The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats

D.G. Hewitt - January 22, 2019

Thanks to the work of historians, both amateur and professional, we now know almost every single detail of the lives of the great men and women of years past. Or at least we think we do. In reality, many great figures had hidden talents, things they did on the side. Sometimes these were simply hobbies, or sometimes they were much more than this. Indeed, in some cases, politicians might have enjoyed alternative careers in the arts so gifted were they. Similarly, some of the greatest artists of all time might have excelled as scientists or as musicians had they chosen a different path in life.

Sometimes, such talents weren’t always ‘hidden’. So, for instance, in his day, one of America’s greatest Presidents was celebrated for his dancing skills, but nowadays is almost wholly remembered for his political accomplishments. Similarly, Romantic composers who were once feted as chess greats are now only remembered for the music they left behind. By overlooking such talents, we fail to see the full picture and get a full understanding of what made such people who they really were.

So, from foxtrotting Founding Fathers through to bomber-fighting Hollywood icons, here we reveal the hidden talents of 17 figures from the past:

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a huge chess fan, even if he had few opponents. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Benjamin Franklin had many skills and interests outside of politics, including chess, a game he excelled at and brought to the United States.

In December of 1786, The Colombian Magazine enjoyed its best month ever. The edition featured an essay by Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a true national celebrity. Entitled The Morals of Chess, the essay was Franklin’s thoughts on the game he loved – and had been playing for more than 50 years. The magazine article is widely-regarded as the first text about chess to be published in the United States and to this day it’s still in print and cited as an influence by chess players and politicians alike.

Quite how skilled Franklin was at chess has been – and continues to be – the source of much debate. Undoubtedly, he had a passion for the game, which he had first played whilst on one of his many visits to Europe. However, a lack of opponents in America meant that he rarely got to play the game he loved, meaning he was sometimes easily beaten by players who had more practise. Nevertheless, as his famous essay shows, Franklin learned a lot from the game. Above all, he credited his hobby with teaching him the virtues of patience and planning ahead, things he would use to his advantage in the world of politics.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart was a fighter ace during the war. Wikimedia Commons.

16. Jimmy Stewart was one of the true Hollywood greats, but he was also a skilled aviator, winning numerous awards for his wartime bravery.

For around 60 years, James Stewart dominated Hollywood. The actor starred in countless movies, many of them timeless classics. For his work, Stewart received an Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. To this day, he is still regarded as one of the greatest leading men of all time, known above all for his portrayal of the American ‘everyman’. But Stewart was far from an everyman, as his time flying fighter aircraft during the Second World War shows. Indeed, as well as being a Hollywood icon, he was also an aviation ace, picking up several major awards and commendations along the way.

Stewart earned his private pilot’s license in 1935, with a commercial licence following three years later. When the United States entered the war, Stewart was drafted into the Army. After some delays while he worked to build his weight up to the required level, Stewart was allowed in, and soon transferred to flying duty. At first, he was given logistics missions to fly and was also used as a recruitment tool. But by 1944, the actor was flying combat missions over Germany. For his service, Stewart received the United States Air Force Distinguished Service Medal and then the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
James Bond creator Ian Fleming wasn’t always just an author, he was once a secret agent too. Telegraph.

15. Ian Fleming wasn’t just a fiction writer, he had been a real-life James Bond-style spy himself during the Second World War.

Since he first appeared more than 50 years ago, James Bond has become the most famous fictional spy of all time. The British secret agent has appeared in a series of hugely-successful films, with audiences around the world falling for his smooth charms and slick espionage skills. But Bond’s creator, the author Ian Fleming, wasn’t just a talented wordsmith and storyteller. He was also a one-time spook himself. Indeed, before he even conjured up his legendary literary creation, Fleming worked as an agent-runner and spy whilst fighting the Nazis during the Second World War.

When war broke out, Fleming was working as a part-time journalist. He was brought into the war machine by the Naval Intelligence Division and quickly put to work. In particular, Fleming was tasked with running Operation Goldeneye, a covert mission aimed at keeping fascist Spain out of the war. He also headed up two separate intelligence groups, running agents throughout occupied Europe and carrying out a large number of sabotage missions. Once peace returned, Fleming missed the action and so channeled his boredom and frustration into his writing, creating James Bond partly as a means of re-living his days of action.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
President John Tyler was an enthusiastic and skilled musician in his day. Wikimedia Commons.

