John Nash was a mathematical legend. His theories and lifelong work had a profound effect on world economics, but he harbored dark and terrible demons. In 2001, Hollywood capitalized on John’s story, releasing A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe. The film was an Oscar-winning success – but who really was the tortured genius? How much was truth and how much was just Hollywood glamour?
Join us as we delve deeper into the life of a man hounded by mental illness and plagued by his exceptional abilities.
Born and Raised in West Virginia
John Nash was born in 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia. His parents, John Forbes Nash and his mother, Margaret Martin came from humble roots. His father worked as an electric engineer for Appalachian Electric Power Company, while Margaret gave up her position as a school teacher to get married and care for her children. John was raised in a religious household, and both him and his younger sister Martha were baptized into the Episcopal Church. It wouldn’t be long before his love of learning would flourish, alerting his parents to his agile mind and capabilities.
Traditional Schooling Isn’t Enough
Margaret and John Sr. quickly noted that their son wasn’t being challenged enough in school. Taking every opportunity to supplement his learning, they provided John with extra books. By the time he was finishing high school, they had arranged for him to participate in advanced mathematics courses at a local community college. His push for excellency landed him a place at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. While his parents couldn’t afford the tuition, he won a full scholarship through the George Washington Scholarship. John’s hard work was paying off, but his eccentric attitude was causing problems.
Few Friends and a Love of Pranks
During his time at community college, John had gained a reputation for being an oddball. He had an avid love of science as well as an interest in math, but it was chemistry that he pursued the most – especially making explosives, which led to the accidental death of one of his classmates. According to biographers, John spent a lot of his time creating spiteful caricatures of students he didn’t like, as well as torturing small animals. This beautiful mind had a mean streak – it wouldn’t be until years later that a reason for it would be found.
Chemistry to Mathematics
Unbeknownst to some, John didn’t start out wanting to study mathematics. Initially, he selected chemical engineering as his major, then switched to chemistry. It wasn’t until his teacher, John Lighton Synge suggested that his talents may be better suited to mathematics that he changed his mind. In 1948 at just 19-years-old, the hardworking scholar graduated with a B.S and an M.S in mathematics, but his education didn’t stop there. Two prestigious universities were vying to get the exceptional young man on board, but who would he choose?
“He is a Mathematical Genius.”
During his time at Carnegie, John had become a legend among faculty and students alike. His sharp mind was unmatched. It was no wonder then that two of the best Ivy League Colleges wanted him – Princeton and Harvard – and both were offering a free ride. John would choose Princeton when the head of the mathematics department offered him the John S. Kennedy fellowship, convinced that he would be more valued there. His former adviser and professor at Carnegie penned a strong letter of recommendation to Princeton, simply stating, “He is a mathematical genius.”
Ph.D and the Nash Equilibrium
By the time John was 20 in 1950, he had achieved his Ph.D. He did so by completing a 28-page dissertation on non-cooperative games. The work detailed complicated properties of game theory, called the Nash equilibrium. In the movie, you see John agonizing over finding his ‘original idea’, spurred on by the worry he would never find it and the intense competition from Martin Hansen. This rivalry was accurate. His work on this subject would be a defining thread throughout his career and he would go on to publish several papers on the subject. While everything in his work life was coming up roses, his personal life was not a simple equation.
MIT and Eleanor Stier
John was offered a place on the faculty at MIT in 1951, a position he gladly took. His college days had been plagued by isolation – his strange behavior and tendency to throw childish tantrums caused him to be frequently teased by his peers. He met nurse Eleanor Steir not long after, who was seven years his senior. The pair quickly struck up a romantic relationship, and Steir soon discovered she was pregnant. John was unwilling to marry her as he thought her social status was beneath him, and left her to have the child, a son, alone. This part of John’s life was controversially left out of the movie.
Homosexual Tendencies and Indecent Exposure Arrest
During his time at college, John was well known for exhibiting homosexual tendencies – something that was still illegal at that time. He would climb into bed with other male students, who would then bully him. As a method of defense, he would often end up doing their homework. In 1954, he was caught up in a sting operation targeting homosexual men in Santa Monica and arrested for indecent exposure. The charges were later dropped, but it came at a cost. He was fired from a position as a consultant with the U.S Army and stripped of his top-secret security clearance – another fact Hollywood omitted.
Marriage to Alicia Larde Lopez-Harrison
While the movie may have you believe that John was a lovable eccentric, the reality was somewhat different. He treated Steir and his son terribly, refusing to give his firstborn his surname. Not long after, he met Alicia Larde. He was her teacher (something the movie did get right), however, their relationship didn’t begin until Alicia graduated university with a degree in physics. She had high hopes of becoming the next Madame Curie. Little did she know, her life would be dedicated to John.
A Beautiful Mind Unravels
John’s eccentric behavior soon took a turn for the worse when his wife started noticing his acute paranoia. Not long after their marriage, while Nash was still a young man, he began having delusions. While the movie centers on his relationship with three imaginary characters – a military defense agent, a fictional roommate and his niece – that wasn’t strictly the case. John did believe there was a communist conspiracy and mailed letters to the government warning them, but these characters were created purely for the film.
