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July 20, 1986|Betty Lukas

THE PRODIGY, A BIOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS by Amy Wallace (Dutton: $18.95, index and photos). Parents who are blessed with a brilliant child would do that child a great service by reading "The Prodigy," Amy Wallace's sharply styled but sobering biography of William James Sidis, "America's Greatest Brain" but also its most publicized, most maligned and most misunderstood genius.

Billy--as he was known in his childhood--was blessed with an inordinately brilliant mind--his IQ was estimated at between 250 and 300 (Einstein's IQ was 200). And his dedicated parents capitalized on every blessed brain cell he had. Unfortunately, they forgot to love their first child, who was born in New York City on April 1, 1898, and named for the celebrated American philosopher and psychologist William James, a good family friend.

By teaching him to reason, his parents prepared Billy to utilize his intellectual gifts--he spoke seven languages when he was 7--but they failed to prepare their special treasure for assaults from the envious and curious--especially the media.

Permanently scarred from the glare of too much vicious and false publicity in his youth, Sidis determinedly sought anonymity as an adult. To preserve his privacy and provide time for his prodigious literary and intellectual endeavors, Sidis worked only at mundane clerical jobs and refused every effort to promote him. He'd quit instead and move to another mundane job. He never seemed unhappy with this nomadic life or the dismal rented room it provided him.

Sidis was platonically in love with a woman who married someone else--but that didn't bother him. He had a small circle of friends and relatives who appreciated him, including his devoted sister, Hannah. But he couldn't abide his parents and railed against them constantly. He even refused to attend his father's funeral, reportedly because he was so afraid of seeing his mother.

Along with countless other conventional concerns, Sidis ignored his health. He had suffered from high blood pressure for 10 years before succumbing to a stroke on July 17, 1944, at 46.

Unfortunately, many of the newspaper obituaries used an error-filled 1938 New Yorker piece on Sidis by James Thurber. (Only three months before his death, Sidis, after a six-year-battle, won an out-of-court settlement in his libel suit against the magazine for the same article.)

It is ironic that even in death, Sidis suffered at the hands of the press.

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