CLOSE
Joshua Moore // Getty Images
Joshua Moore // Getty Images

10 Famous Birthdays to Celebrate in February

Joshua Moore // Getty Images
Joshua Moore // Getty Images

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

1. FEBRUARY 1, 1902: LANGSTON HUGHES

Hughes knew how to network: The poet was discovered after sneaking one of his works under the dinner plate of artist Vachel Lindsay, and went on to become one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. This month, the I, Too Arts Collective, a non-profit that supports artists, will open in Hughes's former Harlem brownstone. Visitors to the new cultural center can attend talks and see Hughes's typewriter and piano.

2. FEBRUARY 3, 1874: GERTRUDE STEIN

Stein is considered one of the great American authors of the 20th century, and a key figure in the Modernism movement—but not everyone adored her. In 1912, she sent a manuscript to a London publisher who challenged the work’s unconventional grammar and style with a mocking rejection letter. It’s fine though—Stein probably shrugged it off by spending some quality time driving around town in her Model T.

3. FEBRUARY 4, 1913: ROSA PARKS

The "mother of the freedom movement" became a Civil Rights icon when she refused to move to the back of an Alabama bus in 1955. And while her activism might’ve had the biggest and longest-lasting impact, she wasn’t actually the first to protest on public transportation. Nine months prior to Parks’s arrest, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested after declining to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, and a handful of other protests followed. A total of four women (Colvin included) served as plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle 1956 lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Montgomery buses. And long before them, activists like Bayard Rustin (in 1942), Irene Morgan (in 1946) and Sarah Louise Keys (in 1952) all demonstrated on public buses. But Parks's arrest became a catalyst that spurred the Civil Rights movement forward, and she continued with activism for the rest of her life.

4. FEBRUARY 7, 1867: LAURA INGALLS WILDER

Wilder has been a hero to young readers since her Little House on the Prairie series started being published in 1932, but older readers can also look to the author for inspiration. Wilder didn’t publish her first work until she was 65 years old (though she did have some help from daughter Rose Wilder Lane), and wrote a dozen more after that. Not bad for a third act.

5. FEBRUARY 11, 1846: THOMAS EDISON

Edison was a pioneer in innumerable ways. He invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the light bulb, ran a successful business and research laboratory, was a tough (and eccentric) job interviewer, had his last breath collected by pal Henry Ford, and—perhaps most notably—recorded the world’s first cat video. The world is forever indebted.

6. FEBRUARY 12, 1809: CHARLES DARWIN

On The Origin of Species—the work for which Charles Darwin is best known—is an expansive text on evolutionary biology. But the naturalist also had a penchant for the nitty gritty. Like barnacle penises. He was fascinated by the little crustaceans’ very large members, which are admittedly pretty amazing. They are highly adaptable, able to change their shape and size depending on the environment, and barnacles themselves are fully functional hermaphrodites, so they can participate in procreation no matter the circumstance.

7. FEBRUARY 15, 1564: GALILEO GALILEI

Galileo’s work in the field of physics was groundbreaking for its time and forever helped to shape our image of the cosmos, but the mythology of his earthbound work is probably the stuff of hyperbole. In all likelihood, the polymath probably never dropped anything off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There’s only one written account of him doing an experiment involving dropping different objects of different weights to test his theories of motion, and historians believe that if Galileo had taken those investigations to the Pisa tower, it would have been a more widely reported display.

8. FEBRUARY 21, 1933: NINA SIMONE

 

Simone was born as Eunice Waymon but had already adopted her stage moniker by the time she was 21. It wasn’t just about a persona—Simone used the tactic to keep her mother from finding out about her budding performance career. "Nina" was what her boyfriend at the time called her, and "Simone" came from actress and singer Simone Signoret. But despite finding fame and success (and still being widely played and sampled some 50 years after her heyday), Simone never had a number one hit. Her highest-charting song was "I Loves You, Porgy," which topped out at No. 2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959.

9. FEBRUARY 22, 1732: GEORGE WASHINGTON

Washington is one of the towering figures in U.S. history, but there’s probably still a lot you don’t know about him. For example: He didn’t have a middle name, was made an honorary citizen of France in 1792, was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military (so that no one will ever outrank him), forgot to bring a Bible to one of his two inaugurations, and was an early pioneer of the self-help genre. His "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation" contains 110 rules for living, copied down from an etiquette manual composed by Jesuits in 1595. While some are high-minded, others are quite practical: "Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it."

