Double threats

I mentioned Fred Waring in a post the other day. Today, as it happens, is the twenty fifth anniversary of the great man’s death on July 29, 1984. Seems like a good time to talk about one of human nature’s more delightful anomalies – those rare people who are extraordinarily good – say, good enough to be justly famous -at more than one thing. Mr. Waring was a prime example. He was for many years one of the most famous band leaders in America. In fact, at one point he was considered the most influential man in radio. He was also the backer and successful promoter of a little device invented in the 1930s by Fred Osius – a novel kind of food blender that came to be known as the Waring Blendor – at one time the most popular blender in the country.

Another double threat was Hedi Lamarr. Not only was she a successful Hollywood actress and one of the most astonishingly beautiful women in recorded history, she was also co-inventor (together with George Antheil, the avant guarde composer of the Ballet Mechanique and other key modernist works – a double threat too, come to think of it) of the spread spectrum technique to prevent radar jamming – fundamentally the same technique which today allows you to talk on your cell phone without interference from all the other people who are simultaneously talking on their cell phones.

Not that being an inventor in addition to your day job automatically gets you in the club. I have nothing but admiration for Abraham Lincoln as one of the great statesmen in our nation’s history, but his one and only recorded invention – a device to lift boats over shoals he patented in 1849 – isn’t the kind of thing that people get famous for. The gadget was never actually even built, which doesn’t help his case. On the other hand, Lincoln was the only U.S. president to ever receive a U.S. patent, which gives him some sort of bragging rights anyway.

Judy Holliday is a nice example. Not only was she an Academy Award winning actress, she was also the Hollywood performer with the highest ever recorded IQ. This in itself would not be that interesting, except for the fact that she used her prodigious intelligence to talk circles around the House Unamerican Activities Committee – something nobody else managed to do. She snowed them so thoroughly that she managed to get off scot free, without being blacklisted and without naming any names, in spite of the fact that her own name had been on the masthead of more than one Communist newspaper. You can read the transcript of her testimony here – it’s a real hoot.

I can’t really count Brian May, much as I would like to. Being the guitarist for the mega-rock group Queen definitely counts as “good enough to be justly famous”, but getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics, sadly, does not. Although the man is, as far as I know, the only astrophysicist rock star, and that’s pretty cool.

Double threats are rare, but there are even fewer people who are triple threats. The only one I can think of off-hand is Lenny Lipton. On the one hand he wrote the classic 1972 how-to book “Independent Film Making” – which to this day is considered indispensable by film students everywhere. On the other hand, he has been one of the great innovators in the technology of stereoscopic 3D filmmaking – holding 25 patents on innovations in stereoscopic techniques, in addition to being one of the instrumental forces in the current revival of that genre. On the third hand he wrote the lyrics to a little song called “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

I think he wins the prize.

2 thoughts on “Double threats”

  1. Sure, rock mega-stars with PhDs in astrophysics are a dime a dozen. The part of the story that endears him to me is that Dr. May was 60 years old when he completed his thesis.

  2. I am also delighted by his accomplishment. But to be fair, the rules I set out were that each individual achievement had to be one that, by itself, could make you famous.

    Still, every time I hear ’39 from “A Night at the Opera”, I am overjoyed that at least one rock lyricist is capable of penning a hit song about Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

    The other good news Craig, is that you still have plenty of time. 🙂

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