CLOSE
Rebecca O'Connell / iStock, Getty Images
Rebecca O'Connell / iStock, Getty Images

10 Famous Birthdays to Celebrate in January

Rebecca O'Connell / iStock, Getty Images
Rebecca O'Connell / iStock, Getty Images

Some of our favorite historical figures were born in the first month of the year. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a handful of lives we'll be celebrating.

1. JOAN OF ARC: JANUARY 6, CIRCA 1412

Getty Images

Joan d'Arc, who lived just 19 years, packed a lot into her short life. When she was 13, Joan began to have visions of herself leading France to victory over England—and though she was just a peasant girl who couldn't read or write, she had complete faith in her visions. At 16, Joan rejected an arranged marriage to carry out her mission to depose the English King Henry VI and install the French prince Charles as its rightful king. She gathered followers, cut her hair, put on warrior's armor, and led several successful assaults against the English in 1429. (Though she was in charge of troops and strategy, she didn't actively participate in combat.) Joan became a hero, Charles took the crown, and her forces grew. But she was captured by Anglo-Burgundians in 1430 and charged with 70 crimes, including witchcraft and cross-dressing. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. On July 6, 1456, Joan d'Arc was declared innocent of heresy, and more than 460 years later, she was declared a saint.

2. ZORA NEALE HURSTON: JANUARY 7, 1891

U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Evidence points to Zora Neale Hurston being born in 1891, but she lied about her age in order to get an education after having to work for years. She stuck to her story of being 10 years younger the rest of her life. Hurston became one of the literary stars of the Harlem Renaissance, even as she refused to imbue her works with political goals. She produced novels, nonfiction, and stage plays, usually with great reception and meager profits. Hurston died broke in 1960. Hurston, who had once written to activist W.E.B. Du Bois proposing the creation of "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead," was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida. But in 1973, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, put a marker on Hurston's grave that read "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

3. DAVID BOWIE: JANUARY 8, 1947

Getty Images

Born David Robert Jones, the performer known as David Bowie started playing saxophone at age 13. He assumed his stage name in 1966 and released his first album the next year. He continued to be a trend-setting presence in music and fashion until his death last year at the age of 69, two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar.

4. ELVIS PRESLEY: JANUARY 8, 1935

Getty Images

Before he became a worldwide superstar in the 1950s, Elvis—who was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi—was a shy teenager trying to find his place. At his senior prom in Memphis, he told his date he couldn't dance. He got over that shyness, and danced his way through two episodes of The Milton Berle Show in 1956 with moves that scandalized some viewers.

5. SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: JANUARY 9, 1908

Getty Images

As a child, the French writer and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir attended school at a convent and wanted to become a nun. But at 14, she renounced religion and became an atheist; in 1926, she headed to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. In 1929, she became the ninth woman to take the agrégation in philosophy, a competitive exam that landed those who passed coveted teaching jobs. She came in second to her future partner, John-Paul Sartre—who was taking the test for a second time after failing the first—and, at 21, was the youngest person to pass the exam.

Over the course of her lifetime, De Beauvoir published works of fiction, did some travel writing, authored autobiographies, and penned pieces about ethics and politics. And in her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), she tackled the patriarchy and the female's place in society. "She is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called 'the sex,' meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute," De Beauvoir wrote. "She determines and differentiates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other."

6. ALEXANDER HAMILTON: JANUARY 11, 1755

Getty Images

Alexander Hamilton was a Revolutionary War hero, wrote many of the Federalist Papers, founded the Bank of New York, created the federal banking system, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and founded the U.S. Mint. He was famously shot and killed by Vice President Aaron Burr during a duel in 1804. Today, Hamilton is still on the $10 bill and is the subject of today's hottest Broadway musical.

7. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: JANUARY 15, 1929

Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed "I Have A Dream" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Standing guard was George Raveling, a former basketball player who had been asked to provide extra security at the event. Raveling watched King fold up the speech and, as the Civil Rights leader stepped down from the podium, asked if he could have it. Not realizing how historic the document was, Raveling stashed the pages in a Truman biography for two decades. (It has since been professionally framed and placed in a bank vault.)

8. MUHAMMAD ALI: JANUARY 17, 1942

Getty Images

Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali took the name we know when he converted to Islam. The Olympic gold medalist and World Heavyweight Champion's career encompassed a wide range of activities outside of boxing, including exhibition matches with wrestlers and recording albums that taught kids to prevent tooth decay.

9. VIRGINIA WOOLF: JANUARY 25, 1882

Getty Images

The very quotable British author Virginia Woolf was educated at home with her sisters, and as a child created a newspaper to write about the antics of the eight children in her family. Later, she became involved in the Bloomsbury Group, through which she met her husband, essayist Leonard Woolf. The circle of friends were great pranksters. In 1910, Woolf and two others dressed in turbans and caftans and identified themselves to officers of the Royal Navy as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. They asked for a tour of the HMS Dreadnought—and they got away with it. When the story made the papers, the two men were sentenced to caning, but Virginia was spared punishment.

