Thinkstock/Getty Images/Erin McCarthy
Thinkstock/Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

11 Celebrated Artists Who Didn't Quit Their Day Jobs

Thinkstock/Getty Images/Erin McCarthy
Thinkstock/Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

Not all artists lock themselves away in a garret somewhere to tenderly shepherd their creations into being. Some prefer to punch a clock or run a business, stealing away to jot down a few lines here or a few notes there.

Most creative types work a regular job at some point, of course. But this list isn’t about folks working as waiters or barkeeps. No, these artists took pride in their 9 to 5 work, and most of them kept at it even as they wrote and painted and otherwise created the masterpieces we know today.

1. T.S. Eliot, banker

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His friends, led by Ezra Pound, thought the poet was wasting his time at Lloyds Bank in London. Eliot worked on foreign accounts there from 1917 to 1925—a span of time during which he published The Waste Land, among other essays and poems.

Eliot was desperate for financial security, and rejected an attempt by Pound and his friends to guarantee him an annual salary to simply write. Why would he take the guarantee of a few years' salary, he asked, when he could have a lifetime's guarantee of work at the bank? Eliot only left after he found another day job—as an editor at the publishing house Faber and Faber. He then worked there full-time for four decades.

2. Philip Glass, plumber and taxi driver

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The minimalist music icon supported himself with a variety of blue-collar jobs in his 20s and 30s. Even as he created avant-garde operas and musical "happenings," he worked as a cab driver and plumber. This led to surprising intersections. Said Glass in 2001: "While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. 'But you're Philip Glass! What are you doing here?' It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. 'But you are an artist,' he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish."

Even after the premiere of his opera Einstein at the Beach at the Met in 1976, the 39-year-old Glass went back to driving a cab. He kept at it for the next three years.

3. Anthony Trollope, postal surveyor

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This 19th-century British novelist isn’t the most widely read these days, but he was a popular chronicler of everyday life, and most of his books are still available. Trollope was doggedly prolific, writing nearly 50 novels, all the while climbing the rungs of the civil service. Many of his books were inspired by his journeys on behalf of the postal service. He also introduced the first pillar boxes (free-standing boxes where residents could drop off their mail) to Britain.

4. Wallace Stevens, insurance executive

If you’ve ever bought insurance from the Hartford (or known someone who did), you’ve come into contact with the longtime employer of visionary poet Wallace Stevens. There was scarcely a major literary prize that the enigmatic Stevens didn’t win—he stacked up two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, and honorary degrees. But to most people who knew him in Hartford, Connecticut, he was simply an imposing insurance lawyer.

Earlier in the year Stevens died, Harvard had asked him to come teach on the campus, but he turned down the offer. He didn’t want to give up his post as vice president at the company. He used his two-mile walks to work (he never learned to drive a car) to compose poetry in his mind and would put it to paper when he arrived at the office.

5. William Carlos Williams, doctor

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He of the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens worked for four decades as a pediatrician in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey. He used his experiences with patients as source material for his poetry and prose. But that wasn’t the only reason Williams kept his day job—he also wanted to write without any commercial concerns. (He kept long hours, too—take a look at his business card.) 

6. Toni Morrison, editor and mother

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The beloved author of Beloved, Morrison worked for 20 years as an editor at Random House. For several years, she was also raising small children as a single mother. Her secret to doing all that and starting a magisterial literary career? Getting up early.

“Writing before dawn began as a necessity,” she told the Paris Review. “I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning.”

7. Richard Serra, mover

A celebrated sculptor, Serra teamed up with fellow New York City art buddies in the 1960s to found Low-Rate Movers. Employees included painter Chuck Close, monologist Spalding Grey, and the ever-industrious Glass. They shared a van and mainly moved furniture. “It was a good job because none of us would work more than two or three days a week, so we had the remaining days to do our own work,” Serra said. In the 1980s, he became known for being less helpful to the public—a lengthy legal battle over one of his public sculptures, “Tilted Arc,” ended with it being cut into pieces and stored in a warehouse.

8. Charles Ives, insurance executive

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No, you read that job title right. Wallace Stevens wasn’t the only creative type to get a shot in the arm from the insurance business. Renegade composer Ives’ music really only gained popularity at the end of his life (he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1947 at the age of 73).

Before that, he was mainly known as the co-founder of the Ives & Myrick Insurance Agency, and a pioneer in the field of estate planning. Ives’ sometimes-thorny, nostalgic-yet-bracing compositions were seen as a hobby by those around him, even though he self-published a collection of his songs and mailed scores to performers, hoping to interest them in his work.

9. Bram Stoker, theater manager

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A former civil servant, Stoker was hired by famed actor Henry Irving in the late 1870s to manage the Lyceum Theatre in the West End of London. After taking the job, Stoker found himself inspired by the creative surroundings and wrote his first horror story. More frightful tales followed, and the novel Dracula appeared in 1897. But its success didn’t change his work life. Stoker kept on managing the theater and overseeing Irving’s tours until his boss died, some eight years later. 

10. Henry Darger, custodian

During his life, most people knew Henry Darger as the quiet janitor of a Catholic hospital in Chicago. But when the octogenarian was forced to leave his longtime apartment at the end of 1972, his landlord discovered an astonishing secret. Darger had written tens of thousands of pages of prose—a 15,000 page novel and a 5000-page autobiography, among other works—and created hundreds of watercolor paintings and collages

The deep strangeness of Darger’s work (all of the little girls he depicts have penises, and the novel imagines savage violence against children) needn’t concern us here. The art world has embraced him as an outsider genius. And maybe you’ll never look at that scruffy janitor in the hallway the same way again. 

11. Kurt Vonnegut, car dealer

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The Slaughterhouse-Five author managed a Saab dealership in Cape Cod starting in 1957. Then known as a science fiction author, Vonnegut thought it might be a way to make some extra money as he worked on various writing projects. Unfortunately, the Saabs of the time were not attractive automobiles. They required the driver to add a can of oil to the engine with each fill-up. “For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this,” Vonnegut wrote.

He was forced to close the underperforming dealership shortly after. Wrote Vonnegut in 2004: “The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature.” 

Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.

Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.

Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
National WWII Museum Launches a European Tour Tracing the 'Band of Brothers' Path
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Thanks to Stephen E. Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries of the same name, the story of "Easy" Company of the United States Army is among the most famous to come out of the Second World War. Now WWII buffs have a whole new way to experience that chapter in history: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is offering a 13-day European excursion that traces the company's footsteps from Britain to Nazi Germany.

Easy Company suffered from one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. company during World War II. They landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

All of those highlights are covered in the WWII Museum's tour called "Easy Company: England to the Eagle's Nest." The museum was founded by Ambrose, and the new tour gives guests an intimate look at the sites mentioned in his book. During the excursion, tour members will be treated to commentary from museum historians and guest appearances from the actors who portrayed Easy Company soldiers in the miniseries. Admission to historical sites at each stop, as well as meals, transportation, and accommodations, is included in the price.

The next available tour starts September 9, with tickets costing $8490 for single guests and $6495 for each guest traveling as a couple. And if you're looking for another book-related escape for your next vacation, Rail Europe's literary tour of the continent may suit your tastes.


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