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Real life plot twists of famous authors

  • Story Highlights
  • Famous author O. Henry accused of embezzling, sent to prison
  • Langston Hughes tucked poetry under plate of famous poet at restaurant
  • Sherwood Anderson killed by a toothpick in hors d'oeuvre
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By Diane Mapes
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Mental Floss

(Mental Floss) -- They say that truth is stranger than fiction. And while we're not exactly sure when that phrase was coined, we're guessing it was after reading about these guys and gals.

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Charles Dickens reportedly gave Edgar Allan Poe "the bird" idea for famous poem.

1. Thomas Hardy

When British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy died on January 11, 1928, his literary contemporaries decided he was too important to be buried in his hometown's simple churchyard.

But the good people of Dorset, where Hardy had spent nearly all of his 88 years, vehemently disagreed. So the two groups reached a grisly compromise.

The author's body was cremated, and his ashes were interred in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Hardy's heart, on the other hand, was placed inside a small casket and buried beside the grave of his first wife in a Dorset churchyard.

To this day, a rumor persists that the author's heart was accidentally devoured by his housekeeper's cat, and that the heart of a pig was buried in its place.

2. Horatio Alger, Jr.

Apparently, the author of more than 120 "rags-to-riches" books featuring hard-working, highly moral young heroes was also an admitted pederast.

Before finding success as an author, Alger was a minister at a Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts, where he was accused of sexually assaulting two young boys. Alger admitted his guilt, but left town before the news hit the street.

Later, he wound up in New York City, where he penned hundreds of best-selling books for and about young boys, which went on to grace the shelves of homes, schools and church libraries across America.

3. Sherwood Anderson

Best known for his collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio, and for mentoring such literary heavyweights as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck, Anderson had a knack for unexpected exits.

One day in November 1912, while serving as president of the successful Anderson Manufacturing Co., he simply got up and walked out of his office to pursue a career in writing.

Years later, he made another sudden departure, this time during the middle of a South American voyage. At his farewell cocktail party, Anderson unknowingly swallowed a toothpick hidden within an hors d'oeuvre. The author sailed on, but the toothpick didn't, penetrating his intestines and causing peritonitis. Anderson became ill aboard ship and later died in a Panama hospital.

4. Charles Dickens

A number of pets graced the Dickens household over the years, including all manner of dogs, cats and ponies. But Charles' favorite pets were his two ravens, both known as Grip.

Dickens was particularly devoted to Grip I, going so far as to write the bird into his 1841 mystery novel, Barnaby Rudge. This same talkative bird reportedly was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, "The Raven," published four years later.

Upon Grip I's demise, Dickens had his beloved bird stuffed. These days, Grip can be seen at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Rare Books Department, where he stands guard over the Poe and Dickens collections.

5. Flannery O'Connor

Dickens apparently wasn't the only well-known writer who had a fetish for fowl. Flannery O'Connor, author of 32 short stories including "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge," developed a love for birds at a very young age.

Growing up on her family's estate in Georgia, O'Connor enjoyed playing with the chickens they raised there and reportedly taught one of them to walk backward, making the chicken somewhat of a local celebrity.

But O'Connor had a special fondness for peacocks, which she often used in her fiction to represent Christ. When she returned to live on the family farm as an adult, she raised an unusually large flock of peacocks, which she tended to until her death in 1964. Afterward, they were donated to various parks and monasteries around Georgia, but all were eventually killed by predators.

6. O. Henry

O. Henry (born William Sydney Porter) may have been the master of the popular short story form, but he was far less skilled when it came to money. While working as a bank teller in Houston, the fledgling author was accused of embezzling a few thousand dollars, prompting his rather sudden move to Honduras.

But a few years later, when he came back to visit his dying wife, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. It was here that convict Porter assumed the pen name O. Henry. His incarceration offered him the time to write as well as a chance to mix with a slew of seedy characters, perfect fodder for his fiction.

A model inmate, Porter was released in 1901, after serving just three years. He passed away in 1910 with 600 stories, but reportedly only 33 cents, to his name.

7. Langston Hughes

Poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and all-around literary luminary, Langston Hughes achieved fame during the Harlem Renaissance. But before that, Hughes was a struggling young writer, working menial jobs to support his burgeoning poetry habit.

In 1925, while working at a restaurant in Washington D.C., Hughes tucked a few of his poems under the dinner plate of then-reigning poet Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay shared the poems during his reading that night, and in the morning, Hughes was crowned Lindsay's new discovery, the "busboy poet."

Hughes went on to become one of America's most prolific authors. Lindsay, however, died six years later after drinking a bottle of Lysol.

8. Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, is famous for her vivid stories and novels about upper-class society in the late 19th century. It was a setting she knew well, coming from a wealthy and distinguished New England family.

But the high society author had a lesser-known career as a humanitarian. During World War I, Wharton traveled to the Western Front in France, both to write about the battlefields for American publications and to help the Red Cross create hostels and schools for those displaced by war.

In 1916, she was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian appointment, years before the height of her literary career.

9. Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte may have been the author of the romantic classic Jane Eyre, but she was not well served by love herself. In fact, it more or less killed her.

In June of 1854, a starry-eyed Bronte married her father's curate and soon became pregnant. During her pregnancy, she fell ill, and according to her earliest biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, she was attacked by "sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness."

The elder Bronte sister's nausea was so overwhelming, in fact, that the author couldn't eat or even smell food without becoming violently ill. On March 31, 1855, a dehydrated, malnourished and severely exhausted Charlotte Bronte died at the age of 38. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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