It is generally agreed upon that, had his life not ended in shame and obscurity, Eugene Vasilly would have been universally recognized as the smartest man ever to have lived.
That his story has been forgotten, that his English-language Wikipedia page reduced to a mere introductory paragraph, bespeaks the tragedy of the person Benoît Mandelbrot once called the greatest gift mankind ever bestowed upon itself. It is doubtful that even Mandelbrot, luminary among luminaries, could have imagined the coda that awaited Vasilly’s story.
Not far from a young elm situated in the northeast corner of the Catholic cemetery of his native Tarzana – the one with “Laura + Robby forever” scrawled hopefully into its trunk – you can find his plot. Clear away the cobwebs and his tombstone reveals the following inscription: “Eugene Vasilly 1971-2006 devoted Californian.”
But only comedies begin with endings. Vasilly’s story deserves a proper exposition.
Little is known of his provenance. His father was an orphan who fled his native Lithuania in his youth, perhaps for economic reasons, supposedly due to an involvement in politics. Though the archives have been opened, it is impossible to ascertain what happened since Vasilly himself informs us that upon arrival in America his father chose his new surname based on his love for Kandinsky, and on nothing more.
Joan Vasilly, née Williamson, came from a middle-class family of elementary school teachers, firemen, and tax attorneys who had been firmly settled in Arizona for over a century. She met the future father of her only child during a trip to Niagara Falls. What began as the end of a weekend getaway ended as the beginning of a month-long road trip across America with a young man who was “as fresh off the boat as a twitchy snapper packed in ice.” She married Vasilly’s father not long afterwards and together they moved to Tarzana, for reasons unknown. Approximately two months after the birth of their son, the elder Vasilly died of an aneurism, though no medical or death records attest to the veracity of this claim. Little more is known of either parent beyond the little Vasilly has said in interviews. His mother has made her living as a clerk of some kind, and she remarried.
Very little survives of Vasilly’s childhood. Whether or not he was generally felicitous, or if he lived comfortably and without medical problems, remains a mystery. We do know that his earliest intellectual efforts involved abstract mathematics in the form of number games, though it is safe to assume that he was also making great advances in the other important fields of inquiry. He is said to have cherished a stuffed toy named Vinny the Vole.
Vasilly’s first serious foray into the vanguard of the intellectual world scandalized it. In 1976 he published a paper titled “Une in diversitate” with an upstart journal (now defunct) based out of Ithaca’s Cornell University called Annals of Advanced Mathematics. The paper consolidated over a hundred dispersed scholars’ research into a single, elegant description of beautiful and increasingly complex geometrical patterns. Vasilly named them “Concordials.” Within hours of publication the journal had already received close to three irate letters demanding that it immediately print an apology and formally admit that the author plagiarized Mandelbrot’s recent work on fractals. What would have destroyed any scholar’s career, catalyzed Vassily’s. In part, we can ascribe this to Mandelbrot’s letter to the journal, which stated that though Vasilly’s findings were on par with his own, the means by which Vasilly had arrived at his conclusions showed the work to be original. Also, the paper’s author, at the time, was five years old.
Vasilly became a minor academic celebrity. Important names invited him to visit them at MIT and Michigan. Mandelbrot wrote Vassily a nice letter, which survives. He expressed admiration for Vasilly’s work but also cautioned the young man to be wary of his newfound fame, citing several child geniuses (all made up) who went on to accomplish very little in their lives. He invited Vasilly to visit him at the headquarters of IBM, where he was working on advanced computation. But Vasilly never accepted any of these offers. His mother simply could not undertake the trips, and though Mandelbrot offered to pay for a plane ticket east, Vasilly had no interest in computing.
After receiving Mandelbrot’s letter, Vasilly’s mom took her son to CalTech to see what the mathematician was talking about. Within seconds of eyeing the grey boxes with wires poking out the back, Vasilly vowed never to have anything to do with something so “ugly and lame” ever again. Two weeks later Vasilly’s mother informed her son that she was remarrying and they were relocating to St. George, Utah. Soon, Vasilly’s fame dissipated and the interest of the scholarly community metamorphosed into amnesia. By the time he was enrolled at R. Guild Gray elementary school, Vasilly was just another boy in the second grade receiving too many gold stars.
He did not attempt to publish again for five years.
