Talent Dynasties

Some families pass talent and skill down the generations like monarchs pass a crown.

By Carlin Flora, published November 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Dynasties endure because they relinquish nothing. the Hiltons and Trumps pass on their fortunes; Bush and Kennedy progeny stand to inherit loyalists and a bank of unused favors. But clans like the Pissarros, Waughs, and Hofstadters perpetuate intangibles—artistic gifts and intellectual firepower. Unlike business scions or politicians, these families are known primarily for the art and ideas that they bequeath to one another—and to the outside world.

It's natural to want to untangle the effects of nature and nurture on these dynasties: Does each generation inherit an innate ability to emote, narrate, or calculate? Alternatively, to what degree are they beneficiaries of occupational privilege? People whose parents are prominent in a field, after all, are born on second base, with plenty of contacts and mentors at their disposal and a whole education at the dinner table. But both strands of inquiry come up short, because for all their allure, true talent dynasties are rare. For every prolific father there are 10 gifted children who run in the opposite direction. For all their differences, then, the families Pissarro, Waugh, Hofstadter, and Brown embody some common truths about talent germination.

In each home, a particular craft or outlook hung in the air like a thin mist for all to breathe. And because family members soaked in so much through osmosis, the plunge into their forebears' pursuits felt like a warm bath, not a cold shock. Time and again, the desire to make their parents happy or simply get their attention was negotiated alongside the equally strong drive to express individuality. "Both my brothers and I painted with my father and grandfather. Every little child wants to please his or her parents. I enjoyed the painting, or maybe the pleasing, more than my brothers, so I carried on," says Lelia Pissarro, great-granddaughter of painter Camille Pissarro.

Each of the four families is complicated but emotionally close. "What helps is the love that we share, the feeling of togetherness that we have in our family," says Gregory Brown, one of the "5 Browns," known for their musical feats. And an unspoken obligation to preserve the family's status is often paired with the seemingly contradictory belief that hard work—not natural talent—makes people shine. Alexander Waugh, of the great Waugh writing dynasty, insists he's not a natural writer. "I work very hard to write well," he avows.

Whether born into a fledgling talent dynasty or a centuries-old powerhouse, each new member confronts the same dilemmas: They have abundant opportunities to succeed but are judged harshly in light of their advantages. They are drawn to the family vocation but must also find a niche where they can be themselves. Douglas Hofstadter, whose father was a Nobel laureate in physics, says he hit "abstraction ceilings" in that field and ventured into a new area—cognitive science—instead. Across the board, theses families are cohesive and emotionally tied to each other, yet free to reinvent themselves in unexpected ways.

LELIA PISSARRO | A Midlife Epiphany

Lelia Pissarro learned how to paint when she was a toddler, on her grandfather's boat. A little blond girl at an easel on a French lake cues a perfect impressionist scene, fitting for a member of what's reputed to be the largest dynasty of painters in the history of Western art. Patriarch Camille Pissarro, Lelia's great-grandfather, born in 1830, was a founder of the French impressionist movement. He taught his five sons to paint; friends Cezanne, Monet, and Gauguin passed through the house regularly and also gave tips to the kids. "We are 19 artists across four generations," says Lelia's father, the Ireland-based painter Hughes-Claude Pissarro. "We call it the Pissarro Circus."

Entering the ring was mandatory. "At one time during my childhood, I wanted to become a vet," Hughes-Claude, now 71, says. "For my parents, that was ridiculous. It was a scandal. So I became an art teacher." When he was a young man, he wanted to escape references to his elders, and so just like his father and uncle did when they first started out, he sold his paintings under an assumed name. "But the public is so fascinated with the family tree that even if we wanted to forget, they wouldn't let us—our real names always came back."

Hughes-Claude accepted that he would never surpass his revolutionary grandfather, not least of all because he lived in a different era. Instead of joining the avant-garde, he carried out his grandfather's legacy by mastering impressionist and post-impressionist techniques. "It was perhaps easier for me because I was not directly in the shadow of a great man, the way my father was."

