A Genius, Derailed


American television in the 1950’s was greatly different from our current era. There were sitcoms such as The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy,  westerns such as Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel, and variety shows such as the Colgate Comedy Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show.

But no format was as successful as game shows. Shows such as The $64,000 Answer were wildly popular, and propelled Dr. Joyce Brothers to fame. Other shows included Dotto, and the now infamous 21, scandalized because it was eventually determined winning contestant Charles Van Doren had been given the answers in advance.

Another game show hosted by longtime 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace was The Big Surprise, which produced its own celebrity, he being the ten year-old child prodigy, Leonard Ross.

Ross, the boy genius, won a $100,000 dollars on the show and matched Dr. Brothers’ earnings on The $64,000 Answer.  His grand total would be equal to about 1.5 million today. Impressive for anyone with only a decade under their belt.

Unlike Van Doren, who’d been coached, Ross was the real deal, with more random information in his attic than a fleet of Ph.D’s. Three years after his game show conquest, he astounded young men three and four years older than he while riding on a train in California. The older students, none of them lacking in book knowledge, pitched chemical formulas to the boy genius, who solved them in mere seconds, using only the computer in his skull.

The following year, Lenny Ross enrolled in college, graduating at age 18, whereupon he enrolled in Yale Law School. He graduated from Yale at age 21, and was a professor at the Columbia School of Law by age 24.  The genius was unlimited. He taught at Harvard, then took a position in the administrations of California governor Edmund G. Brown, then President Jimmy Carter.

Then the wheels began to slowly fall off the train.

While at Columbia, Ross began to battle depression and a short attention span. A textbook neurotic, Ross was brilliant enough to diagnose his own condition, but helpless for a cure.  “It’s like standing in front of a great painting that melts in front of your eyes,” said Michael Levine, a teacher at the University of Southern California. ”It was a ‘Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad’ kind of thing,”  added Levine, who attended both Reed College and Yale Law with Ross.

Ross had a bevy of impressive connections in business, academia and government, but his search for a cure for his unique condition proved futile. Ross lived on another level, and found it difficult to complete sentences, as his mind would race to the next idea. He could not complete projects, and failed to finish his doctoral dissertation. He flailed at masking his condition with abstract humor, but his behavior became increasingly erratic and manic. He was a sloppy dresser, and let his apartment fall into disarray, letting his plants wither and die.

A compulsive binge eater and dieter, Ross had no patience when it came to defrosting frozen food, and would eat peas and bagels out of the freezer, unable to deal with the time it took for them to thaw.

His bewildered students could not keep up with their professor, who lectured over their heads, and his writings were completed only with help from collaborators, as Ross could not complete any project he began. As his depression deepened, Ross stood in front of one classroom completely mute for a half hour, until his students began trickling out the door.

Upset over a failed romance, Ross attempted suicide by slitting his throat with a broken bottle. He was hospitalized and medicated, ultimately opting for brain surgery which proved futile.

The man with the mind of a genius finally rationalized there was but one cure for his condition, and at the age of 39, Lenny Ross went to the Capri Motel in Santa Clara, California, removed his shoes, climbed over a fence surrounding the pool, and jumped in the water.

He could not swim.

The story of Lenny Ross is tragic and sad, and I’m unsure of any lesson to be gleaned from it. But if anything, his life reminds me of the old fable of the tortoise and the hare.

I had an aunt who always followed the old rule of “stick to your knitting.” Her knitting, if she was not out working in a field, was quite literally, knitting. Well, perhaps not knitting, but quilting. She did this one thing, and she did it quite well, and she lived to a ripe old age with her sanity intact.

Lenny Ross’ story is one of an incredibly gifted human who ultimately battled what may have been some sort of chemical imbalance. Not many can relate to his condition.

The only lesson I can learn from his pitiful story is that if you’re a mechanic, keep working on cars. If you’re a gardener, keep planting tomatoes.

Stick to your knitting.

© Copyright 2017 Tim Holcombe





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