'Great' people who were total A-holes

The passing of Steve Jobs and the hoopla over it has me thinking of the stuff I read about him in Pirates of Silicon Valley and a couple of articles from former employers over the years. All acknowledge his brilliants, his vision, his general greatness and work ethic, just as all the obits and mournfests on TV are doing, but he had a reputation, one that is at least partly substantiated by evidence, of being an unqualified asshole. He was verbally abusive, narcissistic, petty, a tyrant to work for, prone to irrational outbursts and tirades at any or no provocation; he denied the paternity of his own daughter and even swore under oath he was sterile rather than pay support for her or her mother even as he named the computer he was working on in her honor (LISA). There are numerous accounts of him publicly screaming at and insulting and humiliating employees who were working 90 hour weeks, particularly if he caught them taking catnaps and the like; at least a couple of employees over the years snapped and physically assaulted him.

By most accounts he mellowed in later years. He acknowledged his illegitimate daughter and incorporated her into his legitimate family, but he could still be petty or have an occasional tantrum.

But, history forgives the geniuses. Those of us who didn’t know them personally don’t remember them for their friendship after all.

So who are some other people that history would consider “Great” due to their importance or their contributions, but who the record would seem to indicate were, in addition to doing truly great things, total assholes?

A few that come to mind:
Thomas Edison- he was almost uniformly hated by the people who knew him including his children. He was an iron handed businessman who crushed competitors’ life work without a moment of hesitation or remorse. He routinely verbally abused his employees and his wives (not to imply he was a polygamist- he just happened to marry twice) in public- both wives and his son developed serious substance abuse problems. His fights with/crushing of Tesla are particularly famous.

Speaking of,

Nikola Tesla- perhaps not so much a-hole as just impossible to work with because he was so damned crazy. He had severe OCD of course, but while he couldn’t help the condition it made him impossible to live or work with: everything had to be divisible by three or nine, a woman wearing earrings and or pearls (and God forbid pearl earrings) would make him unable to concentrate with a possible hissy fit, and just generally anti-social to the 3rd/6th/9th degree. Also had some truly weird beliefs, like his belief that he was receiving instructions from extraterrestrial civilizations.

Isaac Newton- one of the most hated professors in the history of Cambridge, famous for delivering his lectures even if no students attended. An intolerant fanatic not only in his religious views but in his opinions of his own infallibility. Incredibly vain intellectually to the point of blistering obsessive attacks on people he viewed as competition (Leibniz and Hooke especially- his comment to Hooke “If I have seen a little further [than you] it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” is believed by some biographers to have been a bitchy slam at the fact that Hooke was extremely short (less than 5’0) and humpbacked. Also misogynistic and proud of the fact he died a virgin.

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson- also extremely OCD, and like Newton a hated lecturer whose students (at least per very old story) once plotted to kill him. He had all kinds of odd beliefs, a couple of which were eccentric for the time but we now know have merit (daily bathing and eating lots of citrus for example) but many of which were just weird: sitting down only when in the saddle or when (to quote Sheldon Cooper) it was a non-negotiable social construct, keeping his arms raised as much as possible to balance the blood flow, numerous daily rituals, etc… He was racist even by 1860 Virginia standards, and near fanatically religious.

Robert F. Kennedy- I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about RFK that didn’t say, in word or in essence, that he was a two-faced egotistical entitled asshole who would gladly throw anybody under the bus, regardless of what they had done for him, the second they became a liability. Just basically a ruthless and utterly selfish individual, and of course a blatant womanizer even as he promoted himself as the ultimate family man due to his eternally pregnant wife.

Literary greats seem often to have been self absorbed assholes. The number of them who were womanizing deadbeat and or absentee dads alone seems endless: Ezra Pound, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Norman Mailer, etc…

Who are some other ‘great genius/horrible person’ nominees?

Frank Lloyd Wright comes to mind. Abandoning his wife and children for some floozy, and as he announced this to his family, he told his twelve-year-old son, “…that he was the man of the family now, and was resposible for the grocery bills that were due.” Frank never paid his bills on time. His son never forgave him.

My husband works for NASA and has heard from more than a few people that Stephen Hawking is kind of a jerk.

Well, there’s always Wagner…

How incredibly absurd to mention Steve Jobs, asshole narcissist and exploiter of other people’s ideas, in the same breath as people like Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton.

Thomas Edison might be apt, although at least he did his own work (mostly).

I thought Edison was rather notorious for basically taking credit for his student’s ideas and inventions.

I said mostly. Jobs did nothing but use other people’s ideas.

I was trying to be with you, since I’ve known (and know of) a lot of assholes. But when you expounded on RFK I was like Hold up and whoa. When Robert was shot in the head, laying on the floor in the kitchen of that hotel, straining to hold his head up he asked, “Is everybody else alright?”
His assasination is what broke my cherry.
I was “around” when JFK was assasinated. And Marten Luther King. I was sickened and troubled. But I didn’t “give up, and then be born again out of the ashes” until Robert was killed. A man who convinced his brother (the President) to back his pc rhetoric with substance.
I’ve read, “You can either paint with passion, or you can live with passion. But you can’t do both.” God bless those who disagreed.