14. President John Tyler grew up with a passion for music rather than politics and was known to entertain guests at the White House.

John Tyler remains one of the lesser-known Presidents of the United States. The 10th man to hold the office, his Presidency was largely unremarkable – but perhaps there’s a good reason for this. After all, as a young man, Tyler never had a keen passion for politics. Rather, it was something he fell into after following his father’s strict orders and studying law. Instead of legal affairs or politics, Tyler had a genuine passion for music, and above all for the violin. He learned the instrument from an early age and, according to some, could even have made it as a concert-level performer had his father not seen music as a frivolous hobby.

Though he never played in front of a packed concert hall, Tyler nevertheless managed to make full use of his special talent throughout his life. While President, he would regularly play for visiting dignitaries, with his wife Julia accompanying him on guitar. Even when he retired from politics, Tyler kept playing his beloved violin. He lived out in years in the Virginia countryside, with his wife and music for company, until his death at the age of 71 in 1862.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Sir Winston Churchill loved to paint and produced more than 500 works. Artsy.

13. Sir Winston Churchill used art as an escape from the stresses of frontline politics – and, by all accounts, he was an accomplished painter.

Sir Winston Churchill is a true legend of British history. In fact, the wartime Prime Minister has even been named ‘the greatest Briton of all time’. However, Churchill is recognized almost solely for his political skills, above all for leading his country to victory in the Second World War. Almost nobody remembers him for his artistic skills – which is a shame since, according to most critics, he was actually quite an accomplished painter. Above all, he was known for his watercolors and landscapes. Despite his busy life in politics, he still found the time to produce some 500 paintings, many of which still sell for significant sums of money.

For all his skill, Churchill remained extremely modest about his art. He never pretended to be a true artist, instead proclaiming himself a hobbyist or amateur painter. For him, painting offered an escape from the cut-throat world of British inter-war politics and the chance to enjoy some fresh air away from London. However, for all his modesty, Churchill took his hobby extremely seriously indeed. He studied masters such as Manet, Monet and Matisse and even traveled to France to paint in the exact same locations – and be inspired by the same light – as his artistic heroes.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Thomas Jefferson was a man of arts and science and was a pioneer in many ways. Smithsonian.

12. Thomas Jefferson has been called the father of American archaeology, bringing the new academic discipline to his native land from Europe.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t just the third President of the United States. The Virginia native was a true ‘Renaissance Man’. He loved knowledge and learning for the sake of learning. While he decided at an early age to pursue a career in law, almost wholly for financial reasons, Jefferson also loved the sciences, as well as history. He learned much on his travels through Europe, and brought his newly-acquired knowledge back to the Americas with him, including his knowledge of the emerging discipline of archaeology. Indeed, not for nothing is Jefferson sometimes called ‘the father of American archaeology’.

In 1784, Jefferson supervised the systematic excavation of an old Native American burial ground located on his land in Virginia. The methods he used were highly advanced for the time. So much so, in fact, that many of his contemporaries questioned the reason he was digging and cataloging his finds in the first place. Over the next few years and decades, a number of scientists would further develop the discipline of archaeology, though they remained faithful to the systematic digging methods first employed by Jefferson and his team. Several of the books the President wrote based on the findings of his digs, as well as the artifacts he unearthed, are still displayed in museums across the United States.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Jimmy Carter got his whole family reading at speed in the White House. Wikipedia.

11. Jimmy Carter wasn’t the only speed-reader to occupy the White House, but he was almost certainly the fastest and most dedicated to the skill.

The 39th President of the United States is perhaps best-remembered for his foreign policies rather than for his accomplishments – or, arguably, lack of them – at home. Additionally, Jimmy Carter is also fondly-remembered by many for his post-White House work, above all, for his tireless advocacy for peace and for his charity endeavors. One curious fact that’s often overlooked in biographies of President Carter is that he possessed a unique skill. Carter was a speed-reader. Moreover, he was perhaps the greatest speed-reader of his time, with his unique ability to absorb huge amounts of information helping him get to the top of American politics.

