The Story Behind John Cage's 4'33"

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In a world plagued by Muzak, John Cage needed to find a quiet way to make a powerful statement.

On August 29, 1952, at a rustic outdoor chamber music hall tucked on a wooded dirt road in Woodstock, New York, the piano virtuoso David Tudor prepared to perform the most jarring piece of music ever written. Or not written, depending how you look at it.

Tudor sat at the piano, propped up six pages of blank sheet music, and closed the keyboard lid. He then clicked a stopwatch and rested his hands on his lap. The audience waited for something to happen as a breeze stirred the nearby trees. After 30 seconds of stillness, Tudor opened the lid, paused, closed it again, and went back to doing nothing. He turned one of the blank pages. Raindrops began to patter. After two minutes and 23 seconds, Tudor again opened and closed the lid. At this point, exasperated people in the crowd walked out. Their footsteps echoed down the aisles. After another minute and 40 seconds, Tudor opened the piano lid one last time, stood up, and bowed. What was left of the audience politely applauded.

It was nearly two decades before the infamous summer of ’69, but what had transpired was arguably the wildest, most controversial musical event ever to rock Woodstock. The piece was called 4'33"—for the three silent movements totaling four minutes and 33 seconds—and it was composed by John Cage. It seemed like a joke. In fact, it would redefine music.

TALL AND SOFT-SPOKEN, John Cage had once been described as “pleasantly reminiscent of Frankenstein.” The resemblance wasn’t just physical. His compositions were of a similar mold: experimental, a bit ugly, and misunderstood. Cage was an irreverent experimenter. In his 60-year career, he composed nearly 300 pieces for everything imaginable, from conventional piano and orchestra to bathtubs and amplified cacti.

Born in Los Angeles to a journalist and an inventor, Cage learned early how powerful new ideas could be. After dropping out of college, he jetted to Europe, where he fell in love with abstract art. At 19, he returned home and started giving lectures on modern art to housewives in his living room. One week, when Cage wanted to teach the ladies about the music of Arnold Schoenberg—the father of a dissonant music called serialism—he audaciously rang one of the country’s best pianists, Richard Buhlig, and asked him to play for them. Buhlig declined, but he did agree to give Cage composing lessons. It was the start of a storied career.

Cage cut his teeth making music for UCLA’s synchronized swimming squad and established himself writing percussion music for dance companies. In 1940, when he was tasked with writing primitive African music for a dance concert in Seattle, Cage tinkered with the piano, wedging screws, coins, bolts, and rubber erasers between the piano strings, turning the keyboard into a one-person percussion orchestra. The sounds were otherworldly, and the innovation, called the prepared piano, catapulted Cage to the forefront of the avant-garde.

Discovering uncharted sounds became Cage’s trademark. Where other composers heard noise, he heard potential. Pots. Drum brakes. Rubber duckies. It wasn’t provocation; it was necessity. The world was brimming with sounds musicians had never used before—it was as if all the world’s painters had agreed to restrict themselves to only a few colors. Cage heard every squeak and honk as a possible ingredient for music.

In 1942, the renowned curator Peggy Guggenheim invited Cage to New York City to put on a concert at her new gallery. Cage agreed but naively arranged a second concert at the Museum of Modern Art behind her back. When Guggenheim found out, she canceled her event. Cage took the news with tears: A career-making opportunity had slipped away. But at that moment, a stranger puffing a cigar walked up and asked whether he was all right. The stranger was Marcel Duchamp.

The encounter was life-altering. Duchamp was America’s most unapologetically cerebral artist. The undisputed king of Dada, he derided traditional paintings as superficial eye candy and opted to make art that pleased—and befuddled—the mind. His 1917 sculpture “Fountain,” an overturned porcelain urinal, was scandalous, but it made a point: Art is subjective. The two became friends, and Duchamp’s philosophy would plant the first seeds of 4'33".

A few years later, Cage made another life-changing friend: Gita Sarabhai, an Indian heiress who was worried about Western music’s effect on her homeland. She had come to New York to study it, and Cage gave her informal lessons in music theory. Sarabhai repaid him by teaching him Indian music and philosophy. The lessons would turn Cage into a lifelong follower of Zen Buddhism.

