5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People

Famous people have but two jobs: producing art, and dating each other for our entertainment. But aside from these noble goals (or occasionally in the pursuit of them), they find themselves wrapped up in the weirdest stuff, stuff we really shouldn't forget ... 

Advertisement

5
Steve Bannon Ran The Wacky Biosphere 2 Project


In 1991, scientists sealed off eight volunteers in a 3-acre self-contained glass facility in Arizona. It was called Biosphere 2 -- Biosphere 1 being the planet Earth -- and maybe you've heard of it already, possibly from the terrible Pauly Shore movie it inspired. (Note: we don't actually know the movie was terrible, but AutoCorrect inserts the word "terrible" every time we type "Pauly Shore"). The experiment had to be cut short, and it was because Steve Bannon came aboard. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Biosphere 2
DrStarbuck/Wiki Commons
He gazed upon it, and the plants withered and died.
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Mind you, it was going poorly even before he took the helm. The project, originally conceived back in the hippie days of the '70s, was constructed much like a video game, a bunch of different environments squeezed into a small space with you having to balance resources to survive. And much like a video game, those running it lost control and had to cheat. Rather than grow all their own crops as planned, residents fed on food caches. Oxygen levels dropped and CO2 rose, so machinery had to pump the right gases in and out. A bunch of species went extinct, and in their place came an army of thousands of cockroaches. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Steve Bannon, CEO of Biosphere 2
Gage Skidmore
Pic unrelated.
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Plus, by the time they released the first group of volunteers and tried again, the company in charge was having money problems. With tourism to the site (along with vague plans to profit off patents the research sparked) not earning them much, they were losing millions every month. But no one knows more about losing millions each month than investment bankers, so they brought on Steve Bannon as their new CEO. This rang all kinds of alarms for project members, who feared Bannon may (and this is merely speculating here) liquidate the project and sell its entire contents, humans included, as fertilizer. 

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Two scientists, who had been Biosphere residents back in season one, broke into the facility, smashing glass and opening seals to sabotage the experiments. Their goal, according to crew member/saboteur Abigail Alling, was to hopefully force the whole thing to shut down. They also wanted to warn those inside that a nut had taken control and fired everyone who knew what to do. Without some percussive intervention grinding the project to a halt, they could have a Challenger-level number of dead scientists on their hands. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Biosphere 2
Colin Marquardt
Not everyone approved of Bannon's plan to introduce the Predator.  
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

We don't know if the disaster would have gone that far, but they did end up ending the experiment ahead of schedule. Alling faced charges but also took Bannon & co to court. It turned out that between when Bannon tried taking control of B2 and when he actually took control, he'd "vowed to kick her ass" in revenge for thwarting him, then threatened to ram her list of safety complaints "down her fucking throat" (and that's just what Bannon admitted, while giving testimony). The court ruled in Alling's favor and made the company pay her $600,000. 

So, Biosphere 2 didn't serve as a successful prototype of the sort of extraterrestrial settlement we'll surely be building any day now, but it was a good example of how projects can go haywire. And of how growing carbon levels can spark chain reactions. Below, watch an unsettlingly healthy-looking Bannon talk about how B2 can teach us about future climate change. He'd then go on to chair Breitbart News and teach the world that climate change is a myth, because by playing both sides, you're sure to come out on top. 

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

4
When The Mona Lisa Was Stolen, They Arrested Picasso


The Mona Lisa wasn't even that famous before it was stolen in 1911. Leonardo da Vinci was famous, sure, but he did plenty of other stuff, including stuff displayed elsewhere in the Louvre. It was the theft -- pulled off a wall from between two other paintings and spirited out of the museum in broad daylight -- that let everyone know that this piece was a big deal, and if you know exactly one painting, it should be this one. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - The Stolen Mona Lisa
Century Magazine,
"And over here we have The Mona Lisa ... oh shit, someone stole it, shit shit shit."  
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

French police rounded up the usual suspects, which included the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, since poets are usually up to no good. Apollinaire had not in fact stolen the Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, to use her French porn name). But under interrogation, he gave up the name of a friend of his: Pablo Picasso. Police arrested this relatively unknown artist and eventually concluded that he too had not stolen the painting. 

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

That didn't mean he was innocent. Picasso had been knowingly in possession of something else stolen from The Louvre: two ancient limestone statues. Gery Pieret, Apollinaire's secretary, stole them in 1907, and even if the place had terrible security, this was an impressive feat in terms of both stealth and strength. He sold them on a buy-one-get-one-free basis to Picasso, who kept them for years hidden in his sock drawer. We don't know for sure, but Picasso likely planned the theft and commissioned Pieret to carry it out. He'd admired these particular pieces for years. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - a statue Picasso stole from the Louvre
The Art Bulletin
Pretty hot stuff, not gonna lie
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Through a series of wacky French misunderstandings, the only one who went to jail over the affaire des statuettes was Apollinaire, who hadn't stolen them and who actually tried to return them. But he spent just six days there. Really, the art police were happy just to have something to report on to distract people from the still-missing Mona Lisa

Back when he had the statues hidden somewhere intimate, Picasso used them as models for one of his more famous paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon:

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Pablo Picasso 
Featured in Titanic, the film where that guy says, "Picasso? He won't amount to a thing."
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Had he simply got an actual live model to pose for him, his painting would have turned out very different, and maybe cubism would never have existed. But Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is supposed to show a brothel scene, so he'd have to have hired a Parisian prostitute who'd charge by the hour for an entire year of painting. Suddenly, a daring heist to steal 15-pound Iberian Bronze Age sculptures sounds like the most reasonable choice. 