Lelia, 43, the youngest of the clan's acclaimed artists, sailed inevitably toward an art career. "I learned to draw when I was old enough to hold a pencil. The paints were always out and open," she says. "Both my brothers and I painted with my father and grandfather. Every little child wants to please his or her parents. I enjoyed the painting, or maybe the pleasing, more than my brothers, so I carried on."

When she was 4, she sold her first painting to renowned art dealer Wally Findlay, for five francs. At age 11, she had her first exhibition—thought it was under a pseudonym. Lelia wasn't aware of her family's fame, though, until she went to high school in Paris, where the teachers asked her whether she was one of the Pissarros. "I realized that our family was prized by the intellectual elites, and this made me even prouder than just being famous."

In her thirties, sales of her paintings picked up until she was regularly exhibiting her work in galleries and museums around the world, enjoying the fame that came with her name but truly living up to it. Then she decided to undergo daily psychoanalysis.

"I was a figure artist," she said. "I was carrying on the heritage. It's not that anyone asked me to do it, but I felt it was my responsibility. After five years of psychoanalysis, I realized I was sitting in a prison."

A health crisis pushed Lelia to act on that realization: she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because her mother died of ovarian cancer, she elected to have a double mastectomy. While recovering over the next 18 months, she couldn't paint at all. When she did pick up a brush again, she couldn't bring herself to create her signature formal landscapes. She began painting women's shoes, to represent femininity apart from faces and bodies. And now she's moved completely away from figurative art, painting vivid, large-scale abstract pieces with titles such as You Did Not Say Goodbye and Royal Pheromones. Her Web site proudly states, "Everything I have done, every exhibition, where I studied, who I am related to... all those have no significance today."

Lelia's transformation severed a link in a long chain of impressionist mastery. "I'm not sure I really understand what she does now," says Hughes-Claude, who has always had a close relationship with Lelia. "I'm happy to see her doing things with vitality and passion. That's more important than my opinion." The man who started it all, Camille, was a pioneer who broke from the artistic conventions of his day. Lelia is, in that sense, his truest heir.

Lelia is also the first woman in the family to achieve critical acclaim, a fact that made her own mother burn with jealousy. Along with a bias toward men, the clan also lent more status to the blood Pissarros than to in-laws, Lelia says. "Once they had a family exhibition and didn't include any of my mother's paintings, because she wasn't a Pissarro. She was furious. She said to me, 'You wouldn't be here if it weren't for me.' I'm very respectful of my ancestors, but I don't want to feel special simply because I am a Pissarro. My mother married into the family and made it her future, whereas I was born into it but escaped it."

Lelia's never taught her own children how to paint, though one is set to study art and another, art history. She doesn't believe that genetic talent helps the developing artist very much—if the blood Pissarros are more successful than Pissarros by marriage, perhaps it is because more was expected of them. "What it takes to be a good painter is patience. You have to sit and stand for hours, looking at colors, analyzing in silence. And when something comes from the depths of your stomach and you can put it on the canvas, it's a tremendous pleasure."

THE BROWNS | A Horizontal Dynasty

If anyone wanted to talk on the phone at the Browns' place, he had to go outside. That's because at any moment, three or four pianos would be ringing out inside their modest house. The siblings who now make up the piano quintet the 5 Browns—Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody, and Ryan—were the first family to simultaneously study at the Juilliard School. They've now accomplished the Holy Grail for a classical group—they're pulling in large, young audiences. (Their third album, Browns in Blue, was released in 2007.)

The Brown kids are not legacy preservers as much as breakout beneficiaries of a music-loving line. Their success shows how an ability can be honed over time: The raw talent and casual music making of their grandparents ingrained a more refined appreciation for music in their parents, who then brought up a brood of virtuosos.

