Most Unhappy

The accused killer of a security guard in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, James W. von Brunn, followed a trajectory sadly common on the racist and terrorist fringe: good family, education at top schools, promising beginnings in the arts, science, or engineering  -- and a puzzling slide into infamy. Think American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell (Brown), the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski (Harvard, Michigan), the Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta (Cairo, Technical U. Hamburg), and the physicist turned neo-Nazi publisher  and novelist William Pierce (Rice, Colorado, fast-track tenure at Oregon).  (Gary Weiss seems to have scooped the Times on von Brunn's wedding announcement in its own electronic archive.)

Von Brunn's first marriage had a further, bizarre, twist; in 1951, while still a promising young advertising man at a top New York agency, he had illustrated a reprint (edited by his English-born father-in-law, a writer also on Madison Avenue) of a sporting book by "Frank Forester." Title: Upland Shooting. Forester was the pseudonym of Henry William Herbert (1807-1858), an exiled, eccentric early nineteenth-century English aristocrat now considered the founder of American sports writing.

Herbert's suicidal rage in his decline was directed only against himself, but (as von Brunn probably did) he originally hoped to make his own death a spectacle, sending invitations to his chosen spot, a New York hotel. According to an article by Brad Parks in the Newark Star-Ledger, he is buried in a Newark cemetery with an epitaph of his own choosing: "Infelicissimus." ("Most unhappy")

Herbert and von Brunn had something else in common, according to a number of sources about each: violent outbursts linked to drinking.  (Jeffrey Goldberg points to this revealing look at von Brunn's past in the New York Daily News.) One clue to von Brunn's fatal choices occurs in Joshua Wolf Schenk's "What Makes Us Happy" in the June Atlantic, about the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has been studying the long-term sources of life satisfaction for decades:

Again and again, Vaillant has returned to his major preoccupations. One is alcoholism, which he found is probably the horse, and not the cart, of pathology. "People often say, 'That poor man. His wife left him and he's taken to drink,'" Vaillant says. "But when you look closely, you see that he's begun to drink, and that has helped drive his wife away."

 


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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