Inventory: 12 Famous Living Recluses

Inventory: 12 Famous Living Recluses

1. J.D. Salinger

Perhaps the most famous living recluse, author J.D. Salinger started withdrawing from the public eye shortly after he moved to New Hampshire in 1953, and had his retiring ways profiled in a 1961 Time cover article. At the time, Salinger was still publishing the occasional short story or novella, but following the 1965 New Yorker story "Hapworth 16, 1924," even the publication stopped. According to his daughter Margaret, Salinger has written a number of novels and stories in the ensuing decades, and has left instructions for some to be published after he dies. But aside from a 1974 New York Times interview, the occasional paparazzi photo, and some kiss-and-tell reports from ex-girlfriends, Salinger has faded into myth. It's an oddly anonymous fate for the writer behind Holden Caulfield, one of the 20th century's best-known literary narcissists.

2. Thomas Pynchon

Given Thomas Pynchon's densely allusive, lightly prankish novels, it isn't so surprising that he'd spend almost four decades playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the media, by publishing steadily—articles and jacket blurbs as much as books—and by maintaining cordial relationships with several other famous writers, all while carefully avoiding being photographed and turning down requests for interviews. (When Pynchon voiced himself on The Simpsons, the animators depicted him with a paper bag over his head.) Over the years, rumors have circulated that Pynchon was actually The Unabomber, or screenwriter W.D. Richter, or even J.D. Salinger. Pynchon's response? "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'"

3. Harper Lee

There's a fine line between "reclusive" and "retiring," and the case of Harper Lee raises legitimate questions about where that line should be. Aside from a few stories and essays, Lee's major life achievement is her lone novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, which fictionalizes her Alabama childhood. Lee has declined most interview requests and public-speaking engagements since the book's publication, preferring to live a quiet life paid for by Mockingbird royalties. But given that she's published little since the novel, how strange is that, really? After all, how many retired grocery clerks are expected to scurry to the phone when a newshound calls?

4. Bill Watterson

Even during the 10-year run of his comic strip Calvin And Hobbes, Bill Watterson rarely granted interviews, though at the time, that decision seemed tied to his general fear that he'd cheapen his work by marketing it. Yet since his retirement—at the age of 37, no less—Watterson has continued to maintain media silence, including a complete shutdown of new material. Recently, in conjunction with the release of The Complete Calvin And Hobbes, Watterson agreed to answer a handful of written questions, and last year, a few of Watterson's neighbors commented to the press that he's anything but a hermit in their community. Apparently, Watterson is just leading the kind of idle life that his main character always dreamed about, happy to be left alone.

5. Steve Ditko

As the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Steve Ditko should be more famous than he is. Blame his old boss and partner Stan Lee for hogging a lot of the credit that should've gone to one of his best artists. And also blame Ditko himself, for following an increasingly rigid objectivist philosophy that's resulted in cranky adventure comics that the cartoonist has often abandoned mid-series rather than compromise. Ditko doesn't grant interviews, but at the request of some journalists, he has issued the occasional screed, spiked with the same knotty genius that's made his work so distinctive.

6. Terrence Malick

When Quentin Tarantino was in the throes of post-Pulp Fiction overexposure, he joked that he'd like to "pull a Terry Malick" and disappear from sight after only directing two movies. At the time, Malick hadn't yet made The Thin Red Line or The New World, and was still coasting on the reputation of his twin '70s masterpieces Badlands and Days Of Heaven. Now, Malick is apparently back in business as a working filmmaker, but he remains as much a man of mystery as Stanley Kubrick in his day, even going so far as to keep his image out of the publicity materials for his films. Want to get to know Terrence Malick? You'd better hope you get cast in his next movie. And even then—if actors who've worked with Malick are any indication—don't count on getting a lot of face time.

7. The Wachowski brothers

Fans of Larry and Andy Wachowski's debut film Bound cherish its special-edition DVD for a couple of reasons: Because the movie is awesome, and because the Wachowskis participated in the commentary track, which is one of the few times they've supported their work by talking about it publicly. During the writing and filming of the Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis suddenly got media-shy, ducking most interviews and refusing to appear in the copious bonus features on the movies' DVDs. One of the stranger explanations for the brothers' sudden reticence involves Larry Wachowski's widely reported sexual proclivities, which include cross-dressing and masochism. Or maybe the Wachowskis just didn't want to try to explain The Matrix Revolutions.

8. John Hughes

Here's another notable absentee from the DVD commentary-track ranks. Writer-director John Hughes even went so far as to have the superb commentary on an early DVD edition of Ferris Bueller's Day Off removed when the movie was reissued on disc last year. He's also steered clear of any video or print reminiscences on the making of his beloved teen-flick favorites The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink. And he hasn't worked much in features lately, either: Hughes last directed a movie in 1991 (the excruciating Curly Sue), and last had a screenplay produced in 2002 (the excruciating Maid In Manhattan). Hughes did contribute the idea for the 2008 comedy Drillbit Taylor, but judging by his recent actions, don't expect him to help out with the electronic press kit.

9. Lauryn Hill

Hill has followed the usual celebrity-recluse pattern of having an early success so massive that it's hard to match. She took the Grammys and residuals generated by her 1998 solo debut The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and all but disappeared. Her sole recorded output over the last nine years has been the 2002 live album MTV Unplugged 2.0, which combined rambling original songs with painful spoken-word "interludes." Since then, Hill has toured with a reunited Fugees, and made a few bizarre solo live appearances, but any future albums—including a new Fugees record—seem to have been scotched by her erratic, borderline-paranoid behavior.

10. Sly Stone

Stone's place on this list was secured before the news came last week that he'd co-operated with a Vanity Fair reporter for a lengthy profile running in next month's issue. But one interview can't erase nearly 30 years of seclusion, prompted by drug abuse and legal troubles. Even when Sly & The Family Stone were just past their peak in the mid-'70s, Stone was an elusive dude, often missing appointments and showing up hours late to concerts. In periodic public appearances since a 1987 coke bust—including a 2006 performance at the Grammys—Stone has looked foggy and out of touch, with all traces of his ebullient musical communalism practically eradicated. According to rumor, he's been working on a new album over the past couple of years—and submitting his vocals by phone.

11. The Residents

It probably isn't entirely fair to call the members of the masked avant-rock collective The Residents "recluses," because for all we know, Larry King could be dancing around under one of those giant eyeball helmets. But whoever the members of The Residents are—or "were," if the rumors about a rotating membership are true—they've done a masterful job of cloaking their identities and keeping their performance-art shtick alive. Maybe they've been able to persevere because they've never been massively popular, although that in itself should've been an impediment to the band's continued existence, given their grand, occasionally expensive ideas. At this point, even if some intrepid underground journalist could expose the secret of The Residents—and truth be told, some viable guesses have been made—it probably wouldn't make the band any less obscure.

12. Bobby Fischer

Throughout his fitful career as a chess champion and world-class eccentric, Bobby Fischer has always been hard to pin down. He's made odd and sometimes unreasonable demands before agreeing to a match, and quit matches before completion due to petty disagreements with the event organizers and his opponents. Fischer hasn't been completely absent from the public sphere, but he tends to come and go on his own terms. He even talks to the press when he's got something to say, as on Sept. 11, 2001, when during a Filipino radio interview, he called the reports of terrorist attacks on the U.S. "wonderful news." Maybe some people aren't reclusive enough.