10 Notable Figures Who (Probably) Died Virgins

What do you think of when you hear “lifelong virgin”? Do you think of priests, nuns, or other ascetics? Do you think of a basement dweller, playing nonstop video games? What about a lonely cat lady with no friends? These pictures may be accurate for some, but not all, or even most, lifelong virgins. In fact, virginity is not an insuperable barrier to fame, fortune, or great accomplishment.

The following people are all presumed to have died without having a sexual relationship. Unless a long-forgotten letter or diary entry is discovered, there’s no evidence that any of these people had so much as a summer fling with anyone.

There is no way to prove a negative. You can’t prove that someone has never had sex, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, based on what is known about these notable figures, they were either chaste, near-chaste, or very, very good at keeping their private lives private.

Note: this list does not include people who have taken vows of chastity, such as priests and nuns.

10. Lindsay Anderson

Lindsay Anderson directed feature films, short films, documentaries, tv shows, music videos, and theater productions. He worked with actors such as Malcolm McDowell, Bette Davis, Helen Mirren, and Vincent Price. He also wrote extensively about film and theater, co-founding the film journal Sequence in 1947. Anderson continued working until shortly before his death in 1994.

Anderson’s films explored and criticized many facets of British life, from consumerism to post-imperialism to the toxic social atmosphere at elite boarding schools. Many of his films also poke fun at the British class system; in one of his best-known films, O Lucky Man!, the protagonist travels through England and joins a dizzying variety of social circles, from bankers to prisoners to musicians to revolutionaries.

Anderson was apparently chaste throughout his life. As a director at the Royal Court, his nickname was the “Virgin Queen” due to his celibacy and homosexuality. According to Malcolm McDowell, who worked with Anderson on several films, the director would only fall in love with unattainable, heterosexual men. Anderson came from an upper-class background, where one simply could not be openly gay. If he only fell in love with men who couldn’t love him back, then he would be safe from revealing that part of himself.

You would never guess Anderson’s virginity from watching his films. There are many sexual scenes in Anderson’s films that are bawdy, humorous, intense, and absurd. The word “repressed” doesn’t leap to mind when you think of his work.

9. Nick Drake

Before he died at age 26, Nick Drake recorded three albums and reels of demo tapes. He was a talented guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His work has earned him great posthumous acclaim and a devoted fanbase.

Drake often performed while a student at Cambridge University, winning him many student admirers. A handsome, talented musician on a university campus––not the most likely candidate for perpetual virginity. However, according to those who knew him, Drake kept to himself. He was never known to be romantically involved with anyone.

Drake’s extreme diffidence, and his history of mental illness, may explain his lack of a love life. Drake would go for days or even weeks without speaking or leaving his room. When he turned in the master tapes for his last album, Pink Moon, he left them at the front desk of Island Records and left without speaking to anyone. If normal socialization was so difficult for him, then a romantic relationship must have been impossible.

8. Anna Freud

Anna Freud with her father, Sigmund.

Anna Freud was one of the first child psychoanalysts. Like her father, Sigmund Freud, Anna’s work emphasized the importance of repression as a human defense mechanism. She published and co-published numerous monographs and articles on child psychology throughout her life.

Anna and her father escaped Germany for England in 1938. Anna worked at an English nursery during the war, and co-wrote several books on her observations of the children there. In 1952, she founded the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic in London. She continued to work there, and to publish academic papers, until the end of her life.

It’s unlikely that Anna Freud ever had a lover or significant other. Her close and lifelong relationship with Dorothy Burlingham, an American heiress, may have been consummated––Freud served a somewhat motherly role to Burlingham’s children––but Freud’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, disputes this. According to her, “[Anna Freud] did not…have a sexual relationship, with Dorothy Burlingham or anyone else.” Freud was too wrapped up in her work, Young-Bruehl says, and too serious; her father lamented that Anna might live a “life of ascetic austerity” after he was gone. Although she managed to have a family-ish sort of life, she was monastic in matters of the heart.

7. Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, ca. 1896.

Nikola Tesla’s inventions include the Tesla coil, alternating current electricity, and numerous innovations in x-ray and wireless energy technology.

Tesla never married, and there’s no evidence he ever had a single love affair. There may be several reasons for this. Tesla did not want marriage to get in the way of his work, writing that “an inventor has so intense a nature… that, in giving himself to a woman he might love, he would give everything, and so take everything from his chosen field. I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men.” Tesla knew that supporting a wife and family, while trying to work as an inventor, would have been nearly impossible, both economically and emotionally.

As a devoted eugenicist, Tesla may not have believed that his own “line” was worthy of propagation. “Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny,” he wrote in one editorial. If Tesla had so much trouble providing for himself, would he really see himself as a “desirable parent” or husband?

Towards the end of his life, Tesla lamented the changing role of women, telling an interviewer that, “The tendency of women to push aside man, supplanting the old spirit of cooperation… is very disappointing to me.” Perhaps this was sour grapes, or simply one bachelor’s reflections after marriage passed him by.

6. Flannery O’Connor

Cover of O’Connor’s short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. She would know.

Flannery O’Connor was a novelist and short story writer in the Southern Gothic tradition. Although she only wrote two novels and 32 short stories, her influence on American and world literature continues to be felt today. Many of O’Connor’s stories deal with themes of innocence, divine retribution and grace.

In her early twenties, O’Connor spent time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Yaddo Artist’s Colony in upstate New York. While working on her first novel, Wise Blood, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus. She returned to her mother’s farm, where she lived the rest of her life, attending mass every morning, writing, and tending to her family’s chickens.

O’Connor would occasionally become interested in a man, but these infatuations never led to anything. Once, she kissed a guy in the backseat of his car, which he described as, “like kissing a skeleton.” It apparently never went further than that. She also rejected a female admirer’s advances.