I’m so glad someone made this thread Sampiro - all this Steve Jobs fervour was getting to be a bit too much. Of course, I’m not glad he’s dead and neither do I ignore the impact he had on the world, but the guy was a selfish, self-righteous prick for the most part (at least so it seems).

Perhaps that’s just what it took to bring his vision of personal computing to the world at that particular time in history - a big brass ego and a cudgel of superiority. But in the end, what is the measure of how he changed the world? Difficult to judge, I’d say - he made a pretty major contribution to the way personal computers turned out, so far. Pretty minor, in the great scheme of things though, isn’t it? He is also responsible for re-inventing the walkman. And for making a shit-ton of money, which is probably his greatest personal achievement given that he can’t take credit for any technological advances ever made.

Strangely enough, I’m more than willing to overlook the same kinds of ego-centrism and callousness in people who have taken leadership in times when they were needed (successful military leaders, for example) or in people who have accomplished something truly groundbreaking and unquestionably beneficial to humanity, whether or not they made a fortune from it.

I’d say all great men and women were assholes to one degree or another. Being great means making things happen the way you want them to happen, and that usually means forcing other people to fall in line. The stereotypical “nice guy” hardly ever gets to be a Great Man.

But saying that someone acted like an asshole doesn’t mean that they were an asshole, it means that they *could *be an asshole when circumstances demanded it. There’s a difference. I’m sure guys like Jobs, RFK, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln had their nasty moments, but they had their good moments, too, and I don’t see why the former should overshadow the latter.

It would be quicker to list the “great” peopke who weren’t assholes.

Soeaking of assholes, we know from his letters and papers that Einstein was a world-class jerk, as well as being a world-class genius. The contract he wrote for his first wife to follow to be allowed :dubious: to accompany him to Berlin was terrible. And he divorced her anyway. And continued cheating on his second wife. Brilliant, but not a role model for one’s personal life.

I think is a short list comprising

Charles Darwin…

yep, that’s about it.

But you don’t have to be verbally abusive, petty, vindictive, narcissistic, and prone to irrational outbursts to be Great. In fact, I’d say it helps if you’re not. This thread isn’t about great people who weren’t always nice; it’s about great people who were total assholes. Washington and Lincoln, from all I’ve read about them, were not, whatever their faults may have been. I would not have minded being around them personally: being their friend or neighbor or employee.
As long as I’m here, my own unoriginal contribution: Ty Cobb generally gets held up as the example of a baseball great who was a total asshole.

He may not have been an asshole (does he get a pass for how things played out with Wallace?), but there has to be a joke about his extreme gastrointestinal discomfort and farting in there somewhere :wink:

As for folks who say Jobs just stole other people’s ideas - wow, that feels like a small-minded view. From my perspective, as a musician, it is simply understood that whay came before informs and undergirds the new examples which come after - if someone can build on what is out there the way Jobs did - with the consistent impact his products and “eco-systems” had over the years - to write it off to simple parasitic exploitation seems factually incorrect. Results matter.

And as for the OP - it is a fascinating paradox, isn’t it? Per the descriptions of Tesla and Stonewall (didn’t know about his OCD) - it almost seems like “it all evens out” - if someone bulges out in some achievement category, their balloon is squeezed tighter somewhere else.

My bottom line is: Expecting more of history-changing people in terms of Character is a flawed premise from the start. The reality of their assholishness is a clear communication of Man’s basic flawed nature - even the greatest achievers amongst put on their pants one leg at a time and have the deep flaws that plague all of us. Any expectation otherwise is more a reflection of our need for Heroes that the problem of the “great” person. You, sir or ma’am, do the same weird shit, as do I - it’s just that no one has shined a light on us.

But, yeah, some of them have been total douchebags. :wink:

Winston Churchill. He was great for getting England through WWII, but he was a complete warmonger and drunken asshole who was voted out of office as soon as possible. After the war he wanted to go to go war with Russia, for fucks’ sake! And everyone knows what happens when starting a land war in Asia.

Will Rogers. What a H8R. :mad:

Henry Ford was the first person I thought of, also Stalin had his dark side believe it or not.

This brings to mind the feminist quote “well-behaved women rarely make history.” I’ve thought, even before this thread, “yeah, that’s true, but well-behaved men rarely make history, either. [unless they’re dynastic heirs.]”

I would add Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman Emperor. Gandhi had that whole “sleeping with naked girls” thing, but can we let that slide?

Martin Luther King, Jr was a womanizer by more recent accounts…

Julius Caesar flouted the Roman Republic and took it over, and had the reputation for sexual conquest and general Macchiavellian behavior - while being a very successful general, politician and ultimately Emperor. The debate between his assholeishness and greatness continues to this day…

Reminds me of Jill Sobule’s song ‘Heroes’