In early 1950s television, Richard Carlson starred in “I Led Three Lives.” Each episode started with a dramatic voiceover: “This is the fantastically true story of the Herbert A. Philbrick, who for nine frightening years did lead three lives—average citizen, member of the Communist Party and counterspy for the FBI.”
I always thought if we could count “average citizen” as one of our lives, we all could claim at least two—average citizen and housewife, or average citizen and pipe fitter, for instance.
It may be a stretch to call celebrities average citizens, but if we do, several from past and present have led three lives, just like Herbert A. Philbrick. Take Dorothy Rodgers, wife of composer Richard Rodgers, who always fought being summarized as “wife and mother.” She wrote books on home decorating and invented a toilet cleaning “jonny mop,” which she sold to Johnson and Johnson. Jamie Leigh Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, and a movie star in her own right, holds the patent on a disposable diaper that comes with a moistened baby wipe attached. New Yorker writer Ian Frazier often writes about fishing but his patent is for a different kind of pole—one that removes debris stuck in trees.
Ever yearn to write, but say you haven’t the time? Draw inspiration from Edward Streeter. Streeter retired from his 37-year banking career in 1956, a couple of years after his novel, Mr. Hobbs’ Vacation, hit the bookstores. Later it was transformed into a hit movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara.
But Streeter already knew about Hollywood. You see, back in the 40s, he wrote Father of the Bride, despite his daily commute to New York’s Fifth Avenue Bank.
Anyone with more LPs than CDs remembers the choral harmony of Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. Waring played in orchestras to put himself through Penn State where he studied architectural engineering, not music. His engineering knowledge stood him in good stead as he helped work out the kinks in another inventor’s basic blender design. Voila! The Waring Blender was born.
Hedy Lamarr shocked European movie-goers by skinny dipping in the 1933 Austrian-Czech film, Ecstasy. In Hollywood she is remembered as much for turning down what became Ingrid Bergman roles in Gaslight and Casablanca as she is for starring in such pictures as Samson and Delilah and The Strange Woman.
But the woman Louis B. Mayer once called “the most beautiful girl in the world” was not just another pretty face.
Back in 1942, Lamarr shared a patent for a “secret communication system” that was designed as a guidance device for US torpedoes. The invention, based on “frequency hopping” was so far ahead of its time, that the military couldn’t use it until the 1960s. In today’s digital age, it helps keep cellphone calls secure.
Even ardent baseball fans may have trouble recalling journeyman catcher Moe Berg. A defensive specialist, Berg got in just 662 big league games during 15 seasons in the 1920s and 30s. Berg’s I.Q. might have been higher than his batting average. He graduated from Princeton with honors, then earned a law degree from Columbia while playing big league ball.
Players used to joke, “Moe Berg can speak seven languages but he can’t hit in any of them.” One of those languages was Japanese, which might explain how a ballplayer who hit only three homeruns in his first ten seasons got selected, along with bona fide stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, for a 1934 traveling all-star team that visited Japan. Berg charmed his hosts into letting him take home movies from the top of Tokyo’s tallest building, movies some say were used to plan Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo bombing raid.
Once America entered World War II, Berg’s fluent German led to missions for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to today’s CIA. One of his greatest spy triumphs was discovering that Nazi Germany’s nuclear research lagged behind the American atomic efforts.
In any language Moe Berg would have made Herbert A. Philbrick proud.
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