Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

VTR Date: April 11, 2002

Guest: Nasar, Sylvia


HOST: Richard D. Heffner
GUEST: Sylvia Nasar
TITLE: Sylvia Nasar … “A Beautiful Mind”
VTR: 4/11/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is about “A Beautiful Mind”, about the extraordinary book that is journalist’s Sylvia Nasar’s singular achievement; about the extraordinary film it has suggested that is now Ron Howard’s and Russell Crowe’s and their colleagues Academy Award winner. And about the extraordinary mind itself that is Nobel Laureate, John Nash’s.

Now Sylvia Nasar, my guest today has been a writer at Fortune magazine, a columnist at U.S. News and World Report, and, from 1991 to 1999 a reporter at The New York Times. Now she holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Professor Nasar’s brilliantly written, “A Beautiful Mind”, The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate, John Nash, published by Simon and Schuster won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for biography and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

But I want to ask my guest today whether, as a journalist she was really surprised by an incident she described this way not so long ago, “I was invited to a colleague’s class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to talk about ‘A Beautiful Mind’. The class is called ‘Writing About Ideas’. But not a single student asked me about Nash’s Nobel Prize winning work. What they most wanted to hear was tabloid fare and that brought home just how far from reality the discussion about Nash has gone.”

But I want to ask my guest whether this doesn’t more importantly bring home just how far from older and better, from higher standards today’s would-be journalists have come?

Nasar: Well, I thought about …

Heffner: That put you on the spot.

Nasar: That did put me on the spot. I would say that in that episode in which, in which lots of mainstream reporters and reviewers repeated things about someone who is alive, someone who’s vulnerable that they never bothered to check whether they were true. I thought it brought out the worst, but also the best.

Heffner: The best?

Nasar: Well, at the end of the day, journalists like Mike Wallace did tremendous amount of reporting and went on TV and said, “None of this is true. I’ve spent a day and a half with John Nash and his family and all these things are not true.” Now, it’s also the case that a lot of people who never looked at the book, never picked up the telephone, never talked to Nash or anyone who knew him said terrible things about him.

Heffner: Why do you think that was true, by the way?

Nasar: Well, I don’t think it was ever about Nash or about the book, I think it was a, you know, saying that the, the character … you know, the Russell Crowe character that evoked all that admiration, all those tears, that was really a fraud perpetrated by these filmmakers, the real person is no hero at all. I mean it was a way to get at the film. But it was being said by people who knew nothing about Nash. And not only knew nothing, but didn’t feel responsible for finding out what the facts were. And repeated the most scurrilous, nasty things about him without ever even, you know, opening the book.

Heffner: Do you think that this was primarily related to the battle over who was going to win the Best Picture Award in the Academy Awards?

Nasar: I think that, you know, that that’s a reasonable, that’s a reasonable inference, but to me it was never, it was never about whether some low level flack at some studio planted something on Matt Drudge. I mean … yeah, I don’t think that … it wouldn’t have gone anywhere; it wouldn’t have gone anywhere if a lot of, of journalists at, at good publications, at good stations hadn’t repeated these allegations and not even as allegations, as fact.

Heffner: Well, now, you say, you don’t believe it was just that some low level functionary at a studio. How about high level functionaries?

Nasar: What I’m saying is, it doesn’t matter. Okay? It doesn’t matter …

Heffner: The journalists had to pick it up.

Nasar: That’s right. It would have died. Okay? You know, that’s right … it would have died and it would never … it was the fact that it was … that these things were repeated in respected publications that gave it all the aura of truth. So when … and it just, it just came home to me when I went to that class. That, you know, here are people who, who … you know, were studying to become journalists, who, you know … and all they, in a class where, where the subject was ideas … but all that they had heard about John Nash from the media were these scurrilous allegations.

Heffner: I’m sure you found that a great many people could not understand the intricacies of Nash’s contributions however well you presented them and you do present them just beautifully in “A Beautiful Mind.” I mean it’s to me astonishing that anyone could do that. But …

Nasar: Thank you.

Heffner: … isn’t that an indication of the softness of reading habits today? The softness of intellectual exchange? The softness of journalism?

Nasar: Well, now you’re going to reveal me as, as a really Pollyanna and optimist because when I think about, when I think about the book and the movie, what I find extraordinary is that so many people have, have read a book about a mathematician … [laughter] … a book that is not light on ideas. I think that’s a wonderful sign. I, I didn’t know that … I mean it wasn’t my expectation … and certainly when Ron Howard set out to make this movie, no one at Imagine or Universal expected it to be a box office success. I mean they, they felt, just as I felt when I set out to write the book, that writing a book … that making a movie about a mathematician who lived in that rarified world and lived inside his own head … you know, always thinking and that’s what John Nash has spent his life doing … just thinking. That, trying to take that to a mainstream audience was, was just a real stretch. And the fact that people responded, the way they did, I think says great things about, about readers and movie goers.

