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Iconic Americans who were not actually American

Ian Harvey

Many people are so ingrained in American culture that we really have no idea what their roots are. Numerous major contributors to American society did not start their life within America, and their stories are inspirational.

10 Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger Source:By David Shankbone - David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0,
Henry Kissinger Photo credit 

Best known as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State and the man accountable for several foreign negotiations with China and Vietnam during the 1970s. Henry Kissinger had an active role in American international policy beforehand in the 1950s when he was a special consultant to National Security Council’s Operations Coordinating Board and the Department of State.

Despite the fact that his name is synonymous with American international policy, he did not become a US citizen until he was 20 years old. He was born with the name Heinz Alfred Kissinger on May 27th, 1923. His family emigrated to the US in 1938.

By that time, Germany was an unsafe place for Jews such as Kissinger. Frequently preyed on by Nazi Youth members, he went through a rebellious stage trying to bend the rules imposed on him because of his faith. When he was age 15, his family chose to leave their homeland. When they arrived, the young Kissinger went straight to work in a factory that created shaving brushes to support the family. At the same time, he registered at the George Washington High School in New York, where he first learned to speak English.

9 Eddie and Alex Van Halen

Alex Van Halen performing live Source:By Craig ONeal - Flickr: Alex Van Halen - Van Halen Live, CC BY 2.0,
Alex Van Halen performing live Photo credit 

Van Halen first made the charts in 1978, and when the 1980s came around, the hits “Jump” and “Hot For Teacher” made them the poster children for American heavy metal. Nevertheless, the group’s founders, Alex and Eddie Van Halen, were both born in the Netherlands to a classical musician named Jan, who moved his family to California in 1962.

A saxophone and clarinet player, Jan Van Halen arrived in the Golden State searching for work as a self-employed musician. He often joined wedding bands for shows to aid his family in making ends meet, cleaning dishes in his free time. He gifted his love for music to his sons, who were educated to play piano, and given daily classical music lessons in the Netherlands.

When arriving in the United States, the family found rock and roll. Interestingly, it was Alex who started with the guitar, the instrument Eddie is known for revolutionizing, while Eddie commenced his rock career by learning to play the drums. In time, they exchanged instruments and created a band they titled Mammoth before enlisting David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony, alternating the name, and taking the Pasadena bar circuit by storm.

8 Alexander Graham Bell

 Alexander Graham Bell Source:Wikipedia/public domain
Alexander Graham Bell 

When it comes to great American inventors, Alexander Graham Bell is found at the top of the list. While most of his work was completed in America, he was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was named after his grandfather, who was famous in Scotland for his acting and speaking.

Bell, his father, as well his grandfather together shared an impressive voice, which was believed to be a family trait. In addition to his stage work, his grandfather was a professor who taught students public speaking. His son Melville followed in his footsteps with his research of elocution and speech pathology.

In 1844, Melville Bell married a deaf artist known as Eliza Grace Symonds. Alexander Jr.’s powerful bond with his mother, who desperately desired to hear her sons voices, that turned his brilliantly ingenious mind in the direction of communication. After his initial invention of a device for stripping corn that he produced when he was 14, he began researching how the human body created sound.

During the time he was studying at the University of London at the age of 16, he mistranslated a German work that he believed proposed that sound could be conveyed over a wire, shaping the foundation for his work in America. In 1870, after his brothers passed away from tuberculosis, the family immigrated to Ontario, Canada. The next year, Bell journeyed to Boston, where he became a teacher at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes and that is where he met his future wife, Mabel Hubbard.

7 Liz Claiborne

American style would appear very different in the absence of the influence of Liz Claiborne. The first woman to discover a Fortune 500 establishment, Claiborne is recognized for the creation of inexpensive but professional articles of clothing for women and particularly for inventing the idea of blouses, blazers, shirts and pants that could be purchased separately, and then combined into countless outfits.

Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne was born in Brussels to American parents on March 31, 1929. She had a dreamlike, storybook youth. She and her parents followed her father’s banking career around Europe for most of the year, spending her summer vacations in Louisiana and Maryland. She studied in Brussels and Nice, she was a high school dropout and won a designing contest run by Harper’s Bazaar that began her interest for a career in fashion. When she was 21, she went to New York City with her father and chose to stay there. As claimed by Claiborne, he let her out of the car, handed her $50, and wished her luck.

6 Samuel Goldwyn

Samuel Goldwyn Source:Wikipedia/public domain
Samuel Goldwyn

Samuel Goldwyn is well known in the context of his establishment, Metro Goldwyn Mayer or MGM. Their mascot was Leo the Lion, who had his paw prints immortalized in the pavement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The establishment counts Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable amongst its stars.

The man who wrote Singin’ in the Rain and Ben-Hur was Schumel Gelbfisz. In 1895, Schmuel was only 16 years old when he witnessed his family falling apart. That’s when the oldest son of a family of Hasidic Jews fled from Warsaw Poland and walked all the way to Hamburg, Germany; a journey of about 500 miles.

He had no more money to travel farther, but a generous glovemaker gave him the money he required to get to his destination London. He stopped for a little bit in Birmingham before he left on a boat to Nova Scotia. He then became known as Samual Goldwyn after he linked forces with another entertainment icon, Cecil B DeMille, and star Jesse Lasky to create the first movie filmed in what was later called Hollywood.

