11 Celebrated Artists Who Didn't Quit Their Day Jobs

DON EMMERT, AFP/Getty Images
DON EMMERT, AFP/Getty Images

Not all artists lock themselves away in a garret somewhere to tenderly shepherd their creations into being. Some prefer to punch a clock or run a business, stealing away to jot down a few lines here or a few notes there.

Most creative types work a regular job at some point, of course. But this list isn't about folks working as waiters or barkeeps. No, these artists took pride in their 9 to 5 work, and most of them kept at it even as they wrote and painted and otherwise created the masterpieces we know today.

1. T.S. ELIOT // BANKER

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

His friends, led by Ezra Pound, thought the poet was wasting his time at Lloyds Bank in London. Eliot worked on foreign accounts there from 1917 to 1925—a span of time during which he published The Waste Land, among other essays and poems.

Eliot was desperate for financial security, and he rejected an attempt by Pound and his friends to guarantee him an annual salary to simply write. Why would he take the guarantee of a few years' salary, he asked, when he could have a lifetime's guarantee of work at the bank? Eliot only left after he found another day job—as an editor at the publishing house Faber and Faber. He then worked there full-time for four decades.

2. PHILIP GLASS // PLUMBER AND TAXI DRIVER

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The minimalist music icon supported himself with a variety of blue-collar jobs in his 20s and 30s. Even as he created avant-garde operas and musical "happenings," he worked as a cab driver and plumber. This led to surprising intersections. Said Glass in 2001: "While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of TIME magazine, staring at me in disbelief. 'But you're Philip Glass! What are you doing here?' It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. 'But you are an artist,' he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish."

Even after the premiere of his opera Einstein at the Beach at the Met in 1976, the 39-year-old Glass went back to driving a cab. He kept at it for the next three years.

3. ANTHONY TROLLOPE // POSTAL SURVEYOR

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This 19th-century British novelist isn't the most widely read these days, but he was a popular chronicler of everyday life, and most of his books are still available. Trollope was doggedly prolific, writing nearly 50 novels, all the while climbing the rungs of the civil service. Many of his books were inspired by his journeys on behalf of the postal service. He also introduced the first pillar boxes (free-standing boxes where residents could drop off their mail) to Britain.

4. WALLACE STEVENS // INSURANCE EXECUTIVE

J.E. Theriot, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you've ever bought insurance from the Hartford (or known someone who did), you've come into contact with the longtime employer of visionary poet Wallace Stevens. There was scarcely a major literary prize that the enigmatic Stevens didn't win—he stacked up two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, and honorary degrees. But to most people who knew him in Hartford, Connecticut, he was simply an imposing insurance lawyer.

In 1955—the year Stevens died—Harvard had asked him to come teach on the campus, but he turned down the offer. He didn't want to give up his post as vice president at the company. He used his two-mile walks to work (he never learned to drive a car) to compose poetry in his mind and would put it to paper when he arrived at the office.

5. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS // DOCTOR

Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

He of the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens worked for four decades as a pediatrician in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey. He used his experiences with patients as source material for his poetry and prose. But that wasn't the only reason Williams kept his day job—he also wanted to write without any commercial concerns. (He kept long hours, too—take a look at his business card.)

6. TONI MORRISON // EDITOR

Everett Collection Historical, Alamy Stock Photo

The beloved author of Beloved, Morrison worked for 20 years as an editor at Random House. For several years, she was also raising small children as a single mother. Her secret to doing all that and starting a magisterial literary career? Getting up early.

"Writing before dawn began as a necessity," she told the Paris Review. "I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning"

7. RICHARD SERRA // MOVER

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A celebrated sculptor, Serra teamed up with fellow New York City art buddies in the 1960s to found Low-Rate Movers. Employees included painter Chuck Close, monologist Spalding Grey, and the ever-industrious Philip Glass. They shared a van and mainly moved furniture. "It was a good job because none of us would work more than two or three days a week, so we had the remaining days to do our own work," Serra said. In the 1980s, he became known for being less helpful to the public—a lengthy legal battle over one of his public sculptures, "Tilted Arc," ended with it being cut into pieces and stored in a warehouse.

8. CHARLES IVES // INSURANCE EXECUTIVE

Science History Images, Alamy Stock Photo

No, you read that job title right. Wallace Stevens wasn't the only creative type to get a shot in the arm from the insurance business. Renegade composer Ives's music really only gained popularity at the end of his life (he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1947 at the age of 73).

Before that, he was mainly known as the co-founder of the Ives & Myrick Insurance Agency, and a pioneer in the field of estate planning. Ives's sometimes-thorny, nostalgic-yet-bracing compositions were seen as a hobby by those around him, even though he self-published a collection of his songs and mailed scores to performers, hoping to interest them in his work.

9. BRAM STOKER // THEATER MANAGER

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A former civil servant, Stoker was hired by famed actor Henry Irving in the late 1870s to manage the Lyceum Theatre in the West End of London. After taking the job, Stoker found himself inspired by the creative surroundings and wrote his first horror story. More frightful tales followed, and the novel Dracula appeared in 1897. But its success didn't change his work life. Stoker kept on managing the theater and overseeing Irving's tours until his boss died, some eight years later.

10. HENRY DARGER // CUSTODIAN

cometstarmoon, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During his life, most people knew Henry Darger as the quiet janitor of a Catholic hospital in Chicago. But when the octogenarian was forced to leave his longtime apartment at the end of 1972, his landlord discovered an astonishing secret. Darger had written tens of thousands of pages of prose—a 15,000-page novel and a 5000-page autobiography, among other works—and created hundreds of watercolor paintings and collages.

The deep strangeness of Darger's work (all of the little girls he depicts have penises, and the novel imagines savage violence against children) leave plenty for interpretation, and the art world has embraced him as an outsider genius. And maybe you'll never look at that scruffy janitor in the hallway the same way again.

11. KURT VONNEGUT // CAR DEALER

Brad Barket, Getty Images

The Slaughterhouse-Five author managed a Saab dealership in Cape Cod starting in 1957. Then known as a science fiction author, Vonnegut thought it might be a way to make some extra money as he worked on various writing projects. Unfortunately, the Saabs of the time were not attractive automobiles. They required the driver to add a can of oil to the engine with each fill-up. "For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this," Vonnegut wrote.

He was forced to close the underperforming dealership shortly after. Wrote Vonnegut in 2004: "The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature."

This story first published in 2013.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)