Chris McCandless, Ida Wood, and Sly Stone: The Longform Guide to Loners

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Feb. 8 2014 7:02 AM

It’s Been a Long Lonely, Lonely, Lonely, Lonely Time

Longform goes inside the lives of outsiders.

Sly Stone
Musician Sly Stone performs during Day 3 of Coachella in 2010. He stayed out of the public eye for years, before starting to resurface in the last decade.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

The Last American Man
Elizabeth Gilbert  • GQ • February 1998

At age 17, Eustace Conway moved into the North Carolina woods. He hasn’t compromised since.

Eustace Conway moved into the woods for good when he was 17 years old. This was in 1978, which was around the same time Star Wars was released. He lived in a tepee, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, and bathed in icy streams. At this point in his biography, you might deduce that Eustace is a survivalist or a hippie or a hermit, but he's not any of these things. He's not storing guns for the imminent race war; he's not cultivating excellent weed; he's not hiding from us. Eustace Conway is in the woods because he belongs in the woods.

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Everything Was Fake but Her Wealth
Karen Abbott • Smithsonian • Jan 2013

Ida Wood, who lived for decades as a recluse in a New York City hotel, would have taken her secrets to the grave—if her sister hadn't gotten there first.

As the undertaker prepared her sister’s body just a few feet away, Ida Wood suddenly grew talkative. She said she had been a celebrated belle in the South and a prominent socialite in the North. Her husband was Benjamin Wood, the brother of Fernando Wood, former mayor of New York and perennial congressman. She had, despite her complaints to the bellhop, a good deal of cash stashed in her bedroom.
At first they all thought she was senile.

The Boy Who Heard Too Much
David Kushner • Rolling Stone September 2009

Matthew Weigman was blind, overweight, 14 and alone. He could also do anything he wanted with a phone. Sometimes that meant calling Lindsay Lohan. Other times it meant sending a SWAT team to an enemy’s door.

Like a comic-book villain transformed by a tragic accident, Weigman discovered at an early age that his acute hearing gave him superpowers on the telephone. He could impersonate any voice, memorize phone numbers by the sound of the buttons and decipher the inner workings of a phone system by the frequencies and clicks on a call, which he refers to as "songs." The knowledge enabled him to hack into cellphones, order phone lines disconnected and even tap home phones. "Man, it felt pretty powerful for a little kid," he says. "Anyone said something bad about me, and I'd press a button, and I'd get them."

The Mystery of Erica Blasberg
Alan Shipnuck • Sports Illustrated • December 2010

How could a one-time rising golf star be gifted with top 10 talent yet struggle to break even on the LPGA tour, possess Madison Avenue magnetism yet be such a loner? But the most difficult thing to understand is this: Why did she take her own life?

Of his daughter's death Mel Blasberg says, "It's an American story." There is indeed something outsized in the sweep of Erica's rise and fall. But hers was also an intensely personal journey, in which a young woman who seemingly had it all was ultimately a victim of her own talent. "I'm not sure I ever got the sense that this is what Erica wanted to do," Mel says of her golf career. "She was forced into something she never would have done herself. Even though she didn't want to do it, she got so good, she didn't have any other choice. It was like she was trapped in her own life."

Death of an Innocent
Jon Krakauer • Outside •  April 1993

The tragic tale of itinerant wanderer Chris McCandless. The magazine story that preceded Into the Wild.  

During the drive, south toward the mountains Gallien had tried repeatedly to dissuade Alex from his plan, to no avail. He even offered to drive Alex all the way to Anchorage so he could at least buy him some decent gear. 'No, thanks anyway,' Alex replied. 'I'll be fine with what I've got.' When Gallien asked whether his parents or some friend knew what he was up to—anyone who could sound the alarm if he got into trouble and was overdue—Alex answered calmly that, no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn't spoken to his family in nearly three years. “I'm absolutely positive,” he assured Gallien, “I won't run into anything I can't deal with on my own.” … “There was just no talking the guy out of it,” Gallien recalls. “He was determined. He couldn't wait to head out there and get started.”

Sly Stone's Higher Power
David Kamp •Vanity Fair • August 2007

A profile of the reclusive musician.

But Sly has remained elusive—still with us, yet seemingly content to do without us. I have been pursuing him for a dozen years, on and off, wondering if there would ever come a time when he'd release new material, or at the very least sit down and talk about his old songs. I've loved his music for as long as I've been a sentient human being—he started making records with the Family Stone when I was a toddler. And over time, as the silence has lengthened, his disappearance from public life has become a fascinating subject in and of itself. How could it have happened? How could a man with such an extensive and impressive body of work just shut down and cut out?

The Last Romantic Outlaw
Jan Reid and Alan King  • Texas Monthly • August 1973

If Charles Brogden pilfered a kitchen, he washed the dishes and mopped the floor before he left. And the law just couldn’t seem to run him down.

But the kid was apparently unwilling to do without some of the finer things in life during his hermitage. After several weeks in the brush he was wanted in connection with 40 residential burglaries, six cut fences, two stolen horses, and one stolen jeep, which he allegedly rolled. You know how cowboys drive. He killed a deer or wild turkey for food occasionally, but he also broke into summer or weekend homes, raided the pantry, washed his dishes, showered, and slept on a mattress for a change. He didn't take much and he usually left things in order, and the law officers in the area let things slide for a while. But then in late March they decided enough was enough and approached Bob Snow, the best on-foot tracker in that part of the country.

Huguette Clark, Reclusive Heiress, Dies at 104
Margalit Fox • New York Times • May 2011

On the mysterious life of an the isolated heiress.

For the quarter-century that followed, Mrs. Clark lived in the apartment in near solitude, amid a profusion of dollhouses and their occupants. She ate austere lunches of crackers and sardines and watched television, most avidly “The Flintstones.” A housekeeper kept the dolls’ dresses impeccably ironed.

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Timothy Maddocks contributes to Longform.

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