Big Stars Who Became Recluses

It's no secret that attaining celebrity status comes with a ton of stress and pressure (see: pretty much any weekly tabloid magazine or gossip site). For creative people who are especially sensitive to expectations from the media and the public, sometimes the only respite is taking a serious break and stepping away from the limelight. The following notable figures, all big stars in their fields, took matters into their own hands at some point in their careers and decided to embrace the benefits of a private life, for better or worse.

Let's see who decided to take an extended sabbatical from life in the spotlight. 

Marlon Brando

During his lifetime, actor Marlon Brando was arguably one of Hollywood's biggest and most recognizable stars, with roles in pioneering movies like The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, and A Streetcar Named Desire. In his later life, he also received attention for bizarre, difficult behavior and intense family drama. As The Telegraph put it, Brando earned the reputation of "a troubled recluse, wrestling with demons, bent on self-destruction through overeating; an aberration of his former youthful beauty."

In the years prior to his death in 2004, the fiercely private Brando reportedly kept up most of his friendships via phone from his house on Mulholland Drive. Author Rich Cohen wrote an essay for Vanity Fair in 2016 describing how Brando preferred to call between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., and other celebrities and journalists have reported the same.  

Greta Garbo

Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo attained a huge amount of success as one of Hollywood's biggest stars during the 1920s and '30s. And, like Brando, she ultimately decided to turn her back and walk away. 

In Garbo's case, after performing in the movie Two-Faced Woman in 1941, according to Time, she announced a "temporary retirement," and then simply never returned to acting. As Time puts it, Garbo was something of a recluse even before retirement, "refusing to sign autographs, declining all interview requests, leaving fan mail unanswered and avoiding film premieres and awards ceremonies — including the 1955 Academy Awards, despite the promise of an honorary Oscar." She really committed to the role.

Garbo spent nearly 50 years in seclusion, until her death in 1990 in her luxurious Manhattan apartment. After her death, the Los Angeles Times described how Garbo would venture into the city, but would deny her identity if confronted by fans or photographers, and "an unwritten rule developed whereby neighbors would avert their eyes whenever they encountered 'The Face.'"

Michael Jackson

As one of pop culture's most recognizable faces, it's difficult to believe that Michael Jackson could manage to become a recluse. But he did, hunkering down at various points throughout his life. As The Atlantic describes, Jackson took a serious break from the public eye in 1985 and 1986 and turned down numerous professional opportunities, ostensibly to generate further interest in his music (though simultaneously earning him the unfortunate tabloid nickname "Wacko Jacko"). He came out of hiding to release the album Bad to major fanfare in 1987.

In his later years, after being acquitted of child molestation charges and prior to announcing one last, extremely well-publicized comeback tour, Jackson spent most of his time hidden from the public eye. After his death, Rolling Stone described his intense anxiety about his and his family's privacy amidst intense financial turmoil. 

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick directed some of the 20th century's most critically-acclaimed films, including Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Barry Lyndon. Despite his revered Hollywood status, however, the director was notoriously reclusive. He firmly eschewed pressure to work in Hollywood, and as Vice describes, preferred instead to shoot exclusively outside of Tinsel Town and mostly in the U.K. (a decision partially motivated by an intense fear of flying). After his death, The Guardian wrote about how Kubrick had embraced "an anonymity that allowed him to get on with whatever it was he was doing in the increasingly long gaps between films that characterised the latter part of his life."

In an interview with Vice, Kubrick's ex-assistant Emilio D'Alessandro explained, "People who had never met him would always be terrified before meeting him. But he was so private, so he fed off this mystery."

John Hughes

From The Breakfast Club to Sixteen Candles to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, for many people director John Hughes' movies are emblematic of being a teenager in the 1980s. But despite the iconic status of his films, Hughes, who died in 2009, completely spurned media attention. Esquire magazine described him as "completely hidden from public view," and The Huffington Post explained how he "doesn't have an agent, doesn't give interviews and lives far away." Like Stanley Kubrick, Hughes preferred to film all of his movies outside of Los Angeles, opting instead for Chicago, where he lived.

