She`s The Smartest Person In The World

When What Matters Is Gray Matter

September 29, 1985| By Mary T. Schmich, Chicago Tribune.

Men. Men, men, men. The world`s smartest person is fascinated by them, exasperated by them, which may prove nothing except that the world`s smartest person is normal.

``Let`s see,`` she says, ``we were talking about men. One of my favorite subjects.`` The waitress at the St. Louis Art Museum cafe has just delivered a plate of broiled shark, and Marilyn Mach vos Savant begins to eat with more gusto than might be expected from a woman with the fragile beauty of a music- box figurine.

``If we have a pause we can always return to men, and I will be able to go on and on.``
Marilyn Mach vos Savant lives in the outer galaxies of intelligence, way, way out there past presidents and doctors and Trivial Pursuit champions, out in the remote reaches of knowledge and perception that few of us will ever visit.

Vos Savant -- whose last name, coincidentally, means scholar or wise man -- is so smart that she could chop her IQ in half and still be above average. She could lop off 95 points and still qualify for Mensa, the high IQ society.

Until about three years ago, the world`s smartest person made her living in real estate. Her IQ was like a secret family recipe, information to be divulged only selectively. Now, though, she has sacrificed privacy to the insatiable god of marketing.

In April, she published her first book, Omni IQ Quiz Contest, (McGraw- Hill Paperbacks, $9.95), 148 pages of questions designed to test resourcefulness and intelligence.
What a nice public relations move, her publisher decided, if she were to submit her IQ scores to the Guinness Book of World Records, whose previous IQ record-holders, a trio of men, sound by comparison like candidates for remedial reading.

Their IQs are a paltry 197, a mere 97 points above the average. She logs in at 230.
Of course, her score requires qualifiers. David Boehm, the editor of Guinness` American edition, points out that her score was recorded at age 10 on the Stanford-Binet tests, and that not only do IQ test scoring procedures vary but also there is no guarantee that if she were to take the test today she would do as well. What`s more, the era of IQ worship may be waning, as new intelligence tests are devised and the definition of intelligence evolves.

Still, as biographical statistics go, an IQ of 230 is a guaranteed party-stopper.
``Yeah,`` she says, half regretfully, half amused, ``people drop their forks.``
For some reason, a reason she professes not to fully understand, men are particularly unsettled by the news.

``When I`m introduced to people it`s a trial. It really is. With men. With the women it`s not so bad. But with the men, you know. I like to be in the company of men. I like men. But my God, you know, they stutter. People who have never stuttered before will stutter. Women don`t do that.``

Not long ago she dated a man who, unlike most of those she meets, didn`t need the catharsis of confessing to her his insecurity in her presence. On the contrary, he repeatedly assured her that he was not, repeat, not, repeat three or four more times, absolutely not intimidated by her just because by conventional measurements she is the smartest person on the planet.

``Now what does that mean, what does that say?`` she says of his disclaimer, sounding skeptical and maybe a trifle sad. She rips into a fat French roll and slathers it with butter.

She lowers her voice conspiratorially, woman to woman. ``When a man`s intimidated, he looks very unattractive to me.``

The world`s smartest person might be less formidable if she conformed to one of the popular laws of wishful thinking, the one that decrees that beauty should diminish in proportion to intelligence.

She is, however, lovely -- part Victorian cameo, part vamp. She may be 35, she may be 39. She will say only that she is in her 30s, and emphasizes that does not mean she is in her 40s.

At lunch she is wearing a formfitting red skirt suit with a satiny V- neck blouse. Her high red heels match her lipstick.

Her black hair, almost waist-length, wafts around skin as pale as Scarlett O`Hara`s. Her brown eyes are wide and watchful, signs of a mind that is constantly diagramming life, creating and correcting ideas in milliseconds before committing them to speech.
There is something anachronistic about Marilyn Mach vos Savant, as if she has slipped magically through the 20th century accumulating only the choicest few of its behaviors and tastes.

She doesn`t go to movies because most movies made after 1940 bore her. She jokes that she may be the only person in America who has never seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M A S H or The Love Boat. In her effort not to seem pushily pedantic, she is exquisitely polite. She doesn`t smoke or drink. She says ``darn.``

She has no hobbies, preferring to spend most of her time in front of her word processor.
``If I want to have fun,`` she says, ``I go out with a man.``

When people tell her that her IQ makes them nervous, she appreciates their candor. Then, at least, she can ``attend`` to the problem.

When people tell her that her IQ makes them nervous, she appreciates their candor. Then, at least, she can ``attend`` to the problem.

How does she do that?

She sighs. ``I will probably immediately tone down my vocabulary.``
Already today she has switched into her version of easy-speak for the benefit of a nervous man. ``I`m trying to be more earthy now.``

She took her first intelligence test at age 8 and scored so high that the psychologist who administered it thought there must have been a glitch in the testing procedure; a bad answer sheet, a bum timer, something.

