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April 12, 2005

Bobby Fischer's Mom

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I have no particular interest in chess, nor even a smidgen of a gift for board games. But last night I enjoyed watching TV documentary about chess great Bobby Fischer. What a genius! (IQ of 180.) What a talent! (At the time, he was the youngest grandmaster ever.) What a loon! (Check out Bobby's personal website to sample what a crackpot he's become.)

What I found myself getting most fascinated by, though, was Bobby Fischer's mom. What kind of creature gives birth to a Bobby Fischer? What can it be like to raise such a prodigy? Who was this woman? What was she like?

Google helped me turn up some of her story.

  • She was born Regina Wender. Of Polish-Jewish origins, Regina was a Red Diaper baby who grew up in St. Louis.

  • A brilliant woman, Regina spoke six languages fluently and became a doctor while in her 50s.

  • Regina was an enormously driven person as well as a born protestor. She once went on a hunger strike; she studied medicine in the Soviet Union during the 1930s; she worked as a doctor in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

  • Bobby broke with Regina in the 1950s, when he was still a teenager. A variety of factors seem to have played roles. For one thing, he was embarrassed by Regina. She'd encouraged his chess talent, going so far as to picket the White House to scare up funding for a chess tournament. (And I thought my mom was pushy!) But she'd also become alarmed by how obsessed he was getting with chess and sent him to a shrink for evaluation. Things got so tense between the brilliant/obsessive Bobby and the brilliant-bulldozer Regina that Regina moved out of the apartment while Bobby was still in his teens, leaving Bobby to fend for himself. Within weeks, the place was a filthy wreck. "They were so much alike," says a man who watched their struggle, "all drive and no give. Life in the Fischer household was trench warfare."

  • But did Bobby and Regina really break off relations? One source claims that, despite their differences, Bobby stayed in almost daily touch with his mom.

  • Regina was followed for years by the FBI. Because of her family background and her time in the Soviet Union, she was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer and perhaps a spy; eventually her FBI file totaled 750 pages. Although nothing was ever pinned on her, Regina was certainly drawn to left-wing causes, as well as to the Eastern bloc. When she returned to school in the 1960s to complete her medical degree, where did she go? To a university in East Germany.

  • Who was Bobby Fischer's dad anyway? Regina never settled the question definitively, at least for public consumption; she may never have been entirely honest with Bobby about the matter either. The generally-accepted idea is that Bobby's dad was a man named Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist whom Regina met in the Soviet Union; who left the family when Bobby was 2; who moved to Chile; and who never saw Regina, Bobby, or Bobby's older sister Joan again. But some sources claim that Bobby's father was really Paul Nemenyi, a research scientist who worked on the development of the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project, and who died in the early 1950s.

  • As a child and a young man, Bobby appears to have been what we might now call a classic case of Asperger's Syndrome. These days, he seems to have become a paranoid schizophrenic. The form his mental illness has taken is amazing and appalling, especially given his mom. Regina was a lefty; Bobby became ferociously anti-Communist. Regina was Jewish; although Bobby himself may be entirely Jewish, he has become rabidly anti-Semitic.

Regina died in Palo Alto in 1997. Bobby -- who in recent years has gone from being maniacally anti-Communist to being maniacally anti-American -- recently moved to Iceland and became an Icelandic citizen.

Bobby's quite a case, and a number of books have been written about him. But it seems to me that Regina herself is well worth a novel or a biography. Volunteers?

Some of the sources that I found helpful can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.



posted by Michael at April 12, 2005


I'm glad to see one of my long-term assumptions getting validated yet again. That is, remarkable people usually have remarkable, if little historically noticed, ancestors. (In fact, in many cases, the ancestors were actually more remarkable--e.g., Erasmus Darwin vs. Charles).

Unfortunately, this often means that remarkable people come from remarkably neurotic households...Mr. Fischer is a rather sad case, all in all. Was it a result of his mother's nurturing (or lack thereof) or just in the genes...?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2005 2:19 PM

Never have so many made so much out of someone who really did so little...I acknowledge, Bobby knew how to play chess, a really long time ago. Both Bobby and Mom sound screwed up.

Equally interesting, Barbra Streisand and Bobby Fischer went to Erasmus Hall High School together in Brooklyn, and Barbra claims to have had a highschool crush on him. Not that that would make the anti-Semite happy. But its at least as interesting as the rest of his life.

Posted by: annette on April 15, 2005 3:01 PM

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