Hughes didn't fully buy into his public reputation as a hermit, however. In an obituary, his friend Roger Ebert told how when he was ribbed by an acquaintance about being a recluse, Hughes replied, "I haven't disappeared... I'm standing right here. I'm just not in Los Angeles."

Brian Wilson

These days you can still catch Brian Wilson, singer and songwriter for iconic surf band The Beach Boys, on tour and performing. However, back in the 1970s, Wilson notoriously took a serious sabbatical from the public eye, right when his fame was at its apex. 

As the Daily Mail reported in 2015, during this time Wilson shut himself off from the world, weighing 300 pounds and suffering from severe drug addiction. His wife eventually contacted Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychotherapist, who kept Wilson under his control through various tactics for nearly ten years.

Wilson broke free from Landy in the early '90s, gradually put his life back together, and got back to making music. Wilson later told Rolling Stone, "I want people to realize that drugs can be very detrimental and dangerous."

Dave Chappelle

Like Brian Wilson, comedian Dave Chappelle opted out of the public eye right at the height of his fame. In 2005, despite the promise of a $50 million contract renewal from Comedy Central, Chappelle left his hugely-popular eponymous show. As Time describes, he traveled to South Africa instead and refused to engage with the media, and eventually settled in a small town in Ohio. Rumors swirled about drug use or mental illness, charges which Chappelle denied, telling Time, "All that stuff about partying and taking crack is not true. Why do I live on a farm in Ohio? To support my partying lifestyle?"

Chappelle stayed quiet for a number of years, but did eventually return to his craft. Most recently, he released two stand-up specials via Netflix, "The Bird Revelation" and "Equanimity" on Dec. 31, 2017.

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger wrote 1951's The Catcher in the Rye, arguably one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century, making himself a huge celebrity in the world of literature. But rather than embrace his fame, Salinger gradually withdrew from the public eye. His last story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, and according to Time, he completely stopped giving interviews in 1980. Of his decision to cease publishing, he once told a reporter (via the New York Post), "Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

Salinger eventually retreated to the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire, where he lived a quiet life (and, as The New York Times reported, maintained friendly relationships with his neighbors) until his death in 2010.  

Harper Lee

Another author who wrote a seminal work of the 20th century, Harper Lee published her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. According to The Telegraph, Lee stopped speaking to journalists in 1964. As the New York Post described, she retreated to a Manhattan apartment in 1967, where she lived until a 2007 stroke that took her back to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She would very occasionally appear in public over the years; Time narrated how, "When asked in 2007 to address the audience at the Alabama Academy of Honor, the octogenarian responded simply, 'Well, it's better to be silent than be a fool.'"

Lee saw a flurry of renewed attention in 2015 with the publication of a second novel, Go Set a Watchman (which she'd actually written prior to Mockingbird). She died shortly thereafter in February 2016. After her death, a friend told NPR's Weekend Edition, "Yes, she was legendarily private. I've never known such a private woman in my life."

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett was one of the founding members of Pink Floyd, but left the band in 1968 after two albums. He moved on to attempt a solo career, but, as The Guardian suggests, his multiple experiments with LSD may have exacerbated an underlying mental illness and caused a nervous breakdown. Barrett eventually went into hiding for the 30 years before his death in 2006.

Time reported that Barrett passed his years in seclusion painting, gardening, and working on a book about art history. He reportedly cut off contact with his former band mates, and refused to speak with journalists about his past. His sister explained, "He found his own mind so absorbing that he didn't want to be distracted."

Bettie Page

At one point, Bettie Page was one of the most recognizable figures in 1950s pop culture, an iconic model who earned herself the nickname "Queen of Pin-ups." 

But as her December 2008 obituary in The New York Times describes, Page walked away from it all in 1957, moving first to Florida and eventually to California. Despite a resurgence in popularity in the 1990s, Page was adamant about maintaining her privacy in the media. Her brother told the Chicago Tribune in 1996, "She's not a recluse in the sense of someone who won't go out...I've taken her to everything from a Frankie Lane concert to (the movie) Ed Wood."

But Page would never appear on camera again. She'd appear every now and then over the years to speak to reporters, but refused to be filmed or photographed. She explained her decision to the Los Angeles Times in 2006 (via NYT), saying "I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times."