10. BESSIE COLEMAN: JANUARY 26, 1892

National Air and Space Museum via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of 13 children born to two Texas sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman had a long way to go to become an aviator, but she worked hard to fulfill her dream. When no one in the U.S. would teach a black woman to fly, she learned French and trained at the Somme in 1920. She was not only the first black American woman and the first Native American woman to earn a pilot's license, she was also the first person of African American descent or Native American descent to hold an international pilot's license. With further training, she became a barnstormer and gained stardom, all to fuel her dream of opening an aviation school. Sadly, she died when an engine problem in her plane caused her to fall to her death in 1926.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


Getty Images

There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Evan Agostini, Getty Images
arrow
literature
15 Wonderfully Wise Quotes From Judy Blume
Evan Agostini, Getty Images
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Judy Blume was the queen of the YA novel before the concept even existed, inspiring generations of passionate fans—and a fair share of dissenters—in her nearly 50-year career. Here are just a few of our favorite thoughts about books, writing, and life from the iconic author, who turns 80 years old today.

1. ON BEING ONE OF THE MOST BANNED AUTHORS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

“I’ll tell you what I make of that—that censors, those who want to censor, they don’t come after books until they know that kids really like them, and once kids like a book, it’s like, ‘There must be something wrong with this book, because why do the kids like it.’ You look at the banned books and you’ll see that they’re popular books with kids.”

— From a 2012 interview with PBS

2. ON THE EFFECTS OF CENSORSHIP

“But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”

— From Blume's official website

3. WHY SHE WORRIES ABOUT KIDS THESE DAYS

“Yes, I was a great daydreamer. You know what I worry about? I worry that kids today don't have enough time to just sit and daydream. I was a great pretender, always making up stories inside my head. Stories and stories and stories, but I never told anyone.”

— From an interview with Scholastic

4. ON BEING A WRITER

"Everybody who writes fiction draws from their own life, but if it ended there, it would be very boring. When I talk to kids and they say, 'How do you become a writer?', well, I don't know that you become a writer: you just are. I always had stories, they were always there inside my head."

— From a 2014 Interview with The Guardian

5. ON WRITING

"Writing saved my life. It saved me, it gave me everything, it took away all my illnesses.”

— From a 2014 Interview with The Guardian

6. ON THE CREATIVE PROCESS

“I don't understand the creative process. For years I would say one thing when kids would ask where I got my ideas. Because I was forced to think up something even though I don't really know. And now I'm just saying to people, 'I don't know. I don't understand how it works. How do I know?'”

— From an interview with January Magazine

7. ON DEALING WITH REJECTION

"It's all about your determination, I think, as much as anything. There are a lot of people with talent, but it's that determination. I mean, you know, I would cry when the rejections came in—the first couple of times, anyway—and I would go to sleep feeling down, but I would wake up in the morning optimistic and saying, 'Well, maybe they didn't like that one, but wait till they see what I'm going to do next.' And I think you just have to keep going."

— From a 2011 interview with NPR

8. ON YA AUTHORS AND BOOKS

“[My husband] George and I listened … to the first Hunger Games and we loved it. And we couldn’t wait to get my car and come home. And when we came home, I’m not sure if we’d quite finished, and we sat in the car until we finished. I did not read any of the others. I had no interest in Twilight. But I did see the first movie.”

— From a 2014 interview with Lena Dunham through KCRW

9. ON THE PROS AND CONS OF TWITTER

“I like it. It’s a tremendous—I don’t want to say waste of time, but it also … what can I say? I enjoy reading the people I follow and discovering new people. It’s a lot of fun. I get a lot of laughs from it. And it connects you; it’s nice.”

— From a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair

10. ON GETTING KIDS TO READ

“Whatever gets them excited about reading is good! If you want them to read my books don't tell them so. Maybe just leave around a paperback with a new cover and say, 'I'm not sure you're ready for that.'"

— From a 2013 Reddit AMA

11. ON HER LITERARY INSPIRATIONS

“I was so inspired by Beverly Cleary's funny and wonderful books. And also, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. And E. L. Konigsberg's first book, Jennifer Hecate. And my favorite books from when I was young, the Betsy-Tacy books.”

— From an interview with Scholastic

12. ON "MARGARET" AND TEENAGED JUDY

“Margaret is fiction, but based on the kind of twelve year old I was. Growing up, we did have a club like The PTKs. And Margaret's interests and concerns were similar to mine. I was small and thin when thin wasn't in. I was a late developer and was anxious to grow like my friends. Margaret was right from my own sixth grade experience. I wanted to tell the truth as I knew it.”

— From an interview with Scholastic

13. ON HOW BOOKS HELP US COMMUNICATE

“I’ve never really thought in terms of taboos. I think that books can really help parents and kids talk together about difficult subjects. I’ve always felt that way. The parent reads the book. The kid reads the book and then they can talk about the characters instead of talking about themselves. You know there’s a connection even if you don’t talk about it when you read the same books.”

— From a 2014 interview with Lena Dunham through KCR

14. ON THREE THINGS THAT WOULD SURPRISE US ABOUT HER

“I’m phobic about thunderstorms. Writing is incredibly hard for me. I’m not the world’s best mother, though kids always assume I must be. And I love a good cupcake. (I know, that makes four things, but I’m hungry and wishing I had that cupcake.)”

— From a 2012 interview with Smithsonian Magazine

15. ON REVISITING OLD CHARACTERS

"I don't want to rewrite anything. My characters are who they are. For years, people have written and asked me to let Margaret go through menopause. And it's like, 'Hey guys! Margaret is 12 and she is going to stay 12. That's who she is.' No, I don't want to rewrite any of them."

— From a 2018 interview with NPR

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios