With the announcement just last night of Patrick Swayze’s passing, we can only hope that this unofficial Summer of Death comes to a close with the cooling weather. As much collective mourning as any celebrity death can inspire, whether it’s somewhat expected (like Swayze’s) or not (like Michael Jackson’s), there’s something shocking — and haunting — about a high-profile suicide that leaves fans reeling even more. In her new book Death Becomes Them, Alix Strauss looks at the methods and the madness behind some of the most shocking celebrity suicides in recent memory, from Kurt Cobain to Elliott Smith, and some from not-so-recent history (think Vincent van Gogh and Hitler).
Flavorpill: This has been the summer of celebrity death — an actress, musicians, a powerful man; there has been a high-profile passing from almost every category highlighted in your book. And the press and public outcry these deaths have received has been enormous. You look back at past suicides from Hollywood’s Golden Age to writers of the Lost Generation in the book. Did those cases get the same kind of press in their time?
Alix Strauss: It’s a different kind of press. I don’t think the media craze had happened as much as it has happened now, with this instant gratification we feel as we read something on the web and it’s all happening at that moment. That didn’t happen with Sylvia [Plath] and Ernest [Hemingway], and certainly not Socrates — I mean, you had to call everyone together to watch the poor man commit suicide.
I think if these people were around today, you’d have that kind of mass hysteria and mass mourning that we all do together because we want to feel part of something, and grieve, and have our questions answered somehow. But that stuff wasn’t available back then. If it was, we would have been in the same sort of frenzy, but it shows that that curiosity is human nature, because we’re still interested. There are biographies upon biographies about Sylvia and Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud. These are people we will forever be enchanted with and forever want to know more about. We can’t get enough of them. I think it’s probably the same; we just didn’t have the availability to have this instant access.
FP: What is it about suicide as an act that separates it from other star’s deaths in the public mind?
AS: I think it’s because we’re given so little to go on. I don’t think we’re always aware of how depressed someone is, or how bad it is. With someone like Farrah Fawcett, we took that journey with her for two years — from when she found out that she had cancer, when she fought it, and everything. There is something very secretive about a suicide… and it’s unexpected. So the first thing, aside from shock, is that we want to understand. Especially when these people have everything going for them. There’s nothing sadder than Spalding Gray going out in the bitter cold in the middle of the night and jumping off of a ferry all by himself. There’s something that piques our interest because we don’t fully understand, and the details matter because we want to connect so badly. Like, knowing that Anne Sexton took off all of her jewelry, had a few drinks, and put on her mother’s fur before she got into the car — it’s sad, but those details help paint the bigger picture for us — and then we connect with her somehow. Clearly she had these issues with her mother, and who doesn’t?
Also, it’s a piece of history that we’re not going to get — we’re never going to get that next chapter or next story Hunter S. Thompson would’ve written. We’ll never get the next song from Kurt Cobain — I would’ve loved to see what his next album would’ve been like. We won’t get that. So, we’ve also been jipped somehow.
FP: There’s always that thought that some musicians or an artists could only achieve greatness posthumously. After all your research, did you come across anyone that you thought may have killed themselves to achieve fame, or further their art?
AS: I can’t channel the dead, although of course I’ve tried in doing this book, but I don’t think fame was that important to that many of them. The only one was maybe Peg Entwistle. She was this actress that just couldn’t get to where she wanted to be fame-wise. She might have. Maybe the actors a little more. Van Gogh really was struggling — he’s another. He really felt he didn’t achieve the fame he was do, but I don’t think he thought killing himself would bring him fame; it would just end his misery. It was really much darker and deeper. They were all just drowning in an enormous amount of misery and addiction.
FP: Your first novel, The Joy of Funerals, clearly shared a topic with this book. What has lead you to write about mourning and funerals, and what specifically lead you to this book?
AS: Joy of Funerals was really about a grieving period in the heads of these fictional characters. They’re all a little wacky and weird. Everyone links to each other in the end and the point was to show that we all grieve differently but we’re all the same, and want to connect.
There was still this idea of mass mourning and a need to connect and need to feel part of something in this book. This is sort of our Kennedy moment. For many of us, we’re going to remember where we were when we heard that Kurt Cobain just shot himself and was dead. I really wanted to get into the stories and find out what went on and what their last days were like, and focus on those last days. It was really difficult to compartmentalize someone’s brilliant life in 2,500 words…
FP: I was going to ask about that. Most of the people here have had full-length biographies written about them. Did you worry about trivializing them at all, by focusing on their final act?
AS: It was a concern. Because there were bios, documentaries, articles, etc., and the amount of information I amassed was overwhelming. The big goal was just to stay on track with what their methodology was, what their pathology was, what their last days were like, and what details we could find from that last week. We talk about career highlights, but the goal was really to stay focused, because many people don’t know about the last days. They don’t know those little details. They don’t know that Courtney Love got into the coffin and snipped some of Kurt’s pubic hair off before he was buried. I mean, those are the details that are interesting and bizarre and we just want to know more about. People do want the details and then maybe, hopefully, they’ll find these people interesting enough to go out and go deeper.
FP: Did writing this book, and looking at suicide for so long, affect you personally?
AS: I never felt suicidal myself, but I did feel for them. You can’t help and feel lonely and desperate for someone like Spalding Gray. I wish I could go back in time and pull Anne Sexton from the car. She was hospitalized 22 times — there’s something fascinating about that, astonishing and fascinating. She was just brilliant. She had pills she called her “kill me pills” and that’s fascinating. These details tell us so much.
FP: Anyone you wanted to include but didn’t, or really didn’t “feel for,” but still included?
AS: I struggled with Hitler. Being Jewish, and having to include him in the book of people we are paying tribute to, that was very hard to write. We ended up deciding that he did change history — as disgusting and horrible and horrific a person as he was. And his contribution can’t even be considered a contribution, but who he was and what he represented and his impact on history was so vital and important that we had to put him in it. But yet, he was a fascinating mad man — totally fucked up, a horrific human being, but important to history.
FP: Looking at all of these cases, even the ones you included in the “Mysteries” section of the book, did you come to any conclusions for yourself ? Are you convinced any unsolved cases or murders were actually suicides, or vice versa?
AS: I was shocked at some of the mishaps in terms of forensics, autopsies, police reporting — so many mistakes. Mark Rothko’s and Elliott Smith’s names were misspelled on police reports. And there were no hesitation marks on Elliott Smith’s chest when he stabbed himself. He didn’t pull his clothing away, as the norm would be if you were going to stab yourself. The Post-It his girlfriend found seemed like an afterthought. I didn’t read anything that said that they had the handwriting analyzed, as they did with Kurt Cobain. Look at DJ AM, which could be a clear accidental overdose, but you never really know. I think sometimes we’re very quick, because we’re such a celebrity-culture, whoreish nation. We’re very quick to make these assumptions.
FP: Were there any trends you saw emerge when you looked at your research at the end of the day? Any commonalities?
AS: The writers were the most cerebral in some sense. The artists all were self-mutilating and blood was a very big aspect for all three of them. [Mark] Rothko slit his arms, Diane Arbus slit her wrist, and Van Gogh cut off his ear, and a few months later shot himself. All of the artists were very visual killings, which I guess is not surprising. The musicians were the murkiest. I don’t know if we’ll ever know the full story about Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith.
Alix Strauss will be reading from her book tonight at Borders, 10 Columbus Circle, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.