25 of History's Oddest Couples
25 of History’s Oddest Couples

25 of History’s Oddest Couples

Larry Holzwarth - September 2, 2019

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Harvard Yard, hallowed ground to some, including the Adams’, the Kennedy’s, the Bushes, and Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones. Wikimedia

12. Al Gore Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones is an actor of distinction, having played diverse roles in film and television, including his breakout role in the afternoon soap opera One Life to Live. A graduate of Harvard University, where he played football on the undefeated 1968 team, Jones is a Texan by birth and by choice, residing there when not working. He is an avid fan and player of polo, as well as a fan of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. He is also one of two men whom author Erich Segal used as the basis for the character Oliver in his novel Love Story, later made into a film starring Ryan O’Neal. The other man Segal used was Jones’s roommate at Harvard, Al Gore Jr.

Tight Lipped College Days

Gore, the son of a Tennessee senator and the scion of a political dynasty, was close friends with Jones at Harvard, and the pair were later joined by actor John Lithgow (despite it being widely reported they were roommates, as in sharing a dorm room, they were not). Gore of course rose to the office of Vice President of the United States, while Jones and Lithgow both have had successful careers in entertainment. All three have remained notoriously tight-lipped about their days as college companions. Jones introduced Gore at the 2000 Democratic National Convention when Gore became the nominee for that year’s election, which remains hotly debated over its legality, but tales of the pair’s adventures in Cambridge are still mostly in the realm of speculation.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
The friendship between T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx was unlikely enough that even they questioned its existence. Wikimedia

13. T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx

T. S. Eliot was the descendant of one of Boston’s Brahmin families, though born in St. Louis, Missouri, and became a famed American poet, essayist, critic, publisher, and commenter on social mores and behavior. In his 30s he renounced his American citizenship, becoming a subject of the King of Great Britain. Late in life, he wrote a fan letter to a man whose public persona was very much different from his own. Grouch Marx was known as a zany comedian, with an irreverent and biting wit, the product of New York’s rougher neighborhoods and the hard life of a vaudevillian before he found success in motion pictures and eventually television.

Eliot requested a photograph of Groucho, and the comedian complied, launching a friendship which lasted for the remainder of Eliot’s life. The friendship was one of the pen, rapidly becoming a lost art in the electronic world, and though the two could not have been more different in temperament, reflected in the tension in their letters, they developed a deep respect for each other. The once anti-Semitic Eliot and the Jewish Groucho skirted around their obvious differences, though with pointed observations about the tension each so obviously felt. Groucho, being Groucho, was never above a barb directed at the well-born poet, including once writing in a letter to the twice married (and noted philanderer) Eliot, “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be”.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
From left, Wilbur, the Wright Glider, and Orville, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1901. Wikimedia

14. Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright

The Wright brothers, William and Orville, were an odd couple in many ways. Wilbur was the elder of the pair, by four years. They were the sons of a Protestant bishop, both named for local clergymen respected by their father. As boys both played with kites, toy gyrocopters, and bicycles. Neither graduated from high school, though both attended for a time. Neither ever married, nor is there evidence in the historical record of either ever seriously considering marriage. After achieving fame and wealth through their innovations in aviation, they built a large and impressive home in Dayton, Ohio, where it was planned that both brothers would reside, with their sister Katherine as the woman of the house.

Wilbur died (of typhoid) before the house, which was named Hawthorn Hill and which still stands in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood, was completed. Orville and Katherine resided there until 1926, when Katherine married, enraging her brother. Harboring feelings of betrayal and abandonment, Orville refused to either receive or visit his sister until just before her death in 1929. Orville Wright, the man who first flew a powered heavier than air aircraft, lived to see supersonic flight achieved before he died in 1948. The brothers are buried side-by-side in Woodlawn Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Danny Simon first came up with the idea for The Odd Couple, which in its opening run featured Walter Matthau (Oscar) and Art Carney (Felix). Wikimedia

15. Danny Simon and Roy Gerber

Danny Simon was the older brother of playwright Neil Simon, and a comedy writer for radio and television. With his younger brother he wrote scripts for comedy stars in the early days of television, including Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and Phil Silvers. In the early 1960s Danny and his wife separated, later to divorce, and Danny took rooms with another Hollywood personality, agent Roy Gerber. When the two invited friends over for dinner one of them, the story claims it was Danny, burned the pot roast. Danny decided to use the story and subsequent events as the basis for a play.

