These days, the term nepo baby—short for nepotism baby—is most often levied against a famous entertainer descended from another famous entertainer or affluent family of some kind. Like Dakota Johnson, whose parents are Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Or Law and Order legend Mariska Hargitay, whose mom was blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield.
More loosely, though, a nepo baby could be anyone whose forebears paved the way for their own success, whether via helpful connections in a given industry or just because familial wealth freed them up to pursue their passions. Here are a handful of historical figures who you might not have realized were nepo babies—from actors like Charlie Chaplin to ancient politicians like Pericles.
1. Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s mother was Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee, a poet who wrote for the Irish nationalist newspaper The Nation under the pseudonym “Speranza”—meaning “hope” in Italian. In 1848, one of her pieces actually prompted the government to shut down the publication on grounds of sedition. When Oscar’s own literary star was on the rise a few decades later, some people still just called him “Speranza’s son.”
Oscar’s dad was no slacker, either: William Wilde was mid-19th-century Ireland’s most famous ophthalmic surgeon (which might be the most niche claim to fame in history). He also edited a scientific journal and published some of his own writings. In Oscar’s 1897 longform letter De Profundis, he wrote that his parents “had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology and science, but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation.”
2. Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin is such a household name that you probably assumed he was the origin point of his own nepo baby chain. His kids include the actor Geraldine Chaplin (who is also descended from Eugene O’Neil), and her kids include Oona Chaplin, whom Game of Thrones fans know best as Lady Talisa, wife of Robb Stark. But Charlie Chaplin’s backstory has notes of nepotism in it, too.
His parents, Charles Chaplin Sr. and Hannah Chaplin—stage name Lily Harley—were both comic performers in 19th-century British musical halls. Charlie Jr. got his stage start at age 9 in a traveling clogging troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads. The whole thing was Charlie Sr.’s idea: He knew the troupe’s manager, and was probably trying to get his son a paying job so he wouldn’t be on the hook for child support payments.
3. Jean Renoir
Famed French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir fostered the filmmaking career of his son, Jean Renoir, in a different way. In 1924, Jean financed his first movie, Catherine, or Une Vie sans joie, by selling some paintings by his father, who had died five years prior. Many a film buff considers Jean Renoir just as talented as his dad: His 1939 film La Règle du jeu, or The Rules of the Game, came in 13th on Sight and Sound’s 2022 list of the greatest films of all time.
4. George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush wasn’t the patriarch of the Bush political dynasty. His father, Prescott Bush, was a Republican senator for Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. Prescott’s dad, Samuel Prescott Bush, was a wealthy Ohio industrialist who served on the federal government’s War Industries Board during World War I.
Two of George H.W.’s kids, former president George W. Bush and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, have stretched the fam’s political legacy to four generations, if you count Samuel’s government work. Jeb’s son, George P. Bush, is doing his best to keep it going: He was the Texas land commissioner from 2015 to 2023 and formed a political action committee in May 2023.
5. John Quincy Adams
George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are one of just two father-son presidential pairs in U.S. history. The other duo is John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. Historian David McCullough told The Washington Post in 2000 that “John Adams saw the rise of his son with nothing but pleasure. Although he worried about the strain of the presidency on him, it seems pretty apparent he saw his son as redeeming his defeat.” The elder Adams had lost his reelection campaign in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. Ah, fathers using their sons as a way to redeem their own failures … that’s always healthy.
6. Benjamin Harrison
While we’re on the topic of U.S. presidents, let’s talk about the Harrisons. Benjamin Harrison held the office from 1889 to 1893. Not only was he the son of a congressman, but he was also the grandson of a president—William Henry Harrison—and the great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison V, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Politics ran in Pericles’s family, too. The ancient Greek statesman is generally credited with kickstarting the Golden Age of Athens in the 5th century BCE. During his tenure as the de facto head of Athens’s democratic assembly, the city became Greece’s cultural and political epicenter. Building the Parthenon, for example, was Pericles’s idea. But without his parents’ pedigree, he wouldn’t have had the power or money to get into governing in the first place. His mother, Agariste, was a member of the extremely influential and wealthy Alcmaeonid family; and his father was a wealthy politician named Xanthippus.