First Steps to Disaster
Friends first noticed his deteriorating state when he appeared at a New Year’s Eve party dressed solely in a nappy and a sash. He spent the rest of the evening curled up on his wife’s lap. However, his mental illness didn’t begin to affect his work until the late ’50s, when he gave a lecture at Colombia University that made little sense. While director Ron Howard took this as an opportunity to depict John being forcefully sedated by doctors, the reality was different – and much more complex.
The idea of mental illness still hadn’t been widely discussed. It wasn’t until a friend, Norbert Wiener, recognized the symptoms that Alicia had John committed to a private psychiatric hospital in April 1959. It was here that he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but his condition is never directly named in the film. At the time of his stay in the hospitals, shock treatment was still actively used for mental illnesses. John was put on a regimen that included a variety of therapy and medication. You can see him begrudgingly take his pills in the movie as his loving wife ensures that he does. This was another Hollywood twist.
His Family Was Involved
At one point during the movie, Nash can be seen talking to the imaginary agent, William Parcher. Parcher tells John that he has been chosen to work for the government to help fight the Russians because he has no ties – no family and no friends. In fact, his family is never discussed in the film at all, which begins while John is a young adult already at university. Contrary to this, his family was very much involved in John’s life. His mother and sister consistently tried to help him and were an important source of support.
Release, Resignation, and Flight to Europe
After John’s experience in the hospital, director Ron Howard had viewers believe that he returned home. John begins to see the visions again after he stops taking his medication, and after it puts their son in danger, Alicia tries to have him committed again – but their love is strong enough to handle it and he never returns to the hospital. Like always, the truth is a bitter pill to swallow. After his initial hospitalization, John left the country without warning. He resigned from MIT, withdrew his pension and even tried to renounce his US citizenship. Alicia followed her husband and had him deported back to America. Not quite so tender, is it?
He Went to Hospital Several Times
One of the biggest untruths in the award-winning picture is that John and Alicia are able to overcome his illness together, with pure love and dedication. This wasn’t the case. The pair did settle in Princeton after John’s Europe adventure. John worked as a research professor, his illness still torturing him. He referred to himself as Johann von Nassau and often called former colleagues and babbled nonsensically. Two years after his initial treatment, Alicia, John’s mother, and his sister Martha committed him to another facility. It would begin a long pattern of recovery and relapse that would plague him for over a decade.
A Mind Ruined, A Relationship Shattered
A year after his second committal, the pressure was too much for Alicia to bear and rather than standing beside him (the picture of an ever-doting wife like the fabrication played by Jennifer Connolly) Alicia couldn’t take it. She divorced John in 1962. With nowhere else to go, the genius mathematician returned to Eleanor Stein and the son he had abandoned, John. Despite this, Alicia tried to remain involved and in 1970 gave him a home as a boarder at her house. For a period of time, he went about his business, haunting the maths department at Princeton. Students called him ‘The Phantom’.
A Long Road to Recovery
The stability of Alicia’s home seemed to have a profound effect on Nash. He was able to be around his son, which pleased him. Eventually, he began to put less faith in his delusions and was able to function relatively normally. More importantly to him, he was able to produce good work.The fictional version of John chooses to ignore his imagination – his roommate Charles, his niece, and Parcher – which is inaccurate as they didn’t exist to him. However, he did consciously ignore any voices he heard or any tendencies he was able to rule as unreal. Alicia and John resumed their relationship in the 90’s.
The Nobel Prize
Although John continued to fight his illness, he had regained control over his life. His relationship was back on track, and in 1994 he was visited at Princeton by Jorgen Weibull, a professor sent to tell him he was being considered for the Nobel Prize. His work on Nash’s Equilibrium had a tremendous effect on world economics, altering it forever. Just like the movie, Weibull was sent by the board to ensure that John was sane enough to take the accolade and not embarrass them. However, the touching scene where colleagues give him their pens as a sign of respect never happened. No such custom exists at the university.
Normality Resumes and a Hollywood Story is Born
By the late 90’s, John Nash and Alicia were as good as ever and while he was still eccentric, he was living a normal life. His story was known far and wide throughout the academic community. Not only was he revered for his excellent mind but also the obstacles he had overcome. In 1998, professor of journalism at Colombia, Sylvia Nasar had penned a biography about John. Hollywood, never one to miss a trick, turned it into an Oscar-winning movie starring Russell Crowe in 2001. The same year, Alicia and John remarried.
A Tragic End to a Complex Life
John continued to work on mathematical theory throughout his life. In 2015, at 86 years old, he was awarded the Abel prize for ‘striking and seminal contributions’ to his field. Himself and Alicia were returning home to New Jersey from the ceremony in Norway when the taxi they were in struck a guardrail. Alicia and John, neither wearing seat belts, were flung from the car. The couple both perished. After news of his death broke, obituaries appeared in dozens of prominent newspapers. Russell Crowe paid tribute to them both. “An amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”