Danny later gave the unfinished script to younger brother Neal, who finished it in 1965 and presented it as The Odd Couple. It later spawned a film and television series of the same name, as well as numerous onstage revivals and adaptations. Danny and Roy are largely unknown today, but they were the inspiration for Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, though other stories of their genesis have emerged to conflict with the one based on Danny, and confirmed by Neil Simon in interviews since. Danny’s subsequent omission from the credits for the play and film caused a rift between the brothers which lasted for over a decade.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini’s long friendship could not survive their differences over spiritualism. Wikimedia

16. Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

Englishman Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the great odd couple arrangements, albeit a fictional one, in his writings of the domestic arrangements between his characters Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Watson was continuously bemused by his roommate’s chemical experiments, his fondness for strong shag tobacco and the unorthodox manner in which he stored it, and his predilection for the use of cocaine, as well as his unusual hours, playing of the violin, and other eccentricities. In real life, Doyle was a spiritualist, a believer in the afterlife and communications with the spirit world through mediums. His friend Harry Houdini was also interested in the afterlife, though from the aspect of debunking fraudulent spiritualists.

A Seance

Doyle became a believer in post-life communication following the death of his son; Houdini after the death of his mother. While Doyle openly encouraged those who claimed the ability of communicating with the dead Houdini created a second career exposing fraudsters and the methods they used. Being on the opposite sides of the issue destroyed the friendship which had developed between the two men. Their dispute intensified to the breaking point when Doyle’s wife, Jean, pronounced herself a medium, and conducted a séance in which Houdini’s mother “communicated” with the attendees via automatic writing. Houdini debunked the session, pointing out the grammatically sound communication was unlikely from his mother, who had known little English while alive.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Samuel Clemens was fascinated with the eccentric Nikola Tesla, later becoming a secret benefactor of the financially bereft scientist. Wikimedia

17. Samuel Clemens and Nikola Tesla

Samuel Tesla had acquired his pen name – Mark Twain – and an abiding interest in technology and science from his days as a riverboat pilot. Nikola Tesla had survived a youthful illness, passing the time in part by reading the books produced by Mark Twain. The pair met in the 1890s, and Twain became a frequent visitor to the eccentric Tesla’s New York laboratories. Twain’s initial interest had been in investing in Tesla’s inventions, including in a typesetting machine through which the author suffered significant losses. Despite the financial setback, Twain was fascinated with the inventor and the machinery he produced.

Twain was not a writer of science fiction, nor science-oriented tales, though he did create a story which featured the idea of traveling back in time, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The two men remained friends for many years, though Tesla developed a reputation of leaving the bills unpaid at the hotels in which he resided when he was finally asked to remove himself. Unknown benefactors covered his debts, Twain most likely among them, allowing the scientist to continue to polish his reputation as one of America’s oddest residents. They remained close friends until Twain’s death.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Sweet harmonies and hit records notwithstanding, Phil and Don Everly could barely stand to be in the same room together. Wikimedia

18. Don Everly and Phil Everly

Like the Wright’s, the Everly’s were brothers, and like the aviation pioneers their life’s work is forever entwined with each other. The Everly Brothers were one of pop music’s seminal acts. They were still in their teens when they became international stars, Don was 19, younger brother Phil 17 years of age. Their musical career was based on harmony, the tight vocal pairings the brothers achieved in recordings and reproduced live on stage. But the harmony was limited to their music. Don and Phil Everly spent most of their career as performers together loathing each other.

Phil once tried to make light of their mutual contempt by referring to their only having one argument, though it had lasted for 25 years. In 1973 a performance was interrupted by an onstage argument, triggered by Don’s having shown up to the performance drunk. After a ten-year hiatus from each other they reunited in 1984 only to find that they still couldn’t stand each other, refusing to appear at promotional events and interviews together. Phil Everly died in 2014. Two years later Don Everly told an interviewer that he kept some of his brother’s ashes in his home, habitually bidding them “good morning” whenever he was there.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
By the early 1970s Zsa Zsa Gabor’s married life – and number of husbands – had become a running joke amomg columnists and comedians. Wikimedia

19. Zsa Zsa Gabor and Felipe de Alba

Zsa Zsa Gabor loved being married, or at least she loved weddings, since she took the vows of that blessed state no less than nine times during her lifetime. Next to last in her line of husbands was Felipe de Alba, an attorney and sometime actor, having appeared in small roles in lesser known films of the 1940s and 1950s. He was not the only actor to have wed Zsa Zsa, George Sanders filled the role of her husband from 1949 – 1950, but it was clear that her preference of a career in marriageable men was one who had a great deal of money. Conrad Hilton, hotel magnate and Gabor husband for five years is but one such example.