Even though he was capable of reading several large, complex books a week, carter was always trying to get better. Famously, while President, he hosted speed-reading classes at the White House. As well the Carter himself, the First lady, Rosalynn Carter, attended, as did several senior staffers. Interestingly, Carter was not the only speed-reading President. JFK was reported to be capable of taking in an incredible 2,500 words a minute just by glancing at a body of text. It’s also alleged that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were also speed-readers, though they mastered the skill before the term had even been invented.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Mendelssohn traveled widely, painting and composing as he went. Classic FM.

10. Felix Mendelssohn was not only a skilled composer, he also painted, with his travels inspiring both his music and his art.

Felix Mendelssohn was one of the greatest composers of the Early Romantic period. The German wrote a number of operas, symphonies and concertos, many of which continue to be performed all over the world. However, Mendelssohn was much more than just a musical genius. He was an all-round man of culture, excelling in a number of fields. As a young boy, he mastered several languages, including ancient Greek, plus he learned how to play chess at a high level. What’s more, the Hamburg native was also an accomplished artist, earning himself a reputation for his skill as a draftsman and for his watercolors.

Mendelssohn liked to paint and draw as he traveled through Europe. For example, he made dozens of sketches during his famous trip to Scotland – a trip which also inspired one of his most famous musical works, The Scottish Symphony. Mostly, Mendelssohn drew or painted landscapes. However, he also made detailed sketches of bridges and other engineering feats, complete with notes and other informed observations. Many of his drawings and paintings are now displayed in galleries around the world, with Mendelssohn’s reputation having soared after being overlooked and neglected for reasons of anti-Semitism for large parts of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
President George Washington was a regular at society events and balls. Mount Vernon.

9. George Washington was famous for his ballroom dancing skills and the ladies of Virginia would wait their turn for a dance with the President.

The first President of the United States wasn’t just a political titan. George Washington was also, by all accounts, a social butterfly. What’s more, he was an accomplished dancer. In fact, he was so adept on the dance floor that the women of Virginia would compete with each other for the pleasure and privilege of enjoying a waltz with the great man. That Washington was so skilled is far from surprising, however. From an early age, he made a real effort to become an all-round gentleman. He was a disciple of the best-selling book Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation – and took the society guide’s rules on ballroom etiquette to heart.

Despite being at the heart of the action, Washington even found the time to dance during the Revolutionary War. Along with his wife, he was a regular guest at balls. He dressed well and followed the rules, dancing with different partners and always taking the lead. Judge Francis T. Brooke, who witnessed Washington dance at a 1784 ball, remarked that the future President: “opened it by dancing a minuet with some lady, and then danced cotillions and country dances; was very gallant, and always attached himself, by his attentions, to some one or more of the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the ball”.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Nostradamus made predictions, and he also loved making jam as well. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Nostradamus wasn’t just famous for his predictions, the Frenchman was also a 16th century gourmand and even wrote and published recipe books.

Even now, centuries after his death, many people right around the world remain fascinated by Nostradamus. To some, he was one of the greatest seers the world has ever known, and his prophecies have come true on many notable occasions. To others, however, Nostradamus was a fraudster and his so-called prophecies are easy to disprove. But, away from his alleged foresight, Nostradamus had another passion. Cooking. Famously, the Frenchman even published several books filled with his own special recipes and tips. While they may not be as famous as his 1550 Almanac or related works, his recipe books continue to have their fans today.

The self-proclaimed prophets most famous culinary work was his Treatise on Make-Up and Jam, published in 1552. The sage made full use of his time working as a traveling one-man apothecary. Not only were his jams supposed to be tasty, Nostradamus even claimed that they could treat a number of ailments, including sexual impotence. His recipes could also turn hair blonde and be used as tools for seduction – making them very popular with the men of the 16th century.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Paul Revere was the first man to see the potential of forensic dentistry. Pinterest.

7. Paul Revere went down in history for changing the course of the American Revolution, and he also invented forensic dentistry along the way.

Paul Revere gained fame in the American Revolution. A prominent patriot, his most famous hour came when he rode through the night to warn the colonial militia of the approach of British soldiers ahead of the historic battles of Concord and Lexington. That act alone has inspired a number of art works and poems over the years. But Revere wasn’t just an American revolutionary. He was also a dental pioneer. Indeed, the Boston native is often called the father of forensic dentistry, and some of the techniques he pioneered are still used by dental professionals to this day.

