Sunday, April 27, 2014


Writers tend to be creatures of habit. I know that because I’m a writer, and I have some pretty entrenched habits. Writers can also be unconventional. I know that for the same reason. Combine the two—a preference for both the usual and the unusual—and you begin to understand why a good many writers (of song, screen and celebrated literature) are known for somewhat eccentric accessories. Here are 21 of the most iconic:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien’s pipe

Tolkien loved, loved, loved his pipe. Think of the images you’ve seen of the man, and there’s probably a pipe in the picture. Think of the images you’ve seen of his works on the big screen, and there may be a long curvaceous pipe in the picture too (remember Gandalf and Bilbo blowing smoke rings?). Middle-Earth lore talks of “pipe-weed” (also known as halflings’ leaf) being a plant developed by the hobbits of the Shire.  Indeed, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are brimming with pipe-smoking scenes—some rather curious, making one wonder what exactly they’re smoking. Here’s one passage from The Hobbit:

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely.”

2. Mark Twain’s cigars

When Cigar Aficionado magazine decided to list its “Top 100 Cigar Smokers of the Twentieth Century,” several authors made the list, including Rudyard Kipling (#22), W. Somerset Maugham (#61), Ernest Hemingway (#85) and John Grisham (#100). But ol’ Samuel Clemens was #5, behind only Winston Churchill, JFK, Fidel Castro, and George Burns. It was said that he smoked two or three dozen cigars a day. He once wrote an essay about it—“Concerning Tobacco” was the title. But he said, “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.”

3. James Joyce’s eye patch

Before “the Governor” from “The Walking Dead,” before Snake Plissken, before Sammy Davis Jr. and John Ford, there was James Joyce. Many folks thought it was simply an affectation, but the author of Ulysses had nearly a dozen operations to save his eyesight, and he wore a black patch over his left eye to preserve what little vision he had left in it. The irony (perhaps) is this: Episode 12 of his epic novel was called “The Cyclops.”

4. Oscar Wilde’s flower lapel

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was big on the boutonniere. In “Love and Kisses: Ambrose Bierce and Oscar Wilde,” writer Don Swaim imagined this encounter between the two:

“A colorful flower in your buttonhole, Mr. Wilde.”
“A well-made buttonhole is the only link between art and nature, sir.”
Bierce said, “I observe the nature, but I’m unsure about the art.”
“I believe that one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
“And which describes you?”

5. Tom Wolfe’s white suits

Wolfe bought his first white suit in 1962, planning it as a summer outfit. But the one he bought was too heavy for summer, so he wore it in the winter, which garnered some attention. Tom Wolfe likes attention. It has been his public uniform ever since, the affectation being complete when he adds the white hat, white tie and two-tone shoes. Here’s what the author of The Right Stuff, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Bonfire of the Vanities told NPR: “When I first started out in journalism, I used to try and fit in… I was depriving myself of the ability of some very obvious questions if I fit in… After that, I gave it up. I would turn up always in a suit and just be the village information gatherer.”

6. Johnny Cash’s black clothing

In dramatic contrast to the loud, rhinestone-adorned suits worn by many country acts of the day, by the 1970s Johnny Cash was the “Man in Black,” often wearing a long black knee-length coat over dark clothing. He said he did it for the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the dead soldiers. In fact, in 1971 he wrote a song by that name to explain:

We’re doing might fine I do suppose
In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a man in black.

Later, he said, “I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

7. Norman Lear’s white hat

“I was spending 18 hours a day writing,” said the creator of critically acclaimed and award-winning television classics “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son,” and “One Day At A Time.” He added, “I was scratching my head so much I actually got a scab and my wife got tired of looking at it. So one day she threw a little white hat on my head, which she picked up somewhere, and I’ve worn it ever since.”