Gossip writers were surprised by Zsa Zsa’s marriage to Felipe in 1983, but they did not have very long to express it. The couple were married on April 13, a Wednesday. Later that same day it was revealed that her preceding marriage, to Michael O’Hara, had not been legally ended. Hence her marriage to Alba was illegal, and the following day, April 14, it was annulled. Alba moved to New York, having decided, evidently, that marriage to Zsa Zsa was a little too odd for his tastes. The couple did not continue their relationship, and Alba had the distinction of being married to Zsa Zsa for the shortest time of any of her husbands, indeed of being in one of the shortest lived marriages in history, less than 24 hours.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
A 1924 portrait of P. L. Travers, from the Travers’ family collection. Wikimedia

20. Walt Disney and Pamela Lyndon Travers

When Walt Disney promised his young daughters that he would make their favorite character – Mary Poppins – into a motion picture he gave himself a project which would take two decades for him to complete. The creator of the character, P. L. Travers (nee Helen Lyndon Goff) opposed the Disney version of her books far more stridently than as depicted in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks. The portrayal of Disney in the film was largely fictionalized as well, Walt Disney was far less happy-go-lucky than the portrayal by Tom Hanks, and his company’s treatment of the author less accommodating. Travers later said of the Disney version of Mary Poppins, “…I’ve learned to live with it”.

The unlikely pairing of Disney and Travers produced the classic 1964 film, but it was many years before the franchise could be built upon, in large part because of Travers’ continuing opposition. In her last will and testament she specified what could and could not be done with her work in future adaptations, specifically excluding the Sherman Brothers (who had written the songs for the Disney film), from providing new songs in future adaptions of her work. Despite the strange pairing of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, the odd couple produced one of the most enduring children’s films of the 1960s, which fifty years later threatens to expand into a film franchise, long after the deaths of Disney and Travers.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Mayo Methot – one half of the Battling Bogarts – and her divorce lawyer in 1945. Wikimedia

21. Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot

Bogie and Bacall has become the cognomen for an enduring romantic relationship, signifying the marriage and relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. But Bogie was not always involved in a marriage so harmonious and enduring. His marriage to Mayo Methot is an example. They were married in 1938 and within a few months their relationship was defined in the press by naming the couple The Battling Bogarts. Both were heavy drinkers (drinking was part of Bogie’s on and off screen image) and in his wife’s case mental illness was aggravated by the alcohol, as well as her conviction of her husband’s inveterate cheating (which was largely untrue, at least at first).

A deeply chagrined Bogart once showed a visitor a supply of interior doors kept in the basement of his house, ready replacements for those broken down by one of the happy couple. Bogart named his treasured yacht at the time Sluggy in honor of his wife, who was sometimes referred to with the same name in the press. Mayo once threatened Bogart with a pistol at a dinner party before several horrified witnesses, though she was disarmed without shots being fired. After numerous separations and reconciliations the couple divorced in 1944. During one period of “conciliation” Bogart informed the press that he was returning to their home, “in other words, we’ll return to our normal battles”.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Albert Einstein in 1947. Wikimedia

22. Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric

Albert Einstein’s enduring image is that of the stereotypical addle-brained scientist; rumpled clothing, wildly disarranged hair, tattered shoes, and an absent-minded stare. But life with Albert was far more difficult than just dealing with a mind driven to distraction while absorbed with the secrets of the universe. Albert had very definite ideas of the duties of his wife, and he spelled them out clearly to Mileva Maric. Though many of the scientist’s letters to his wife are loving and clearly share with her his work – he often referred to it as our work – he also gave specific instructions regarding his behavior and her duties.

That changed after Einstein embarked on an affair with his cousin Elsa in 1912. The affair and a long separation caused by his work, among other events, for all practical purposes ended what had been a happy marriage. When Mileva protested against a provision made by Albert regarding his Nobel Prize money, he responded in a letter which read, in part, “when someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person”. Mileva collaborated with Einstein on most of his most important achievements as a physicist, but fell into obscurity, where at least as far as the general public is concerned her reputation continues to languish today.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Amelia Earhart and her husband, publisher George Putnam, in 1931. Wikimedia

23. Amelia Earhart and George S. Putnam

Amelia Earhart was an American superhero of the 1920s and 1930s, based upon her notable achievements as an aviator, rather than her views as what today is known as a feminist. Amelia was a celebrity before she gained fame as a pilot (as the first woman to fly the Atlantic, although as a passenger). She was a teacher and lecturer, a consultant to aviation pioneers, politicians, and students of aviation and engineering, and was one of the most recognizable persons in the United States by 1935, if not the western world. She is remembered for vanishing on her ill-fated around-the-world flight in company with Fred Noonan, her long-time navigator and companion.

