A Beautiful Man Is Besmirched by Enquiring Minds
Last week I was invited to a colleague’s class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to talk about my 1998 biography of mathematical genius John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind.” The class is called “Writing About Ideas,” but not a single student asked me about Nash’s Nobel Prize-winning work. What they most wanted to hear was tabloid fare. That brought home just how far from reality the discussion about Nash has gone.
As we move closer to Oscar night on March 24, some journalists have taken material they claim is in the book on which the film is based, distorted it and invented “facts” about Nash and his wife, Alicia. Mainstream news organizations have stated everything from the “fact” that Nash was gay and an adulterer to the “fact” that he was a bad father and a bigot--all of which are untrue.
I have been an economics reporter for almost 20 years. I spent 2 1/2 years on leave from the New York Times, interviewing hundreds of people who knew Nash and then writing about his life as carefully and completely as I knew how. Now, I’d like to correct the record.
Contrary to the Times of London’s references to Nash’s “numerous homosexual liaisons,” Nash is not gay. While he had intense emotional relationships with other men in his 20s, no one I interviewed claimed, much less provided evidence, that Nash ever had sex with another man. True, Nash was arrested in a police trap in a men’s room in Santa Monica in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era. Rand Corp., where he was working, stripped him of his security clearance and fired him, ignoring Nash’s complete denial and saying it didn’t matter whether the police were telling the truth or not. The charge--"indecent exposure"--was dropped.
Both the Associated Press and the Hollywood Reporter have alluded to “Nash’s adultery.” The book makes clear that his affair with the mother of his older son was over by the time he married Alicia Larde. Entertainment Weekly claimed that Nash and his wife were “separated for nearly 40 years.” The New York Times implied that as well. Actually, they were divorced in 1963, but by the time they remarried last June, they had been living together for 38 years, many of which were years of poverty and illness.
The Times of London suggested that their decision to remarry was made “for cynical movie-marketing purposes.” In the epilogue of the new paperback edition, I quote the Nashes on their wedding day. “The divorce shouldn’t have happened; we saw this as a kind of retraction of that,” John Nash said. “After all, we’ve been together most of our lives,” Alicia Nash said.
For years, moreover, Nash has cared for his younger son, who has suffered from schizophrenia. Indeed, Nash’s reason for going forward with the movie was to be able to provide for Alicia and his two adult sons.
The New York Post, quoting a letter Nash wrote in 1967, calls Nash a “rabid anti-Semite.” Here are the facts: In his 20s, Nash’s most ardent champions in the mathematics community were Norbert Wiener, Solomon Lefschetz and Norman Levinson, all victims of anti-Semitism in American universities in the 1930s and ‘40s. In recent years, his most prominent supporter has been Ariel Rubinstein at Tel Aviv University, winner of the Israel Prize. The letter the Post quotes was written eight years after Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, when he not only felt himself threatened by Jews and the state of Israel but also believed himself to be Job, a slave in chains, the emperor of Antarctica and a messiah living, not in his mother’s home in Roanoke, Va., but in hell, refugee camps, bomb shelters and prisons. These were signs of paranoid delusions.
As I explained to the students at Columbia, Nash is no more perfect than you or I. The point of “A Beautiful Mind” was not, as Entertainment Weekly concluded, “that what was beautiful about John Nash was the mind rather than the man,” but rather the opposite. As an academic reviewer of the book pointed out in 1998, before the current intense media focus on the film, “Nasar reminds the reader again and again ... that Nash was a majestic person despite his flaws.”
Sylvia Nasar teaches journalism at Columbia University and is working on a book on 20th century economic thinkers.