The Metropolitan Club, on Fifth Avenue at 60th street, is a palazzo in the mighty Manhattan style. Damn the expense. That’s what J.P. Morgan is supposed to have said when he commissioned Stanford White, the city’s most flamboyant architect, to build him a private gentleman’s club in 1894. Inside, on a Monday evening in late January, only a few members drifted over the red, monogrammed carpets, but it was still early, only a little after seven. This, however, is when Marilyn vos Savant likes to show up.
Savant, who has the world’s highest recorded IQ, is fond of dancing. She took it up seriously a few years ago with her husband, Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart, and they get to the club about once a month. If they arrive early enough, they can have the dance floor to themselves. And so it proved that Monday. The room was largely empty, the band were playing “Anything Goes” and once a happy, though quivering, old man was led from the floor by his partner, Savant and Jarvik could foxtrot wherever they pleased. A slim, prosperous couple in their sixties, they moved easily: she with a simple precision, he with the odd heel-tap, a bit of dash. After a time, though, as the floor filled up and became a carousel of perfectly tailored, carefully moving couples, they came back to their table. “It’s a social scene,” said Savant, who is 62, with a smile. “But it’s not our social scene. Let me just say that.” A few minutes later, when a serious-looking man happened to make a goofy swish right in front of them, Savant and Jarvik caught each other’s eye and couldn’t help laughing. Not long afterwards, they took a taxi home, to their midtown penthouse. “We usually dance more, a lot more,” said Savant as they are leaving. It is only 8.30pm. “And then we go back to the office.”
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Savant – the surname is real, it was her mother’s maiden name – has had a unique claim to fame since the mid-1980s. It was then, almost 30 years after she took a test as a schoolgirl in downtown St Louis, Missouri, that her IQ came to light. In 1985, Guinness World Records accepted that she had answered every question correctly on an adult Stanford-Binet IQ test at the age of just 10, a result that gave her a corresponding mental age of 22 years and 11 months, and an unearthly IQ of 228.
The resulting publicity changed Savant’s life. She appeared on television and in the press, including on the cover of an in-flight magazine that Jarvik chanced to pick up. He decided to track her down and ask her out. It also led to the role for which she remains best known in America, writing a question-and-answer column, “Ask Marilyn”, for Parade, a Sunday magazine syndicated to more than 400 regional newspapers. For the past 22 years, Savant has tended their ceaseless queries – “How happy are larks, really?” “My wife blow-dries her hair every day. Can the noise damage her hearing?” – and in the process achieved a status that is Delphic yet tabloid. To her fans and other members of the world of high IQ, Savant is a prodigious, unusual talent who delights in solving problems. To her detractors, she is either trivial, someone who has squandered her gift, or proof, if they needed it, that IQ scores don’t add up to anything. In whatever form, she lodges in people’s minds. As evidence of her imprint on the national consciousness, Savant featured in an episode of The Simpsons in 1999. She was a member of the Springfield Mensa society, along with Geena Davis, the Hollywood actress and one-time star of Earth Girls are Easy.
In conversation, Savant steers clear of fancy remarks. She is overtly normal. “People expect me to be a walking encyclopaedia or a human calculator,” she says, or to “have very unusual, very esoteric, very arcane gifts and I’m really not that way at all.” Instead, she talks with the practised clarity of her columns, the pedantry of someone wary of misinterpretation. At one point, for example, Savant was describing a house where she lived in St Louis. “You could actually see stars,” she said, “unlike here in New York, where you can only see Venus,” then she halted. “I’m sorry, Venus is not a star.” When Savant, who is the author of several plays and half-a-dozen self-help books, does makes a cultural reference, she is careful not to sound too snooty. She prefers Proust to Joyce, she told me, although, she concedes, “Joyce does some nice bits in Ulysses.”
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This blandness masks the rarity of her brain. Because whatever else Savant is, she is not a fraud. Her IQ has been tested and tested and tested again. When I asked her to describe how her mind approaches a problem, she said: “My first thought, maybe not thought, it’s almost like a feeling, is overview … It’s like, almost, a wartime decision. I keep thinking about all of the fronts, what’s supplying what, where are the most important points … ” Jarvik, her husband for the past 21 years, says Savant’s gift is to be able to approach questions dispassionately, without our usual fears of or hopes for a particular answer. Walter Anderson, the chief executive of Parade, who has been friends with Savant since he hired her in 1986, believes she is a genius and, as with other geniuses, her ability is inexplicable to him. “Marilyn just does it,” he said. “Her answer is so quick. If light or electricity travels at 186,000 miles per second, do you realise how quick those synapses are? She knows the answer to your question. She knows the answer before you’ve finished the question.”
All of which only makes people wonder why Savant has found no higher purpose. In 1995, the issue became so bothersome to Herb Weiner, a software engineer in Portland, Oregon, that he set up a website called Marilyn is Wrong! Weiner says that he aims to redress errors in her column and ensure that Savant’s daunting IQ does not mean that she goes unquestioned. But what really seems to nag him is that she writes the column at all. “Look at Barack Obama, look at how he is applying his intelligence,” he told me. “It just sort of seems strange to me that instead of dealing with more complex problems, a lot of what she does is just answer riddles or simple research things, things that anybody could go to a library and look up the answer to.”
Weiner’s complaint is oddly deferential. As his website notes: “Marilyn is more intelligent than I am, as measured by standard intelligence tests.” But for many people, the story of Savant and “Ask Marilyn” are just two more pieces of evidence in a larger, decades-long argument about the accuracy and objectivity of intelligence testing. Even Guinness has succumbed. In 1990, two years after inducting Savant into its Hall of Fame, the publisher, in its parlance, “rested” its high IQ category altogether, saying it was no longer satisfied that intelligence tests were either uniform or reliable enough to produce a single record holder. Depending on how you look at it, Savant will either never be beaten, or was not worth beating in the first place.