We learn about lots of different historical figures in school, on television, on Wikipedia. Most are from the time before photographs and video – George Washington, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci . We can look at paintings and sculptures and first-hand accounts, but we’ll never really know what they sounded and looked like. The technology didn’t exist. And so they are, to an extent, forever shrouded in a cloud of mystery.
Then there are the modern famous. JFK, Martin Luther King, Oprah. We have so much documentation – photos, video, audio – that it’s overwhelming. You can go to YouTube and spend hours watching speeches and interviews from these people. We know very well who they were, what they sounded like, and what their lives were like.
But then there is the group in the middle. They were born in the latter half of the nineteenth century. They accomplished a great deal in the early twentieth century and briefly overlapped with the dawn of video. There may only be a handful of rare clips out there of these people talking. Most of us have never heard them.
But the internet is a wondrous thing! Here are some videos of old, famous people that you’ve definitely heard of, but you probably have no idea what they sounded like. I definitely didn’t. It’s super weird to hear them talk.
The guy on the right is Harvey Firestone, founder of the tire company. He also had a really high, funny voice! The guy on the left is Thomas Edison, who you could argue was the most important person of any era, ever.
Edison comes across as a very cute, loveable old man. He was famously hard-of-hearing (hence the joke at 1:00) and would die only a short time later.
We think of Charlie Chaplin as this eccentric, mustachioed man from the 1920s. It’s hard not to think of him in black-and-white. But he actually lived until 1977. Here he is in 1972, in color, accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards.
Chaplin left America in 1952 and was not allowed re-entry due to his political beliefs. It didn’t matter to him – at the time he wrote: It is of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America’s insults and moral pomposity. His appearance at the 1972 Academy Awards was his first return to the US in twenty years. He was given a twelve minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy’s history.
Isn’t it ironic that the man known as Silent Cal was the first President to appear on film with sound?
Coolidge was famously quiet – in fact, when he died, the writer Dorothy Parker reportedly remarked, “How can they tell?”
He was aware of this reputation and perhaps cultivated it. “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President,” he once said. “And I think I will go along with them.”
Here he is in 1924. He had a weird Vermont accent.
Keller was born deaf and blind, and then she learned how to talk. How crazy is that.
I have to admit, I didn’t realize how modern Picasso was. We’ve built him up so much that I’ve always imagined he lived a few hundred years ago. But no, the guy did most of his work in the twentieth century and lived until 1973. Here he is in 1969, at the age of 88, giving an interview in Italian.
There is a quote attributed to Earhart that I’ve always liked. “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”
There will never again be ‘rare’ footage of a famous person, because everything is now obsessively documented. Two hundred years from now, a kid with an interest in the early twenty-first century will able to watch Barack Obama, in perfect HD, give an interview or deliver a speech. And that’s a good thing.
I just wonder if we’ve lost some of the romance of not knowing everything.
Inspired by this Wait Buy Why post.