Famous People Who Stutter

Stuttering is a difficult and demoralizing disability, but with hard work and persistence, many stutterers overcome the disorder and go on to successful lives.

Carly Simon

Singer/songwriter Carly Simon started stuttering severely when she was eight years old. She blames her stuttering on her then 44-year-old mother's long affair with their 20-year-old live-in tennis instructor. The affair caused jealousy, anger, "lies and a train of deception" in the Simon household.

Simon's mother sent her to a psychiatrist who unsuccessfully tried to cure her stuttering. Instead, Simon turned to singing and songwriting. "I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering, as all stammerers can." (Brenner, 1995)

Simon wrote some of the most-loved songs of the 1970s, including "Anticipation" and "You're So Vain", and won an Oscar and a Grammy. She was married to James Taylor for 9 years, and they have two children. Her recent presidential performance "delighted" Bill Clinton (Carlin, 1997).

Mel Tillis

Mel Tillis, 1976 Country Music Entertainer of the Year, wrote (Nefsky, 1997) that as a child, he was laughed at because he stuttered. He said to himself,

Well, if they're gonna laugh at me, then I'll give them something to laugh about.

In 1957 he arrived in Nashville and started working as a singer for Minnie Pearl, the great country comedienne. Pearl encouraged Tillis to talk on stage, but he refused, afraid that he'd be laughed at. Pearl replied,

Let 'em laugh. Goodness gracious, laughs are hard to get and I'm sure that they're laughing with you and not against you, Melvin.

Little by little, Tillis increased his speaking on-stage, and developed humorous routines about his stuttering. Then

word began to circulate around Nashville about this young singer from Florida who could write songs and sing, but stuttered like hell when he tried to talk. The next thing I knew I was being asked to be on every major television show in America.

Tillis' career took off.

But before Nashville and fame and fortune, Tillis was looking for a job in Florida. No one would hire him. At the last place he applied, the owner said that he had once stuttered. He wouldn't hire Tillis, but gave him a piece of paper to read every night, saying that it had changed his life.

On the paper was a prayer:

Oh Lord, Grant me the Courage to change the things I can change, the Serenity to accept those I cannot change, and the Wisdom to know the difference. And God, Grant me the Courage to not give up on what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.

Tillis concludes his story,

For the first time in a long time, I slept well that night. I woke the next morning with a different outlook on life. I told myself that if I couldn't quit stuttering, then the world was going to have to take me like I was. What you see is what you get. From that day on, things started looking up for Mel Tillis. Soon after, I headed for Nashville in a '49 Mercury with a wife and a four month old baby girl -- her name was Pam.

Other stutterers with successful singing careers include Metropolitan Opera singer Robert Merrill, and jazz vocalist "Scatman" John Larkin.

The most in-demand voice in Hollywood -- James Earl Jones -- is a stutterer. In his autobiography Voice and Silences, Jones wrote that he was "virtually mute" as a child. With the help of his high school English teacher, Jones gradually overcame stuttering by reading Shakespeare "aloud in the fields to myself," and then reading to audiences, debating, and finally acting.

Jones is proudest of his roles as Shakespeare's Othello, but is best-known as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars. He recently portrayed a stutterer in the movie A Family Thing

Other stutterers who found fluency in acting include Peggy Lipton (The Mod Squad, Twin Peaks) and Bruce Willis (Die Hard). Sculptor and theater director Robert Wilson overcame stuttering at 17 with the help of his dance teacher. (Hutchings, 1988; Carlson, 1990; Kaylin, 1996; Wilson, 1996.

Peter Bonerz -- Jerry the dentist on The Bob Newhart Show, and director of Friends, Murphy Brown, and Home Improvement -- said about his stuttering (Drew, 1997):

I'm 58 years old, and if I stutter while giving Candice Bergen a direction, who cares? If (the stuttering) is really difficult, I exaggerate it and get everyone on the set to laugh with me. A stutter can really be quite charming. We are human and not perfect.

Some stutterers make up for their inability to speak by excelling at sports.

Bob Love was a 3-time NBA All-Star and led the Chicago Bulls in scoring for seven consecutive seasons, but reporters rarely interviewed him. "I would score 45 points, go into the locker room, and all the reporters would come down," Love recalls. "Everybody would pass me by."