As a young man in 1780s Massachusetts, Revere inherited a silversmiths shop from his father. On the side, he also dabbled in dental surgery. Men from across Boston would come to him for false teeth and fillings. Then, when the Revolutionary War broke out, Revere realized he could used his medical skills to help families who had lost their loved ones in the fighting. He came up with the idea of identifying bodies through looking at their dental work. According to histories of the dental profession, Boston’s most famous messenger was the first person ever to positively ID a corpse through dental prosthetics.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Mobster Al Capone indulged his softer side while behind bars on Alcatraz island. El Pais.

6. Al Capone showed no mercy when he ruled over the Chicago underworld, but the mobster also had a creative side and wrote love ballads in prison.

During the Prohibition Era, Al Capone was the undisputed boss of the Chicago underworld. He bullied, intimidated and murdered his rivals to climb to the top and amass a personal fortune through the trade in illegal beer and liquor. Capone also dealt in extortion and prostitution and his reign only came to an end when he was convicted on tax evasions. However, despite being one of the most violent men in American criminal history, Capone also had a softer side. While locked away on Alcatraz island, the gangster kept busy by composing show tunes and ballads.

Capone was brought up on opera and jazz. Then, when he was an underworld boss, he hired jazz greats like Louis Armstrong to perform in his speakeasies. Clearly, he picked up a few things. According to Capone’s biographers, he could read musical scores and play several instruments, so it was only natural that he turned to music when he was jailed for 11 years. In 2009, some of Capone’s compositions were recorded for the first time. The works are mainly love songs, most likely written for Capone’s wife, Mae, who stayed loyal even when her husband was convicted – and even though he was suffering from severe syphilis, most probably the result of dalliances with the prostitutes on his books.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
The Japanese Emperor had a love of biology and published widely on the subject. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Emperor Hirohito reigned over Japan for six decades, but still found time to make a name for himself as an expert marine biologist.

Hirohito was just of just 20, Hirohito took over from his ailing father as the Emperor of Japan. It was a position he would occupy for more than six decades. His long, still controversial reign, only came to an end with his death in 1989. Under Hirohito, Japan went from a great power to a humiliated, defeated nation at the end of the Second World War, and then back to an economic powerhouse as well. While the degree of influence the Emperor had over his country’s governments over the 60 years continues to be the source of much debate, no historian can deny that Hirohito was a learned man – as his keen interest in, and talent for, marine biology attests.

Hirohito’s love of biology began when he was just a young boy. And, thanks to his wealth and social status, not to mention his keen intellect, he was able to pursue this interest with vigor. While Emperor, he had a private research laboratory installed in the royal palace. From here, he carried out pioneering research on hydrozoans. Hirohito published a number of articles in respected scientific journals, identifying and naming several new species. All were published under his own name. The Emperor even penned several books on marine biology, establishing himself as a leading figure in his specialist field.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
John Quincy Adams had a life-long love of music and played while President. Wikimedia Commons.

4. John Quincy Adams took up the flute while studying at Harvard, and continued to play even when President.

To say that John Quincy Adams was a skilled flautist would be a huge exaggeration – and profoundly untrue. Even the President admitted that he was merely an enthusiastic amateur. Indeed, according to the man himself, Americans were “not susceptible of great musical powers”. However, what he lacked in natural talent, Adams made up for in hard work and dedication. He first picked up a flute while a student at Harvard University, taking private lessons alongside working towards his college degree. By all accounts, he was hooked from the very start and he played the instrument almost every day without fail.

As a young man, Adams would play in Boston bars. According to his fellow students, the future President was a regular at informal, often drunken, jam sessions. As he grew older, his flute-playing became more refined, however. He would regularly receive sheet music, including works by the most-renowned American composers of the time. Some of these works still exist, and his own handwritten notes can still be seen. Adams was especially a fan of the tune Hail to the Chief. In fact, it was under him that the informal Presidential anthem was played for the first time, establishing a tradition that endures to this day.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
The Russian composer was a lover of chess and pitted his wits against world champions. Wikipedia.