Cage had found Dada and Zen at the right time—he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. In 1945, he divorced his wife of 10 years. Their marriage had been unraveling for a while, causing Cage to pen such works as Root of an Unfocus, The Perilous Night, and Daughters of the Lonesome Isle. He was clearly distressed. But the more he composed, the more he realized that music failed to communicate his feelings. It made him feel worse.

Cage, like many artists, had taken it as a given that the point of music was to share emotions. But in one of his lessons with Sarabhai, she mentioned that, in India, music had a different purpose. “To sober and quiet the mind,” she said, “thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” Cage was taken aback. She didn’t mention feelings at all. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed she had a point. Sounds don’t have emotions. They’re meaningless. He wondered whether Western music had it all wrong.

Cage was onto something. The idea that music should express feelings is relatively new. Before the Enlightenment, European music was functional—it didn’t gush from a brooding composer’s soul. Instead, it was a conduit for dance, song, or praise. Even in Mozart’s day, it was heavily improvised—the composer’s control was limited. But in the early 19th century, the Romantic movement—a celebration of ego and emotion—erupted, and suddenly, the artist’s feelings meant everything. Composers asserted more power over how their music was played, and improvisation practically vanished. By Cage’s time, classical composers—serialists especially—were micromanaging every detail.

Cage was convinced this rift was a mistake. Music wasn’t about the composer: It was about the sounds. So he removed himself from his work. Just as Jackson Pollock embraced the uncertainty of splattered paint, Cage started to flip coins and let heads or tails dictate which notes or rhythms came next. His “chance music” gave performers more liberty to play whatever they liked.

The technique was a perfect stew of Zen and Dada. Both, after all, teach that everything is one and the same, that labels are arbitrary. Art, non-art. Music, noise. Sound, silence. There’s no difference. It’s just perception. The croak of a frog can be just as musical as the purr of a cello if you choose to hear it that way. This wasn’t a new concept. Sitting around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau outlined the same thought, writing: “The commonest and cheapest sounds, as the barking of a dog, produce the same effect on fresh and healthy ears as the rarest music does. It depends on your appetite for sound.” By the late 1940s, Cage was hell-bent on changing our appetite for sound. He just needed a spark.

Enter Muzak.

JOHN CAGE (1990) THE FESTIVAL DES HORENS, ERLANGEN PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICH MALTER COURTESY OF THE JOHN CAGE TRUST

BY 1949, A CULTURAL PLAGUE was being piped into offices, train stations, and bus terminals: canned, generic background music. The brainchild of an Army general, the idea was pure packaged capitalism. The Muzak Corporation sold hundreds of businesses and cities on the promise that a wash of faint background music would increase productivity, quell boredom, and prevent people from skipping work.

Cage hated it. It was just more proof that silence was going extinct. America’s soundscape had changed drastically after World War II. Traffic drowned out birdsong. Construction clanged through the night. Before the phonograph, if you wanted music, you often had to make it yourself. Now it was like wallpaper—just another part of your surroundings. For musicians, that alone made Muzak public enemy No. 1. But nonmusicians complained that it was annoying. Commuters in Washington, D.C., despised Muzak so much that they eventually fought it at the Supreme Court, arguing that it infringed on their right to be left alone. They lost.

The revolt was the trigger Cage needed to create a silent piece. At the time, Cage wrote, “I want to ... compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be three or four minutes long—these being the standard lengths of canned music.” Tongue-in-cheek as it sounded, Cage wasn’t kidding. He may have schemed 4'33" to “provide listeners with a blessed four-and-a-half-minute respite from forced listening,” writes Kyle Gann in No Such Thing as Silence. Cage was the captive audience’s savior.

