The Unfortunates

 

In 1961, Vivian Nicholson worked in a licorice factory in England. Her husband was a miner. Between them, they made 9 pounds a week. After a series of lucky bets on soccer games, they won today’s equivalent of 4.5 million dollars.

Thus began, according to her New York Times obituary, “a cautionary fable worthy of Aesop: Mr. Nicholson was killed a few years later at the wheel of the powder-blue Jaguar he had bought with the prize money; Mrs. Nicholson wound up nearly destitute.”

Decades after winning the money – during which Mrs. Nicholson lost not only her fortune, but her friends, and subsequent husbands – she reflected back on the days before her big win:

Before that, Keith and I used to have five cigarettes to last us all week. So he would have a drag and then give it to me and I would have a drag, and I’d not eat much at dinner because we couldn’t afford it. Sharing cigarettes, just holding one another and loving one another. That was when I had everything.

 

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Andrew “Jack” Whittaker Jr. was a millionaire before he even won the lottery, having built his wealth through hard work. Then, one Christmas Day, he won the lottery. Two years later, the Washington Post published this profile: “He Won Powerball’s $314 Million Jackpot. It Ruined His Life.”

When he died in June, his AP obituary recounted the misery that followed:

[H]e quickly fell victim to scandals, lawsuits and personal setbacks as he endured constant requests for money, leaving him unable to trust others. Several times, he was quoted as saying he wished he had torn up the ticket.

His wife left him. A friend of his drug-addicted granddaughter was found dead at his home in 2004. Three months later, his 17-year-old granddaughter was gone, too. His daughter, Ginger Whittaker Bragg, died in 2009 at age 42 after struggling for years with cancer. And in 2016, he lost a Virginia home to a fire.

 

It is a truism that money can’t buy happiness. There’s also a popular conception that winning the lottery doesn’t increase happiness. That’s debatable, however: this recent analysis of lottery winners finds “having more money makes people less stressed and more satisfied with their life.”

Still, as Aesop concluded in  The Tortoise and the Eagle: “If men had all they wished, they would be often ruined.”

 

Empire Builders

 

“She believed that a shoe told you more about a person or culture than any other object.”

 

In 1946, Sonja Bata married the heir to a Czech shoe manufacturer. Fifty years later, their company was selling a million shoes daily all over the world.

As her Financial Times obituary explains, this growth came from dissatisfaction: “Not content to be just the boss’s wife… she studied every aspect of the business.”

From their postwar headquarters in Ontario, Ms. Bata rebuilt – and then expanded – the brand:

Over time, she took over responsibility for product development and marketing, while her husband managed operations and personnel. She proved a talented trend spotter. Anticipating a switch in style from square to pointed-toe shoes in the postwar years, she convinced the company to re-tool its production ahead of rivals. Later, she led efforts to standardise Bata stores around the world, well before other retailers did so, designing a standard store that could be shipped in modules and assembled anywhere in the world.

Her devotion to shoes extended beyond their production and sale; she was an avid collector, and founded the Bata Shoe Museum to display footwear from the past 4,500 years.

 

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Wooden lasts for the shoes of Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, Florence, Italy. (Photo credit: Esther, Flickr)

Under Mrs. Ferragamo’s leadership, first as president and later as head of the board of directors, the firm grew from producing 6,500 pairs of shoes a year to more than 10,000 pairs a day.

 

Wanda Ferragamo also married before she was 20 years old. Her husband, a cobbler, had found success in America making shoes, but wanted more. According to her Washington Post obituary, “his goal was to move beyond shoes and make the family business a full-fledged fashion house.”

His wife set to work:

One of the first things she did was to introduce handbags to match the shoes… Other items soon followed, including scarves, men’s shoes, jewelry, eyeglasses and ready-to-wear clothes. Boutiques bearing the Ferragamo name opened in New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and other cities.

And although she ran a family business, Ms. Ferragamo was no pushover:

One of the rules she established was that each child would receive the same salary. Another was that no in-laws were allowed to work for the company.

 

The Twin

“Jack and Oskar clearly have the greatest differences in background I have ever seen among identical twins reared apart.”

