Pre-Madonna Prima Donnas: Artists Who Were Full of Themselves

They say a lot of artistic expression is motivated by self-loathing. But not for these folks! Long before the Material Girl ordered papa to stop preaching, these six puffed-up virtuosos knew darn well how to strike a pose. Here's to the creative types who managed to raise egotism to an art form.

1. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

Hitchcock was, without question, one of the towering geniuses of cinema. And, like many greats, he wasn't exactly the best collaborator.

Hitchcock was particularly trying for screenwriters, who felt he never properly credited them for their work. But he was notoriously hard on actors.

He was once quoted as saying, "Actors are cattle" -- a quip that stirred up a huge outcry (actors can be so touchy). In response, he issued this correction: "I have been misquoted. What I really said is, 'Actors should be treated as cattle.'"

Although it began accidentally (when he was short an actor for the film The Lodger), Hitchcock soon made it his egotistical trademark to appear in his own films, amassing a total of 37 cameos throughout his career.

2. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

The egotist's egotist, author Ayn Rand (born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum) is the patron saint of Thinking You're Better Than Everybody Else.

Her most famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are massive dramatizations of Objectivism, her self-spun Oscar-the-Grouch philosophy for success. Objectivism champions ego and accomplishment, shuns all religion as folly, and condemns any form of charity or altruism as counterproductive to society.

Rand's novels often focus on protagonists (invariably men) who are shunned by others because of their genius, but then persevere over the foolishness of morons to prove said genius and emerge triumphant.

Not surprisingly, she saw humility as a weakness and regarded laughing at yourself as "spitting in your own face."

So, just how much did Rand believe in her own philosophy? Let's just say a lot. With signature modesty, she ranked herself as the philosophical equal of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

3. Orson Welles (1915-1985)

When you create a cinematic masterpiece such as Citizen Kane at the ripe old age of 25, you're bound to get a big head. But Welles was convinced of his own importance much earlier than that.

In fact, Citizen Kane might have been sparked by nothing more than a bruised ego. After all, it's said he devised the film as a withering exposé of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst because Hearst slighted Welles at a dinner party. Of course, after the unparalleled success of Citizen Kane, Welles's arrogant side didn't get any less subtle.

Do yourself a favor: Track down a recording of Welles' outtakes for a TV commercial for frozen peas. You'll hear everything you need to know about the filmmaker's oversized ego. A classic quote goes: "In the depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

(YouTube link)

4. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

As the brains behind the Robie House, Fallingwater, Taliesin West, the Guggenheim, and countless other design benchmarks, Frank Lloyd Wright is arguably the genius of 20th-century architecture. And, boy, did he know it! Wright was notorious for believing he was superior to mere mortals. In fact, the architectural egomaniac frequently acted as though the rules -- even those of geography and climate -- did not apply to him. But when you're Wright, you're right.

In 1935, department store magnate Stanley Marcus (of Neiman-Marcus fame) commissioned the architect to design his Dallas home, but the project quickly went sour. Wright's avant-garde floor plan included "sleeping porches" that required his client to sleep outdoors year-round. In addition, Marcus' small bedroom "cubicles" came equipped with almost no closet space.

When Stanley respectfully explained that (a) temperatures during summer nights in Dallas often exceed 80 degrees and (b) a high-fashion tastemaker might need bigger closets, Wright threw a series of tantrums. Fortunately for the voyeur in us all, said tantrums usually took place in letter form. Preserved and occasionally displayed at the Dallas Museum of Art, they make for delicious reading.

5. Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

"Every morning when I awake, the greatest of joys is mine: that of being Salvador Dalí." Yup, he actually said that. Everything about the legendary Surrealist painter (he of the melting clocks) -- from his whacked-out paintings to his curled-up mustache -- was designed to shock, destroy convention, cause scandal, and stir controversy.

Criticized for choosing to live under General Franco's fascist government in Spain, Dalí defended his position by stating that he didn't care about others so long as he could be king. Not exactly a man of the people.

If he wasn't getting enough attention, he was known to walk the streets of New York City clanging a hand bell. Of course, this is also the guy who once said, "The thought of not being recognized [is] unbearable."

Need another telling quote? "At the age of 6 years, I wanted to be a chef. At the age of 7, I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambitions have continued to grow at the same rate ever since." Apparently, so did his ego.

6. Al Jolson (1886-1950)

Plenty of performers this side of Gallagher have been labeled "the world's greatest entertainer." But Al Jolson really, really believed it. The vaudeville singer, actor, dancer, and comedian was born Asa Yoelson in Seredzius, Lithuania, in what was then part of Imperial Russia. As a performer, he was known for hijacking the action in the middle of shows, ad-libbing, or just stopping to talk to the audience.

During a 1911 performance of the critically hated "Paris is a Paradise for Coons" (title not edited for political correctness), Jolson stopped and asked the audience if they'd rather hear him sing than see the rest of the play. The crowd roared with applause, and Jolson ditched the whole program and took over. From that moment on, no one else could share the stage with him.

Unlike some of the egomaniacs on this list, however, Jolson can be forgiven somewhat for his arrogance. According to most contemporary accounts, he actually was the greatest in the world.

But, despite the enormity of his contributions to stage and screen, Jolson's legacy has become a political hot potato because of his use of stage blackface (considered highly offensive now, but pretty common at the time).


The article above, written by Christopher Smith, is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2005 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Funny you should give Jolson a pass over the others. They all were, save the abominable Rand, probably as great as they thought they were. It happens. And frankly, most of them had a fabulous sense of humor, especially Hitchcock, Welles and Dali. And Wright, occasionally.

Having heard the Welles audio file, I don't see what the problem is; Welles was absolutely right all along. That's the trouble with advertising: corporate idiots hire geniuses, but they don't allow them to be themselves.

How about some prima donnas whose egos were *bigger* than their talent, next time? ;)
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Dali was more than a prima donna, he was Dali. Beyond definition, beyond understanding. Hell, he wore a diving suit to an art premier of his. In the 30's. In a diving suit. LOL.
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