By 1950, Cage was serious about writing a silent piece of music. It wouldn’t just be a Zen experiment. It would also be a political statement: an attempt to restore, for a brief moment, the silence industrial America had lost, a plea asking people to listen closely again. Still, the idea seemed radical. Cage had a reputation to uphold, and he didn’t want people to think it was a shtick. “I have a horror of appearing an idiot,” he confessed. So he approached the project as he would any new work—by experimenting. In 1951, Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard, a foam-padded room designed to absorb every ripple of sound, to hear what silence was really like. But there, in one of the quietest rooms in the world, Cage sat and listened—and heard something: the whooshing of his own blood. It was an epiphany. For as long as he lived, there would be no such thing as true silence.

That same year, Cage walked through an art gallery and saw a series of flat white canvases by Robert Rauschenberg. The paintings were blasphemy, a big middle finger to the art establishment. There was no narrative, no gesture, no representation—just white streaked with thin black vertical lines. Cage, however, saw Zen: The paintings highlighted shadows, light, and dust falling onto the canvases. Depending on when and where you stood, they always looked different. The painter had no control—the surroundings did. “Oh yes, I must,” Cage thought. “Otherwise ... music is lagging.”

LESS THAN A YEAR LATER, 4'33" made its debut in Woodstock. It was greeted as heresy. During a post-concert Q&A session, a peeved audience member yelled, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town!” Two years later, popular reaction hadn’t changed. When the piece made its New York City debut, The New York Times called it “hollow, sham, pretentious Greenwich Village exhibitionism.” Even Cage’s mother thought it went too far. But more sympathetic listeners saw it as a perplexing thought experiment, an IV drip of instant Zen. Musicians from John Lennon to Frank Zappa to John Adams would go on to hail it as genius.

The value people see in 4'33" is best explained by bread crumbs. One day, Cage was at a restaurant with the abstract painter Willem de Kooning, arguing about art. At one point, De Kooning made a rectangle with his fingers and dropped them over some crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning piped. Cage shook his head. The frame, he argued, meant everything.

Dump a virtuoso violinist on the street corner, and nearly everyone will walk past without a second look. Put the same violinist in a concert hall and 1,500 people will hang onto every note. The concert hall is a frame—a palace for listening—and when you frame silence there, incidental sounds may froth to the foreground. The hum of the lighting. The ticking of your wristwatch. The mad ringing in your ear. If you stop and contemplate the world buzzing around you, you may realize how rich and interesting it can be.

Cage’s point has largely fallen on deaf ears. A University of Virginia study published in July 2014 put hundreds of people in an empty, quiet room alone for 15 minutes. Most participants found it insufferable—25 percent of women and 67 percent of men opted to endure painful electric shocks rather than pass the time without any stimulation.

4'33" is a gentle reminder to embrace your surroundings, to be present. If art seems severed from life—isolated in concert halls and art galleries— that’s a matter of your perception. But, as Gann says, if you pay the same attention to the hum of traffic or the rustling of wind as you would your favorite album, you just might realize that the line dividing art and life, music and noise, doesn’t actually exist. If you treat every sound as you would music, you just might hear something unexpected, something beautiful. At its core, 4'33" isn’t about listening to nothing. It’s about listening to everything.

8 Hilarious Historical Feuds

Mark Twain was no fan of the postal service.
Mark Twain was no fan of the postal service.
popovaphoto (Twain), yellowdesign (Background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Some feuds make—and change!—history. The Hatfields and McCoys. Edison versus Tesla. Coke and Pepsi. Here are eight tales of petty jealousy and downright spite that were made for the history books. (And we’ve determined the winners!)

1. Hate Mail // Mark Twain vs. the Postal Service

Mark Twain hated basically everything to do with the post office. Stamps? “When England in 1848 invented stamps, my feelings were decidedly anti-English.” The cost of sending mail overseas? “Downright robbery.” The requirement to write a full address on envelopes? “[W]ords utterly wasted; and, mind you, when a man is paid by the word … this sort of thing hurts.”

Twain’s hatred was long-running. When he was young, he lived in Nevada and held a job ask a clerk for Senator William Stewart. He had this to say when a constituent wrote asking the government to build a new post office: “What the mischief do … you want with a post office? … If any letters came there, you couldn’t read them. … No, don’t bother about a post office … What you want is a nice jail.”