Their father, Keith, recounts that his grandfather had an amazing tenor voice and that his 12 great-uncles all sang very well. Their mother, Lisa, says her own grandmother banged out Irish and Scottish tunes by ear, and Lisa was the first in her family to take music lessons. "When Keith and I got married," she recalls, "we got a little 1939 Steinway upright for $1,000. It was the first thing we bought."

"There was no master plan," says Keith. "But unbeknownst to us at the time, there were probably 15 major decisions that were made along the way, and had any one of those gone differently, none of this 5 Browns stuff would have happened." His part-time hobby of investing in European sports cars, for example, became a way to pay the bills, which gave him the flexibility to homeschool the kids, which became the only way for them to practice and have time to pursue other interests. And when the family moved to Utah from Houston, "We went from this loving Russian teacher who was creative and artistic to this whip-cracking, it's-got-to-be-perfect stickler. If either of those teachers had had different styles, or if their order had been reversed, the kids wouldn't have made it this far."

The financial burden of supporting five growing musicians was heavy. "In Utah, the piano lessons were 30 percent more than our monthly payment for the house," says Keith. "And then we had to sell the house to pay for two more pianos and move into a rental. But we didn't think that was so terrible."

Lisa would sit at the piano bench next to each child, reinforcing the lessons, for a total of seven hours each day. "There were days when it was a joy— things were clicking, we were connecting—and there were days when it was really hard. I had this feeling that I have to give the same amount to the oldest as to the youngest, and so sometimes it was only out of obligation."

Lisa and Keith were careful not to instill a sense of direct competition in the kids, who were never assigned the same pieces at the same time. "I never felt that I was trying to live up to my elder siblings, because it was such a way of life for us," says Melody. "It was really nice to have siblings who understood exactly what you were going through, especially at Juilliard. If I was crying in the hallway after a horrible lesson, they were right there for me." Since the Browns are currently a success because they all play together, their need to break away from the pack and distinguish themselves is less pressing.

As for perpetuating the musical legacy, the Browns, two of whom are married, take a realistic view. "I think we all realize that the likelihood of recreating what we have in our own families is pretty slim," says Deondra. "We don't want to put that pressure on ourselves. But we do want to give our children the attention and opportunities that we each had."

Deondra was the only sibling with perfect pitch, but since they all started so young, it was not a noticeable advantage. "I had some that had attention spans of gnats versus those that sat for hours, to the point where I would say 'go outside and play!' " says Lisa of the kids' different temperaments. As practicing Mormons, Keith and Lisa believe that music is a spiritual force, an idea that has shaped the younger Browns' view that talent is the music that's inside a person and how that's expressed, not a technical knack.

Pressed to say who among the group were the most naturally gifted as beginners, though, Desirae says, "Deondra and Melody have these skinny, long fingers; it's easier to have shorter fingers when you are first starting. I remember laughing when they would play—it was like watching little spider legs get all twisted up. My teacher would look at me sternly and 'shhh!' me. But the ones for whom it came more naturally were a bit lazier, while the others had such a drive, like, 'Boy, I have to keep up!'"

While each Brown has developed his or her own playing style, any initial differences in aptitude were obliterated by incessant practice. "If you do something for three or four hours a day for 10 years, with just a reasonable amount of aptitude, you're going to get good," says Keith. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, has spent his career proving that very point: He's studied expert performers in sports, music, and chess, and has concluded that they were made, not born.

The younger Browns overlook the talent-work debate by naming another factor in their success: emotional closeness. "What helped us eventually be the 5 Browns is the love that we share, the feeling of togetherness that we have in our family," Gregory says. "That in itself helped us keep going, not even just in music."

ALEXANDER WAUGH | The Self-aware Heir

Alexander Waugh, son of the inflammatory but widely loved British journalist Auberon Waugh, grandson of literary giant Evelyn Waugh, great-grandson of poet and publisher Arthur Waugh, tells readers of his memoir, Fathers and Sons, with a nearly audible sigh, that "the whole Waugh thing needed sorting."

All told, nine of Alexander's relatives have produced 180 books; he himself has published two acclaimed nonfiction works: Time and God. The "sorting" of his own dynasty included identifying core characteristics that drove the Waughs, including a fear of boredom and the compulsion to amuse others. "Evelyn was probably terrified of depression, though he expressed it as boredom," Alexander says. "He did things to get stimulation and often caused great offense in the process."

Evelyn's son Auberon obliged his father with highly amusing, gossip-filled letters from boarding school and expected his own children to be equally entertaining. "The great sin in our house was to bore him," Alexander says. "He used to say ' 'trest me!'—his very own contraction for 'interest me.' "

The Waughs also had a tradition of favoring one child. Arthur (Alexander's great-grandfather) worshipped his son Alec while kindly tolerating Evelyn. "The inferiority that Evelyn felt made him become a great writer and beat his brother at the one thing their father cared most about," Alexander says. Evelyn in turn favored his daughter Meg and took her on trips with him.

Alexander's father, Auberon, stopped the cycle of favoritism, and, curiously, he did not inspire in his children a love of books. Auberon, a workaholic who rarely emerged from his study, taught Alexander more about wine than about writing, and seldom talked about his famous father, Evelyn.

The Waughs' literary dynasty is an unapologetic patriarchy. "My mother is a writer, too," Alexander says. "She was a more obvious influence on us, as she took us to art galleries and was enthusiastic about literature. It's harder to describe my father's influence, yet I feel in every bone in my body that his was more profound."

Alexander knew he would eventually be a writer. But he first studied music, produced records, and wrote musicals, all of which he says made his father "gloomy." Auberon was delighted when Alexander began writing, initially as an opera critic. "I don't have a drop of natural talent. I work very hard to write well," Alexander insists. "If you're in a family of writers, though, you have no fear of writing.

Whereas other people try to start and get dizzy and think, 'I have to have a brilliant opening line,' I just saw it as a craft. Also, if you grow up around writers, people are talking with a rich vocabulary and in a precise manner, so you are brought up to think clearly."

But these advantages are balanced by the world's high expectations. "You have to write better than everyone else. People are dying to say that the family has gone from less good to second-rate," says Alexander. "There was a review of my memoir in a San Francisco paper which was mostly favorable but which said at the end that it wasn't as good as an Evelyn Waugh novel." Most writers would not be subjected to such a pointless comparison. "I would love to get on with what I do without constant references to my ancestors, but that won't happen. I'll always be referred to as a Waugh."

Alexander tries to sidestep the inevitable comparisons by focusing on genres not colonized by his forebears: He says he will never write a novel or become a newspaper columnist. "This may sound conceited, but I'd like to think I've done better than they would have done had they tried to write the same books I've written."

And Auberon, who died in 2001, might have agreed. When Time was published, Alexander first learned of his father's opinion of it in a review Auberon wrote. He called it a masterpiece. Recalling that moment, Alexander writes, "As far as I was concerned it was a rare and personal message—after a lifetime of doubting and quavering confidence, a final thumbs-up to his elder son... I suppose, when I think of it, that all of us Waughs only become writers to impress our fathers."

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER | Dynasty as Supernova

In 1961, Douglas Hofstadter's father, Robert, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the structure of nucleons. It was the kind of honor that could intimidate a son. But Douglas went on to earn his own accolades: In 1980, he won a Pulitzer Prize for the now-classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a literary, scientific, and philosophical tome that examines similarities between the work and lives of logician Kurt Gödel, artist M. C. Escher, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

His father didn't push him into science; Douglas was pulled toward it. "I was predisposed to be curious about the world," Douglas says. "My father did tell me about square roots, and he dumped on me that there was a square root of negative one, and that it was an 'imaginary' number. Imaginary! I could see that the world went way beyond simple things."

The family moved to California in 1950, to Stanford University's family housing in ex-military barracks. "It was a very ugly place," says Douglas. "But they had an amazing circle of friends there. It included people from many disciplines—all warm, loving people. I was surrounded by books, most of which I didn't read, but I absorbed that books were important. My parents never told me anything about music; they just had music, and my mother would play Cole Porter on the piano. She was very interested in language and had a brilliant sense of humor. Both of them cared deeply about other people. I was never told that was important, though. It was all learning by example."

A formidable year for Douglas was his 13th, when the family went to Geneva for his father's sabbatical. "I learned to speak French and became incredibly, powerfully drawn to languages and people of different cultures." Another profound influence on his thinking was his younger sister, Molly, who is severely disabled and does not speak. "When you see brain damage, you realize that everything comes back to physical structures. Brains are responsible for our selves and our souls. It's all physical."

Though he knew he was one of the best students in his high school, Douglas worried that he was not smart enough. "I hate to admit it," he says, "but when I was 15 or 16, I was obsessed with IQ scores. I thought that number was destiny." Around the same time, he remembers his father and a colleague ecstatically poring over a graph in their apartment. "I was convinced that he'd discovered some basic secret of the universe. Though my father never mentioned prizes—for him the motivation was in understanding and penetrating mysteries—I somehow knew he would win the Nobel Prize that year." For Douglas, his father's win came at the perfect time. "I was terribly insecure; it made me feel that if my dad can do this, then I've got a good chance of being a major leaguer." In typical teenage fashion, the boost gave way to a bit of braggadocio: "Until I was about 21, I would drop little things, such as references to Sweden, into conversations so that it would come up. 'Why did you go to Sweden?' someone would ask. And I would say, 'Well, my dad won the Nobel Prize.' I'm glad to say that that inner need for showing off went away."

The award was never what his father most cared about, but it served an important purpose: It gave Douglas the security that he, too, could accomplish something great.

After graduate school in physics, where Douglas hit "abstraction ceilings" and became convinced that he would be a mediocre physicist at best, he ventured into cognitive science, making models of how the mind works and how we use analogies to understand the world. "Eventually I found a niche in which a combination of abilities allowed me to flourish." If Douglas's current titles at Indiana University don't sum him up, they at least showcase his eclectic interests: professor of cognitive science and computer science; adjunct professor of history and philosophy of science, philosophy, comparative literature, and psychology; and director of the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition.

Immortalizing the Hofstadter name was as far from Douglas's mind as it was from his father's. But now that each has received renown, attention automatically turns to his children.

"I don't think that my children are at all similar to me," Douglas says of his 19-year-old son and his 15-year-old daughter, both of whom were raised in a robust intellectual atmosphere akin to Douglas's own childhood. "I don't think either of them will set the world on fire, nor do they want to. I deeply resent when people say that one of my children will be another blah-blah prizewinner. Even friends say that my kids are going to do wonderful things. The presumption is that there is magic in the genes, or in the name. I shrug and say something like, 'As long as they are happy.'"

"My son is at Indiana University," Douglas says. "Some of his friends want autographed copies of Gödel, Escher, Bach—but he's never read a single thing of mine. My daughter is into fashion and loves to design crazy outfits. I don't usually talk about anything I'm working on. At dinner, we talk about things going on in the world, or we decide who is the funniest person we know, or something like that." The children's mother, Carol—a lover of art, art history, and the Italian language— died of cancer in 1993. Douglas's latest book, I Am a Strange Loop, explores the nature of self-awareness and describes how his late wife's consciousness, in some form, lives on in his mind. The couple's warm relationship set the tone for a family more concerned with people and indulging curiosities than external validation.

"I groan at the idea of a talent dynasty," Douglas says. "It's interesting to look at after the fact. But even then, usually the conclusion is, 'Yeah there was a dynasty, and then it petered out.' Using it as a predictor is damaging; it categorizes people without knowing anything about them. My wife always thought that was really stupid. She didn't like the implication that all that matters is intellectual glory."