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
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
arrow
music
10 Crazy Facts About Willie Nelson
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Willie Nelson is one of the world’s most accomplished musicians—and not just in the country music world. Nelson’s talents transcend genre, and go far beyond music. Here are 10 things you might not know about the legendary outlaw country singer, who turns 85 years old today.

1. HE WROTE HIS FIRST SONG AT THE AGE OF SEVEN.

While other kids were still struggling to keep inside the lines of their coloring books, Nelson was composing music. He recalled the experience of his songwriting debut to Rolling Stone in 2004: “Back when we used to take music lessons from our grandmother, we'd go through lessons, and if we'd get the lesson right that day she'd take a gold star—a little star, about the size of your finger, with glue on one side—and she'd stick it on the sheet of music, which meant you'd done well. So I wrote this song with the line ‘They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another, long ago.’ I'd never been left by anybody, so it was kind of funny.”

2. HE USED TO BE A BIBLE SALESMAN.

Before he became a full-time musician in the mid-1950s, Nelson worked as a cotton picker (a gig he began as a child, working alongside his grandmother), disc jockey, and a Bible salesman.

3. HE RAN INTO A BURNING HOUSE (TO SAVE HIS POT).

While living in Nashville, Nelson arrived home one evening to discover that his house was burning to the ground. “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” he told People in 1980. “But I had this pound of Colombian grass inside. I wasn't being brave running in there to get my dope—I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.” One-hundred tapes of yet-to-be-recorded songs weren't as lucky as Nelson's stash; they were lost in the fire.

4. HE RETIRED IN 1972.

In 1972, Nelson paid $14,000 to buy out his contract so that he could retire to Austin, Texas. But his withdrawal from the music business didn’t last long. Especially considering how vibrant the music scene was happening all around him in Austin. Within a year, he was back on the charts with the album Shotgun Willie. By the mid-1970s he scored some of his biggest hits with a trio of albums: Red Headed Stranger, The Sound in Your Mind, and The Troublemaker.

5. HE HAS BEEN PLAYING THE SAME GUITAR FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS.

Nelson has been playing Trigger, his beloved guitar (which he named after Roy Rogers’ horse), since 1969. “I’ve got to take good care of Trigger,” Nelson told Uncut Magazine in 2014. “He’s had a couple of problems. We’ve had to go in and do some work on the inside, build up the woodwork in there a little bit over the years. But Trigger’s holding up pretty good.”

6. HE RECORDED THE IRS TAPES TO PAY OFF HIS TAX DEBT.

In 1990, the IRS raided Nelson’s house and seized his assets (everything except Trigger) for non-payment of taxes. The $32 million bill, one of the largest in IRS history, was eventually negotiated down and settled in a creative way: Nelson would record a new album with the IRS receiving at least 15 cents of every dollar made. The result was the limited-edition The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories, which sold for $19.95 on cassette or CD and was purchased by dialing 1-800-IRS-TAPE.

7. HE WROTE “ON THE ROAD AGAIN” ON A BARF BAG.

Nelson’s 1980 hit, “On The Road Again,” was written aboard an airplane—on a barf bag. “I was on an aeroplane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg, who was the director of the movie Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson told Uncut in 2014. “They were looking for songs for the movie and they started asking me if I had any ideas. I said, ‘I don’t know, what do you want the song to say?’ I think Sydney said, ‘Can it be something about being on the road?’ It just started to click in my head. I said, ‘You mean like, ‘On the road again, I can’t wait to get on the road again?’ They said, ‘That’s great. What’s the melody?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’”

8. HE PERFORMED "UP AGAINST THE WALL, REDNECK MOTHER” WITH ROSALYNN CARTER.

Former President Jimmy Carter has never made a secret of his admiration of Willie Nelson. And the two have shared a long friendship. On September 13, 1980, Nelson performed for Carter and guests at the White House—which included a duet of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” with then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter. (On various occasions, Nelson has recounted how he later made his way onto the roof of the White House and smoked a joint.) In 2012, the former President got his own chance to share the stage with the legendary musician when the two performed “Amazing Grace” together in Atlanta.

9. HE OWNS A BIODIESEL FIRM.

Nelson is much more than a musician—he’s a noted activist and entrepreneur, too. In 2004 he launched his own biodiesel firm, BioWillie Biodiesel.

10. HE’S A POT-REPRENEUR.

Nelson has hardly made a secret of regular marijuana use, or his support for its legalization. (His rap sheet of pot-related arrests certainly backs up those claims.) As more and more states are legalizing the once-outlawed weed, Nelson has put his expertise on the topic to good use, and launched his very own brand of pot: Willie’s Reserve.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
entertainment
10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios