I was tempted to lead off with Porky Pig, but after Joe Biden’s public confession last week during the Democratic National Convention, it seemed timelier to kick off the list with him. Stuttering encompasses much more than just Porky-style sound repetition. If you experience those long pauses before speaking, sometimes called blocks, or if you mmmmmilk various sounds for all their worth, you might be considered a stutterer (or stammerer) too. But as this list proves (and there are other famous stutterers too), a speech impediment isn’t an impediment to success. (P.S. - I had one growing up, too!)
1. Joe Biden
A keynote speaker at a National Stuttering Association convention in 2004, Biden grew up with a stutter and was teased by his Catholic school teacher. Apparently, the nun called him B-B-B-Biden in front of the whole class. When young Joe told his mom what happened, she stormed back to school and chewed out the woman. Over the years, Biden practiced reading out loud in front of a mirror and, later, in law school, became friends with another stutterer and the two worked together on their speech.
Who can really say if Moses stuttered or not. But if you believe the Good Book, here are some lines that indicate he most certainly may have:
…I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue…
And the anger of the Lord burned against Moses and he said, Is not Aaron the Levite they brother? I know that he can speak well… thou shalt speak to him, and put the words in his mouth…
Read on for more on Winston Churchill, James Earl Jones, and Marilyn Monroe…
3. Isaac Newton
Though not as widely known as his work with gravity and mechanics, Sir Isaac Newton was a Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge to the Convention Parliament of 1689, and again in 1701. Apparently Sir Isaac was so self-conscious about his speech impediment, he asked that the windows of the Parliament building be closed so people on the street wouldn’t hear him stammer.
4. Lewis Carroll
Many people know Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. But how many people know that this son of a clergyman wanted to become a priest? Apparently he was unable because his stutter would have made it very hard come sermon time. Carroll is, of course, best known for his Alice in Wonderland books, but here’s a lesser-known poem he penned that mentions his affliction:
Learn well your grammar,
And never stammer,
Write well and neatly,
And sing soft sweetly,
Drink tea, not coffee;
Never eat toffy.
Eat bread with butter.
Once more don’t stutter.
We’re talking Claudius Nero Germanicus here, Roman Emperor between 41-54 A.C.E. Many people know the famous story about his wife Agrippina murdering him with the poison mushrooms (to allow Nero to ascend), but did you know he stuttered too? He was also known to limp, drool and was hounded by nervous tics. In Robert Graves’ historical novel I, Claudius, Graves has Claudius say:
“I stammered badly as a child and though, by following the advice of specialists in elocution, I gradually learned to control my speech on set public occasions, yet on private and unpremeditated ones, I am still, though less so than formerly, liable every now and then to trip nervously over my tongue…”
6. Marilyn Monroe
Several books on stuttering and stutterers, including Benson Bobrick’s Knotted Tongues, suggest that Marilyn’s breathy, sensual delivery was actually a way of dealing with a stammer. Apparently she was instructed by a speech coach to use exaggerated mouth movements to keep her mild stutter in check.
7. Winston Churchill
There seems to be a lot of controversy as to whether or not Churchill had a lisp, a stutter, or both. One way or the other, Churchill definitely was self-conscious about his elocution and practiced speaking diligently, rehearsing his speeches and avoiding, whenever possible, words that began or ended with an S. Apparently, he nonetheless pronounced Nazis, Nahsies. (I’ve also seen it written as Narzees.)
8. James Earl Jones
Some actors who stutter are able to curb their speech impediments while on script, but continue stuttering in everyday conversation (it’s called situational fluency – and is probably similar to what Claudius experienced and Graves wrote about above). Such is reportedly the case with one of Hollywood’s most famous voices, James Earl Jones. If you saw him in that movie A Family Thing, then you know he can pull off a believable stutter. That’s because he really does. The story goes like this: Jones accidentally stammered while reading lines to the film’s director Dick Pearce. Pearce thought the trip-ups made the character seem more vulnerable and asked Jones to keep doing it.