Relative Genius

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

Every family has members that stand out: the sports-star brother with a shelf full of trophies, the mouthy niece who became a big-shot lawyer, the crooner cousin who made it onto American Idol. It’s enough to make you scream “Uncle!” Here are a few also-rans who, despite their own accomplishments, were overshadowed by a close relative.


When your mother, Marie Curie, becomes the first woman in history to win a Nobel Prize (in physics)…and then wins a second Nobel Prize (in chemistry)…well, don’t expect anyone to remember your name. As a girl, the shy Irène found it difficult to get her own parents’ attention. In the Curie household, the focus was science, science, science. Her grandfather, Eugène, was there for her, though. He adored the child and instilled in her a love of science that led her to follow in her parents’ radioactive footsteps. Irène’s 1925 thesis on the alpha rays of polonium (don’t worry—we don’t know what that is either) earned her a PhD. Ten years later, she won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Like her mom before her, Irène shared the prize with her husband, nuclear chemist Frédéric Joliot. Irène and Frédéric won the Nobel for synthesizing the first radioactive elements in a laboratory, turning stable aluminum atoms into radioactive atoms. Tens of millions of medical procedures every year rely on that discovery. Result: millions of lives have been saved through Irène Joliot-Curie’s genius.


Maria (nicknamed Nannerl) got top billing when she and her little brother Wolfgang performed as wunderkinder in courts across 18th-century Europe. Their father, Leopold, described his daughter as “one of the most skillful players in Europe.” Nannerl’s proud papa noted her “perfect insight into harmony and modulations.” Called a “genius” by many who heard her, Nannerl wowed audiences in 88 cities, performing with her brother before thousands as they traveled to Vienna, Paris, and London. And then she turned 18. A marriageable young woman of the day could not possibly be a traveling musician. From that point forward, Leopold left Nannerl at home in Salzburg while he and Wolfgang traveled. Left to her own devices, Maria Anna…composed. Was she good? According to her genius brother, yes. “My dear sister!” Wolfgang wrote in a letter from Rome dated 1770, “I am in awe that you can compose so well. In a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.” Too bad no one will ever hear Maria Anna Mozart’s music. As far as scholars can tell, none of it was preserved.


Many people reading this may be familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights or have seen one of the many movies based on the two classics. But how many have heard of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? That novel is the work of the third Brontë sister, Anne. Probably the biggest reason Anne’s work is not well known: her big sister Charlotte. After Anne’s death at age 29, Charlotte became “the de facto literary executor” of her work. Charlotte saw her little sister as “a minor literary talent” and put a stop to a posthumous reprinting of Anne’s novel. “Wildfell Hall hardly appears to me desirable to preserve,” Charlotte wrote to her publisher. “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake. It was too little consonant with the character, tastes, and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.”


Theo Weiss might have been one of the most famous escape artists of his day…if he hadn’t been Harry Houdini’s younger brother. “The Brothers Houdini” started out together, performing in beer halls, at Coney Island, and for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Theo, not Harry, was the first man ever to escape from a straitjacket in front of an audience. Harry made Theo’s trick a staple of his routine. When Theo, billing himself as “Hardeen,” went out on his own, the two illusionists cultivated a phony rivalry. “We made no secret of the fact that we were brothers,” Hardeen said later. What they did keep secret: the fact that the brothers remained close friends and that Harry had set his “rival” up in business. When Harry died, he left all of his equipment and secrets to Theo, with instructions that it should all be torched upon his death.


A striking de Kooning portrait of John F. Kennedy hangs in the “America’s Presidents” room at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was commissioned by the Truman Library in 1962, but it was not, as might be expected, painted by the celebrated abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. It was painted by his wife, Elaine de Kooning. Born in Brooklyn, Elaine Fried fell in love with art at age 5 when her mother started taking her to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She hung reprints of paintings by Rembrandt and Raphael on her bedroom wall and was soon drawing and selling portraits of her school classmates. After high school, Elaine attended the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, and within a few years became an apprentice to Willem de Kooning. Once they married, Elaine focused on promoting his work. She wrote reviews for art journals and developed close relationships with major players in the New York art world. How close? She claimed to have slept with two of the biggest art critics in town. Elaine’s support was credited with helping to build her husband’s reputation as an artistic genius. When asked what it was like to paint in her husband’s shadow, Elaine responded, “I don’t paint in his shadow. I paint in his light.” In 2015, the National Gallery mounted an exhibition of Elaine’s portraits—but a few decades too late for Elaine to enjoy. She died in 1989 at age 68.


Helping to found the colonial seaport of Alexandria, Virginia, should have made Lawrence Washington’s name one for the record books. Except that Lawrence had a much younger half-brother named… George. Alexandria now bills itself as “George Washington’s hometown” with nary a mention of Lawrence’s historical significance. But it was significant. Educated in England, Lawrence enlisted in the colonial army and was commissioned a captain by King George II. After his military service, Lawrence returned to the Virginia colony. Now a dashing, well-to-do military hero, he married into the upper echelons of the Virginia gentry. He was appointed adjutant general of the colony and managed his 2,000-acre estate on the banks of the Potomac River, which he renamed in honor of his former commander, Admiral Edward Vernon—Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon’s website does mention Lawrence. It notes that without his elder brother’s “steadily growing influence and powerful connections” young George Washington’s rise “would have been completely unattainable to him.” (Thanks, Bro.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Relative Genius"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More