J.D. Salinger’s entire literary output consists of one novel and 13 short stories, all written before 1959. Twenty-nine years have passed since his last interview — 44 since his last published story — and yet when news broke of the writer’s lawsuit against the author of an unofficial Catcher in the Rye sequel, fans reacted as if the 90-year-old recluse had stripped naked and run down the street. Salinger was back! Well, sort of. Actually, not at all. The suit was filed in a Manhattan court by Salinger’s lawyers; the author has yet to make a public statement or appearance in connection with the proceedings. And as literary fans know all too well, he probably never will.
Salinger began to withdraw from public life following the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye, which holds the dual distinction of having been both a banned book and required reading in U.S. schools. As adulation for Catcher spread, the author recoiled further. Salinger stopped giving interviews in 1980. In 1986, he sued to prevent biographer Ian Hamilton from reprinting letters the author had sent to fans and friends. Almost everything known about Salinger comes from court transcripts or his daughter’s 2000 memoir, Dream Catcher. Today, a new Salinger publication or interview would spark a literary firestorm. Not that such an event is likely to happen; to the creator of Holden Caulfield, we are all a bunch of phonies.
Howard Hughes had always been eccentric. The billionaire business mogul and aviator had obsessive-compulsive tendencies; once, during a movie shoot, he became so fixated on a flaw in one of Jane Russell’s blouses that he designed a unique kind of underwire bra to fix the problem. But no one knew what to do when he finally cracked. In 1947, Hughes locked himself in a darkened screening room for four months, doing little more than eating chocolate bars, drinking milk and relieving himself into empty bottles. Later he moved from hotel penthouse to hotel penthouse; by 1950, he had gone into complete seclusion, refusing even to appear during antitrust hearings concerning Trans World Airlines, a company he controlled. Rumors began to circulate about the former Hollywood hobnobber’s Valium addiction, cadaverous frame, scraggly beard and twisted fingernails. He never recovered, dying in self-imposed seclusion in 1976.
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafson in 1905, Garbo grew up in a Stockholm slum and happened into acting after a film director discovered her in a local department store. By 1930, the “Swedish sphinx” had become an icon of the silver screen, captivating American moviegoers with her androgynous appeal and husky voice. Her first spoken words onscreen — “Give me a vhiskey” — were later eclipsed by the line “I vant to be let alone,” from the Oscar-winning 1932 film Grand Hotel — a declaration that perfectly encapsulated her approach to the outside world. The actress shunned all the trappings of Hollywood life, refusing to sign autographs, declining all interview requests, leaving fan mail unanswered and avoiding film premieres and awards ceremonies — including the 1955 Academy Awards, despite the promise of an honorary Oscar.
Ironically, her wariness of the spotlight only made her that much more appealing to the media. “I feel able to express myself only through my roles, not in words, and that is why I try to avoid talking to the press,” she once said during a rare statement to reporters in a plea for privacy. In 1941, at the age of 36, Garbo announced a “temporary” retirement; it would last 49 years, until her death in 1990 in Manhattan, where she lived by herself — she never married and bore no children. Her apartment on East 52nd Street, filled with expensive pieces of furniture and art, belied her poverty-stricken upbringing — except perhaps for the beloved dime-store blow-up snowman that she kept near a carved Louis XV chair.
You know you’re a recluse when the New York Times runs an article with the headline “Gregarious for a Day.” (For the record, the reporter described her as witty and charming.) Since the 1960 publication of her best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which has sold more than 10 million copies, the Alabama native has steadfastly, albeit politely, rebuffed interview requests. Though she does show up in public from time to time, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author — a distant relative of the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee — almost always declines to speak. When asked in 2007 to address the audience at the Alabama Academy of Honor, the octogenarian responded simply, “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”
Emily Dickinson was a textbook recluse. She spoke to visitors through doors, gave treats to local children by lowering a basket from a second-story window and listened to her father’s funeral from the privacy of her bedroom. She didn’t leave the family property for the last two decades of her life. Of her nearly 1,800 poems, fewer than a dozen were published while Dickinson was alive. Some experts speculate that her reclusive behavior was prompted by social anxiety or other mental disorders; others attribute it to overprotective parents or the deaths of close friends. Whatever the cause, Dickinson was known for her solitude in life and her masterly poetry in death.
