Many a celebrity has sought a life of obscurity after realizing the toll of the persistent gaze of the public eye. Ironically, that often serves to make them even more interesting to fans and journalists alike. Poor health, mental illness, sordid secrets and a simple desire for privacy can all turn a famous person into a recluse, and all of them have. From Salinger to Chappelle, here are 25 recluses and what made them shun the limelight:
1. J.D. Salinger
Famous For: Writing one of the most beloved American novels, Catcher in the Rye
Reclusive Tendencies: After holing up in his Cornish, N.H. home since the 1950s, the late J.D. Salinger may have been the most famous recluse in recent memory, but not everyone saw him that way. According to a recent New York Times article, Salinger was a regular Joe in his hometown.Wanting to protect him from the prodding of the media, neighbors would send tourists seeking Salinger on a wild goose chase. How far off-track they went “depended on how arrogant they were.”
2. Jeff Mangum
Famous For: One of Paste’s Best Living Songwriters, Mangum fronted Neutral Milk Hotel and penned indie-rock opus In the Aeroplane over the Sea
Reclusive Tendencies: Shortly after releasing Aeroplane in the late 1990s, Mangum went off the media grid and has stayed there since, with the exception of a 2002 interview with Pitchfork. He still pops up from time to time, but, after realizing that he couldn’t “just sing [his] way out of all this suffering,” Mangum effectively walked away from life as a musician and avoids his own fame as much as possible.
3. Terrence Malick
Famous For: Silver-screen classics such as The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and Days of Heaven
Reclusive Tendencies: Following 1978’s Days of Heaven, Malick went AWOL for two decades, returning to the public eye in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. His 2006 effort, The New World, received mixed reviews, and he’s reportedly still editing the oft-delayed Tree of Life as he gets cracking on a new film with Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem. Although there’s much excitement about the new projects, Malick remains mum, and it’s said that he goes so far as to make sure his images stay out of press materials.
Famous For: Captivating audiences as the star of MGM silents films and early talkies, such as Anna Karenina and Grand Hotel
Reclusive Tendencies: Although she was regarded as one of the great beauties of the early silver screen, Garbo retired from acting at the age of 36, never to return to public life. She never married, and she spent much of her life “being chronically irritated and bored,” according to a recent biography of her. In 1947, a 70-year-old solitarian from Michigan gave Garbo the ultimate recluse props by leaving his entire estate to her upon his death.
5. Thomas Pynchon
Famous For: Writing Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49
Reclusive Tendencies: He sent a vaudeville performer to a National Book Award ceremony in his stead. He famously said, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists…meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’” He avoided the media spotlight far better than the lawsuit-loving Salinger, and he always seemed to have a little fun doing it.
6. Lauryn Hill
Famous For: Her work with the Fugees and excellent solo album, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Reclusive Tendencies: After the incredible success of her debut solo record, Lauryn Hill had the life she’d dreamed of since childhood. She was developing a biopic about boyfriend Rohan Marley’s father, in which she planned to star as Bob Marley’s wife. She was set to produce a romantic comedy about soul food, and had a major role in the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Poised for even greater stardom, Hill dropped the projects after she became pregnant and has hardly been heard from since. There was a sketchy performance for MTV’s Unplugged, a few stabs at an attempt to reunite the Fugees, and endless promises of new music, but mostly Hill stayed underground, refusing to grant interviews without exorbitant compensation.
7. Johnny Depp
Famous For: His role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, playing an endless string of endearing weirdos for Tim Burton, and so on
Reclusive Tendencies: People magazine’s 2009 Sexiest Man Alive can’t exactly avoid the probing of fans and journalists while starring in one blockbuster after another, but he sure does try. In a 2009 interview, Depp told the Daily Telegraph that the attention of zealous fans keeps him homebound when he’s not filming. “If the choice is between being constantly gawked at and sitting in a chair in a dark room, I prefer the dark room,” he said.
8. Steve Ditko
Famous For: Co-creating and illustrating The Adventures of Spiderman comic book
Reclusive Tendencies: Ditko is credited by fans as being the true genius behind Marvel’s Spiderman comics, and it has been speculated that he left his post there due to frustration over not being given his due by an overbearing Stan Lee. Others believe that a falling out between Ditko and Lee over the identity of the Green Goblin led to the split. After all these years, the truth has never come out, Ditko refusing to ever grant an interview.