By the time she was in her 20s--many, many intelligence tests and many mind-boggling scores later--she had decided that the smartest thing she could do was to keep quiet about how smart she was.

``It`s not out of modesty or anything like that,`` she says, ``but just because people were so darn different when they knew about it that I felt I couldn`t have normal human relationships.``

She wanted to preserve the inalienable right of going to parties and saying things that were unrehearsed, maybe even wrong or simply dumb. She didn`t want to be analyzed or have others expect her to analyze them. She didn`t want men to covet her primarily because they spotted in her their chance to enhance their gene pool and thereby the species.
As a teenager she was marginally eccentric. She often skipped classes to hang out at the library with the encyclopedias. She hated dances or any events that made meaningful conversation difficult.

``I didn`t have any trouble getting dates,`` she adds quickly. ``That`s never been a problem.``

With her high grades she probably could have headed east to one of the ivy-covered sanctuaries for the supersmart, but she stayed in her hometown of St. Louis for a simple reason: It didn`t occur to her to leave.

Her mother and father, neither of whom attended college, granted her an adult`s freedom at an early age; so, unlike many adolescents, she wasn`t eager to bolt from home just to enjoy the liberties of college. Because both parents worked in the family real estate business, she was left to fend for herself, which she did happily and without calamity.
Even in grade school, she had access to her parents` money to buy her own clothes and whatever books she wanted. She never had a curfew. She admires her parents` permissiveness and her mother`s commitment to her job.

``I can`t imagine just staying home and doing nothing but taking care of someone. I don`t know. Anybody can take care of a baby.``

After two years at Washington University, a few miles from home, she dropped out of college to work with her parents and two older brothers in the family business. She was determined to become financially secure enough to do what she really wanted to do, write. Her unpublished works now include two political satires, a play and a collection of humorous short stories, and she is working on a screenplay, two more books and a software program for a computer company.

Cerebral as she is, snippy as she can occasionally be, Vos Savant is neither nerd nor snob. It`s important to her that people realize that.

She swore off Mensa because its members, she says, not only strutted through wine parties rapping about such ``pseudo-intellectual garbage`` as astrology but also elevated themselves above the rest of the world, giving other smart people a bad name.
``They are such pains,`` she says. ``They really are.``

On the other hand, she finds the most exclusive IQ club, the Mega Society, more practical and hospitable, even though it requires a minimum IQ of 172, 40 points higher than Mensa`s requirement.

``At meetings we always start with philosophy,`` says Vos Savant, president of the group, whose 24 members live too far apart to meet often.

``That`s what everybody expects. So you can drop Kierkegaard, you can drop Nietzsche and you get past that junk and then we talk about whatever we`re involved in.``
To those who feel inferior to the Mensans, Megans and other certified smarties, Vos Savant has words of earnest encouragement.

``I don`t think it (intelligence) is something that we`re born with and stuck with. I think we all have vast potential, all of us who are not brain damaged. Detectably.`` She gives the last word the faintest wry twist.

Despite her generous faith in the intelligence of others, she admits that, yes, she`s sorry, but she does assess the IQ`s of those she meets, right down to the final digit.
It`s a habit she refined in high school. While working in the principal`s office she sneaked into the files and memorized the IQ`s of all her classmates, then studied how behaviors correlated with scores.

``I would purposely not mention IQ if I were describing someone,`` she says, making it clear that she knows that to do so would be tacky, tacky, tacky. ``I would say, well, she has brown eyes and blond hair and such and such. In my mind I would have an IQ figure, but I would never say that. You know, I might be wrong. I might be wrong.``

A museum room of sculpture, the symphonic finale of Turandot -- these were once the only kinds of things that could give her the ``lofty perspective`` she yearns for, the only things that could stir her to kinship with the world beyond herself. She says she is changing. These days, a walk at dusk or a good conversation can move her, thrill her.

``I`m beginning to find some peace that I don`t think I ever had before,`` she says.
She still isn`t particularly sociable. When she visits another city, she wouldn`t dream of staying with an acquaintance rather than in a hotel.

She lives alone and can`t imagine having a housemate; if she did, it would have to be a man.

``The possibilities are kind of limited with a woman. I mean there`s nothing to do at night.``

She calls marriage ``stultifying`` and says there are too many kids in the world for her to contribute any more.

When asked if she has close friends, she at first says, ``Not really,`` then amends it to well, yes, a few who are ``kind of close in one or another facet.``

Nevertheless, the world`s smartest person insists that life in the outfields of intelligence may be solitary, but it`s never lonely. She believes that intelligence grants her the ability to connect people, ideas and eras in ways that make the world seem less fragmented than it otherwise might.

``I would have to be totally cut off, like on the moon, before I`d feel alone. I think that`s from intelligence. In fact, I think I`d have to have the Earth blow away. The moon`s just not far enough; you can still see it. There`s something thrilling about that.``