Syd Barrett was dissatisfied with music. A founding member of Pink Floyd, he left the group after two albums but found little more contentment in his two solo efforts. He tried forming another group, Stars, but quit after three performances. Barrett tried returning to the studio but struggled through just three days of recording before selling his solo rights to his record label and moving into a London hotel. When the money ran out, in 1978, he walked nearly 50 miles to his mother’s house in Cambridge, leaving public life behind. Syd began to use his birth name of Roger and passed the time by painting, gardening and reportedly writing an unpublished book on art history. He made no more public appearances, and died in 2006. Accounts suggest that Barrett disliked being reminded of his musical past and kept no contact with other Pink Floyd members. His sister offered one of the better explanations for Barrett’s aversion to public scrutiny: “He found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted.”
As author of Calvin and Hobbes, the beloved comic strip about a mischievous 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger, Bill Watterson’s work appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers worldwide. He was the youngest person to receive the National Cartoonists Society’s highest honor, the Reuben Award — a prize he would win a total of three times. Throughout his career, Watterson consistently resisted pressure from publishers to merchandise his comic, believing that it would devalue the characters.
Despite a large and passionate fan following, Watterson retired the strip in 1995, citing frustration with the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. He has since retreated from the public eye, declining interviews and public appearances and refusing to sign autographs or license his characters. For a time, Watterson stashed autographed copies of his books on the shelves of a local family-owned bookstore — until fans started selling them for higher prices. It remains to be seen if the world will hear from Watterson again.
Even among reclusive novelists, Thomas Pynchon reigns anonymously supreme. Almost nothing is known about the author of some of the most seminal, mysterious and generally difficult works of 20th century fiction, and the novelist would like to keep it that way. Pynchon has avoided nearly all media since the 1963 publication of his first book, V., and only a few known photos of him exist. When his 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award, Pynchon had someone else accept on his behalf. He has denied all publicity requests but one: in 2004, he agreed to appear on The Simpsons. Pynchon even lent his own voice to his character, which was drawn with a bag over its head.
When the pressures of fame grow too great, not even $50 million can keep some artists from ditching the limelight. After signing an eight-figure megadeal with Comedy Central in 2004, Dave Chappelle abandoned his hit show in May 2005, fleeing to South Africa in the middle of filming the show’s third season. In retrospect, many saw signs of his slow but sure meltdown coming years earlier. During a 2003 stand-up performance, he reportedly told his audience, “You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you’re not smart enough to get what I’m doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid.”
After his flight to South Africa, where he stayed with a friend, rumors raged about drug abuse, mental instability and problems with the network. The only one of those things that seemed supported by his behavior were the creative struggles with Comedy Central. Yet in an interview with TIME just after Chappelle flew the coop, the comedian refused to blame the show’s producers. Instead he cited some people in his inner circle and himself for the stresses that seemed to be troubling him.
“All that stuff about partying and taking crack is not true,” he told TIME. “Why do I live on a farm in Ohio? To support my partying lifestyle?” Chappelle returned to his Ohio estate after several weeks in Africa, but he never went back to The Dave Chappelle Show — though he later promoted the documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2006. He has returned to stand-up sporadically and was even rumored to play Rick James — one of his most popular parodies on his show — in a biopic, though that eventually fell through. He’s no Thomas Pynchon, but he was still the best recluse of 2005.
Marcel Proust spent plenty of time alone with his inner monologue — as his novels make plain. Nervous, frail and sensitive, Proust was still a fixture of French high society until his mid-30s. But after his father’s death in 1903 and his mother’s in 1905, Proust’s health deteriorated, and he gradually gave up the fast life. He spent the remaining 17 years of his life a virtual recluse, working on his novels.
By 1919, Proust rarely left his soundproofed Paris apartment, complete with a bedroom encased in walls of cork to keep out noise. He worked in a sunless writing studio with the window shut as protection against the asthma that had plagued him since the age of 9. The isolation took its toll. The writer Leon-Paul Fargue recalled Proust around this time as pale, with hands that seemed frozen. “He looked like a man who no longer lives outdoors or by day, a hermit who hasn’t emerged from his oak tree for a long time,” Fargue wrote.
Writing his 3,200-page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, Proust often slept during the day and worked at night. He once became so absorbed in his writing that he didn’t stop for three days. Another time, he walked to the Louvre to refresh his memory of a painting, only to realize once he got there that it was midnight. When Proust met James Joyce in 1922, the two literary geniuses barely spoke. “Of course the situation was impossible,” Joyce later said. “Proust’s day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.” Proust died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922.