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

3
Angela Lansbury Had To Leave The Country To Get Her Kids Away From The Manson Family


Lots of parents worry when their kids fall in with the wrong crowd. If the parent is in show business, they may think the kid is safe so long as they avoid Hollywood, which is seemingly most dangerous environment for children of all, but other dangers very much exist. Angela Lansbury realized this at the end of the '60s, when her daughter Deirdre rolled with Charles Manson's family.

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Angela Lansbury and her family
Life Magazine
Pictured: The terrifying Manson family. 
Wait, sorry. That's the Lansbury family, Angela in the center.
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Angela Lansbury didn't object at first. Reports say that Deirdre, at 15, carried around a note from her mother saying she had permission to chill at the Manson place. Which might sound weird, but hey, it was better than having no input at all into what your kid is doing, right? During her time with the family, Deirdre recruited others, such as Nancy Pitman, who was arrested following the murders of Sharon Tate and the others in the Tate house, and who was finally convicted years later as accessory to a different murder. 

As time went by, though, Angela Lansbury realized there was something very wrong with the peculiar folk Deirdre hung out with. Specifically, they used drugs, and now both Deirdre and son Anthony had drug problems. So Angela moved the family (hers, not the Manson Family) to Ireland, where she lived for years safely away from any countercultural influence whatever. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast
Walt Disney Pictures
The Lansbury home allowed only one kind of pot.
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

This saved Deirdre from having to commit even one of the nine murders the Mansons were convicted of, or the dozen more they're suspected of. Those are big numbers, even if they're nothing close to the hundreds of people Angela Lansbury herself would murder using her "Jessica Fletcher" alias.

2
Julia Child The Spy Invented Shark Repellent For The Military

Let's be honest -- man-eating sharks were not our most dangerous foe during World War II. And yet when the US military ran the numbers in 1942 and found that sharks had attacked twenty American naval officers, they realized the shark menace was a threat to morale, if not an existential threat to the nation. So they ordered the OSS (the proto-CIA) to cook them up a shark repellent. The OSS assigned the project to their Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, where there worked one 29-year-old Julia McWilliams.

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Julia Childs tasting food
Lynn Gilbert
You may know her spy handbook, Cooking With [redacted]
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Julia investigated the possibility of using extracts from dead sharks, since sharks generally avoid eating shark corpses, out of professional courtesy. She also tried poison (that failed of course; as we all know now, poison just makes sharks stronger), and acid. After testing a bunch of prototypes on actual ocean-dwelling sharks, she settled on copper acetate, baked into black cakes and dubbed "shark chaser." The ideal repellent would also repel piranhas, said the CIA, which this one didn't do, but they had to settle for what they could get.

The military never confirmed that shark chaser really saved anyone from being eaten. When you're leaking tasty blood, a mildly unpleasant scent from cakes strapped to your lifejacket might fail to ward off an actual frenzied shark. But the repellent had other applications. It deterred sharks from nosing around torpedoes and setting them off prematurely, an issue that the navy had previously labeled "awesome, but strategically suboptimal." Years later, Julia would also brag that the repellent kept sharks from attacking NASA capsules dropped down from space. As for protecting humans, the Navy concluded that education -- pamphlets, illustrated with 1940s cartoons -- was the more reasonable safety measure. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - shark defense naval pamphlets from the 1940s
US Navy
We don't know what a "feather spinner" is, and we don't want to know.
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

While shark repellent might be her most noted accomplishment while in the OSS, Julia McWilliams wasn't just stuck in the research labs. As the war went on, she was stationed in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China. She received top security clearance. She also met fellow OSS officer Paul Child, who later shared with her his surname and also his love of French cuisine. "What if," he said, "instead of researching what sharks don't want to eat, you research what humans do want to eat?"

And so she found her true calling as celebrity chef Julia Child. Either that, or she found the perfect cover as she continued her career as a spy, now working for the sharks. 

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

1
Jack Kerouac Built The Pentagon


We're now going to tell you about someone else who secretly worked for the government in 1942. Would you believe that On the Road author Jack Kerouac -- the ultimate beatnik, an icon for all who love living free and chewing peyote -- was actually the architect responsible for creating the United States Department of Defense? Gosh, we hope you wouldn't believe that. Because it's absurd, and untrue. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - Jack Kerouac
Tom Palumbo
Sorry about that. Carry on.
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

However, in the 1940s, Jack Kerouac was a construction worker, along with various other roles he took to pay the bills. And his job involved physically building the Pentagon. The country had long had a Department of Defense (or Department of War, which was what they called it before the Department of Euphemisms intervened), but the enormous undertaking of the Second World War meant they needed to expand beyond the cramped building they'd previously used. 

The government decided to build the new headquarters in a five-sided plot known as Arlington Farms, just outside of D.C. The building, though not as big as the entire farm, would be five-sided to match. Then, they changed their mind and built the building somewhere else, but they stuck with the "five-sided" idea anyway because it was cool. And because, if all else failed, the five corners could be used in a pinch to summon help from Diablo, lord of terror. 

5 Historical Moments Starring Absolutely Random Famous People - The Pentagon
Department of Defense
They considered an octagon, but that connotes violence.  
Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

The Pentagon was originally envisioned as temporary. People reasoned that America would have no need for this massive War Department once we ended this massive war. Particularly if we lost, in which case the department would have to be relocated to Berlin. Maybe that temporary nature is why no one kept proper tabs on the construction workers. Every day, Jack Kerouac would bring with him a pint of gin or whiskey to drink on the job. If the Pentagon just straight-up falls over, we'll know who to blame.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

To turn on reply notifications, click here

39 Comments

Load Comments