Maximum Crowe

Sylvia Nasar

A MAXIMUM CROWE exclusive!

Sylvia Nasar is the author of A Beautiful Mind, the biography of John Forbes Nash Jr. She is the winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in biography. The film of the same name was inspired by her book.

Part One: We first interviewed Ms. Nasar when the film was in the early production stages.
Part Two:
Ms. Nasar shares with us her thoughts on the final version of the film.
new Part Three:
Ms. Nasar addresses allegations against John Forbes Nash Jr.
(Just added 3/11/02)

Sylvia Nasar


Maximum Crowe: When did you first hear about John Forbes Nash?
Sylvia Nasar:
While working on an economics piece for the Times, about a year and a half before Nash got the Nobel. I heard a rumor that a mathematical genius who had suffered from schizophrenia for three decades might be on a short list for the prize. I thought, "Oh my God, this sounds like a Greek tragedy, Shakespeare play and fairy tale rolled into one."

MRC: What made you decide to write his biography?SN: Because I was sure other people would find his story fascinating, too. Nash's miraculous remission is so inspiring. After my New York Times article, "The Lost Years of the Nobel Laureate," * ran in the fall of 1994, I got a letter from a former editor on the paper's metro desk who -- as it turned out -- had been living on the streets of Berkeley for the past 25 years. Saying that he suffered from the same illness as Nash, he wrote, "Nash's story gave me hope that one day the world would come back to me too." I'll never forget that.

MRC: What was the biggest challenge?
Just finding out the facts of Nash's life. He just dropped off the radar screen in 1959. There wasn't a paragraph about him in print. The Nobel committee didn't have so much as a one-page vita for him until the 11th hour. People were understandably reluctant initially to talk about the illness because of the stigma. And there was the veil of secrecy around the Nobel Prize deliberations. Getting a picture of the life required some 1,000 interviews, letters and e-mails with people who had known Nash at different points.

MRC: How long did you take to write the book?
The New York Times generously gave me a two and half year leave of absence. I was still doing interviews when the book was already at the printers. Working on a biography of a creative genius is one of the most satisfying experiences imaginable.

MRC: What was the Nash family's response when they knew you were writing the book, and were they cooperative?
While I was working on the book, Nash adopted a stance of "Swiss neutrality." It was against his principles, he told me, to seek "personal publicity"; he wouldn't sit down for a formal interview. But we had a number of chances to meet and talk informally, and he didn't prevent those who were close to him, including [his wife] Alicia, from cooperating.

Sylvia Nasar
MRC: Have you spoken to the family since the book was published?
After the book came out, Nash made a friendly overture, and since then, we've seen him and Alicia fairly regularly. In fact, we took them to "Proof," the wonderful Broadway play by David Auburn that has a character loosely inspired by Nash. And Nash finally did give me a terrific on-the-record interview for a fun Times story about how economics Nobel laureates spent their prize money.

MRC: What was your initial reaction when you learned there was going to be a film based on your book? Do you have any reservations about the project at this time?
How could I be anything but thrilled? Ron Howard is an incredibly sensitive director. Russell Crowe as Nash will do more to raise public consciousness about schizophrenia than a dozen books. It's lovely, too, that the Nashes are enjoying the benefits of being the subjects of a major movie.

The movie will also make more people aware of Nash's ideas. Princeton University Press is planning to publish a beautifully illustrated volume of his papers -- including the Ph.D. thesis that won Nash the Nobel and a photograph of the game he invented -- this December, and American Experience is making a documentary that will air on public television in mid-2002.

MRC: What are your thoughts on the film script of "A Beautiful Mind"?
It really works dramatically. Akiva Goldsman has invented a narrative that, while far from a literal re-telling, is true to the spirit of Nash's story. By concentrating on Alicia's loyalty and the kindness of fellow mathematicians, Akiva has focused on those things that really made a real difference in how Nash's life turned out. It's a very moving script.

MRC: Did you have any input on the script? Are you involved as an adviser on the film?
No, but I've helped with occasional queries. And the other day, I got to contribute a prop -- my tattered 1922 edition of Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics -- for a key scene.

MRC: What are your thoughts on the casting of Russell as Nash?
Somebody once said of Nash that "People considered him a bad boy -- but a great one." Russell Crowe is the perfect choice.

MRC: Have you ever met Russell or Ron Howard?
I had a chance to meet Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman last year. Of course, my children ask me daily if they're ever going to meet Russell Crowe.

MRC: You've just been named the first Knight professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Tell us what you're working on now.
I left the Times about a year ago to work full time on a new book about great 20th century economic thinkers. I spent the fall working in the archives at Cambridge University in England. Teaching and doing research at Columbia is great. It's such a privilege to have these terrific students and colleagues.

Part Two: (January 10, 2002)

MRC: First of all, were you pleased with the overall film?
Sylvia Nasar:
It's a wonderful movie. And, as George Will said in his syndicated Newsweek , the movie is not only a brilliant adaptation, but one that will increase society's stock of compassion for people with severe mental illnesses.

