Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Agesby Michael Largo
What is the price of brilliance?
Why are so many creative geniuses also ruinously self-destructive? From Caravaggio to Jackson Pollack, from Arthur Rimbaud to Jack Kerouac, from Charlie Parker to Janis Joplin, to Kurt Cobain, and on and on, authors and artists throughout history have binged, pill-popped, injected, or poisoned themselves for their art. Fully
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What is the price of brilliance?
Why are so many creative geniuses also ruinously self-destructive? From Caravaggio to Jackson Pollack, from Arthur Rimbaud to Jack Kerouac, from Charlie Parker to Janis Joplin, to Kurt Cobain, and on and on, authors and artists throughout history have binged, pill-popped, injected, or poisoned themselves for their art. Fully illustrated and addictively readable, Genius and Heroin is the indispensable reference to the untidy lives of our greatest artists and thinkers, entertainingly chronicling how the notoriously creative lived and died—whether their ultimate downfalls were the result of opiates, alcohol, pot, absinthe, or the slow-motion suicide of obsession.
Largo (Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die) offers a kind of Ripley's Believe It or Not for the excess-obsessed teen in everyone. The title is misleading as the historical personages that populate its pages are not neccesarily brilliant nor junkies. Instead, Largo gives an alphabetical biographical listing of actors, authors and artists, politicians and Celtic queens, from the eternal (Van Gogh, Sappho, Charlie Parker) to the obscure (Art Acord, Berthold der Schwarz). The entries are layered between quotes and tangential factoids that include disquisitions on "Moonshine Madness" and "Cross-dressing Artists." Largo's method of selecting his figures is somewhat arbitrary: this might be the first time in recorded history that Boudicca and Joseph McCarthy have shared a volume. The main criterion for inclusion seems to be having a degree of renown and a chemical dependency (although being passionate will do). The text is marred by broad generalizations, dubious metaphors and downright mistakes (Balzac was not "the first writer of note addicted to caffeine"; Babel didn't come "of age during the time of Stalin," but years earlier). While there certainly is an abundance of obscure facts and characters, the quality of the biographical sketches is equally uneven (readers learn little more about Michelangelo, for example, than that the great man rarely bathed and painted the Sistine Chapel). (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Genius and Heroin
The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages
By Michael Largo
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.
—E. B. White
Artemus Acord was an authentic cowboy and rodeo champ when cast in Cecil B. DeMille's Squaw Man. Soon after, Acord shipped off to fight in World War I, where his real life rooting-tooting acts of bravery earned him medals. He returned to Hollywood and became one of the most popular actors in silent westerns, displaying a natural genius for capturing the bravado of the American cowboy era. He performed his own stunts, and reportedly could withstand any number of bottles crashed over his head without flinching. He didn't need to act too much for his barroom brawls, or for belting back a shot of rot¬gut, since he always insisted the colored water normally used to fill whiskey bottles contain the real thing. When his drinking became a burden he was canned, primarily because of an arrest for bootlegging. Acord went down to Mexico, in hope of finding a part in low-budget cowboy films, but he got quickly into trouble and more barroom fights, nearly being stabbed to death in one. In the end, Acord was employed as a miner below the border when he had the brilliant idea tostage his own kidnapping—he was certain the publicity would facilitate a triumphant return to the Silver Screen. When Acord brought the local police in on the scheme, he managed to get into more hot water by screwing around with one officer's wife. Eventually, Mexican authorities stated Acord died of suicide by ingesting cyanide, even if autopsy reports show the size of his enlarged liver may have caused his death (at age forty in 1931) from complications of chronic alcoholism. Others believe he was murdered by Mexican police. All but a few of Acord's more than one hundred films have been lost.
Comedian Hal Roach was also cast in The Squaw Man, DeMille's first film. Hal stuck with iced tea in his whiskey bottles and lived to be one hundred.
Real-life cowboys are remembered for bellying up to the bar, but many legendary figures, including Wild Bill Hickock and Kit Carson, preferred opium dens over saloons. During the Civil War, morphine was frequently more plentiful to the troops than food rations, such that veterans on both sides, an estimated fifty thousand ¬people, became opium addicts. In 1900 morphine addiction was considered such a serious social epidemic that a group called the Saint James Society offered free heroin in the mail to anyone wishing to kick morphine. By 1925 there were two hundred thousand heroin addicts in the U.S. Kit Carson died of a "ruptured artery in his throat," a typical complication caused by smoking opium.
Genius is the father of a heavenly line; but the mortal mother, that is industry.
When James Agee was six years old he learned that his father was never coming home: His dad died in a freak auto accident while returning from a visit with his dying grandfather. James and his sister were shipped off to separate boarding schools, James eventually landing in an all-boys conservatory in the Tennessee mountains run by monks. There, an astute priest recognized his creative side and fostered an education in literature that helped Agee get into New England's prestigious Exeter Academy and eventually Harvard. Agee started his literary career reporting for Time and Fortune, and then became a movie critic for The Nation and the New York Times. He published one book of poetry and a number of nonfiction flops, one of which was the now classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a pictorial piece (photographed by Walker Evans) about Alabama sharecroppers that sold only six hundred copies before it was shredded because his opinions about social injustices were not yet accepted. Agee was active in politics that were left of center, which further stifled his reputation among a wider public. He worked in Hollywood for a while and is credited for the screenplays of The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, even though by then his alcoholism was in full bloom. Eventually, Agee resented the demands made for cutting and rewriting and moved on. The sudden death of his father, and more so the apparent abandonment by his mother, caused a lifelong open wound, which Agee anesthetized with booze. His drinking, smoking, wandering, and womanizing brought on heart problems and divorces. The autobiographical novel that made him famous, A Death in the Family, was left unfinished when in 1955, at age forty-five, he suffered a massive coronary while riding in a New York City taxi. For once Agee seemed determined to clean up his act, and in fact was on the way to an appointment with his heart doctor when he died. Agee's third wife and his children, one only a toddler, were rendered nearly destitute, but they were saved by an editor who reworked the novel for publication. The book received a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Agee was once persistent in tracing the origin of his family name and found it to be a bastardization of a French phrase for "I don't know." Nevertheless, the result of his efforts in genealogy might have been the inspiration for his famous quote: "How far we all come away from ourselves . . . You can never go home again."
Excerpted from Genius and Heroin by Michael Largo Copyright © 2008 by Michael Largo. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Largo is the author of The Big, Bad Book of Beasts; God's Lunatics; Genius and Heroin; and the Bram Stoker Award-winning Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die, as well as three novels. He and his family live in Florida with their dog, two turtles, a parrot, two canaries, and a tank of fish.
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Largo's latest book is great! Taking a peak into the destructive lives of brillant individuals, Largo tells captivating stories on a wide range of interesting people. Largo's writing style is original and absorbing. The book is well researched, and a great follow up to Final Exits, and Portable Obitutary.