Was Nikola Tesla gay?
He said he “never touched a woman” and needed to be single for his work. “I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men.”
Did Nikola Tesla have a sexuality? A 1981 biography, Tesla: Man Out of Time, by Margaret Cheney notes “the pressures upon him to marry were unrelenting” and there were “whispers that he was a homosexual.”
Tesla is typically written about by science writers, who seem uneager to explore his sexuality.
He remains in the mind’s eye a mysterious, future-thinking scientist who is vaguely…asexual?
I’m reading an 1891 newspaper profile of him.
“He is slender in body, nervous in his movements and intense in his application to the mysteries of electricity. His Greek face lights up and his black eyes gleam when he discourses on his favored theme.”
Interviewers beat around the bush. “Have you ever married?” Tesla is asked in 1899, when he’s 43. “I did not,” he replies. “Women for certain people nurtures and strengthen its vitality and spirit. Being single does the same to other people. I chose that second path.”
I map out the oddness of his reply. Women are “women,” but referring to men, he speaks of “certain” people who are “its” — as he, in some different category, is “I” and “other”?
He gave the impression of being queer — in the sense of very strange.
His mind seemed continually producing unexpected ideas. A biography notes:
“One queer notion he had was to work out everything by three or the power of three.”
Since a child he seems to have understood ‘God’ to be in everything, and spoken in odd, mystical terms. A snatch of his 1919 autobiography:
“The gift of mental power comes from God, Divine Being, and if we concentrate our minds on that truth, we become in tune with this great power. My mother had taught me to seek all truth in the Bible; therefore I devoted the next few months to the study of this work.”
No reference to God as male? His conduit to spirituality was through his mother, and the female.
Two movies featuring Tesla have been made.
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige cast David Bowie in the role. The 2020 bio-pic, Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke, as a review notes, “leaves it ambiguous whether Tesla was gay, bisexual, asexual, or some other orientation altogether,” which “accurately reflects the fuzziness of the historical record.”
Each film might easily be read as ‘queer’ narratives. But are they representing the biographical record? The most typical social cover for homosexuals has been to claim publicly they are devoted to their work—and might well be. But this often functions as just a cover story.
At it turns out, people lie about sex.
There are clues scattered across several books.
In W. Bernard Carlson’s 2015 biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, there’s a 1956 interview with Richard C. Sogge, a longtime member of the American Institute of Electric Engineers. Sogge is recalling the late 1880s. Tesla, he said, had a “reputation for voyeurism which was embarrassing to the older members.”
“The stories of Tesla’s sexual episodes were at one time the talk of the Institute, and we didn’t know how to deal with it if the matter should somehow become publicized. You must be aware, of course, that he never went out with women.”
The set-up seeems to be that Tesla was known to voyeuristically look at male members of the AIEE. This might itself be a cover story. Sogge was mentioning the matter, so many years later, only to deal with the problem of the famous Nikola Tesla never being elected president of their organization.
Tesla had several ‘romances’ with young men.
There’s an unusually focused, if brief, treatment of Tesla’s homosexuality in Christopher Cooper’s 2015 biography, The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius in the History of Innovation:
“He clearly preferred athletic men, often inviting to the apartment boxers like the svelt Henry Doherty or the Yugoslav welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic. Throughout his life he employed assistants Fritzie Zivic in their early twenties and did not shy from commenting on their physiques.
Tesla described Anthony Szigeti, the intimate friend with whom he took sunset strolls in Budapest, as having ‘the body of Apollo.’ The two were inseparable, and Tesla found a way for the young Hungarian to follow him first to Paris, then to America. When he left Tesla (or died) under mysterious circumstances in 1891, Tesla confessed that, ‘I would have much desired to see him, because I would have wanted him.’”
He notes that Tesla was close with a 25-year-old assistant named Fritz Lowenstein. They fell out when Tesla reads letters Lowenstein wrote his fiancée. Carlson offers: “One possibility is that Tesla may have been attracted to Lowenstein and was upset when he learned that Lowenstein wanted to get married.”
In his mid-30s, Tesla was close with Richard Hobson, a Navy hero of famed good looks and charm.
Though fourteen years younger, a friend introduces them as they “of course have much in common.” They would prove to have a long-lived relationship. Richard Munson writes in Tesla: Inventor of the Modern:
“The famous and muscular officer — striking in his uniform and possessing deep-set eyes, prominent chin, thick beard, and handlebar mustache — often shared dinner with Tesla at the Johnsons’, and the two exchanged regular notes, with Hobson in one suggesting: ‘Now, my dear fellow, if you are doing nothing over the next ¾ of an hour come over for a short tête-à-tête — I feel I have not seen half enough of you on this visit and I have so much to talk with you about.’”
What could be happening in 45 minutes?
Hobson goes on to marry, leaving Tesla reflecting on the man who resided in “one of the deepest chambers in my heart.”
“Even after the wedding, however (and well into Tesla’s fifties), the two would meet at least once a month, ostensibly to go to the movies and then talk for hours. According to Hobson’s wife, often her husband would not return from these sojourns until well past midnight.”
Tesla will remain close to Hobson’s family, once sending his daughter a holiday card, calling himself ‘Nikola Hobson’.
Tesla’s larger circle of friends tends to look suspiciously queer.
That includes Mark Twain, and Stanford White, the architect, each of whom leaves a trail of bisexual suggestion. Tesla had female friends, like Ann Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, who moved in circles that overlapped with Oscar Wilde’s, notes biographer Marc J. Seifer.
He adds: “With Tesla’s sexual orientation perpetually an enigma and Anne about to dabble in a lesbian fling, their bond transcended the surface amenities.”
In his late sixties, Tesla becomes friends with Kenneth Swezey, a 19-year-old science journalist. Swezey notes that, when arriving to visit, Tesla sometimes answered the door fully naked. Tesla was “absolutely celibate,” Swezey notes in his published work.
Tesla mentions that he keeps two apartments, one in the luxury Hotel Marguery for meeting with “special” friends. (Margaret Cheney notes: “The statement, however, is open to many interpretations.”)
Looking over Swezey’s career, his range of interests, loaded with queer references, is so suggestive that I’d assume he was gay.
Still, does it seem odd to assign Tesla ‘sexuality’?
The way he puts it, everyone is energy. “Electricity I am,” he tells his 1899 interviewer. “Or, if you wish, I am the electricity in the human form. You are Electricity too, Mr. Smith, but you do not realize it.”
“As I see life on this planet, there is no individuality. It may sound ridiculous to say so, but I believe each person is but a wave passing through space, ever-changing from minute to minute as it travels along, finally, some day, just becoming dissolved.”
He chats about a mass interactivity that might be possible, but not yet. “Mankind is not ready for the great and good,” he says in the 1899 interview.
He saw his role as an explorer of future worlds.
“Life has an infinite number of forms, and the duty of scientists is to find them in every form of matter. Three things are essential in this. All that I do is a search for them. I know I will not find them, but I will not give up on them.”
He had a sexual vision in which the feminine was coming into cultural ascendance.
It’s the argument of his famous 1926 interview, “When Woman is Boss.”
“This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.”
His vision seems to have been that all life participates in a flow of energy. If humans usually think of male-female interactions as the basic circuit, he’d expanded the dynamic to—everything. 🔶