When, in 1879, the private secretary to the Postmaster General tried to respond to some of Twain’s criticism, the novelist shot back: “You are not the Post Office Department, but only an irresponsible, inexpensive, and unnecessary appendage to it.”

The post office responded by merely doing its job—sometimes under impossible circumstances. One time, when Twain forgot the address of a friend, he wrote on the envelope: “To MR. C.M. UNDERHILL, who is in the coal business in one of those streets there, and is very respectably connected, both by marriage & general descent, and is a tall man & old but without any gray hair & used to be handsome. BUFFALO N.Y. from MARK TWAIN P.S. A little bald on the top of his head.”

The post office successfully delivered the letter.

Winner: All the couriers swiftly completing their appointed rounds.

2. Vulturegate // John James Audubon vs. Charles Waterton

In the 1820s, John James Audubon—the American ornithologist and future author of the world’s most expensive book, The Birds of America—was obsessed with vultures. He was particularly fascinated by the bird’s eating habits: Audubon believed the scavengers didn’t find rotting meals with their sense of smell, as commonly believed, but rather used their eyesight.

When Audubon lectured on his theory in 1826, he made the British conservationist, Charles Waterton, deeply upset. Waterton had written extensively about the turkey vulture’s ostensibly excellent sense of smell in one of his books and was so offended by the new theory that he suggested that Audubon “ought to be whipped.” Waterton’s pro-smell cronies encamped in a group called “Nosarians” and tried to smear Audubon’s credibility, making pointed attacks at his abilities as a writer: “Its grammar is bad; its composition poor; and its statements are so unsatisfactory.” According to zoologist Lucy Cooke in her book The Truth About Animals, Waterton kept at his crusade for years:

“Over the course of five years, Waterton wrote no less than nineteen letters to the Magazine of Natural History attacking Audubon and anyone in his orbit. When the journal finally stopped publishing his letters, he reportedly continued to print and distribute them himself. His efforts were futile. His impenetrable, rambling diatribes, punctuated with sardonic ad hominems and obscure Latin phrases, won him few allies. ... The louder Waterton shouted, the more he was ignored. In the end, he was forced to give up.”

Experiments would later support Audubon’s position, and today, it’s generally agreed that all vultures use sight. But in the 1960s, new research found turkey vultures do actually use smell [PDF]. So while Audubon was right about most vultures, he was wrong to call out turkey vultures for not being able to smell (he likely confused them with the non-smelling black vultures). Nowadays even the Audubon Society says the turkey vulture “has a well-developed sense of smell.” That’s got to sting.

Winner: Charles Waterton and turkey vultures.

3. The Race to the North Pole // Frederick A. Cook vs. Robert E. Peary

In 1908, Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary were in a bitter race to the top of the world. Cook would insist he had reached the pole first, but an act of possible sabotage would damage his claim.

On his return trip, Cook had stopped in Annoatok, Greenland, and ran into an American hunter named Harry Whitney. Looking to offload some weight for the next leg of his journey, Cook entrusted Whitney with his supplies—including his navigational records and sextant—under the impression that Whitney would safely take them to New York City. They would meet later.

Months later, Robert Peary—fresh from his own expedition north—would appear in Annoatok with a boat. Whitney was thirsty to leave Greenland, and Peary agreed to help take Whitney home under one condition: That he leave all of Cook’s supplies behind. Whitney accepted. Cook, with his equipment lost somewhere in Greenland, would never be able to defend his claim. The New York Times, which had helped sponsor Peary’s trip, would say that Cook's claim was “The most astonishing imposture since the human race came on earth.”

Seventy-nine years later, in 1988, the newspaper would issue a correction. It remains unclear if either man actually reached the pole.

Winner: The tourism office in Annoatok, Greenland.

4. Gravity Grievances // Robert Hooke vs. Isaac Newton

In 1665, Robert Hooke looked through a microscope at a piece of cork and was immediately reminded of a monastery. Believing the latticework of small structures he saw resembled a monk’s chamber, he decided to give them a familiar name: Cellula, or cells.

The discovery of the cell is just one of Robert Hooke’s many accomplishments. He did “pioneering work in optics, gravitation, paleontology, architecture, and more,” according to Alasdair Wilkins at io9. He was also an influence on Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity—he wrote to Newton about the idea around 1680—and was convinced that Newton would have never cooked up with theory without his help. So why isn’t Hooke a household name?

Newton might be at fault. For years, the two scientists quibbled over credit for a slew of discoveries, and it irked Newton. In one letter, Newton wrote to Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As Wilkins explains, this may not have been a compliment. Hooke was short and hunchbacked, and it’s possible that Newton was taking a swipe at the scientist: Your influence is as small as your stature. When Hooke died and Newton became the president of the Royal Society, Newton’s acolytes wrote off Hooke as a footnote. In fact, under Newton’s leadership, the only painting of Hooke in existence went missing. Some argue, without evidence, that Newton had it burned.

Winner: Isaac Newton, conspiracy theorists, fans of mitochondria.

5. The Bone Wars // Othniel Charles Marsh vs. Edward Drinker Cope

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope would discover around 130 dinosaur species in the mid- to late-19th century, introducing the world to big names such as Triceratops and Stegosaurus. You’d think that these two heavyweight paleontologists, with all of their shared interests, would have worked well together, right?

At first, they did. But in 1868, everything changed. For years, Cope had been classifying fossils discovered in the marl quarries near Haddonfield, New Jersey. When Marsh visited Cope to take a tour of the pits, he secretly made an agreement with the quarry owners stipulating that he was entitled to the fossils they found. Cope was furious. Later, Marsh discovered that Cope had reconstructed one of his dinosaur skeletons backward, mistaking the animal’s tail for its neck. The information went public and deeply embarrassed Cope. A toxic rivalry was born.

For the next three decades, the two men spread toxic smears as they raced to collect the most fossils—what is now known as the Bone Wars. According to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, “Cope’s rushed work was plagued by careless errors. Marsh often resorted to bribery and bullying in the pursuit of specimens.” The ruthless feud would transform both men into legends of paleontology—and would lead them to financial ruin.

Winner: Michael Crichton's bank account.

6. The Astor Riots // William Macready vs. Edwin Forrest

If you think the Oscar fight for “Best Actor” is fraught today, it was much worse in 1849. Back then, the race for the best Shakespearean actor fell to two men: William Macready, a British critical darling, and Edwin Forrest, one of America’s first great homegrown stars. For years, the British and American press debated who was the better actor, and the two men attracted a loyal—and occasionally belligerent—following. (Once, Forrest went to one of Macready’s performances and hissed from the seats.)

But the rivalry became more symbolic in the 1840s, as America’s sentiment for the British soured. (An influx of Irish immigrants, who despised all things British, amped up the vitriol.) So, in May 1849, when Macready appeared in the role of Macbeth at the Astor Opera House in New York City, he was greeted with boos and volleys of garbage.

Macready continued his performances at the urging of the New York literati, prompting political opportunists at Tammany Hall to paste posters across the city asking WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICA OR ENGLAND RULE IN THIS CITY? Soon, the question of who was the better actor took on a larger meeting. Thousands of protestors congregated outside the theater, the militia was called, and a riot broke out. At least 22 people died, making it, according to JSTOR Daily, “the deadliest civic insurrection in American history up to that time.”

Winner: Nobody.

7. Life After Death // Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Harry Houdini

Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were fascinated by spiritualism, albeit for different reasons. Houdini was a professional illusionist who made a living fooling people. Before he was a household name, he earned a small income by hosting séances and pretending to speak to the dead. As badly as he wanted to believe in the afterlife, he was skeptical of anybody who claimed to have the power to communicate with the other side.

Houdini’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle, however, sincerely believed that he could access the afterlife. In fact, his wife Jean moonlighted as a medium. One day, she claimed to summon Houdini’s dead mother and received a 15-page message from beyond the grave. There was one problem: The ghost wrote in impeccable English. Houdini’s mother was Hungarian, and spoke almost no English at all.

For Houdini, it was a breaking point. The two men never reconciled their differences. Houdini would go on to describe mediums as “human leeches,” charlatans who exploited people’s grief, and would dedicate great energy to exposing fraudulent mediums. His crusade to debunk these con artists was so great that some have theorized that Houdini may have been poisoned by angry psychics.

