an account of everything. Nothing was too small for him to keep an account of it."

All this financial calculating did not do much for Jefferson himself. One reason why obsessives love control—or, to be accurate, the illusion of having everything under control—is that they can easily be overwhelmed by their own impulses. A man with sumptuous tastes, Jefferson never could get a handle on his own penchant for runaway spending; during his eight years in the White House, he would shell out $10,000 ($200,000 today) on fine wines. But while he would always be in debt and would saddle Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the executor of his estate, with a $100,000 ($2 million) tab, time and time again, America benefited from his interest in systematically tracking the smallest of expenditures. After all, Jefferson created the penny as we know it—an innovation that would help put the whole country's finances in order. On account of this little-known legacy, to this day, Americans have Jefferson to thank every time they open their wallet or balance their checking account.

Jefferson loved all things decimal (as did fellow obsessive the librarian Melvil Dewey, discussed in chapter 3), and as a congressman at the end of the Revolution, he convinced Robert Morris, then the superintendent of finance, to scrap his confusing plan for establishing a uniform currency. To replace the various state currencies, which featured both pounds and dollars, Morris had proposed issuing a new federal dollar divided into 1,440 units (a measure that would have incorporated the pennies of each state without leaving any fractions). As Jefferson cogently argued in his 1784 paper, "Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit, and of a Coinage for the United States" (of which he was so proud that he appended it to his autobiography, written in 1821), "the inconveniences of this Unit" meant that an eighty-dollar horse would "require a notation of six figures, to wit, 115,200 units." Jefferson's recommendation to divide the dollar instead into ten dimes and one hundred pennies was readily accepted. Jefferson also sought (as would Dewey a century later) to extend the decimal system to weights and measures, but his extensive report on the subject, submitted to the House of Representatives when he was secretary of state, went nowhere. However, his countrymen may well have been better off had Congress heeded his sage advice to divide the foot into ten inches and the inch into ten lines.

Jefferson was the Founding Father who could not stop organizing the fledgling nation. When the bored vice president and president of the Senate became frustrated by the chaotic ways of Congress, he did not hesitate to take on the monumental task of setting it aright. As a law student in the 1760s, he had done a systematic study of deliberative bodies through the ages, gathering quotations—a practice that he called "commonplacing"—from various British treatises. After returning to Philadelphia in 1797 to assume his position as the number two in the administration of President John Adams, Jefferson frequently relied on these old notes contained in his "Parliamentary Pocket-Book," a 105-page leather-bound duodecimo (a small volume whose pages are just 5 by 7 ¾ inches). In early 1800, he began to think about publishing a trimmed-down version of this guide, which he called A Manual of Parliamentary Practice. To put the finishing touches on his neatly written manuscript required clarifying "small matters of daily practice," as he wrote that February to George Wythe, his legal mentor from his Williamsburg days; for Jefferson, this need to go into procedural minutiae made the endeavor all that much more enjoyable.

Printed in early 1801, just as Jefferson was exchanging the vice presidency for the presidency, his manual on the legislative process was immediately put into use by the Senate, the House of Representatives, and state legislatures across the country. "It is much more material," Jefferson wrote in the first section, entitled "Importance of Rules," "that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is."

By this meta-rule also lived the man. Jefferson was addicted to his routines. He would rise at dawn and read before breakfast. For sixty years, he gave himself a cold foot bath every morning. At one o'clock, he would go riding—an activity he continued as president. On his return, about two or two and a half hours later, he would have his daily glass of water; dinner would then be served, during which he drank wine, but never more than three glasses. He typically retired to his chambers at nine and went to bed between ten and eleven.

Monticello, which he kept fine-tuning for decades after first moving there in 1770, celebrated the regularity and order that he loved. To construct his home, Jefferson relied on another rule-laden treatise, The Four Books on Architecture by the sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio, which he once referred to as his "Bible." During his lifetime, Jefferson owned seven editions of this masterpiece that inspired the revival of the classical style in the eighteenth century—he could not resist snapping up a couple of French translations. For each part of a villa—say, the walls or ceilings—Palladio insisted on precise proportions, based on the dimensions of ancient Roman buildings, which he himself had measured "with the utmost diligence." (This Renaissance man of numbers also encouraged architects to make "an exact calculation" of their costs before building in order to avoid leaving their creations unfinished.) Jefferson was, a French visitor noted in 1782, "the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather." One factor contributing to his decade of "unchequered happiness" with his wife, Martha, who died at the age of thirty-three in 1782, was her skillful administration of Monticello. "Nothing," Dumas Malone, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning six volume Jefferson and His Time, completed in 1981, "he ever did was more characteristic of him as a person or as a mind." Jefferson himself calculated the mathematical measurements and did the drawings for the three-story, twenty-one-room mansion, which he didn't finish until 1809. He also selected all the furnishings and accoutrements, down to the drapery and upholstery.

Excerpted from America's Obsessives by Joshua Kendall. Copyright © 2013 Joshua Kendall. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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Meet the Author

Joshua C. Kendall is the author of The Man Who Made Lists, about the creation of Roget's Thesaurus, and The Forgotten Founding Father, a biography of Noah Webster, the lexicographer responsible for Webster's Dictionary. He is also an award-winning journalist, with work in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Psychology Today, and BusinessWeek, among other publications. He is an Associate Fellow of Yale's Trumbull College.

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