We all grow up hearing stories about the great, and the not-so-great, people in our history books. Space and time constraints prevent our history classes from going into too much detail, so we rarely learn much about historical figures’ personal lives.
Perhaps because of this, we tend to picture people from the past as frozen tableaux, rather than as the living, breathing ordinary people they actually were. Beside their fame, they spent their time loving somebody, parenting their children…ok, maybe not all of them but some.
So, read what happens with the genes of some of the most famous people in history. What their descendants are up to these days…
Vlad the Impaler
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia relished torturing his enemies, driving sharpened poles though the bellies of disobedient subjects, heretics, and unchaste women. Vlad was infamous for feasting outdoors, among mounds of mutilated corpses.
He was the inspiration for the Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite his “lust for blood” very little is known for this ruler of Wallachia. Hence, his private life and love affairs remain a mystery till today. After Vlad’s death, his body was buried unceremoniously by his rival, Basarab Laiota.
And perhaps if he had any descendants….who knows, maybe the Wallachs drained their blood…just in case…
The flamboyant German socialite named Ottomar Rudolphe Vlad Dracul Kretzulesco (born Ottomar Berbig) claimed to be related to Dracula and lived in a medieval castle near Berlin. He exploited his Dracula lineage up until his death in 2007.
Berbig was a dealer of antiques in West Berlin in 1978 when an elderly woman entered his store wanting to sell heirlooms. The woman was Romanian princess Catherine Caradja (also known as Princess Caradja-Kretzulesco), who claimed to be a blood relative of Vlad Dracula. The two became friends, and the princess was keen to adopt Ottomar as her family had no male heirs to carry the family name. Berbig willingly and warmly embraced the moniker “Count Dracula.”
This, 21st-century Count Dracula was a hometown hero, but a little less remarkable. Retired banker and dealer of antiques who was famous for turning his home into a beer garden and vampire museum, featuring “Blood Red” wine, a hearse and coffin museum, and, of course, hundreds of bats. He exploited his Dracula lineage up until his death in 2007.
One of the most impressive and mysterious individuals of the 19th century, Harry Houdini was an American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts.
Lauded for his abilities as an escape artist and illusionist, Houdini found that magic was no match for the hard truths of life. When his beloved mother died, he attempted, again and again, to reconnect with her supernaturally, but no matter how hard he wished for it, he could never bring her back. Houdini despaired of discovering that in the end, the power of death was far stronger than the power of his love.
Harry married stage assistant, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, better known as Bess Houdini. Bess also looked after their menagerie of pets, collected dolls, and made the costumes for Houdini’s full evening roadshow. The Houdinis remained childless throughout their marriage. In 1926 Houdini died as a result of a ruptured appendix.
And after 90 years
In 2007, one of Houdini living relatives, George Hardeen provoked an investigation on suspicion that the magician was poisoned. This was an old murder conspiracy theory championed as credible in the 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. However, the exhumation was delayed because of legal issues and George Hardeen had pulled out, saying, “I am not intimately involved in this.”
It seems that the taste for publicity was inherited, even if the results are not as satisfactory.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was transformed from a peasant society into an industrial and military superpower. However, he ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign. Stalin married twice and had three children. He never got along with his first son Yakov.
Allegedly once Stalin referred to Yakov as a “mere cobbler”. Later, according to Yakov’s stepmother Nadezhda Alliluyeva, she saw a young girl running away from their garden in tears. When she entered, she saw a despairing Yakov looking near faint in the room. He ran immediately to his bedroom. It turned out that the girl was Yakov’s Jewish fiancée; when they told Stalin of their engagement, he became enraged. While Stalin and his wife were arguing about this, a shot was heard from Yakov’s room. Yakov had shot himself but survived. While she tended to his wounds and sent for a doctor, all his father said was, “He can’t even shoot straight”.
When Stalin died
A long period of troubles began for his second son Vasily. Less than two months after his father’s death Vasily was arrested on April 28, 1953, because he revealed top-secret information during a dinner-party with foreign diplomats. Vasily never had a close relationship with his father, but after the death of his mother in 1932, Joseph Stalin ceased to even visit his children; only the nursemaid and head of Stalin’s security guards looked after Vasily and his sister, Svetlana.
Svetlana was the last surviving child of Stalin. In 1967, she defected to the United States and became a naturalized citizen, which was a nice “F-you” to Moscow, which she felt had been treating her badly since her father’s death. Svetlana eventually married and took the name, Lana Peters. In 2011, at the age of 85, she died in Wisconsin, survived by her two sons who were born in America.
It means that as natural-born citizens, Joseph Stalin’s grandchildren are eligible to run for the presidency.
Author Oscar Wilde published several acclaimed works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford. While at Oxford, he became involved in the aesthetic movement. After he graduated, he moved to London to pursue a literary career.
On May 29, 1884, Wilde married a wealthy Englishwoman named Constance Lloyd. They had two sons: Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born in 1886.
At the height of his fame and success, while his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), was still on stage in London, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The charge carried a penalty of up to two years in prison. The trial unearthed evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men. After two more trials, he was convicted and imprisoned for two years’ hard labor.
Upon his release he left immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life. He died destitute in Paris at the age of 46.
Ashamed to be Oscar Wilde’s descendant?
Christopher Merlin Vyvyan Holland (born 1945 in London) is a biographer, editor, and the only grandchild of Oscar Wilde. Holland is the son of the author Vyvyan Holland and his second wife, Thelma Besant. Although he is a direct male-line descendant of Oscar Wilde, his last name is Holland because Wilde’s wife, Constance, changed her children’s surname to Holland, an old family name on her side to avoid shame after Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, and subsequent imprisonment and fall from grace.
Holland lives in Burgundy, France with his partner. His son, Lucian Holland (born 1979), Oscar Wilde’s only great-grandchild, studied classics at Magdalen college and is a computer programmer, living in London. Both were present, along with Stephen Fry, a notable fan of Wilde’s works, who played the author in the eponymous 1997 film, at the unveiling of a statue commemorating Wilde.
Lucian was given rooms in Magdalen College which Wilde had once occupied.
Ernest Hemingway served in World War I and worked in journalism before publishing his story collection In Our Time. He was renowned for novels like The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, which won the 1953 Pulitzer. In 1954, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize. He committed suicide on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho.
From the beginning of his first marriage with Hadley, Ernest Hemingway was never without a woman. Before marrying his second wife Pauline (Fife), she was his mistress and lover of both – Ernest and Hadley for one summer. And then, when he married Fife, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest’s second mistress and third wife, spent weeks sunning herself in Ernest and Fife’s garden in 1937. Fifteen days after his divorce from Fife in 1940, he married Martha, and he sent Fife the kill from the honeymoon hunt.
‘I don’t mind Ernest falling in love,’ Fife wrote, ‘but why does he always have to marry the girl when he does?’
Though the wives and mistresses of Ernest Hemingway were often enemies, they were often also friends. In Mary Welsh’s words (Hemingway’s fourth wife), they were all graduates of ‘the Hemingway University’.
Many famous descendants from just one man
Mariel Hemingway, who played the 17-year-old Tracy in Woody Allen’s Manhattan is the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway. Today she is an actress and author who has recently published a book where she describes overcoming the legacy of mental illness, addiction, and suicide in her family.
Her sister, Margaux who was once the world’s highest-paid model, committed a suicide by drug overdose in 1996 at the age of 42. Margaux’s suicide was the fifth suicide in the Hemingway family.
Today, Mariel Hemingway has daughters of her own, Langley Fox Hemingway, and Dree Hemingway, both models.