8. Leo Tolstoy
As historian Harlow Robinson wrote in 1983, “To be born a Tolstoy was to enter one of the most celebrated, talented and resilient families in Russian history and to take one’s place in a line of artists, writers, diplomats, scoundrels and eccentrics that stretched back to the 14th century. Few families in any country have succeeded, century after century, in maintaining such a preeminent position in political, artistic and social life.” The Kardashians work hard, but the Tolstoys worked harder.
9. Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin wasn’t the first scientific smarty in the Darwin family. His paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a poet, physician, botanist, and naturalist who wrote a theory of evolution in his 1794 book Zoonomia; Or, the Laws of Organic Life. In Charles’s autobiography, written in 1876, he gave his grandfather a backwards hat-tip of sorts for inspiring him to study evolution: “I had previously read the ‘Zoonomia’ of my grandfather … but without producing any effect on me. Nevertheless it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my ‘Origin of Species.’ At this time I admired greatly the ‘Zoonomia;’ but on reading it a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years, I was much disappointed; the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given.”
10. Ludwig van Beethoven
When you say the name Ludwig van Beethoven, nobody asks “Which one?” But the composer’s grandfather was also named Ludwig van Beethoven, and he, too, was a musician. Ludwig the Elder was born in Flanders (modern Belgium) and made his debut as a church choir singer at age 5. He learned to play the organ and bounced around various churches as a choir director or singer before moving to Bonn in modern Germany, where he became the court’s official music director in 1761. Though Beethoven was just a few years old when his grandfather died, he held him in very high esteem his whole life—as evidenced by the portrait of Ludwig the Elder that always hung in Beethoven’s house.
11. Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was the daughter of a philosophy power couple: Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned the feminist classic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and William Godwin, often cited as the founder of philosophical anarchism. Basically, he thought governments were stunting our ability to reason, and humankind could only really progress if state institutions didn’t exist at all.
12. Martin Amis
English novelist Martin Amis is best known for books like Money and London Fields. His father, Kingsley Amis, was also a novelist: His debut novel, a satire of university life called Lucky Jim, hit shelves in 1954. In 1990, People’s Jonathan Cooper described the father-son pair as “close,” though they “share a clamorously public rivalry.” Here’s what Kingsley had to say about London Fields: “I suppose I should have tried to read every page, but it was beyond me.” That’s British for “I love you, son.”
13. Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s father was English philosopher and literary critic Leslie Stephen, who edited the first Dictionary of National Biography, which the National Portrait Gallery describes as “the most ambitious literary project of its day.” Stephen actually got knighted in 1902 for his contributions to the field of literature.
14. T.S. Eliot
15. Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson’s grandfather helped finance the establishment of Amherst College in the early 1820s.
16. Ursula K. Le Guin
17. Irène Joliot-Curie
In 1935, Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot, took home the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in synthesizing new radioactive elements. Irène’s mother, Marie Curie, had won the same prize back in 1911 … also for working with radioactive elements. Eight years before that, Marie and her husband (Irène’s father) Pierre had won the physics prize for—you guessed it—studying radiation. Irène is one of no less than eight Nobel Prize winners with a Nobel Prize–winning parent. Or two, in Irene’s case.
18. Louis Zborowski
Let’s end with Louis Zborowski, a race car driver who in the 1920s developed a series of cars called “Chitty Bang Bang”—which inspired Ian Fleming’s 1964 kids’ book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car (and the 1968 musical movie based on it). You heard that right: The same guy created James Bond and everyone’s favorite flying car.
Seems like you’d need some serious capital to fund the invention of a flashy new race car, and Louis had it in spades. His dad, Elliott Zborowski, was a race car driver from New Jersey who had inherited millions from his businessman father. There was big money on Louis’s mother’s side, too: She was a member of New York’s famed Astor family. Louis was far from the Astors’ only nepo baby, but he was probably the only one who indirectly gave us a musical in which Dick Van Dyke goes undercover as a weird clown doll to rescue a bunch of kids from an evil despot.
This story was adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube. Subscribe to Mental Floss on YouTube for new videos every week.