Love retired in 1977. Because of his stuttering he went from one dead-end job to another. The low point was in 1985, at the age of 42, when he was hired at Nordstrom's as a $4.45/hour busboy. Love had tried speech therapy twice before without success. He tried again. After a year of stuttering therapy, Love began public speaking. As a boy he had a dream of standing on a podium, speaking to thousands of people. Love gave motivational speeches to churches, high school students, and other groups. Love is now director of community relations and spokesman for the Bulls. "It's hard to believe I make a living speaking. It's a dream come true. I held onto my dreams, and I tell kids they have to hold on to theirs." (Lawrence, 1993)

Other athletes who stutter include Olympic diver Greg Louganis (who announced in 1994 that he is gay and HIV-positive), basketball star Bill Walton (Boston Celtics, Portland Trailblazers), and golfer Ken Venturi (won 1961 U.S. Open). (Louganis, 1995; Walton, 1996; Venturi, 1994).

Writers who stutter include Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage), and Margaret Drabble (The Witch of Exmoor), and John Updike (the Rabbit series, Brazil). (Bobrick, 1995)

Thomas Carlyle wrote of stutterer Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, Turn of the Screw): "A stammering man is never a worthless one…It is an excess of delicacy, excess of sensibility to the presence of his fellow-creature, that makes him stammer." (Bobrick, 1995)

John Updike, espousing Joseph Sheehan, believes that his stuttering is precipitated when "I feel myself in a false position," such as guilt of being "in the wrong." (Bobrick, 1995)

Publishers who stutter include Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated; and Walter Annenberg, founder of TV Guide and Seventeen. Annenberg recently donated $500 million to improve American schools. (Wallichenski, 1995; Fonzi, 1969; Toch, 1993)

Photographers who stutter include P.F. Bentley, who photographed Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, and Howard Bingham, friend of Muhammed Ali and O.J. Simpson, who stuttered in Simpson's trial. (Hauser, 1991)

Which 20/20 reporter stutters? No, not Barbara Walters! John Stossel overcame stuttering with therapy from the Hollins College speech clinic, in Roanoke, Virginia. (Stossel, 1997)

Several British royals stuttered. Charles I was king from 1625 until 1649, during the English Civil War. His inability to speak to Parliament "had an unfavorable influence on his affairs." Charles lost the war and was beheaded. His father, James I, was described as "having a tongue too big for his mouth" -- possibly an articulation disorder. (Fraser, 1974)

George VI was king from 1937 until 1952. He was father of Queen Elizabeth II, and was much-loved by his subjects. His annual live Christmas broadcasts were "always an ordeal." (Bobrick, 1995)

More recently, Bruce Oldfield outgrew childhood stuttering and designed gowns for Princess Diana. (Johnson, 1987)

Stuttering is one of the few disorders that generally gets better over time. Most children who stutter outgrow it. Even adults who stutter severely in their teens and 20s often overcome stuttering -- via speech therapy or on their own -- in their 30s or 40s. At the time when other people have the dreams of their youth crash down, stutterers realize they can do accomplish anything they want, regardless of their speech. Stutterers are less likely to be famous in their youth, and more likely to be famous 500 years later.

Or 5000 years later. Moses stuttered, according to Exodus, 4:10-12:

Moses, however, said to the Lord, "If you please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past, nor recently, nor now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue."

The Lord said to him, "Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb? Or who gives sight to one and makes another blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Go, then! It is I who will assist you in speaking and will teach you what you are to say."

Demosthenes overcame stuttering to become the greatest orator of ancient Greece by speaking with pebbles in his mouth to improve articulation, shouting above the ocean waves to improve his volume, and working with an actor in reciting Sophocles and Euripedes to coordinate his voice and gestures. (Bobrick, 1995)

Aesop was born a slave and "most deformed" and "he coulde not speke." One day he fell asleep under a shady tree. The Goddess of Hospitality appeared to him in a dream and gave him the gift of speech. His life changed and he became a master storyteller. (Bobrick, 1995)

Claudius, the crippled Roman emperor who used his disabilities to make murderous rivals think he wasn't a political threat. (Graves, 1937)

In the sixteenth century, Dekanawida convinced the fifty leaders of the Iroquois nation to sit as "a brother among brothers" at a grand council to work out problems peacefully, and created the world's first representative government. Benjamin Franklin studied the Iroquois and proposed that the new United States adopt a similar system. Because Dekanawida stuttered, his assistant Hiawatha spoke for him. (Kehoe, 1992)

Cotton Mather found that fasting and prayers failed to affect his stuttering, but speaking in a "drawling…little short of Singing" enabled him to become a Puritan preacher, and prosecutor of the Salem witch trials. (Bobrick, 1995)

Other stutterers included nurse Clara Barton, the Civil War "angel of the battlefield" and founder of the American Red Cross; and naturalist Charles Darwin and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who was personal physician for King George III of England. (Bobrick, 1995)