9. Cormac McCarthy
Famous For: Novels such as The Road, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses
Reclusive Tendencies: Perhaps more of a Pynchonian recluse than the troglodyte he’s made out to be, McCarthy is just more likely to be hanging out at the Sante Fe Institute than going on book tours, according to a 2007 profile by David Kushner. SFI tries to answer such questions as, “Why financial markets crash. How terrorist cells form. Why viruses spread. How life ends.” What better place for a man who’s made a career writing about destruction to seek inspiration?
10. Howard Hughes
Famous For: The billionaire entrepreneur was profiled in 2004’s The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio
Reclusive Tendencies: After a career as a highly visible inventor and wooer of some of Hollywood’s most glamorous women, Hughes began to fade from public life in the 1950s. A fear of germs and deep paranoia about having his power usurped led Hughes to spend the last decades of his life in near total isolation. He was so successful in removing himself from the outside world that, before his death in 1976, the IRS considered declaring him legally dead in order to collect taxes on his massive estate. When news of his passing reached Washington, IRS officials were dispatched to take fingerprints from his corpse to prove it was really the elusive Howard Hughes in the casket.
11. John Hughes
Famous For: Movies like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Buller’s Day Off and more
Reclusive Tendencies: He remained out of sight since the 1990s, when he quit directing and moved back to the Chicago suburbs, choosing to focus on his family life and leave Hollywood behind. Though he wrote Maid in Manhattan, which starred J.Lo, and came up with the idea for Owen Wilson’s Drillbit Taylor, Hughes did his best to maintain a separation from showbiz until his death last year.
12. Harper Lee
Famous For: Her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird
Reclusive Tendencies: Although she’s popped up in recent years to write an essay for O magazine and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, Lee has spent most of the time since her debut out of the spotlight. The childhood friend of Truman Capote hasn’t given an interview in more than four decades and never published another novel.
13. Sly Stone
Famous For: Fronting Sly and the Family Stone, which produced classics like “Everyday People” and “Dance to the Music”
Reclusive Tendencies: Stone’s 2006 performance at the Grammys was his first on-stage appearance in nearly 20 years. Like Howard Hughes, Stone’s disappearance from the public eye was so complete for so long that, for a while, many believed him to be dead. Legal problems, drugs and an expensive fall-out with his former manager, against whom he recently filed a lawsuit, kept Stone underground and out of the media. Recent years have brought what Mojo magazine referred to as “Sly’s renaissance”—with two documentaries about him on the way with year and a new record deal with Cleopatra Records, Stone is poised for a return.
14. Bobby Fischer
Famous For: Considered by many to be the best chess player of all time, Fischer was was the youngest Grandmaster ever at age 15
Reclusive Tendencies: Suffering from trust issues, Fischer shunned intense public interest in him, refusing to defend his title of World Chess Champion three years after it was awarded to him in 1972. In 1992, defying orders from the United States to honor a trade embargo against the former Yugoslavia, Fischer played Boris Spassky, the man he defeated to win the world championship, in Belgrade. The U.S. revoked his passport, and he was granted citizenship in Iceland, where he’d won the World Chess Championship as a young man. He spent the rest of his days there, scruffy and embittered, popping up to spout the occasional anti-American, anti-Semitic diatribe. After his death, the distribution of his estate was hotly contested when a woman with whom he’d had an affair as a younger man claimed that he had fathered her daughter and sought an inheritance for her.
15. Daniel Day-Lewis
Famous For: His Oscar-winning performance in 1989’s My Left Foot; more recently, his stunning turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood
Reclusive Tendencies: Perhaps the thing that most suggests Day-Lewis as a recluse is that he’s widely considered to be one. A remark years ago about his “lifelong study in evasion” trails after him to this day. However, Day-Lewis simply prefers to stay at home and raise his young sons as normally as possible. “How can you be a recluse in a house full of children?” he asked in an interview with The Guardian in 2008. How indeed.
16. Michael Jackson
Famous For: The Moonwalk, Thriller, that glove and so many other things we miss
Reclusive Tendencies: Once the world’s most beloved superstar, Jackson shrank from the public eye after he was acquitted in 2005 of child molestation. The last years of his life found “Jacko,” as the tabloids called him, scrutinized for his plastic surgery, parenting choices, spending habits and relationship with children. His seclusion in his Neverland Ranch, complete with carnival rides and a zoo, only added to the mystery and suspicion surrounding the star, who died at 50 last year on the eve of a comeback tour.
