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5 Things You Didn't Know About Vladimir Nabokov

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You may know him as the author of such masterpieces as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin, but how well do you know Vladimir Nabokov? Here are five things you might not have known about the man who described himself by saying, "I am an American author, born in Russia, educated in England, where I studied French texts."

1. He Came From Cash

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Nabokov was born in 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to the aristocratic family of a liberal lawyer and politician. Nabokov's upbringing reflected the culture and wealth of his family. The author was raised trilingualthe family conversed in Russian, English, and French.

Nabokov's father, who was also named Vladimir, had a fairly successful political career during his son's childhood. After the defeat of the White Army in 1919, though, the family had to flee the country. The Nabokovs first went to England, where the sale of a single strand of his mother's pearls financed two whole years of Vladimir's study at Cambridge. They eventually settled in Berlin, though, where Nabokov's father remained active in the politics of the Russian exile community. This involvement soon proved fatal for the elder Nabokov, as he died while trying to protect former Russian foreign minister Pavel Milyukov from an assassination attempt in Berlin.

2. He Really Knew His Butterflies


Even most casual Nabokov fans know that the writer had a butterfly-collecting hobby, but they might not know just how serious he was about his sideline as a lepidopterist.

Nabokov was actually a world-renowned expert on butterflies, so much so that in the 1940s he became curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's butterfly collection.

Nabokov actually discovered and named several species and families of butterflies, and he also assembled a new taxonomy system that's still in use. What was his secret weapon in these studies? He investigated the butterflies' "sculpturesque" genitalia under a microscope. His collection of dissected blue butterfly genitalia is still in Harvard's holdings.

Just how much of a stickler was Nabokov when it came to butterflies? When a publisher sent him a mockup of a cover for his collected poems, the author positively flipped out over the illustrations of butterflies and wrote back, "I like the two colored butterflies on the jacket but they have the bodies of ants, and no stylization can excuse a simple mistake ... I would be the laughing stock of my entomological colleagues if they happened to see these impossible hybrids ... I want to be quite clear and frank: I have nothing against stylization but I do object to stylized ignorance."

3. He Inadvertently Gave Pavarotti a Boost

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Nabokov and his wife, Vera, only had one child, but their son, Dmitri (b. 1934), led quite a life in his own right, including stints as a mountaineer and professional race car drive. After graduation from Harvard, Dmitri turned down an offer to stay there for law school and instead launched a career as an opera singer. In 1961 he finally made it to the stage in a production of La Boheme in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

His father arranged for the performance to be recorded. While Dmitri was good as Colline, he couldn't hold a candle to the unknown tenor who was also making his operatic debut in the role of Rodolfo. The tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, quickly grew to worldwide fame, and thanks to Nabokov's doting fatherhood, the world still has documentation of the revered singer's very first performance.

4. He Wasn't Afraid to Hurl Some Criticism

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If Nabokov disliked someone or something, he didn't go out of his way to be diplomatic about it. Here are a few of his choicer barbs:

On Freud: "I think he's crude, I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me. I don't have the dreams that he discusses in his books. I don't see umbrellas in my dreams. Or balloons."

On Doctor Zhivago: "A sorry thing, clumsy, melodramatic, with stock situations and trite characters.''

On screen adaptation of Lolita: "'My supreme, and in fact only, interest in these motion picture contracts is money. I don't give a damn for what they call 'art.'"

To a biographer of himself whose work he did not approve: "The style and tone of your work are beyond redemption, but if you wish to publish it at all you must accept all the deletions and corrections in the present list.''

5. You Haven't Read Everything He Wrote Yet

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Nabokov has been dead since 1977, but there's good news for those of us who have already wolfed down all of his novels. There's another one on the way!

original-lauraAfter years of consideration, son Dmitri, who serves as executor of his father's literary estate, has decided to publish The Original of Laura, the novel Nabokov was frantically trying to finish at the time of his death.

Nabokov specifically requested that Dmitri destroy the novel's manuscript, which consists of 125 handwritten index cardsNabokov always wrote on index cardsbut his son just couldn't bring himself to torch the book. Instead it spent three decades in a Swiss bank vault while Dmitri tried to decide what to do with it. He eventually became worried what would happen to the manuscript after his own death, so last year Dmitri decided to publish the work. Now you can hit bookstores this November 17th when Knopf releases The Original of Laura and get one last taste of Nabokov's inimitable genius.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.


5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
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Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

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Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

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In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

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Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

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Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads


Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.


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