Winner: Rationalism and sucker punches to the gut.

8. A Puzzling Philosophical Problem // Dr. Karl Popper vs. Ludwig Wittgenstein

At Cambridge University, it was tradition to hold a weekly discussion for the university’s philosophers and their students. On one such evening, in 1946, the guest was Dr. Karl Popper with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in attendance. It would be the first—and last—time all three philosophers were in the same room together.

Popper presented a paper called “Are There Philosophical Problems?”, a jab at Wittgenstein, who argued there were no such problems—only linguistic puzzles. Wittgenstein grew so impassioned as he argued with Popper that he picked up a red hot fireplace poker and began waving it around for emphasis. When Russell demanded that Wittgenstein put the poker down, Wittgenstein stormed out of the room.

At least, that’s one version of events. Some say Wittgenstein was physically threatening Popper. Others suggest Popper was ready to take a literal stab at Wittgenstein himself. Whatever the case, it’s fitting that nobody has been able to verify what, exactly, occurred: Popper’s most famous contribution to philosophy was, after all, a critique of verificationism.

WINNER: Uncertainty.

12 Splendid Facts About Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace
Baloncici/iStock via Getty Images

Kensington Palace might not be quite as famous as Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II’s primary residence and the longstanding center of the British monarchy, but its history is every bit as important—and intriguing. From William and Mary’s original occupancy in 1689 to William and Kate’s more recent one, the opulent estate has teemed with royals of every station (and possibly even a few ghosts) for more than three centuries. Read on to find out 12 fascinating facts about the palace that Edward VIII once called the “aunt heap.”

1. King William III and Queen Mary II relocated to Kensington Palace because of William’s asthma.

In 1689, King William III and Queen Mary II kicked off their coregency at Whitehall Palace, the longstanding home of the crown along the Thames River in central London. But the dirty, damp air aggravated William’s asthma, so the couple immediately began searching for a more suburban location. They found it in Nottingham House, a modest villa just a couple of miles from the city, and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to expand the estate. The rulers moved in shortly before Christmas that same year, and the newly-christened Kensington Palace soon became the heart of the monarchy.

2. Kensington Palace was the location of Queen Anne’s final argument with childhood friend Sarah Churchill.

queen anne
A portrait of Queen Anne.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Queen Anne, the eccentric, gout-ridden ruler played by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman in 2018’s The Favourite, split her time between Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace, overseeing renovations in both places. It was at Kensington that she financed the redecoration of Lady Abigail Masham’s apartments, an extravagant show of favoritism that further deteriorated the Queen's relationship with close childhood friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Kensington was also the setting for their final, friendship-ending argument in 1711, after which Anne stripped Sarah and her husband of their rankings and banished them from court.

3. Queen Victoria was born and raised in Kensington Palace.

queen victoria statue at kensington palace
A statue of Queen Victoria, sculpted by her daughter, Louise, outside Kensington Palace.
marcin_libera/iStock via Getty Images

In June 1837, less than a month after her 18th birthday, Princess Victoria was informed that her uncle, King William IV, had died, and she would soon be crowned queen. She had lived at Kensington Palace for her whole life, and many expected her to rule from there or relocate to St. James’s Palace, her uncle’s primary residence. Instead, she set up shop in Buckingham Palace, which has been the official home of Britain’s sovereign ever since.

4. The Duke of Windsor nicknamed Kensington Palace the “Aunt Heap.”

Starting with Queen Victoria’s daughters Beatrice and Louise, Kensington Palace became the go-to place for monarchs to house various—often peripheral—members of the royal family. This tradition continued through the early 20th century, prompting the Duke of Windsor (Queen Elizabeth II’s throne-abdicating uncle Edward) to dub it the “aunt heap.”