Heffner: What do you do with the criticism and it is criticism that so many people responded because Ron Howard actually made a film that could have been suggested by your book, but that wasn’t a film that was made out of your book. Is that a … to what degree is that fair or an unfair criticism?

Nasar: Well, I think it’s a fair characterization that, that the film was inspired by the life, inspired by the book, but it’s not a literal re-telling; it’s certainly not a straight “bio-pic” and it fictionalizes the life. However, I would also say that, that it, you know, just as … you know, I’ve told Nash’s story not just in 450 pages, but also in the newspaper article which is how … in The New York Times … which is how this whole thing got started. And the things that, you know … of course lots of the details that are in the book are not, are not in the piece … but it, it emphasized I think what is most compelling about John Nash’s life, and the very things that make it meaningful to people who don’t know much about mathematics or mental illness when they come to it, and that is, the … this extraordinary arch of his life, the genius, the madness, the reawakening. And the extraordinary role played in his reemergence by the woman who loved him and by his friends in the mathematics community. You know … I … what drew me to the story in the first place …

Heffner: That was my question.

Nasar: Okay. When I first heard a rumor that Nash might win a Nobel, what drew me was the following … that there are … I mean … literature …and I was a literature major … literature and theatre are full of stories about meteoric rises followed by tragic falls. Okay. You know there’s Icarus, Oscar Wilde … there are dozens, you know, many, many stories … but there are very, very few stories, much less real lives that have a genuine third act. Okay. And this is what Nash had. Who would … see I didn’t know anything about mental illness. But to me the notion that someone actually recovered … came back from 30 years of paranoid schizophrenia. I didn’t know that was possible. That the idea that he not only survived, but got a Nobel. You know, to me it sounded like, it sounded like a fairy tale. That’s what drew me. And now to hear, to hear that life that I think is so uplifting and inspiring and I hope that’s the way I wrote my, you know, Times story … I hope that’s the way I wrote my book, because that’s how I felt about it. To hear that described as a series of scandals. And you know, a dark and bitter and depressing tale that really was something very different from, from the inspiring one that, you know, people saw in, in the movie. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

Heffner: In your, in your research, and in your writing and in your viewing of the film. Did you come to any conclusions of your own on the connection between genius and madness?

Nasar: Well, yeah, I did. And of course, I thought about it a tremendous amount because the book opens with a scene where Nash has been hospitalized for the first time, against his will … someone comes to see him and this mathematician asks Nash, “how could you (you know, a mathematician) devoted to … how could you believe that these extraterrestrials want you to save the world?” And Nash answers that, “these ideas about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did, so I took them seriously.” Look, full blown schizophrenia affects Nash’s creative powers and intellect. Okay. He was … and in fact, looking back at other artists, other creative geniuses, I could really only identify one … and that is Nijinsky who, who became ill in his early twenties and never danced again. Who fit … you know, was a genius, who also suffered from schizophrenia. However, before Nash got ill he was very, very eccentric. And one of his eccentricities was this tremendous indifference to what other people thought. Another was an extraordinary ability to concentrate on very difficult, high risk problems, problems that no one thought he had a prayer of solving. Okay. And thirdly his, his other striking quality was that he not only didn’t study what other people had done … I mean some of the problems that he solved were … had been tackled by the greatest mathematicians of the last, you know, the past century. He not only didn’t read what they had to say about, about these fields, he made a religion out of never absorbing what someone else … because he wanted to do it his own way. So that, you know that willingness to pursue what looked like bizarre strategies in solving these … that’s, of course, what enabled to crack these big problems.

Heffner: Well, when I first read “A Beautiful Mind” I was thinking of a program that we did here, God help me … back … forty years, no more than that, almost fifty years ago with Lionel Trilling, Nathan Kline, who I used to call the “mad psychiatrist” … a very dear friend … and Isaac Stern and it was about creativity and mental illness. And I, I kept having this feeling that I was living through that again and wondering what conclusions you came to about … not a necessary connection …

Nasar: Yeah.

Heffner: … but about the way in which, as he says, as you say … you begin the book with this notion that he heard these, he saw these figures through the same mental process that made for his genius. And what does it teach us? Or do you conclude here was just … not “just”, but here was an extraordinary many. A beautiful mind, we don’t find many, and it’s the story of that mind of that man and move on to the next subject. Or did you get some sense of a connection between madness and genius.

Nasar: Well, I think that there’s a connection between, between … originality and the willingness to trust … you see … when he’d do … Nash, Nash had great faith in his own intuition. He was an intuitive genius … he saw, he saw the solution long before he understood how to get there. Okay. And he saw solutions in places where no one else, that no one else thought was worth looking about. Yet isn’t that … that people who like that are very difficult socially … [laughter]. They’re not, they don’t … you know, they don’t go along, they don’t please other people, they’re often not that aware of other people’s needs, all these things. But it’s also what makes them so creative; what makes them able to see things that nobody else can see. And every one of Nash’s breakthroughs were very … were things that flew in the face of the sort of received opinion …

Heffner: MmmHmmm.

Nasar: … in that field. Starting with the game theory he, he went up against John von Neumann who was the most powerful, glamorous, the inventor of game theory; someone who, who told Nash right to his face he didn’t think much of his idea. Now this is the idea that eventually got Nash the Nobel and had a huge impact in economics. Okay. But he thumbed his nose at “the great man”. And, and in pure mathematics, he did exactly the same thing. He just went … he went down a road … and it is, it is related to a temperament that was both inward looking, kind of defiant and very indifferent to convention and what other people thought. He wasn’t into pleasing people.

Heffner: And, obviously a personality, or a way of thinking that was very appealing to you.

Nasar: You’re right. Not to mention, not to mention, too, Alicia Nash who fell in love with him [laughter], when he was in his twenties and, and a rising star. Look, how can you … I was enchanted by him. I was enchanted by the idea of him, and then when I got to know him, which, frankly was not until … I mean I talked to him a number of times in the two and a half years I was working on the book. But he did not cooperate on the book. He refused to give me a formal interview … any formal interviews. He was … he wrote me an E-mail when I started out saying, “Dear Mrs. Nasar: I, as a matter of principle, I don’t seek personal publicity. I refuse to be listed in ‘Who’s Who’ and I have decided to take a position of Swiss neutrality towards your project.” However …

Heffner: However …

Nasar: … after the book, after the book appeared, some months after the book appeared he decided to be, to become friends. And it is … he’s is a very extraordinary person. He’s like no one else I’ve ever known. And what makes him so extraordinary is, of course, this, this … first of all complete openness in the sense that he, he says what he thinks. And unbelievable sense of humor, very dry. The, the morning after the Academy Awards I called him up, and said, “Well, how do you feel, how do you feel?” [Laughter] And, of course, he wanted to talk about Russell Crowe and, and the fact that …

Heffner: What did he say?

Nasar: … Well, I’m going to tell you what he said comparing the Oscars and the, and the Nobels. They both involve academies and they both involve a lot of politics.

Heffner: Your description, by the way, of the politics of the award, the Nobel Prize award, really quite fantastic. Enormously revealing. You’re not going to go back to those people again, are you, because you didn’t wait for fifty years. And fifty years is the time …

Nasar: Yeah.

Heffner: … that’s supposed to elapse …

Nasar: Yeah.

Heffner: … before there’s any discussion of what goes on.

Nasar: Right. The whole Nobel process is shrouded in secrecy and I had no idea that there was a story … that Nash … that the prize was almost voted down the morning it was to be announced. I’d no idea … there was one clue … that the call that was made to him came an hour and a half after it was supposed to, at 7:30 instead of 6. And once again … in a way it’s a testament to how people felt about this man. That (a) he got the prize and (b) that I was able to piece together by interviewing a lot of people in the Committee and around.

Heffner: You say “the way they felt about the man” …

Nasar: Yes.

Heffner: Do you mean that or do you mean the way they felt about his ideas? His contributions?

Nasar: Well, I don’t think there was ever much controversy, from the moment that the Committee in Stockholm started thinking about a prize …

Heffner: For game theory.

Nasar: … for game theory, which was back in the mid-eighties, I don’t think there was ever a serious question about Nash’s, that Nash was the seminal figure, who was still living. Von Neumann, of course, is dead. I don’t think there was ever a question about that. And if they were going to give a prize for the part of game theory that’s has such a big influence on economics, there’s no question. The question was always about the man. It was always about whether, whether you could give the highest of scientific honors to someone who … with his history of mental illness. Okay. There were people on the Committee, in the Academy who argued that you can never recover from schizophrenia, you are so transformed by the illness that “this is not the same man who had the ideas.”

Heffner: We have about one minute left, Professor Nasar. And I want to ask you whether you think this is essentially … understanding Nash, understanding what happened to him, is essentially a woman’s prerogative.

Nasar: Well, I think … I think that it has … the book and the movie struck a real chord with women. And I … look I think this has to do with the fact that women, as well as men, but often women are the main caretakers of people who suffer from serious mental illnesses. And for them, this story is both very hopeful, but it’s also very acknowledging. It acknowledges the life-saving role that, that, you know, these people play and, and I think that’s important.

Heffner: Thank you so much, Sylvia Nasar. I hope everyone reads, well the business, let’s say, “You’ve seen the movie, now read the book.”

Nasar: [Laughter]

Heffner: Because the book is a beautiful book … “A Beautiful Mind”. Sylvia Nasar, thank you so much for joining me here on The Open Mind.

Nasar: Thank you, Dick, it was lovely.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.