8. Louis L’Amour’s cowboy hat

You can try, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a photo of Louis Dearborn LaMoore (his birth name) in which he isn’t wearing a cowboy hat. His Western novels (he called them “frontier stories”) are mostly still in print—scores of them, from The First Fast Draw to Last of the Breed—and have sold more than 320 million copies. Just before his death at age 80 in 1988, he told an interviewer, “I’m just becoming a good writer. Just now.”

9. Willie Nelson’s bandana

All you really need to do is go to YouTube and find “Willie Nelson throws bandana into audience!” Apparently it became a concert staple. Or visit to check out the award-winning cake depicting a bust of ol’ Willie, complete with red bandana. Or visit the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and pay homage to his sneakers and blue bandana. Although he didn’t adopt his signature look until the 1975 album “Red Headed Stranger,” the country bard and the bandana now seem inseparable.

10. Marcel Proust’s velveteen gloves

The early 20th century French novelist and essayist, one of the first European novelists to feature homosexuality at length in his writings, spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his cork-lined bedchamber, sleeping during the day, writing at night. But he was said to be so fond of his velveteen gloves that he frequently wore them to bed. On the other hand…

11. Michael Jackson’s white glove

Yes, Jackson was a writer, too. And sure there’s the whole short-pants-with-sparkly-socks ensemble. But it was that single glove (which, by the way, moved from his left hand to his right) that emerged as the MJ icon. It first appeared on that day in 1983 when he unveiled his moonwalk. At the time, it was merely a store-bought glove refashioned with some rhinestone mesh. But soon it became an uber-accessory—each glove covered in 1,200 hand-sewn crystals and requiring about 10 days of work by specialty artistic beaders. By the time a party was thrown in the singer’s honor for the Grammy Awards a few years later, each of the 1,500 invitations was printed on white gloves.

12. Walt Whitman’s walking stick

Just like Whitman is described as a transitional figure from transcendentalism to realism, his use of a simple walking stick seems to have started out as a bit of a fashion accessory, then became a means of exploring his world (“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road…”), and finally allowed him to hobble about in his later years. The Library of Congress is in possession of one of his walking sticks. A gift from his naturalist friend John Burroughs, it was made of a calamus root—“Calamus” being the name of a cluster of poems in Leaves of Grass.

13. John Lennon’s round glasses

Lennon and McCartney were the ultimate songwriting duo, but only Lennon turned eyewear into an icon. How iconic? Well, his frames fetched $2 million at auction. Or there’s this: In 2013 Yoko Ono weighed in on the issue of gun control by tweeting (on the 44th anniversary of the couple’s marriage), “Over 1,057,000 people have been killed by guns in the USA since John Lennon was shot and killed on 8 Dec 1980.” Her words were accompanied by a picture that said it all—a photo of her husband’s blood-spattered eyeglasses.

14. Roy Orbison’s prescription sunglasses

Here’s how Orbison’s wife, Barbara, explained the origins in an interview: “He got on a plane to go play with The Beatles… And he left his regular glasses on the plane because it was a bright, sunny day… It was the first show that The Beatles ever played in London... So he said ‘Well, I have to wear the sunglasses.’ And then when the pictures came back the next morning he just looked at it, and that’s when Roy was really great, because he just immediately knew what was good. And he looked at it and he said ‘That’s it. I’m going to keep it like that.’”

15. Elton John’s crazy glasses

Some have estimated that the singer-songwriter has owned 20,000 pairs of goofy glasses—outrageous glasses, oversized glasses, tinted glasses of every color, glasses with flashing lights and sun visors and screen wipers. In 2010, John himself estimated the number at more like 250,000. “I don’t have an iPod or a mobile phone or a computer,” he told BBC Radio. “I do have a quarter of a million pairs of glasses.” Put it this way: Someone wrote a play that ran in London’s West End about John’s favorite football team. The title: “Elton John’s Glasses.”

