Separating Genius

I was intrigued watching the video interview on Huffington Post Live in which Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Marnie,” speaks of her complex relationship with the legendary director, which, when asked, she characterizes as “abusive.”

She clarifies that it is sad the relationship went the way it did, as he was a brilliant director and she loved working with him.

Known for masterpieces of film that span five decades, Sir Alfred Hitchcock fell for his signature icy blond stars, notably Grace Kelly and obsessively, Tippi Hedren, who was a divorced single mother at the time.

Ms. Hedren speaks of Hitchcock’s harassment – and ultimately, his threat to ruin her career which she says he in fact accomplished. Yet Ms. Hedren is able to “separate the two” – referring to Hitchcock, “the artist,” versus the man with a “dark side.”

As she expresses her admiration for his creative genius, I nonetheless find her position remarkable. I’m not sure I possess the capacity to so easily isolate work product from the individual who produces it; what you create from who you are.

Ms. Hedren’s disclosures follow the October airing of HBO’s “The Girl,” which explores her unsettling relationship with the renowned filmmaker. As the New York Times sums the situation up:

When she spurned his advances, he made her life a living hell on the set and behind the scenes.

The Life of the Artist

Ms. Hedren may, in retrospect, be able to separate the life of the artist from his darker side. I doubt I would be as generous or forgiving.

I have only one explicit example in my own life, which did not touch me in so personal a way. When reading and viewing the Huff Post piece, I recalled an instance when I was actively collecting art, when the life of the artist was an impossible obstacle for me to overcome.

At the time, I was considering an elegant work on paper by sculptor, Louise Nevelson. While she is best known for her “feminist” mid-century (and later) assemblages, I was drawn to the exquisite lines of her early imagery. The object of my desire dated to the late 1920s or early 30s, to the best of my recollection.

Like many collectors, the hunt is part of the pleasure; with a modest budget and a love of research, I generally took my time before any significant acquisition. When reading a detailed biography of Ms. Nevelson’s life, I was disturbed by her less than exemplary parenting. And I couldn’t get past it. At the time, my own boys were very young, and I could not reconcile the sensual image I wanted in my home to the reality of the mother described by her biographer.

I passed on the purchase. And I never regretted it.

Morality Bottom Line

As a mother, I realize that I am hyper-sensitive to anyone who abandons a child, harms a child, or neglects a child – physically or psychologically. These are my values.

This is my “morality bottom line.”

Am I likely to stop watching Hitchcock movies as a result of his aggressive and vindictive actions?


But I will say that I no longer watch Mel Gibson in anything, and that’s true of several celebrities whose private lives, once splashed across the media, crossed a line – for me.

I realize that the “casting couch” and sexual coercion were all too prevalent in sixties Hollywood, and for all I know, that remains the case. As to Ms. Hedren, I am admiring (and dumbfounded) by her ability to separate the man from the work. Perhaps the fact that years have passed and she can now publicly recount her story enable her to be so measured.

I wonder how many of us successfully separate the work from the man, or the work from the woman. My thoughts turn immediately to Jerry Sandusky, those who looked aside for years, with no action taken.

We all make moral choices. We all make compromises in order to provide for our families or simply to survive. And we all have a “morality bottom line.” At least I hope so.

Yet how can we separate the genius from the darker side? Does it depend on what that darker side consists of? If the “genius” inflicts harm on himself? Whether it affects us directly? Whether or not it crosses our “personal” morality bottom line?

How many make excuses for the “genius,” the “great artist,” the “brilliant leader” – so we can continue to consume or capitalize on what they have to offer?

Image of Alfred Hitchcock, Wiki, Public Domain; click to access original.

Image of Tippi Hedren, Wiki, Public Domain; click to access original.

© D. A. Wolf



  1. Very interesting. I remember when Woody Allen’s affair with his step-daughter came to light — it totally put me off his films for a number of years. It wasn’t until “Match Point” that I was able to resume watching his movies. And I’ve watched every one since — and rewatched many of my favourites. So despite still feeling that his actions were morally reprehensible, the stigma has worn off a bit for me.

    I’ve also always been a huge fan of Roman Polanski’s work — Chinatown and The Tenant being two of my all-time favourite films — even though I know he raped a minor.

    I could understand someone choosing not to watch Polanski’s or Allen’s work based on their actions. However, to not be able to recognize the importance of their work as artists despite their actions as human beings, is something different altogether. I don’t think either Tippi with Hitchcock or you with Nevelson have done that.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      So glad you joined the conversation, Louise. Those are wonderful observations and examples – both Allen and Polanski. It’s a fine line but an important distinction – recognizing the importance of the work, as separate from the behaviors of the human being.