10. FEBRUARY 27, 1932: ELIZABETH TAYLOR

One of Taylor’s best-known roles is that of Martha—half of the toxic, warring couple at the center of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but the star didn’t initially want the role, and playwright Edward Albee didn't want her to have it either. When approached about the part, Taylor (quite rightly) told screenwriter Ernest Lehman that she was too young for the role, though she was eventually convinced to take it by Richard Burton—and a sizable paycheck. As for Albee, he later said: "I was a little upset by the casting. I understood the commercial reasons behind it. I mean, Elizabeth and Richard were getting married and divorced a lot, and yelling at each other a great deal. So I suppose they thought it was perfect casting, even though Elizabeth was 20 years too young for the role and Richard was about five years too old."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Fox Photos, Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
4 Fascinating Facts About John Wayne
Fox Photos, Getty Images
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Most people know John Wayne, who would have been 111 years old today, for his cowboy persona. But there was much more to the Duke than that famous swagger. Here are a few facts about Duke that might surprise you.

1. A BODY SURFING ACCIDENT CHANGED HIS CAREER. 

John Wayne, surfer? Yep—and if he hadn’t spent a lot of time doing it, he may never have become the legend he did. Like many USC students, Wayne (then known as Marion Morrison) spent a good deal of his extracurricular time in the ocean. After he sustained a serious shoulder injury while bodysurfing, Morrison lost his place on the football team. He also lost the football scholarship that had landed him a spot at USC in the first place. Unable to pay his fraternity for room and board, Morrison quit school and, with the help of his former football coach, found a job as the prop guy at Fox Studios in 1927. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that Morrison belonged in front of a camera; he had his first leading role in The Big Trail in 1930.

2. HE TOOK HIS NICKNAME FROM HIS BELOVED FAMILY POOCH. 

Marion Morrison had never been fond of his feminine-sounding name. He was often given a hard time about it growing up, so to combat that, he gave himself a nickname: Duke. It was his dog’s name. Morrison was so fond of his family’s Airedale Terrier when he was younger that the family took to calling the dog “Big Duke” and Marion “Little Duke,” which he quite liked. But when he was starting his Hollywood career, movie execs decided that “Duke Morrison” sounded like a stuntman, not a leading man. The head of Fox Studios was a fan of Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, so Morrison’s new surname was quickly settled. After testing out various first names for compatibility, the group decided that “John” had a nice symmetry to it, and so John Wayne was born. Still, the man himself always preferred his original nickname. “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” he once said. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne.”

3. HE WAS A CHESS FANATIC. 

Anyone who knew John Wayne personally knew what an avid chess player he was. He often brought a miniature board with him so he could play between scenes on set.

When Wayne accompanied his third wife, Pilar Pallete, while she played in amateur tennis tournaments, officials would stock a trailer with booze and a chess set for him. The star would hang a sign outside of the trailer that said, “Do you want to play chess with John Wayne?” and then happily spend the day drinking and trouncing his fans—for Wayne wasn’t just a fan of chess, he was good at chess. It’s said that Jimmy Grant, Wayne’s favorite screenwriter, played chess with the Duke for more than 20 years without ever winning a single match.

Other famous chess partners included Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson, and Robert Mitchum. During their match, Mitchum reportedly caught him cheating. Wayne's reply: "I was wondering when you were going to say something. Set 'em up, we'll play again."

4. HE COINED THE TERM "THE BIG C."

If you say you know someone battling “The Big C” these days, everyone immediately knows what you’re referring to. But no one called it that before Wayne came up with the term, evidently trying to make it less scary. Worried that Hollywood would stop hiring him if they knew how sick he was with lung cancer in the early 1960s, Wayne called a press conference in his living room shortly after an operation that removed a rib and half of one lung. “They told me to withhold my cancer operation from the public because it would hurt my image,” he told reporters. “Isn’t there a good image in John Wayne beating cancer? Sure, I licked the Big C.”

Wayne's daughter, Aissa Wayne, later said that the 1964 press conference was the one and only time she heard her father call it “cancer,” even when he developed cancer again, this time in his stomach, 15 years later. Sadly, Wayne lost his second battle with the Big C and died on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72.

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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios