The Child Prodigies Who Became 20th-Century Celebrities- page 3 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
The early 20th-century obsession with child prodigies was well documenting in tabloid newspapers, turning the kids into national celebrities. (Courtesy of the author)

The Child Prodigies Who Became 20th-Century Celebrities

Every generation produces kid geniuses, but in the early 1900s, the public was obsessed with them

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In the late ’30s, however, Benson’s life appeared to take a radical turn, literally: She returned to her native Texas as Communist organizer. When her group tried to hold a rally at San Antonio’s municipal auditorium, the result was a riot by a reported 5,000 anti-Communist Texans. 

Benson next headed to Los Angeles, where she continued her organizing work in the movie industry. But by the late 1950s, she’d grown disenchanted with Communism, finally breaking with the party in 1968, according to her son, Morgan Spector. She then earned a law degree, taught real property courses and practiced as a labor lawyer. She died in 1994, at age 80, an event that seems to have gone unnoticed by the media that once followed her every move.

Nathalia Crane, Precocious Poet 

Nicknamed the “Baby Browning of Brooklyn,” Nathalia Crane, born in 1913, was a nationally known poet by age 10, acclaimed for such works as “Romance,” later retitled “The Janitor’s Boy,” a girlish fantasy about escaping to a desert isle with the red-haired title character from her apartment house. Crane, her poems, and even the ordinary, real-life boy who inspired her poetic effusions were celebrated in newspapers from coast to coast. 

Nunnally Johnson, later to make his name as a screenwriter and director, observed the spectacle as a young reporter. “Camera men and moving picture photographers shuffled through the apartment-house court to Nathalia’s door,” he wrote. “She was asked imbecile questions: her opinions on love, on bobbed hair, on what she wanted to be when she grew up.” 

It wasn’t long, however, before Crane’s unusual way with words had raised suspicions that she might be a fraud. Conspiracy theorists tried to attribute her poems to everyone from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Crane’s own father, a newspaperman who had demonstrated no particular gift for poetry. Eventually the doubts subsided, and by the end of her teens, Crane’s credits included at least six books of poetry and two novels.

Crane would publish little from the 1930s until her death in 1998. Instead, she went to college and took a series of teaching jobs, ending her career at San Diego State University.

Aside from a brief brush with controversy as a supporter of the Irish Republican Army, Crane rarely stood out in her later years, according to Kathie Pitman, who is working on her biography. “She seems to have been a very quiet, very diffident person, certainly not larger than life,” Pitman says. “It may be that she just tired of all the emphasis that was put on her as a prodigy.”

Though Crane’s work is largely forgotten, it enjoyed a recent revival when Natalie Merchant set “The Janitor’s Boy” to music for her 2010 album, Leave Your Sleep.

Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., the Wonder Girl

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