At which point he emerged from obscurity to publish nine papers over two years in the most important journals of abstract mathematics, each article of increasing creativity, daring and important. By the third paper it was clear that Vasilly was working in a world so rarified that the number of experts qualified to judge his contributions boiled down to seven living souls, and no more. Despite this exclusivity, no one pinpointed the provenance of this mysterious, sudden and revolutionary output. Vasilly had taken to publishing under noms de guerre. His first paper was authored by one Achilles Khan. The second one appeared two months later attached to the name Shyngys Myrmidon. He was being cute, it’s true, and perhaps a bit condescending – he was after all, just an adolescent.
Alternating between these two identities kept him anonymous, for a bit, until the reviewer of his seventh paper connected Achilles Khan’s theorems to the recent work of the professor from the National University in Vilnius with the very Hellenic surname. Result? Papers eight and nine came out, authored by Achilles Myrmidon and Shyngys Khan, respectively. Were Vasilly’s whims the product of carelessness or deliberation? Whatever it was, the love that inspired them was only budding, and it did not take much at this point for the scholarly community to glean the truth. One day in June, as he was settling down to take his seventh-grade Algebra exam, a charming twenty-five-year-old specialist in random matrices at MIT knocked on Mr. Sassenberg’s classroom door asking to speak to the young gentleman with a love for Homer and Mongol history. Vasilly was immediately impressed.
His enthusiasm would not survive. First and foremost, he did not like MIT’s campus. “It looks like a computer,” he told his Algebra classmate, Shannon. “It’s gray and old and the office they want to let me use has walls painted in pea-green.”
Shannon sympathized. She too detested foggy skies and pea-green. “But you cannot turn down this opportunity,” she told him. “It’s the greatest school in the world. You will become rich and famous.”
Mr. Sassenberg must have agreed, likewise Vasilly’s mother and stepfather (who it seems was already keen to turn Vasilly’s bedroom into the very same office in which the IRS would later find his lifeless body).
“You will write to me, always?” Shannon told him, just moments before he boarded his plane. “Don’t forget,” she uttered back at him from across a night-enshrouded jetway.
He didn’t forget, and probably neither did she. But this was before email, when a letter was still a letter, i.e., the endpoint of a slow, intentioned and fraught voyage.
Vasilly arrived at MIT in the fall of 1984, the university’s youngest research fellow. His arrival was greeted with hesitant fanfare: a middle-page article in the school newspaper and a couple of visits to the office from his senior colleague’s disheartening twelve-year-old daughter. Professor Brodin, who had found Vasilly in Utah, functioned as mentor: “Things will be different. You’re a scholar now, not an enfant terrible. I expect work from you that is beautiful, useful, and increasingly challenging.”
What inspiring words, really. The problem is that Vasilly’s work did prove challenging, to everybody but him. He soon grew bored, and with no pseudonyms to woo people with and no young women to brag to, he experienced his first existential crisis at age fourteen. He decided to try his hand at theoretical physics.
The decision pleased no one. The physics department was known for being both crotchety and insular, the math department for being uppity and avuncular. When Vasilly’s first paper was accepted by the field’s top journal, quite a row ensued with the untenured professor whose recent work had just been rejected from that same journal. So Vasilly began publishing his physics research under the name of John Galls, while continuing to publish in mathematics under his own name. This double life endured for the next five years. It only came out that Vasilly was Galls when, in the same year that Vasilly’s name was batted about by the Fields Medal committee, John Galls popped up on the short list for the Nobel Prize in physics (neither name would ever be graced with either honor). Professor Brodin was furious. The relationship with his mentee, which had already assumed a gilded, leaden mantle, soon frayed into one of outright professionalism.
Isolated within an already isolated community, in a cold and distant corner of the world – it is at this point that Vasilly delved into the less exclusive purview of experimental physics. He also pledged an undergraduate fraternity (the exact one shall go unspecified, for obvious reasons).
His stumbling into this field has now become something of legend. One morning in the cafeteria, after a long and by all accounts very successful evening with his new brothers, Vasilly stumbled into the school’s most prominent experimental physicist, causing her heel to crack sideways and send its owner sprawling. By the time the photons had settled, it was clear that the department’s most important lab would be without its head researcher for the unforeseeable future.
