The Morning Routines of Crazy-Successful People

Marilyn Monroe in bathrobe
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Great work requires just that: work. However, discipline looks different for everyone -- maybe you're more of a night person and your mornings are better spent lazily making breakfast. Or, perhaps you know that you're sharpest in the morning and you need to hop to it. 

Part of what makes looking at how talented, prolific people spend/spent their mornings so fascinating is the sheer diversity; there's no one prescription for success. Your morning ritual is your own and should reflect your loves, goals, and personal quirks. And there are a lot of quirks in this list. Looking at you, Beethoven. 

Marilyn Monroe, actress 

Monroe may have pioneered the high-protein breakfast smoothie, but of course, the star's version stands out from the crowd of kale, mango, and almond butter that fills up Pinterest boards today. In a 1952 interview, she said, "I've been told that my eating habits are absolutely bizarre, but I don't think so. Before I take my morning shower, I start warming a cup of milk on the hot plate I keep in my hotel room. When it's hot, I break two raw eggs into the milk, whip them up with a fork, and drink them while I'm dressing. I supplement this with a multi-vitamin pill, and I doubt if any doctor could recommend a more nourishing breakfast for a working girl in a hurry." 

Toni Morrison speaking
Flickr/Angela Radulescu

Toni Morrison, writer

The last American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison is a working girl’s genius. While the canonically great men of the ages had servants and wives to support them because they were too busy staggering under the weight of their own brilliance, Toni Morrison had to get it done all on her own. 

According to Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Morrison used to write in the evenings, but in the '90s switched to mornings. She rises around 5am, makes coffee, and pauses to “watch the light come.” She explains, “Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, the light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Joan Miro looking out window

Joan Miró, artist

Miró struggled with depression his whole life, Currey says, but when he discovered painting, his illness became much more manageable. To keep his mental health and his artistic process healthy and productive, he created a disciplined morning routine, starting at 6am. First, he washed, then enjoyed his coffee and a few slices of bread. At 7, he painted in his studio until 12, and then engaged in an hour of vigorous exercise: boxing in Paris, jumping rope in Sweden, gymnastics in Barcelona, and swimming at Mont-roig, the seaside village where his family spent their summers. 

Contemplative Gertrude Stein
Flickr/George Eastman House

Gertrude Stein, writer, and her partner, Alice B. Toklas

The modernist writer and her partner had an endearingly bizarre morning routine that revolved around the pursuit of cows and rocks. And while Stein relied on Toklas to take care of every detail of their lives “almost to the point of parody,” as Janet Malcolm writes, somehow Stein’s codependency manages to remain charming. 

Case in point, the profile of the pair that appeared in a 1934 issue of The New Yorker: “Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will... After her bath, she puts on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed... Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision... When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows...”  

 Robie Macauley with Arthur Koestler and Flannery O'Connor at Amana Colonies in Iowa

Flannery O'Connor, writer 

O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus in 1950 and realized she would have to be careful and disciplined with her body and her writing. She once wrote to a friend, “Routine is a condition of survival.” She started the day at 6am with meditative morning prayers from A Short Breviary. After her infusion of spirituality, she shared a Thermos of coffee in the Georgia kitchen with her mother and listened to the weather report over the radio. Then, back to praying for the 7am morning mass. After this second dose of the good news, she wrote from 9am until noon, generally averaging three pages in these three hours, which still left her exhausted due to her condition. 

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, musician

Armstrong was on the road so much, Currey claims, that he washed and dressed at his hotel room, then arrived at the performance venue hours before he had to be on stage, just so he could perform his daily maintenance ritual

He drank glycerine and honey to "wash out the pipes," Maalox to soothe his stomach, and applied a salve to his lips. His mornings also started late because he suffered from insomnia, and he relied on marijuana, music, and an herbal laxative called Swiss Kriss to soothe his mind and body. He was such an avid believer in the healing properties of Swiss Kriss that he had advertising cards made with a picture of himself on the toilet to show his support. Whatever works!

Ludwig van Beethoven portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, composer

Currey says Beethoven started his day by counting out a self-prescribed 60 coffee beans, which he ground and brewed for his morning coffee. His bathing habits were particularly unique. According to biographer Anton Schindler, Beethoven believed that the prophet “Mohammed did not exaggerate a whit in the number of ablutions he prescribed.... he would stand in great déshabillé at his washstand and pour large pitchers of water over his hands, bellowing up and down the scale or sometimes humming loudly to himself. Then he would stride around his room with rolling or staring eyes, jot something down, then resume his pouring water and loud singing.” 

Audrey Hepburn outside

Audrey Hepburn, actress

Hepburn never skipped breakfast, usually choosing two eggs, whole-wheat toast, and coffee with milk. Once a month, she would have a “detox day” during which she kept herself well hydrated and ate only fresh fruit, vegetables, and yogurt. She preferred to eat organic, and the only exercise she liked to take was walks in the fresh air. Hepburn believed that her care and attention to a healthy diet gave her the energy she needed for her demanding schedule as an actress, activist, and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

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Jessica Reidy is not trying to have it all but she is writing a few books, working her Romani (“Gypsy”) family trades, and teaching university writing classes while espousing the virtues of balance in her yoga classes. Follow her at @JSReidy while she lights some candles for her daily “everything’s gonna be fine” rituals.