The perplexing appeal of the unlikely charismatic
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Go ahead, try to turn away from the Schticky. See what I mean?


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Most Unlikely Charismatics of All Time*

 

  1. Richard Wagner. Opera composer and megalomaniac. See below.
  2. Vince Schlomi, aka Vince Offer. Genius inventor and promoter of the ShamWow and the SlapChop.   
  3. TIE! Rod Stewart and Wayne Newton. I guess you have to be there?
  4. Winston Churchill. Saved Europe from despotism but would have failed the backyard barbecue test.
  5. Ellen Degeneres. It took a likable butch lesbian to show Americans that we're really all the same.   
  6. William Hung. She bang, she bang. 
  7. Larry King. The guy's not easy on the eyes, but dang! he's good at what he does. 
  8. Michael Jackson. See #7. 
  9. Warren Jeffs. A prophet? Really? Y'all need to get out more.
  10. Oprah. Oprah is the first to admit that hers is the unlikeliest of life stories. She's mowed down every barrier erected before her and exponentially exceeded the shamefully low expectations everyone has had of her.
I remember a specific moment, watching my grandmother hang the clothes on the line, and her saying to me, “You are going to have to learn this,” and me being in that space of awareness and knowing that my life would not be the same as my grandmother’s life.
— Oprah Winfrey

 *Hitler is off the table until I can wrap my mind around him, which may never happen.  


Richard Wagner's Megalomaniacal Charisma

Photo of Richard Wagner taken by Franz Hofstängl in 1871, the year after his marriage to Cosima Liszt von Bülow. 

Photo of Richard Wagner taken by Franz Hofstängl in 1871, the year after his marriage to Cosima Liszt von Bülow. 

Opera composer Richard Wagner, perhaps best known for Ride of the Valkyries, was a corpulent spendthrift so convinced of his own greatness that at age 18 he began keeping notes for the autobiography he was certain the public would someday demand of him. “I am not made like other people,” he wrote. “I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”

Wagner’s genius is rivaled only by his legendary charisma, which remains unparalleled but utterly inexplicable. Those around him, from the many patrons’ wives he seduced to the king of Bavaria, responded enthusiastically to his demands, rather than being put off by them. They gave him money, publicized his work, slept with him or offered their wives for that purpose. Wagner is perhaps the only man in history to have had a castle built by a king in his honor—and not just any castle, but Neuschwanstein, known to most Americans as the “Cinderella castle” because Walt Disney modeled his make-believe version after it.

Pianist Hans von Bülow was enamored of Wagner. Bülow was a gifted musician who eventually became one of the most respected orchestral conductors of the nineteenth century. Bülow's wife, Cosima Liszt, was the elder daughter of celebrated pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Although Bülow was an elegant man from a prominent family, he was nevertheless dull, morose, and often harshly critical of his wife.

When Wagner began conducting an affair with her, Bülow not only looked askance, but seemed eager to facilitate the romance. For instance, he allowed Cosima to provide "secretarial aid" to Wagner alone at a lakeside villa near Münich before joining the two a week later. When Cosima gave birth to Wagner’s child precisely 9 months after this visit,  Bülow claimed the child as his own in order to spare his wife and Wagner a nasty scandal. He remained circumspect even after Cosima became pregnant by Wagner a second time and asked Bülow for a divorce. Cosima von Bülow and Richard Wagner married just 1 week after her divorce was granted, about 6 years after the dalliance began, and remained married until Wagner's death 13 years later.

The autobiography that Wagner believed the world would demand of him is still in print. Wagner dictated the work to his wife at the urging of none other than King Ludwig of Bavaria. Somehow Wagner recognized from the first that he possessed charisma and talent of almost mythical proportions. The spell he cast was so mesmerizing that it still holds us in thrall today, 150 years after his death.