3. Sergei Prokofiev is remembered as one of the last century’s great classical music composers, and only a few know he was also an accomplished chess player.

Though he may have lived and work under the repressive Communist regime of Soviet-era Russia, Sergei Prokofiev nevertheless managed to become one of the great composers of the 20th century. His works spanned numerous musical genres, and his operas, concertos and symphonies are still performed to this day. But Prokofiev wasn’t just a highly accomplished composer. He was also a concert-level pianist. What’s more, he was a skilled chess player. After learning the game as a young boy, he became obsessed with it, and as an adult tested his wits against some of the world’s best players, sometimes coming out on top.

Famously, in 1914, Prokofiev welcomed the Cuban chess grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca to Russia. The world champion was in St. Petersburg for a series of organized matches. Prokofiev challenged him to a match, and even managed to win a single game against the mighty Capablanca. In his later years, the composer enjoyed regular matches with a number of friendly rivals, including the master violinist David Oistrakh. In 1937, the men played chess to decide which one of them would get a gig playing on a lucrative concert tour. After just 7 of 10 planned matches, however, Oistrakh quit, and went off on the tour anyway, taken as a sure sign that Prokofiev was on top. Despite this, the two chess-loving musicians remained friends until the end.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
Former Secretary of State Rice could have chosen a career in music over politics. AJC.

2. Condoleezza Rice made history by breaking down barriers in American politics, but she could have also made a name for herself as a renowned concert pianist.

As Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice made history by becoming the first African-American female to hold the prestigious office. But her life might have turned out much differently had she decided to focus on a talent other than politics. From an early age, Rice was a skilled classical musician. According to her biographers, her cultural education began at the age of just three. While she started out learning ballet, at the age of 15, she began to concentrate on the piano. Her ultimate aim was to become a professional concert pianist. And she would almost certainly have achieved this lofty goal, if she hadn’t chosen to focus on politics instead.

At the age of just 15, Rice performed a concert of Mozart with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Even when she was working in academia and then serving as Secretary of State, she continued to play, albeit not professionally. Notably, she performed for Queen Elizabeth II and also duetted with the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a concert at the iconic Constitution Hall in Washington. More recently, Rice has given occasional public performances and has also spoken openly about her life-log passion for classical music, above all for the works of Johannes Brahms.

The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats
As a young man, Gerald Ford excelled at sports, especially football. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Gerald Ford was the ultimate career politician, but before he climbed his way to the Presidency he was a talented football player – and could even have gone pro.

Nebraska’s Gerald Ford is famously the only man to have served as both Vice President and President of the United States without being elected to either office. A career politician, he served in the top job for just one term, taking over from the disgraced Richard Nixon. But Ford wasn’t always a politician. In fact, as a young man, it looked like his future lay on the football field rather than in the Senate. Indeed, it wasn’t a lack of talent that stopped Ford from going pro. Instead, he turned down offers from some of the country’s biggest teams in order to use his brain instead of his brawn.

The future President was a student at the University of Michigan in the 1930s. There, he played center in the college football team and was named Most Valuable Player in his final season. His standout performances for the Wolverines won Ford the attention of both the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. Both teams offered the young man professional contracts. His life was at a crossroad. Ultimately, Ford turned down both offers and chose to pursue law. He enrolled in Yale Law School in 1938 – and the rest is history. The NFL’s loss was the Republican Party’s gain.


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

“Gerald Ford, College Football Player.” The Robinson Library.

“Condoleezza Rice, Piano Player.” Time Magazine.

“Chess Master: Prokofiev: 15 facts about the great composer.” Classic FM.

“Emperor Hirohito’s marine specimens return to Japan after decades in Belgium.” The Japan Times, June 2014.

“Al Capone, gangster and budding songwriter.” SF Gate, April, 2009.

“Paul Revere, America’s First Forensic Dentist.” New England Historical Society.

“Nostradamus and his pot of jam.” The Guardian, April 2006.

“When he Wasn’t Making History, Winston Churchill Made Paintings.”

“Dancing with General Washington.”

“Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond.” History Extra.

“8 U.S. Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Musicians.” WFMT, November 2018.

“Mendelssohn the Artist.” Mendelssohn in Scotland.