Ever aware of opportunities, Vasilly stepped in. He was granted a diminutive space among the other researchers on the condition that he cease publishing under his old pseudonyms (we know who added this proviso…Galls would cease and desist, but right as one Vinny Volson would begin to make his name). Within weeks, he was already producing some of the university’s most interesting work. Colleagues from across the School of Science and Technology began to visit the lab, and then colleagues from across the country, and not long after, students too clamored for permission to watch the veteran parvenu at the helm of his experiments. It was inevitable that the social scientists would descend soon after, demanding access to data demonstrating the contingent social structures buttressing Vasilly’s success. In a fit of haste, the Acting Vice Provost for Public Relations contacted the department; she demanded a secretary be hired immediately to organize the chaos. The department passed the order on to Vasilly. But he had never worked with anyone before, and thus had precious little experience with human resources. Exactly two days before he was granted tenure for his earlier research in mathematics, Vasilly hired as his secretary a Communications major from his fraternity. It would be the first tragic error of his career.
The world knows what happened next – the late-night break-ins, the “ambiguous underwear” paraded by the prosecution, the over-confident brats who campaigned to have him removed from the faculty – the ungrateful brats who not long before had swarmed Vasilly’s lab hoping to see their coeval wring magic out of science – the moment, famously disseminated by a freshman’s cell phone footage, when Vasilly walked off a university campus for the last time. If you take a magnifying glass to the bottom left corner of the video, you can parse the outline of Vinny the Vole, swaying voluptuously from the zipper of a leather tote. Ten years later to the day, it would fetch 3.6 million at auction.
That Vasilly had once disregarded advanced computation now seems absurd, given what MIT’s newly-emeritus professor would pursue next. Never mind the “gadgets” found among his possessions after his passing which were dated to this period, and which show him to have imagined, coded, and produced in his spare time instruments that predate the appearances of the iPod, iPhone, and iPaunch by well over a decade (and which surpass them in elegance by immeasurable quantity). Never mind the cryptic journal pages later discovered that show he was secretly wooing the world of computational medicine at this time as well. All this useful production notwithstanding, Vasilly’s contribution to computing would still rank among the most lasting, for he was, essentially, writing the algorithms that would later power the world’s search engines.
That the histories rarely acknowledge this is to be excused, for this is also the bout of Vasilly’s life we are least certain of. The story clouds over as Vasilly enters his Manhattan years, the journals trail away into gibberish, the theorems give way to sentiment and words. All we have are the dates, meticulous, at the top of each page of his notes, and a recurring name, Ines. We linked it to a young woman enrolled at the Columbia School of Medicine at the time. Years later she agreed to meet with us. Ines Rohatyn, née Palmira, had in fact known Vasilly, as the many photos she provided attest. That she knew him as well as she claimed is doubtful though, given how little she was able to tell us about some of the more consequential events of his life. Vasilly had just entered into the infamous negotiations with Microsoft, yet Ms. Rohatyn claims to have no information concerning them. She says she lost touch with him around the time she fell pregnant with her first child by her current husband, a financial analyst who refused to invite Vasilly to the wedding. When reached for comment, Microsoft reiterated that it is against company policy to divulge the details of deals brokered so long ago. “And besides,” their publicist said, “that technology is obsolete now anyway.”
Nonsense. Yet another transparent ploy by the ungrateful to minimize Vasilly’s contributions. The truth is that we can now look back to this interim in Vasilly’s life and judge faithfully the brilliance of his work. Never mind that his flirtation with computing endured for the duration of an abridged marriage: a few years, at most.
It would be foolish to guess what precipitated it. We go by what we can measure: duration (somewhere from six months to six years, ca.) and diagnosis (absence of production).
What follows next is unforeseen. No one assumed an intelligence like his to be generalizable to the superfluous arts. No one had ever known him to show any interest in color or form. We don’t even know if he ever went to a museum. And nonetheless, Vasilly abandons the sciences and becomes a painter of hyperrealist portraits. At first diminutive and bashful, Vasilly’s paintings quickly give up their humility to take on overwhelming proportions. The portraits become so large, so meticulous in depth and detail, as though they were daring viewers to deny the talent hidden behind them. Soon Vasilly begins demanding (and getting) large sums for his canvasses, which he only sells to institutions, never to individual collectors. We can glean the democratic aesthetics that would shape his later years from these preferences. His first major works grace the lobbies of BS Murgon Investment Bank, as well as ten different hospitals in Manhattan, most notably the Catso Bros. Center for Pediatric Medicine. Within five years Vasilly is earning more than any other living artist. Once again though, there is a break; once again, our passage from this part of the story to the next is frustrated. We can only be certain that this success proves unsatisfying.