– Thomas J. Bouchard Jr, Director, Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart

 

Jack Yufe and his identical twin brother, Oskar Stöhr, were separated shortly after birth. Years later, when they finally met, they saw that they shared various habits:

Both flushed the toilet before and after using it. Both read the endings of books first. Both wrapped tape around pens and pencils to get a better grip. Both spoke at precisely the same rate, despite their different languages.

The twins became the subject of academic study,  as well as a documentary film. The differing circumstances of their upbringings – Jack was raised Jewish, and his brother Catholic – had a darker aspect.

During the Second World War, Jack joined a British naval cadet program. His brother, living in Germany, joined the Hitler Youth. According to Jack’s New York Times obituary,

Jack and Oskar both later said that during the war they had been haunted by the idea that they might one day meet on the battlefield, with one killing the other.

More happily – if only for the twins – both took pleasure in shocking others by sneezing loudly.

 

The Archivist

“Until the mid-1990s, almost every media organisation – from the smallest local newspaper to national TV stations – maintained a cuttings collection. These libraries consisted of scrappy folders full of articles, arranged in a bewildering classification system. Only the librarian knew how it worked.”

The Guardian

 

Edda Tasiemka ran a cuttings library out of her own house. It was considered by many, as her obituary in The Telegraph states, “the best cuttings library in Britain.”

Collecting press cuttings began as a hobby for Ms. Tasiemka. Her other pursuits included

Meissen china, Georgian salt cellars, knife rests, Staffordshire figurines of Queen Victoria’s children, Louis Wain cat paintings, Victorian fairings and Regency tea sets with Adam Buck mother-and-child decorations.

She was born in Germany, and dreamed of becoming a civil engineer, but her refusal to join the Hitler Youth impeded her education.

She had a lifelong fear of dogs, dating back to her childhood memories of being taunted and threatened by German shepherds which the Nazis used to let loose in her home, but in later life, to the irritation of some her her neighbours, she befriended the neighbourhood fox, whose typical menu would included chicken and beef.

Known as “the human Google,” Ms. Tasiemka kept the cuttings

largely hidden away in beautiful antique chests and cupboards – nothing so vulgar as a filing cabinet was allowed to intrude, though even her kitchen, bathroom, and garage were stuffed with cuttings. Those on international football, one of the few subjects which held little interest for her, were stored in the first-floor lavatory.

 

Air Men

According to his obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tim Kehoe “blew more than 10,000 bubbles before he perfected Zubbles, the nearly opaque orbs with the disappearing color.”

It took him over a decade to achieve this feat – a feat especially notable for an amateur inventor with no background in chemistry. Popular Mechanics awarded him 2005’s Grand Prize for General Innovation.

As that magazine’s former editor said:

What I loved most about the bubble story wasn’t just that he worked on it for 11 years, but that he wasn’t just an obsessive genius or crank … In that 11 years, he raised kids, bought a house, got real jobs, learned new skills. So even when it seemed like he had abandoned his dream, he hadn’t — it was just on hiatus while he did the practical work of living. That was what always inspired me, and I think drove such interest in that story when we published it, because it was something everybody could relate to. Being a little Tim Kehoe seemed possible for anyone.

 

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George Perryman was also an amateur. Excerpts from his obituary by Kay Powell in the Atlanta Journal Constitution describe his achievements:

As a country boy growing up in Kentucky, George Perryman made his own toys. As an adult, while he designed airplanes for Lockheed Martin Corp., he made it possible for thousands of people to build his toys – model airplanes.

Mr. Perryman, with a 9th-grade mechanical drawing class as his only engineering training, was hired by Lockheed in 1951. The man who had studied at Emory University to become a geologist instead became a wind tunnel expert and helped design highly classified aircraft.

Four of Mr. Perryman’s model kits are found in hobby shops around the word, including the Mini-Maxer, which has sold 60,000 and is the biggest selling kit of all time.

“He had a special wing tip on his models, and NASA told him seven or eight years ago his design was more efficient than the triplets being used on airplanes.”

His balsa wood and paper model airplanes would fly for miles. Mr. Perryman would do anything to recover a model.  He once climbed a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire to follow one of his planes, dashed past a man with a shotgun, then cleared a second fence before tracking down his model. “I found out later I had been through the middle of a convict work camp,” he said.