O’Connor’s strong Catholic faith, her medical condition, and her personality may have kept her from marrying or having any kind of sexual relationship. Although her religious diaries show her struggling with “erotic thoughts,” there’s no evidence that she turned those thoughts into actions, and the naive quality of the sex scenes in her stories buttresses this impression. Since O’Connor wished to “remain twelve forever,” she may have eschewed sex, in part, as a way to reach this goal.

5. Isaac Newton

Photo by Miguel Bruna at Unsplash.

Isaac Newton’s accomplishments are legion. He is famous for his pioneering work in the fields of mathematics, physics, and optics. Only a fraction of his work was published during his lifetime, but this fraction had a tremendous effect on the growth and development of math and science.

Newton’s theory of gravity is so taken for granted today, we forget that it was originally criticized for being “occult,” since it involved the use of “power at a distance” through an unseen force. However, Newton’s work was repeatedly tested and found to be sound, so he became lauded instead of vilified. Even today, gravity remains a bit mysterious, since we can explain how it works but not exactly why.

Intensely private throughout his life, Newton was often given to aggressive outbursts and depressive episodes. He often tried to ruin his enemies, real or perceived, and had a lifelong feud with Leibniz for “stealing” calculus from him. Newton left behind no diaries, and his correspondence rarely delves into his inner life. Newton never married or had children; he had no known lovers; he apparently never even had a friend. Even when he was famous and feted for his discoveries, his inner life remained lonely.

4. Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell was an experimental filmmaker, sculptor, and visual artist. He is best known for his small wooden boxes that contained everything from broken dolls to newspaper clippings. Although he never identified as a surrealist, citing the movement’s use of “black magic,” Cornell was long considered the leading American surrealist. How’s that for irony?

During his life, Cornell worked in many different media, including film, sculpture, painting, and photography. Cornell collaborated with other experimental artists, including the experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Larry Jordan. He knew many other contemporary artists and bohemians, such as Mina Loy, who praised his “hocus-pocus at play with dimension.”

Cornell spent most of his life living in his family home in Queens, New York. As an adult, he spent much of his time caring for his brother, Robert, who had cerebral palsy. According to Deborah Solomon, Cornell’s biographer, the filmmaker “didn’t drink, never learned to drive and, to his regret, died a virgin.” Although he sometimes fixated on beautiful movie stars, such as Lauren Bacall, things never went further than that.

3. Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa, ca. 1914.

Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal’s most famous poets, wrote under various pseudonyms, or “heteronyms,” each with their own distinct style and personality. From the laconic Alberto Caeiro to the experimental Ricardo Reis, Pessoa was able to explore many different styles of poetry and prose.

Pessoa gave some of his heteronyms detailed biographies and personalities. For example, Pessoa’s heteronym Alvaro de Campos was a “bisexual, unemployed naval engineer who’d studied in Glasgow and was now living in Lisbon.” The imaginary lives of these imaginary poets became a parallel text, influencing the reader’s interpretation of the poem.

Pessoa was an eccentric and solitary man. He smoked eighty cigarettes a day, wore formal dress everywhere he went, and was obsessed with astrology. He even wrote horoscopes for his heteronyms. There is very little straight autobiography in any of his writing. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of his inner life.

Although Pessoa was well-known during his lifetime, and befriended such famous (and infamous) figures as Manuel Torga and Aleister Crowley, he was never known to have an intimate relationship with anyone. His one love affair, with a young secretary, was not consummated and ended in disappointment. Pessoa’s heteronyms got more action than he ever did.

2. Christina Rossetti

An illustration for Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market,” by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, “Goblin Market,” follows two sisters tempted by “goblin men” selling a variety of luscious fruits. Despite this poem’s not-so-veiled sexual imagery, Rossetti probably never indulged in the temptations alluded to in this poem.

Rossetti came from an artistic family. Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a poet and a political exile from Italy. Her maternal uncle, John William Polidori, wrote one of the first romantic vampire stories, a precursor to everything from Dracula to Twilight. Her brothers, William and Dante Rossetti, were founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. Christina Rossetti herself is a celebrated poet, with many of her poems still widely read today.

Christina was a devout Anglo-Catholic, i.e. an Anglican who emphasizes the Anglican church’s Catholic heritage. Many of her poems are suffused with religious imagery, as well as lush descriptions of the natural world. During the Crimean War, she took to visiting the sick and poor of her aunt’s parish while her aunt worked as a nurse abroad.

Rossetti was engaged three times, but never married. At least one of her engagements broke up over differences in religion. Although Rossetti remained close to one of her suitors, Charles Cayley, until his death, she did not discuss her feelings with anyone, even family. Given the standards of the day, Rossetti’s reclusiveness, and Cayley’s absent-minded professor personality, it’s unlikely that their love was consummated, and no evidence supports that conclusion.

1. Nikolai Gogol

A painting by Sergei Gribkov, based on Gogol’s famous story, “The True Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich.”

Nikolai Gogol is the most famous Ukrainian writer in history. His stories, such as “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “The True Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” still make readers laugh today. He is also known for his great unfinished novel, Dead Souls.

Gogol first rose to fame at a young age, when his volume of stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, earned him many devoted fans, including Alexander Pushkin. Gogol later came to believe that he was called upon by God to use his writing to save Russia from spiritual peril. A period of creative drought, and madness, followed. He died at age 43, shortly after burning the second volume of his novel.

Like several others on this list, Gogol had difficulty relating to other people. Although he was celebrated for his writing talents, he had difficulty making friends, never married, and is presumed to have died a virgin. Gogol may have been homosexual––extremely taboo at the time––and sublimated his desires into religious devotion. There is no way to know for certain.


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