Considered from hindsight, knowing now the targets of his career’s trajectory, popular music was a logical new direction. It allowed Vasilly to combine his passion for precision with his demand for usefulness. His stage name will prove familiar: Vinny the Vole. How hilarious it now seems, that time the music “journalist” asked him why he chose such a mafioso stage name, and Vasilly responded by throwing a chair into a window. The journalists didn’t understand, as is to be expected, and this leads us to the great tragedy of this period in his life. Having become world famous – we have hundreds of interviews, tens of hundreds of articles, untold hours of footage from awards ceremonies, from television programs bent on elaborating the more lurid aspects of his private life – we nonetheless learn nothing about Vasilly’s work, nothing about what went into the shrewdly devised pop melodies critics likened to the early Beach Boys, nothing about the tempestuous lyrics many compared to late Rimbaud, nothing about his hasty training as a musician, what Vasilly once called, “my own belated boot camp.” The infamous backstage stories took precedence over everything else. The only article to ever mention that Vasilly had once excelled at other careers does so while recounting a moment at a party when a moderately-respected stage actress dismissed Vasilly’s most recent work for being popular. “The glow of prospective revenge titillated his eyes” – this is how that self-satisfied “journalist” describes Vasilly’s reaction. This is the kind of morbid filth that littered Vasilly’s path in these years.
For the first time in his life, now that he is well into his thirties, Vasilly experiences something less than success. The crotchety avuncular world of classical music at first was unwilling to consider the work of a pop star, especially one we connect with so much gossip. Unfortunately, the drama that previously characterized his private life would soon come to animate his professional one as well. We will say only what we are sure of: Vasilly was commissioned to pen a pop music soundtrack for a theatrical adaptation of the Faust story set in corporate America.
When he delivered a symphony instead, relationships soured. The infighting, litigation, and scandal this would provoke were more than could have been foreseen by anyone, even by Vasilly. Though he must have expected the response from his employers when, days before their production was set to premiere, the national philharmonic performed Vasilly’s newest composition just down the street. The fact that the theme which begins at the moment of Mephistopheles’ appearance, and which reaches its climax in the wake of Margarete’s demise, is the same theme that opens Vasilly’s untitled symphony, did not help matters. Vasilly was sued by his employer, abused by his director, even called a “bastard” and a “backstabber” by the moderately-respected actress playing the female lead. She quit the show, famously, during the third act on the second night, misinterpreting her role in mid-line by walking right off the stage. She has never acted again. The show was promptly cancelled, its producers lost millions. And just as Vasilly announced he would never create music again, the same crotchety old men who had denounced his work as derivative began lauding it as the first great composition produced by the twenty-first century, a work of stark redolence. When asked why he did what he did, Vasilly responded in his laconic way: “This was the most certain I had ever been about what I was doing. I was led astray.”
For many years there was no way of gauging where Vasilly’s story would go next, nor when, if ever, it would end. Weeks after his death, months after he had last appeared in public at a benefit dinner for pediatric medicine, a lucidly-edited, hand-written block of three-hundred odd pages arrived on the desk of a notorious editor Vasilly had never met, in a famously salacious publishing house with which Vasilly had never communicated. Here was the denouement everyone had been expecting. Booksellers couldn’t get it out fast enough. Snippets began to leak – lines quoted in anonymous blogs, paragraphs pilfered by critics at reputable newspapers. A dark web within the dark web emerged to satisfy the public’s impatience. All the while, the salacious publisher teased readers with brooding photos of the deceased and the promise of a recognizable story about a misunderstood mathematician, a genius. We were led far astray.
I still recall those three hours I spent in self-isolation, wending through those pages for the first and last time; they are the saddest of my life. Nothing could have been more disappointing than what we were given: A series of adventures and an unsure voice. A picaresque no less. One unremarkable character after another, entering and exiting with little regard for relevance, usefulness, or talent. At the center of it all, a doomed romance with a nurse from Gibraltar, written with all the depressing flair of a hopeful adolescent. Only for the protagonist to die of the most mundane disease and the book to end at a funeral filled with the most implausible silence. How unbefitting our Vasilly, who was understood by few and appreciated by many.
Today we forget that there was a time he was lost to us. Today, on the anniversary of his death, when we mourn him as the most intelligent man ever to have lived, who showed the world that all aspirations of human endeavor could be mastered, and thus, dehumanized to the point of ugliness.