Her husband was George S. Putnam, a famous and wealthy publisher and one of the partners involved in the marketing of her writing, as well as her aviation achievements. Together, Earhart and Putnam created a public image for her (today it would be called branding) and together they made her wealthy in her own right, as well as an international celebrity. Earhart, in private letters made public decades after her death, referred to her marriage as a “dual control partnership”. The couple had no honeymoon, highly unusual for their day, and the marriage produced no children. They purchased a California home together after fire destroyed Putnam’s family seat, but delayed moving in for many years and spent little time there after they did. After Amelia was lost, the public quickly forgot her marriage to Putnam, as rescue efforts and journalistic speculation centered on the missing Fred Noonan.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
An article by James T. Callendar introduced the world to what became the Jefferson-Hemings mystery, still in dispute and still controversial two hundred years later. Wikimedia

24. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

The Sally Hemings – Thomas Jefferson liaison first appeared in the public eye in 1802, after James T. Callendar made the accusations in print. Callendar was irked that he had been denied a position as a Postmaster (then political spoil) and had threatened to reveal what he called their illicit relationship. Jefferson ignored the accusations publicly and privately, despite the “revelation” that he had fathered several children by Sally, whom he had brought to Paris in company with his daughter Martha, in order to have her trained in the art of French cooking. Since Callendar’s accusations the story has never faded, making it the longest running sex and political scandal in American history.

In the 21st century DNA analysis demonstrated that the Hemings and Jefferson lines were mixed, but without definitive proof that it had been because of a relationship between Sally and Thomas. The argument remains a spirited one, with those determined to denigrate Jefferson (and the other founders who were also slaveholders) as amoral hypocrites. Sally Hemings is to them proof positive. Others have argued that Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, is a more likely candidate as the father of Sally Hemings’ children. Yet Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson have become a couple in the minds of many, to be used as a means of judgment whether that judgment is informed or not.

25 of History’s Oddest Couples
Confederate General James Longstreet, one of Ulysses Grant’s closest friends both before and following the Civil War. Wikimedia

25. James Longstreet and Ulysses Grant

Other than to Civil War buffs, James Longstreet is one of the lesser known Confederate generals of the American Civil War. Robert E. Lee considered him an essential lieutenant, calling him his Old Warhorse. But Longstreet’s reputation suffered, especially in the old South, after the war. He was not a proponent of the Lost Cause mythology which made the war a noble defense of state’s rights, rather than a conflict over the issue of slavery. Southern writers and historians placed much of the blame for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg on Longstreet, exonerating Robert E, Lee, helping to keep the latter’s myth untarnished. In many areas of the defeated south, Longstreet became a pariah.

But he retained one friend from his military days, one which went back all the way to his student days at West Point. Longstreet and Grant remained friends after the southern surrender, a well-known fact which did nothing to further endear Longstreet to society in the defeated south. The former Confederate became a fervent and active supporter of Reconstruction, and he and Grant maintained a relationship through correspondence for years, a strange relationship given the fervency with which they had fought against each other during the Civil War. In fact, they opposed each other on battlefields on few occasions, though Longstreet was present at the surrender at Appomattox. Together they represented the reconciliation of the country, maybe not such an odd couple after all.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Did Henry VIII really have six wives? Why everything you think you know about the Tudors is wrong”. Olivia Goldhill, The Daily Telegraph. January 26, 2016

“Creation Myths of the World”. David Leeming. 2009

“Wedded, Unbedded, and Beheaded: The Human Side of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette”. Joe McGasko, Biography. May 9, 2017

“Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde”. Jeff Guinn. 2009

“John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on Life, Religion, and the Young Republic”. Ed. Lester J. Cappon, National Center for the Humanities. Online

“American Has Already Had a Gay President”. Ezekial Emmanuel, The Washington Post. March 26, 2019

“Lou’s on First: The Tragic Life of Hollywood’s Greatest Clown Warmly Recounted by his Youngest Child”. Chris Costello. 1982

“When Jerry Met Dean – Again on Live Television”. Donald Liebensen, Vanity Fair. September 5, 2016

“Roosevelt and Churchill: A Friendship That Saved The World”. National Park Service. Online

“Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock: The Unsung Partner”. Nisha Lilia Diu, The Telegraph. February 8, 2013

“Who Was the Marquis De Sade?” Tony Parrottet, Smithonian.com. February, 2015

“Inventing Al Gore”. Bill Turque. 2000

“The Fraught Friendship of T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx”. Lee Siegel, The New Yorker. June 25, 2014

“The Wright Brothers”. David McCullough. 2016

“TV Comedy Writer Danny Simon Dies”. Adam Bernstein, The Washington Post. July 28, 2005

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”. Entry, History, BBC Online.

“The electricity between Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla”. Juliana Adelman, Irish Times. February 11, 2016

“Why DID the Everly Brothers hate each other?” Ray Connolly, Daily Mail. January 5, 2014

“The Shortest Celebrity Marriages of All Time”. Nana Callaway, The Spruce. July 28, 2019

“How Did P. L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins, Really Fare Against Walt Disney?” Amy Henderson, Smithsonian.com. December 20, 2013

“Did Bogie Destroy Lauren Bacall?” Nina Caplan, The Guardian. January 1, 1999

“The Forgotten Life of Einstein’s First Wife”. Pauline Gagnon, Scientific American. December 19, 2016

“Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy”. Annette Gordon-Reed, CNN. March 3, 1999

“Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant”. Ulysses S. Grant