      While I thought of Sandusky – reprehensible hardly seems sufficient, and nor does “genius” apply – I was thinking about how people look the other way even when they’re aware that unacceptable behavior is taking place – destructive to others or self-destructive.

      As to the Nevelson piece, perhaps the fact that artworks are much like “family” to me, and the stories of their makers something I cherish, this may be in part the reason that I did not want her drawing among my “friends.” I wonder if I would feel the same now…

      So many directions to take this discussion. Very glad you stopped by, and I hope you will again.

  2. I think that’s one of the deciding factors: if the artist is alive and profiting (still). We know many artists and musicians were not “nice people”, but do we avoid Picasso’s paintings because of the way he treated women? We may not purchase a Picasso, but we still go see the art in museums. Woody Allen is still alive, ditto Mel Gibson. Not seeing their films deprives them of profit, so you are – in a way – making a statement about their lives when you don’t go. Not seeing a Hitchcock film today, however, is making less of a statement because he’s no longer alive. That’s how I decide, anyway.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Excellent points, Lazygal! Interesting that you also thought of Woody Allen, as did Louise…

      Happy you stopped by to share your thoughts.

  3. There has recently been a big thing about Jimmy Saville, a radio and TV personality here in Britain. The BBC, his employer, has been placed in a bad light as well as quite a few charitable institutions with which Saville had links. He targeted under-aged girls in much the same way as the Penn State Coach did, under the guise of fundraising. Why this would cause a mental institution to give him the keys to their doors, I’m not sure, but they did; he even had his own bedroom in them. Very convenient. Saville is dead. He was never outed when alive. The few girls who complained were psychiatric patients with no hope of being believed. This guy wasn’t a genius by any means, but apparently good at what he did, according to his ratings. The thing is, he always seemed to be a creepy kind of guy and why he was popular is beyond me. Also, I know that the way sex and underage activities were viewed in the 60s and 70s is different to how it is seen now; a lot more care is provided for vulnerable adults as well as those underage. It was reading how Penn State people covered for Sandusky that made me think of the heat BBC has been feeling lately…and rightly so, given the hundreds of complaints received. Instead of the OBE and KCSG, Saville may turn out to have earned the BMPSO (Britain’s Most Prolific Sex Offender).

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      I did read something about that, Shelley. Why is it that children and women are still disbelieved in these scenarios?

  4. One of the most intriguing pieces I’ve read on this topic is a short essay by critic Deems Taylor that’s become a classic, “The Monster.” The distance of over a century tends to blur the outrages of a daily life and the pain caused individuals just like ourselves. I won’t be a spoiler, so I’ll leave it for any who want to read this to see who “the monster” was.

    There’s also an excellent essay that is the grounding piece in a book of essays by Edmund Wilson, “The Wound and the Bow,” which suggests that genius/creativity/art spring from wounds suffered by the artists earlier in their lives. Those wounds can result in individuals who are not only extraordinarily creative, but also broken in some way … people who are difficult for others to be with and endure.

    Such food for thought in your blog BigLittleWolf, as always. In a sense, we are the beneficiaries, our lives enriched, by these “monsters.” Does that make us complicit? Is that the price of art? I want to believe that art can and does come from better places.

  5. Dearest D

    Actually we have stopped engaging in certain people’s cultural output when we learn more about their appalling treatment of others as we believe that their whole being comes through – is transmitted -through their work. And, like you, we make decisions based on the whole story. And we seek out beautiful and glorious backstories that intrigue us and give a rich depth to a new (usually writer or photographer, for us) Find.

    It is sybille bedford’s life that drew us in to relish the words we already loved, for instance. Or eve Arnold and lillian bassman (the latter we met a year before she passed on) and their stories that enriched their images that give us such pleasure.

    Lovely post!

    Lots to think about……

    Waving from nyc.

    tg xx

  6. This is such an interesting topic. I always enjoy a little philosophical discussion about artistic and moral issues. I have wrestled with this from time to time, and I must say that I sometimes overlook the “evil” in favor of the art, and sometimes I don’t.

    The Girl is a disturbing portrait of Hitchcock. I don’t know if I could be as gracious as Tippi Hedren.

    Great post D!

  7. Yes, fascinating topic. I thought often of this, when Bill Clinton was in office…

    To answer your question at the end of your post, years and years ago I worked at a very influential, prestigious university, in their faculty affairs office, under the dean who dealt with faculty sexual harassment issues….it was early in my career, and my first lesson that genius trumps morality. Star and prize winning professors got away with a lot.

    Reading your post, I realize that I, too, would drift away from a genius if s/he crosses my morality bottom line. Like you, that bottom line would be child abuse and cruelty in any form. Actually, abuse against anyone, not just children. The thing is, I don’t know enough of these public figures’ private lives to walk away (unless the information was prevalent public knowledge).

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