MRC: What did you think of the filmmakers' approach of trying to put the audience inside Nash's mind?
That's what makes Nash's story so powerful on screen. Biographies can't take you into the character's head. Good fiction inspired by true stories-- and great moviemaking--can. Someone at a screening in Princeton asked me wasn't the movie making light of this awful illness? Actually, the movie's hopeful message is the most sophisticated thing about it. Not only did Nash recover, but millions of young people--who now have the added benefit of new drugs developed since Nash's illness-- are managing to get their lives back with the support of their families and communities. Nash not only aged out of his illness, but also learned to compensate for its residual effects. He says that learning to ignore delusional thoughts was like going on a diet of the mind. Capturing that in the movie was unbelievably intelligent.

MRC: Do you think the film adequately portrays Alicia's role in her husband's recovery?
Without Alicia, Nash would have perished. There would be no recovery, no Nobel, no second take on life or the marriage.

Even the latest generation of anti-psychotic drugs, essential as they are in managing schizophrenia, can't give someone a life or a reason to live. People also need the support, encouragement and coaching of family, friends, and colleagues. All this has become standard wisdom, supported by reams of research. Somehow, Alicia Nash knew it intuitively. She's not only a person of great moral stature, but one very smart lady.

MRC:What did you think of the film's main performances?
When I watched Russell Crowe go from genius to madness and back again, I realized that he is one of very few actors who could have pulled this off. Jennifer Connelly was very real, incredibly moving. Paul Bettany was delightful.

MRC: Have you spoken with the Nashes now that they've seen the film? What was their reaction?
The Nashes are extremely happy with the movie, especially because, as Alicia put it, "We're going to have to live with it for a long time." Though Nash prefers action movies to dramas, he loved the humor and fast pace, and said, with evident pleasure, that he thought Russell Crowe looked a lot like him.

MRC: Were there any points of Nash's life -- or Alicia's -- that you wish the filmmakers had included but didn't?
No. Obviously, the movie compresses, telescopes, fictionalizes. Howard took the most compelling aspects of Nash's life--genius, madness, recovery, recognition plus the role of Alicia and the math colleagues--and, like the good storyteller he is, used those elements to explore the mystery of the human mind. My story, my own synopsis of Nash's life, concentrated on those same elements. Some people have complained that the movie isn't the book. They're missing the point: Movies can do things that books can't do, and vice versa. Great stories like this one can be told lots of different ways, each with its own integrity.

MRC: What is your opinion about some newspapers and online sources trying to stir up a controversy that the homosexual relationships mentioned in your book were left out of the film?
It's nasty, but nobody's taking it seriously. Nash had several emotionally intense relationships with other men in his early twenties. In the homophobic, McCarthyite 1950s, that made him vulnerable. But he wasn't gay. Nobody who knew him thought he was gay. The biography never portrayed him as gay. A reporter from USA Today actually tried to tell that Ron Howard's not depicting Nash as a homosexual would be like Michael Mann making Muhammad Ali a "white Hindu." I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. It was like the 1950s all over again when it was kosher to smear people by making allegations about their sexuality. Of course, people who read the book know otherwise.

MRC: How has the success of the film affected your life? Are people treating you any differently?
Inexplicably, my kids still don't take my every word as gospel, my editor keeps asking how I'm getting on with the new book, my dean keeps calling about my spring course.

MRC: Did you finally get to meet Russell? What was it like?
My children and I met him on the set at Manhattan College (the movie stand-in for Harvard). He was courteous, serious, focused. Watching him collaborate actively with the director and screenwriter was tremendously impressive.

MRC: Anything else you'd like to add?
SN: Only that there aren't that many stories out there that we can feel genuinely good about and it's wonderful that this one is reaching more and more people and inspiring them. I just hope that every member of Congress, which just shot down the latest attempt to establish parity in health coverage for severe mental illnesses, watches the movie and reads the book!

Nasar defends real-life Nash
March 11, 2002:

The following is an excerpt from a letter to be published in the this week in which Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, addresses allegations that the real John Forbes Nash Jr. has anti-Semitic views. (The part in italics was part of her e-mail to us)

I can't really speculate about why so many journalists are making statements about John and Alicia Nash that are either gross distortions or outright inventions and falsely attributing them to the biography. But in an attempt to correct the record, I've submitted an op-ed piece to the LA Times **. Here's what I said regarding the charge of anti-Semitism:

"The New York Post, quoting from a letter written by Nash in 1967, calls him a 'rabid anti-Semite.' This is demonstrably false. In his twenties, Nash's most ardent champions in the mathematics community were Norbert Wiener, Solomon Lefschetz and Norman Levinson, all victims of the anti-Semitism that reigned in American academia in the 1930s and 1940s. In recent years, one of his most prominent supporters has been Ariel Rubinstein, an economist at Tel Aviv University and winner of the Israel prize.

The letter the Post quotes was written in 1967, eight years after Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia -- and at a moment in time when he not only felt himself threatened by Jews and the state of Israel, but also believed himself to be Job, a slave in chains, the Emperor of Antarctica and a Messiah and, though actually staying with his mother in Roanoke [Va.], convinced that he was living in Hell, a refugee camp, a bomb shelter and a prison. These were signs of paranoid delusions."


© Copyright Maximum Crowe, 2005

Very special thanks to Sylvia Nasar

(And to Di)

* You can read "The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate"

** You can read Sylvia's letter to the Los Angeles Times . (Scroll) new (Added 3/13/02)

Sylvia on

From the Washington Post

Photos: (From the top) Vanity Fair 1998, by Gasper Tringale. With John Nash in Jerusalem (1995), by Michael Intriligator
(Photos thanks to Sylvia Nasar)

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