5 Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer Source:Wikipedia/public domain

Joseph Pulitzer would bestow his name to the awards that honor excellence in journalism, though he did not speak English up until he started writing for St. Louis’s Westliche Post in 1868 at the age of 21. Pulitzer was born in Mako, Hungary on April 10, 1847, and not long after, his family relocated to Budapest, leading to his father’s retirement from the merchant business. He was fluent in both German and French and had an extensive education from both tutors and private schools.

When his father died, and his mother remarried, Pulitzer chose at age 17 to explore other countries. He dreamed of becoming a soldier, but he was rejected due to chronic health problems. He was ultimately given his chance to serve when he encountered a recruiter for the US Army when he was in Germany.

For a year he served in the Lincoln Cavalry, then ending up in St. Louis after he completed his service. He worked a series of odd jobs, educated himself in the English language utilizing city libraries, and was in the end hired by a German paper, starting a calling that would make his name famous in journalism.

4 Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss Source:Wikipedia/public domain
Levi Strauss

Blue jeans have been part of the classic American look for a long time, but the man who created the pants transformed how the country dressed, Loeb Strauss, was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria on February 26, 1829. He was the youngest of seven children. Strauss left Bavaria for the US after the passing of his father in the year of 1846.

Only two of his brothers were in New York City, where they had established a dry goods business. Strauss started educating himself about the business, and when the Gold Rush reached California, he traveled west. As an alternative to trying to create his fortune by looking for gold up in the mountains, the savvy businessman took advantage of the chance by marketing the supplies to numerous individuals who were roughing it up in the wilderness.

Strauss soon established a western subdivision of his family’s dry goods business, which he called Levi Strauss & Co. Ten years in the future, he entered into a business relationship with Nevada tailor Jacob Davis, who had developed a revolutionary way of reinforcing pants but required aid in a guaranteed patent, and getting his thought off the ground. Originally renowned as “waist overalls,” the long-lasting pants were a leading success, and the rest is history.

3 Gene Simmons

Gene Simmons Source:By Toglenn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 77
Gene Simmons. Photo credit

The music of Kiss has always been a staple of American rock, but its most identifiable member was not born in the US. In reality, he did not learn to speak English until he was eight years of age. Gene Simmons was born in Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel to Jewish parents on August 25, 1949. His mother, Flora, was the sole member of her family to survive the Holocaust and moved to Israel after she was set free at the age of 14.

When she moved there, she met her future husband, Yeichel Witz. Shortly after their son was born, their marriage fell apart, and Yeichel moved to Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Flora and her son moved to New York City in 1958. Chaim was only eight years old and was cared for by many babysitters and relatives while his mother was working.

He became fluent in Turkish, Spanish and Hungarian by listening to his caregivers, and learned English from comic books and television. He changed his name to a more American sounding “Gene”, and soon developed an interest in music after seeing the British Invasion develop on American television.

2 Charlize Theron

Charlize Theron Source:By Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Charlize Theron. Photo credit 


There are only a few stories of triumph over catastrophe in Hollywood that come close to that of Charlize Theron’s. The skilled actress may look like the girl next door, but she was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Her father was of French descent and her mother of German descent. Her parents sent her to boarding school when she was six years old to train as a dancer, although her career would be cut short because of a knee injury. Boarding school was a way of her being able to break free of her rocky family life.

Her father was a lifelong alcoholic, who had preyed on his wife and daughter with relentless verbal abuse for as long as they could remember.

His violence came to a head when Charlize come home from school. He had arrived home drunk and armed with a shotgun, threatening to kill his young daughter. He fired the gun into her room. She was rescued by her mother, who went for her own handgun and ended her drunken husband’s life.

Gerda acted in defense of herself and Charlize, so she did not face any charges for the incident. Gerda begged her daughter to leave South Africa to create a better life for herself. She encouraged Charlize to enter a modeling competition, which she won. That then lead to a move to Italy, and she enrolled in a ballet school located in New York. She was discovered there by a talent scout and was cast in her first movie.

1 Charlie Chaplin

Charles Chaplin Source:Wikipedia/public domain
Charles Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is one of the most identifiable icons of old Hollywood. What’s more American than that? Yet the truth is he was born in London, England. Charles Spencer Chaplin grew up poor; both of his parents were performing artists in English music halls, but their relationship was a very unhappy one.

It ended when Chaplin and his brother were young, leaving the boys in the care of their sweet undependable mother, who was named Hannah. She suffered from chronic sickness, which in time ended her career when she lost her voice halfway through one of her acts.

Her son Charlie, who was only five years old at the time, was shoved onstage to take her spot. It was the first time he performed in front of a live audience.

At the end of her performing career, Hannah supported her sons by working as a dressmaker, but she was in time committed to a mental institution after a breakdown. Chaplin was left to his own, in and out of jobs and attending the Hanwell School for Orphans. He never failed to remember his taste for the stage.

However, he was soon starring in acts across London. He was already an established performer when he signed on with Fred Karno’s pantomime group and journeyed to America for his first time. Once there, he signed a contract with Keystone Pictures for $150 a week.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News