5. Kensington Palace is said to be haunted.

Unsurprisingly, the rumors of ghosts roaming the halls of Kensington Palace are largely unsubstantiated. That said, there are quite a few of them: King George II supposedly looms over the King’s Gallery uttering his alleged last words, “Why won’t they come?” and Princess Margaret’s housekeeper saw an unknown “woman in Regency dress” in the doorway of the drawing room. Caroline of Brunswick, Caroline of Ansbach, and Princess Sophia have all been seen hanging around the palace, too—and the nursery in William and Kate’s wing of the estate is reportedly a hotbed for paranormal activity.

6. J.M. Barrie installed a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens without permission.

peter pan statue at kensington gardens
Sir George Frampton's sculpture of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
icenando/iStock via Getty Images

Among J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan works was Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a 1906 novel in which Peter leaves his London home and takes up residence in Kensington Gardens, cavorting with fairies and sailing around in a bird’s nest. In 1912, Barrie commissioned Sir George Frampton to create a bronze statue of Peter and secretly installed it in the gardens without asking permission. His newspaper announcement about the statue explained that it was meant to be a surprise “May-day gift” for children.

7. Kensington Palace was damaged during a World War II bombing.

Between 1940 and 1941, the Luftwaffe—Germany’s air force—targeted London with a relentless, catastrophic series of bombings that came to be known as the Blitz (the German word for lightning). Kensington Palace didn’t emerge totally unscathed: Bombs damaged the northern side of the palace and the queen’s drawing room.

8. The Kensington Palace grounds were flooded with around 60 million flowers after Princess Diana’s death.

kensington palace lawn covered in flowers after princess diana's death
An aerial view of the flowers on the Kensington Palace lawn during the week after Princess Diana's death.
David Brauchli/Getty Images

After their marriage in 1981, Princess Diana and Prince Charles moved into Apartment 8 at Kensington Palace and eventually raised their sons, William and Harry, there. Following Diana’s fatal car crash in 1997, mourners covered the palace grounds with an estimated 60 million flowers, as well as stuffed animals, flags, photos, and notes. Some bouquets were later used to compost the surrounding gardens, while others were donated to hospitals and nursing homes.

9. Nicky Hilton was married in Kensington Palace’s Orangery.

kensington palace orangery
The Kensington Palace Orangery.
Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Queen Anne’s largest contribution to Kensington Palace was the construction of the Orangery, an expansive greenhouse built in 1704 with enough room for her to house exotic plants and also host lavish summer parties. It’s used for similarly extravagant events today—Nicky Hilton got married there in 2015.

10. Prince William and Kate Middleton live at Kensington Palace with their family—and several other royals.

william, kate, harry, and the obamas at kensington palace
Prince William and Kate Middleton host Michelle and Barack Obama in the drawing room of Apartment 1A in 2016.
Dominic Lipinski, WPA Pool/Getty Images

William and Kate live in Kensington Palace’s expansive 20-room Apartment 1A with their three children, but they’re not the only royals currently posted up in various corners of the estate. Princess Eugenie and her husband, Jack Brooksbank, live in Ivy Cottage; the Queen’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent and his wife, Marie Christine von Reibnitz, occupy Apartment 10; and Michael’s older brother, the Duke of Kent, lives with his wife in Wren House.

11. Kensington Palace is staging its first theater production in 2020.

Throughout February and March of this year, acclaimed theater group Les Enfants Terribles is performing an immersive show called “United Queendom,” which explores the relationship between King George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, and his mistress, Henrietta Howard, in 1734. It’s Kensington Palace’s very first theatrical event to date, and it promises “political intrigue, court games, high drama, scandalous gossip, and smiling through gritted teeth.”

12. The design of Billy Porter’s 2020 Oscars gown was inspired by Kensington Palace.

billy porter oscars 2020 dress
Billy Porter stunts in his Kensington Palace-inspired gown at the 92nd Oscars ceremony on February 9, 2020.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Inspired by a tour of Kensington Palace, Billy Porter’s stylist, Sam Ratelle, enlisted British fashion designer Giles Deacon—perhaps best known for designing Pippa Middleton’s wedding dress—to craft an Oscar gown for Porter using design elements from the royal estate. The final product featured a high-necked, gold-leaf bodice and a full, billowing skirt bearing images of Roman statues from Kensington’s Cupola Room.

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