The Mental Illness That Made America Great

The state of the universe.
June 25 2013 12:14 PM

Madness Made Them Great

Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, Estée Lauder, and Charles Lindbergh suffered from the same mental illness.

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs announced the new iPad at an Apple Special Event.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs announces the debut of a new iPad on Jan. 27, 2010, in San Francisco.

Photo by Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images

The man could not stand dirt. When he built his company’s first factory in Fremont, Calif., in 1984, he frequently got down on his hands and knees and looked for specks of dust on the floor as well as on all the equipment. For Steve Jobs, who was rolling out the Macintosh computer, these extreme measures were a necessity. “If we didn’t have the discipline to keep that place spotless,” the Apple co-founder later recalled, “then we weren’t going to have the discipline to keep all these machines running.” This perfectionist also hated typos. As Pam Kerwin, the marketing director at Pixar during Jobs’ hiatus from Apple, told me, “He would carefully go over every document a million times and would pick up on punctuation errors such as misplaced commas.” And if anything wasn’t just right, Jobs could throw a fit. He was a difficult and argumentative boss who had trouble relating to others. But Jobs could focus intensely on exactly what he wanted—which was to design “insanely great products”—and he doggedly pursued this obsession until the day he died. Hard work and intelligence can take you only so far. To be super successful like Jobs, you also need that X-factor, that maniacal overdrive—which often comes from being a tad mad.

For decades, scholars have made the case that mental illness can be an asset for writers and artists. In her landmark work Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Johns Hopkins psychologist Kay Jamison documented the “fine madness” that gripped dozens of prominent novelists, poets, painters, and composers. As Lord Byron wrote of his fellow bards, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” For the author of Don Juan, as for many of the other artsy types profiled by Jamison, the disease in question is manic depression (or bipolar disorder), but depression is also common. Sylvia Plath’s signature works—The Bell Jar and Daddy—hinge on her suicidal despair. But while most Americans now acknowledge that many famous writers were unbalanced, few realize that the movers and shakers who have built this country—CEOs like Steve Jobs—also struggled with psychiatric maladies. This misunderstanding motivated me to write my latest book, America’s Obsessives. After discussing Jobs and other contemporary figures in the prologue, I cover seven icons, including Thomas Jefferson, marketing genius Henry J Heinz, librarian Melvil Dewey, aviator Charles Lindbergh, beauty tycoon Estée Lauder, and baseball slugger Ted Williams. (Like Jobs, the Red Sox Hall of Famer was a neatness nut who used to quiz the clubhouse attendant about why he used Tide on the team’s laundry.) By picking trailblazers who toiled in different arenas—from business and politics to information technology and sports—I wanted to show how a touch of madness is perhaps the secret to rising to the top in just about any line of work.

These men and women of action did have occasional bouts with depression, but they primarily suffered (or benefited) from another form of mental illness: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. The key features of this superachiever’s disease include a love of order, lists, rules, schedules, details, and cleanliness; people with OCPD are addicted to work, and they are control freaks who must do everything “their way.” OCPD is not to be confused with its cousin, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Those with OCD are paralyzed by thoughts that just won’t go away, while people with OCPD are inspired by them. Steve Jobs couldn’t stop designing products—when hospitalized in the ICU, he once ripped off his oxygen mask, insisting that his doctors improve its design on the double. Estée Lauder couldn’t stop touching other women’s faces. Perfect strangers would do, including those she might bump into on an elevator or a street corner. Without her beauty biz as an alibi, she might have been arrested for assault with deadly lipstick or face powder. These dynamos are hard-pressed to carve out time for anything else but their compulsions. Spouses and children typically endure long stretches of neglect. In the early 1950s, with two boys at home (today both are billionaire philanthropists), Lauder was riding the rails all over the country half the year, hawking her wares.

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Obsessives hate nothing so much as taking a break to relax or reflect, and they typically do so only when felled by illness. “Home. Not well. Busy about house. Always plenty to do. Cannot well be idle and believe will rather wear out than rust out,” wrote the 35-year-old Henry Heinz in his diary in 1880, four years after starting his eponymous processed food company. Heinz’s compulsions included measuring everything in sight—he never left home without his steel tape measure, which he used on many an unsuspecting doorway—and keeping track of meaningless numbers. When traveling across the Atlantic on a steamer in 1886, he jotted down in his diary its precise dimensions as well as the number of passengers who rode in steerage class. But this love of pseudo-quantification would produce in the early 1890s one of the sturdiest slogans in American advertising history—“57 Varieties.” At the time, his company actually produced more than 60 products, but this number fetishist felt that there was something magical about sevens. By his early 50s, Heinz had already driven himself close to a complete nervous collapse on numerous occasions, and he reluctantly passed the reins of the company to his heirs. For the last two decades of his life, his children insisted that the overbearing paterfamilias chill out in a German sanatorium every summer, either at Dr. Carl von Dapper’s outfit in Bad Kissingen or Dr. Franz Dengler’s in Baden-Baden.

Melvil Dewey, whose childhood fixation with the number 10 led him to devise the Dewey Decimal Classification system, also was forced into an early retirement by his feverish pace. Dewey published the first edition of his search engine—the Google of its day, which is still in use in libraries in nearly 150 countries—in 1876, when he was only 24. For the next quarter of a century, Dewey took on a series of demanding jobs, typically juggling two or three at a time, as a librarian, businessman, and editor. He became the head of the world’s first library school, at Columbia University in 1884. According to a running joke, Dewey had a habit of dictating notes to two stenographers at the same time. In the end, it was his sexual compulsions that did him in. He was a serial sexual harasser and in 1905 was ostracized from the American Library Association, the organization that he had helped found a generation earlier, when four prominent female members of the guild filed complaints against him.

The aviator Charles Lindbergh also was an order aficionado whose oversized libido created a mess. This demanding dad saw his five children only a couple of months a year. He ruled over them and his wife, the best-selling author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, not with an iron fist but with ironclad lists. He kept track of each child’s infractions, which included such innocuous activities as gum-chewing. And he insisted that Anne track all her household expenditures, including every 15 cents spent for rubber bands, in copious account books. After Lindbergh turned 50, feeding his sex addiction became his full-time job; for the rest of his life, he was constantly flying around the world to visit his three German “wives,” longtime mistresses with whom he fathered seven children, and to hook up with various other flings.

Remarkably, though these obsessive icons were all awash in neurotic tics, there has been no shortage of hagiographers who idealize their every move. Of Heinz’s penchant for collecting seemingly random numbers, one biographer has observed that he “enthusiastically wrote down in his diary the statistics that one must know and record on such an occasion.” Another saw in Heinz’s factoid-finding a reason to compare him to “a scientist such as Thomas Edison.” The author of the first biography of Dewey made the laughable claim that “there was no psycho-neurosis in [him].” Even today, some still agree with what New York Gov. Al Smith said about Lindbergh soon after his legendary flight to Paris: “He represents to us … all that we wish—a young American at his best.” We Americans like our heroes and do not easily let them go. By pointing out the character flaws in our superachievers, I do not intend to diminish the greatness of their achievements. Instead I aim to show exactly how they managed to pull them off. And more often than not, it was with a touch of madness.

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