60 years ago the best orators of the British Parliament were both stutterers. Aneurin Bevan, leader of the Labour Party and architect of the National Health Service, forced himself to do public speaking as often as possible. He spoke fluently when his passions were aroused, so he spoke passionately for British workers in the 1930s. Bevan developed an extraordinary vocabulary by substituting words to avoid stuttering. (Bobrick, 1995)

Winston Churchill, leader of the Conservative Party, could speak fluently only by preparing his remarks in advance. He studied issues weeks in advance, and wrote out responses to any possible objection. This extra effort made Churchill more knowledgeable than other leaders. (Bobrick, 1995)

Each man found a way to overcome stuttering, and this way became the basis of his success. In this way they were like Carly Simon, whose songs connected with listeners emotionally because she couldn't express her feelings through speech; like James Earl Jones, who wouldn't have dedicated himself to acting if it hadn't been his only way to communicate; and like Bob Love, whose drive to be the best basketball player was fueled in part by his feelings of inadequacy due to his speech. For each, their disability became their strength -- and perhaps each looks back and sees stuttering as a gift.


From Knotted Tongues, by Benson Bobrick, New York: Simon&Schuster, 1995:

Vergil -- Roman poet.

Robert Boyle -- British chemist, known for his experiments on the properties of gases

Moses Mendelsohn -- Born 1729, grandfather of the composer. Advocated assimilation for German Jews.

Charles Lamb -- British writer. He was not allowed to pursue a scholarly education because of his stuttering, but worked as an accountant and wrote on the side. Lamb advocated smoking heavily to loosen your tongue.

Leigh Hunt -- British writer, founded the liberal Examiner newspaper.

Charles Canon Kingsley -- British orator, writer, and chaplain to Queen Victoria. He recommended treating stuttering with a "manly" diet of beef and beer.

Arnold Bennett -- British novelist and playwright (1867-1931).

Marilyn Monroe -- Actress, who used a breathy way of speaking to avoid stuttering.

Kim Philby -- British spy. Stuttering once saved his life, by confounding a fast-paced interrogator.

Nevil Shute -- British novelist and aeronautical engineer.

Elizabeth Bowen -- Anglo-Irish novelist.

Edward Hoagland -- American writer.

Patrick Campbell -- British humorist.

From other sources:

John Slaughter -- Elected Cochise County, Arizona sheriff in 1886 with a mandate to clean up crime in Tombstone, after Wyatt Earp's 1881 shoot-out. "Slaughter, with penetrating black eyes, was only 5 feet 6 and often stuttered. But he wore a pearl-handled .44 and carried a 10-gauge, double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun, 'which was an equalizer.'" That's one way to get equal rights for stutterers! (UPI news story)

Lord David Cecil -- Professor of English literature at Oxford in the 1950s. "Lord David's stutter was thought of as a mark of high-bred diffidence…As an Oxford undergraduate in the fifties, I expected my tutors to stutter; it was their way of not insisting, I thought, and very Oxford." (Ian Hamilton, "An Oxford Union," The New Yorker, February 19, 1996. Hamilton adds that John Bailey, husband of novelist Iris Murdoch and another student of Lord David Cecil, also stutters.)

How Gracie Allen met George Burns: "She was looking for [vaudeville performer] Billy Lorraine who was a terrible stammerer. He was shy about his stammering. Gracie approached him and asked him if he was Billy Lorraine. Billy said he wasn't and pointed at George Burns. George Burns pretended he was Billy Lorraine for a while." (George Burns: And the Hundred Year Dash, by Martin Gottfried)

Paul Johnson -- Detective novelist, author of Killing The Blues. (Interviewed on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.)

Annie Glenn -- Wife of astronaut and Senator John Glenn. Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff says that Mrs. Glenn once refused to talk to President Johnson because of her stuttering.

Berkeley Free Speech leader Mario Savio. (Reference from Richard Benyo.)

Jack Welch -- CEO of General Electric.

Frank Wolf -- Virginia congressman. (SFA)

Marilyn Monroe -- actress. (SFA)

Antonio Bassolino -- Mayor of Naples "stuttered in childhood, and still at present sometimes has minor disfluencies." (Roberto De Simone, personal correspondance)

Nino Salvatore -- Past president of the Medicine University of Naples. "He is a very successful professor of General Pathology. He is also a very clever and eloquent speaker, and his stuttering is, for listeners, just a fascinating style of speaking." (Roberto De Simone, personal correspondance)

Marion Davies -- Actress. "Fifty-two-year-old publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was smitten the first time he saw eighteen-year-old Marion Davies in a chorus line. A year later, when she was given one speaking line in Ziegfeld's Follies, she botched it. Hearst, determined to make her a star, provided coaches to work day and night on her stammer. She improved, and starred in a number of films." (From The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinski:)

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