Author Puts 12 Celebrities on the Couch (Book Review)

Claudia Kalb has written a delightful book. She takes twelve historical figures and examines their colorful lives, via the lens of modern psychology. Her purpose was to find out what made them tick, with their mental health issues front and center. It made for a very entertaining, interesting read.

The book is “Andy Warhol was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities.”

First up for Kalb’s couch is that talented boy-oh himself from Pittsburgh and environs – Andy Warhol. In fact, the title of the book says it all. Warhol was a notorious hoarder of epic proportions. He packed his Manhattan home with so much stuff you had “to climb over things to get around.”


(Illustration by Bill Hughes)

The pop artist collected Picassos and expensive furniture, but also junk mail, old checks, and outdated catalogs. Supposedly, one of Warhol’s cronies said to him: “I’m going to commit suicide!” Warhol’s response: “Can I have your watch!”

Born poor, and sickly as a child, Warhol was very lonely growing up. His father died when he was thirteen. He compensated for his situation by acquiring an extreme passion for stuff.

This included, Kalb underscored, Warhol also amassing an entourage of hangers-on. Underneath, however, he was a loner, who lived at home with his mother.

Kalb reported how on Good Friday, April 1981, he noted in his diary- “Went home lonely and despondent because nobody loves me and it’s Easter, and I cried.”

“Hoarding,” Kalb concluded, “may provide comfort to those who feel neglected.” Warhol, unfortunately, was “Exhibit A” of that psyche malady. It’s safe, however, to say that he had gained more than his “fifteen minutes of fame” during his achievement-filled lifetime. Warhol died at age fifty-eight of a heart attack.

Next up for examination by the author is one of Mother Russia’s greatest literary sons – Fyodor Dostoevsky. His works included the magisterial “The Idiot,” “Crime and Punishment,” “The Gambler,” “Poor Folk,” “The House of the Dead,” “Notes from Underground” and my personal fave, “The Brothers Karamazov.”

Dostoevsky could not walk away from a gambling table, no matter how far he was ahead. He could convince himself “that he knew how to beat the system, bet again, lose, sink deeper into the red.”

According to the latest psychological research, the author found Dostoevsky was suffering from a “mental disorder.” Compulsive gambling strikes an area of the brain that “is similar to those activated by addictive drugs.”

From his youngest adult days, Dostoevsky lived beyond his means. At the age of 24 years, he had risen to “literary acclaim,” but he told his brother he didn’t have “a kopeck to his name.” He was involved in politics but in the days of the Czar that was a very risky business. He was arrested for alleged political crimes and subjected to a mock execution. Dostoevsky ended up serving four years in a prison camp in Siberia.

Upon his return to society, his career continued to flourish as did his love of the roulette wheel. Sickly, and in his early fifties, Dostoevsky was also marred in debt, nevertheless, he married for the second time. Kalb concluded his excessive gambling and erratic lifestyle was a “form of self-inflicted punishment.”

When Dostoevsky died at 59, the government offered to pay his funeral expenses. The widow turned it  down saying that it was “a moral obligation” of his family to take care of that responsibility. Later, she did accept a lifetime pension from the government to honor his “contributions to Russian literature.”

Also coming under Kalb’s microscope were: Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, Princess Diana, Christine Jorgensen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Betty Ford, Charles Darwin, George Darwin, George Gershwin, Albert Einstein and one of my favorite presidents – Abraham Lincoln.

I will finish my review of Kalb’s tome by saying a few words about her analysis of Lincoln. If any public figure deserved a huge monument in Washington, DC, it was this Kentucky-born son of a farmer.

His many portraits say it all. Lincoln was a very depressed man, a victim of “terrible melancholy.” The author reported that he once told a colleague that when he was alone, “he never dared to carry a knife in his pocket.”

Sadly, Lincoln’s mother died young and it had a telling effect on him. His father was indifferent to his son’s scholarly aspirations.

Despite all the heavy mental package, Lincoln went on to become one of our greatest presidents; freeing the slaves, and leading the young and divided nation to victory in the Civil War before being murdered, more likely than not, by a conspiracy hatched in London, England. See, “Decapitating the Union: Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin and the Plot to Assassination Lincoln,” by John C. Fazio.

With respect to this book, the illustrations of the 12 personalities by Allison Farris are all first-rate and add to its appeal.

Finally, I am giving Kalb’s book five stars and recommending readers put it on their “must-read” list.