17. The Wachowski siblings
Famous For: Creating and directing The Matrix trilogy; writing and producing V for Vendetta
Reclusive Tendencies: Although they continue to make movies (rumor has it they’re currently working on an adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), the Wachowskis typically avoid interviews and generally keep to themselves. A 2006 Rolling Stone article on the mysterious duo focuses on brother Larry’s relationship with a dominatrix and, later, his sex change. A few months ago, a photo surfaced of a pink-haired Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski, posing with her brother and Ariana Huffington on the set of the Wachowski’s new film. With one of the most successful movie franchises of the last decade, the Wachowskis could have had a celebrity to match that of other A-list directors, but they shied away. “Larry and Andy were always into the concept of suppression, of suppressing oneself,” Marcus Chong, who played Tank in The Matrix, told Rolling Stone. “One of their big directorial notes was ‘Be stoic. Never show your true self.”
18. Syd Barrett
Famous For: Founding Pink Floyd with Roger Waters and writing much of the band’s early material
Reclusive Tendencies: Just before Pink Floyd reached international stardom, Barrett suffered a breakdown related to his extensive use of psychedelics, particularly LSD. He quickly left the band and retreated to Cambridge in England, granting no interviews since the 1970s and living off the royalties from Pink Floyd. He died from cancer in 2006.
19. Johnny Carson
Famous For: Hosting NBC’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1962-1992
Reclusive Tendencies: Carson, who once told a reporter, “I’m not gregarious. I’m a loner,” dropped from the public eye after his retirement, reportedly in fear of growing old in public. Severe medical conditions, including a quadruple bypass in 1998 and his battle with emphysema, further solidified his removal from the limelight until his death in 2005.
20. Dave Chappelle
Famous For: The riotous and short-lived sketch-comedy series The Dave Chappelle Show on Comedy Central
Reclusive Tendencies: In 2005, midway through filming the third season of his megahit TV show, Chappelle flew the coop, resurfacing in Durban, South Africa, a few weeks later. The funnyman cited issues of trust within his inner circle for his need for a break, saying, “During my ascent, I’ve seen other people go through that wall to become really big. They always said that fame didn’t change them but that it changes the people around them. You always hear that but you never really understand it. But now that I’m there that makes a lot of sense and I’m learning what that means. You have to have people around you that you can trust and aren’t just out for a meal ticket.” He never returned to The Dave Chappelle Show.
21. Stanley Kubrick
Famous For: Directing classics such as A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the list goes on
Reclusive Tendencies: Kubrick felt strongly that there was no need to explain his films or to add anything to them through interviews, and therefore granted few. He did most of his work from his home in England and rarely traveled due to a fear of flying. He was also rarely photographed, so that even at the height of his career, many fans didn’t know what he looked like. This allowed Alan Conway, a con man, to go around the UK impersonating Kubrick for quite some time, gaining entrance into parties and nightclubs. The story is the subject of 2007’s Color Me Kubrick, starring John Malkovich. The authentic Kubrick died in 1999.
Famous For: His work with the Beach Boys, the iconic Pet Sounds
Reclusive Tendencies: After finding success with the Beach Boys, Wilson fell off the map due to problems with drugs “so much so that he lost a lot of his money, his family left him. It wasn’t until he finally cleaned up in the late 1990s that he could get back into music,” says Dr. Stephen Valdez, who teaches History of Rock and Roll at the University of Georgia.
23. Bill Watterson
Famous For: Creating the adventures of a boy and his tiger in Calvin and Hobbes
Reclusive Tendencies: In what’s thought to be his first interview in over 20 years, a terse e-mail exchange with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Watterson showed little patience for the sentimentality many feel about him and his comic strip, praising fans who “are willing to give me some room to go on with my life.”
Famous For: One of the best and most controversial players the Red Sox ever had, arguably the greatest hitter of all time
Reclusive Tendencies: Many a reclusive life is created when a person reaches notoriety only to discover he can’t handle the scrutiny and intrusion of the press. Williams was the sort of man who couldn’t let the prying and criticism roll off his back, and he became increasingly embattled with Boston’s sportswriters during his illustrious career, eventually spilling his ire over to the fans as well. Eventually, it was just too much for him, so he moved to Florida, where he enjoyed fishing and mostly kept the press at arms length, though his interview with Esquire in 1986 spawned a profile that is widely considered one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting ever written. The Hall of Famer died in 2002.
25. David Letterman
Famous For: Hosting the Late Show with David Letterman
Reclusive Tendencies: In his first monologue following Salinger’s death, Letterman declared himself “now the world’s most famous living recluse.” We’re not sure how this can be considering he hosts a late-night show five nights a week, but perhaps his announcement is the beginning of a sure-to-be-rewarding career as a recluse that will one day find him joining the ranks of Salinger, Pynchon and Howard Hughes. Then again, maybe not.