16. Hunter S. Thompson’s aviator sunglasses

As Rebecca Adams wrote in honor of the gonzo journalist’s birthday on July 18, 2013, “Many famous people have popularized aviator sunglasses, but none as cool and nonchalant as Hunter S. Thompson. No doubt, the late journalist had no intentions of becoming a fashion plate, but we can't help but get inspired by his commitment to those shades. While he varied his hat collection with cowboy and bucket styles, aviators seemed to be a constant on all of his journeys, whether he was living with Hell's Angels, running for sheriff or taking off on the infamous road trip that inspired Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

17. Marianne Moore’s tricorn hat and black cape

As affectations go, this was a weird one. The American Modernist poet, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, eventually became nearly as famous for her trademark garb—tricorn hat and black cape—which cemented her reputation as an eccentric and made her look, as one reviewer noted, “as if she’d just emerged from a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution.” She wore it on the cover of Esquire magazine. She wore it while signing autographs with Muhammad Ali (Moore wrote the liner notes for his spoken word album). She even wore it while throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.

18. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Brooks Brothers suits

Not only did Fitzgerald mention Brooks Brothers numerous times in his writings, he represented the clothier well. On a website called “Off The Cuff,” an extended profiles of Brooks Brothers included this factoid: "Though previously worn for sporting purposes, the soft collared button-down shirt was resurgent in the ‘20s, now paired with more formal dress. One of the first celebrities to regularly sport this subversively stylish garment was no less than legendary Jazz Age writer F. Scott Fitzgerald… One only needs to read the heady, detailed and lovingly crafted descriptions of the character’s wardrobes in The Great Gatsby to grasp Brook’s influence on American style and lifestyle."

19. John Steinbeck’s French poodle

Sure, plenty of authors love their dogs. Edith Wharton, for one, really loved her dogs. But Steinbeck immortalized his in Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s mid-life (or so he thought) excursion around America, for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Charley was a standard poodle, born and raised outside of Paris, named Charles le Chien. According to Steinbeck, he knew “a little poodle-English,” but responded “only to commands in French.” The author called the poodle his ambassador, admitting that he served as a great conversation-starter during their 34-state jaunt in the fall of 1960. The dog died in 1961. The author died seven years later. But they are forever entwined together as a symbol of a dog who accompanied his pal everywhere. Which makes it all the more odd that there’s a business establishment in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California, called Steinbeckland Kennels.

20. Ernest Hemingway’s cats

Papa Hemingway (as he called himself, starting in his twenties) was a hunter, a boxer, a bully, an alcoholic… and a cat lover? “The Huffington Post” posted an article about it, which stated, “The manliest man ever to hit the literary scene had a soft spot in his heart for felines.” A woman named Carlene Fredericka Brennen wrote a book called Ernest Hemingway’s Cats. There are numerous pictures of the man looking adoringly at the various cats that roamed his Key West estate, including a six-toed white cat named Snowball, supposedly given to him by a ship’s captain. Today, if you visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, you’ll find 40 to 50 cats roaming the grounds, many of whom are six-toed descendants of Snowball.

21. Dolly Parton’s blonde wig

Dolly Parton is a serious songwriter (including, by the way, “I Will Always Love You”), who is not always serious about her look. “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” she’s fond of saying. Ted Miller has served as Dolly Parton’s manager for many years. Never once has he seen her without her trademark wig and makeup. “She may sleep in it,” he has surmised. In fact, Parton has joked that she would never step outside without her fake hair “unless my husband is dying of a heart attack, and even then I would think about it.” But she also says this: “Part of the magic is that I look so totally artificial but I am so totally real… I hope people see the brain beneath the wig and the heart beneath the boobs.”


  1. Wow. I have always loved Johnny Cash but didn't know this. I love those lyrics! His rendition of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails on his last album was beautiful. He was clearly very connected to sorrow.

  2. Tessa, I wonder how he would have looked in Marianne Moore's tricorn hat.

  3. I might have enjoyed studying Proust more if I'd known about those gloves.

  4. I might have enjoyed studying Proust more if I'd known about those gloves.