I never knew Lenny Ross, but I once sat 15 feet from him in a train car from Los Angeles to Sacramento in June of 1958. We were going to the the American Legion’s Boys State program. I watched in awe as he mentally computed a series of chemical reactions. He was being challenged by two or three 17-year-old hot shots, who had written down the answers. He needed no pencil or paper.
Six months earlier, he had been interviewed by Mike Wallace. Wallace later became the most feared interviewer in TV history. Wallace had met Lenny two years earlier. Lenny had won $100,000 — 1958 dollars — on a quiz show that Wallace hosted. He then won $64,000 more on another quiz show. His topic: the stock market.
He was polite and humble. He was already far smarter than Wallace. He was 12 years old.
He died a suicide at age 39. He climbed over a fence surrounding a pool at a local motel, and drowned himself.
I remember my wife coming into the living room with a copy of the newspaper. “Lenny Ross is dead,” she said. I sat there reading the grim story. How could this have happened?
Only 20 years later did I find out. I read this New York Times article, published two decades earlier. The Web kept it alive.
He had an amazing head start, but ultimately Wallace’s insight was on target. Wallace quoted Ross’s mother: “I can’t help worrying a little bit about him. So many children like him have come to really miserable ends.”