The Child Prodigies Who Became 20th-Century Celebrities

In the early 20th century, when the development of intelligence tests coincided with the rise of tabloid journalism, the public became obsessed with child prodigies. Children who exhibited various special talents were rushed to print, and became celebrities. But fame came with its own problems.

At roughly the height of the prodigy craze, in 1926, Winifred Sackville Stoner, an author, lecturer, and gifted self-publicist, had the ingenious idea of bringing some of the little geniuses together. The founder of an organization called the League for Fostering Genius and herself the mother of a famous prodigy named Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., Stoner wanted to introduce the celebrated children to one another and to connect them with rich patrons who might bankroll their future feats. “Surely there is no better way in which to spend one’s millions,” the New York Times quoted her as saying.

Though the full guest list may be lost in time, the party’s attendees included William James Sidis, a young man in his twenties who had been a freshman at Harvard at age 11, and Elizabeth Benson, a 12-year-old who was about to enter college. Benson would later remember Nathalia Crane, a precocious poet of 12, as being there as well, although if she was, contemporary news accounts seem to have missed her. So what became of these dazzlingly bright prospects of yesteryear?

Smithsonian has the stories of several of the most celebrated child prodigies, and what became of them later in life. The stories are not all sunlight and roses, as the publicity surrounding their childhoods led them to shun the spotlight and for some, even their talents. Link

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