Inside the suicides of life’s great romantics
by Larry Getlen
The first time Virginia Woolf attempted suicide, she tried to jump out a window but failed — since it was on the first floor. Ernest Hemingway bought the gun for his own self-inflicted death from Abercrombie & Fitch. And after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, his wife, Courtney Love, found a piece of his skull on the floor and washed it, then later clipped off a swatch of his pubic hair as a memento.
“Death Becomes Them,” journalist Strauss’ well-researched collection of famous suicides and pertinent facts about ending one’s own life, has no big statement to make about the act of suicide, but, rather, many fascinating little ones. Think of this book as “Trivial Pursuit: Suicide Edition.”
Ernest Hemingway, with wife Pauline Pfeiffer in 1934,
showed suicidal tendencies early on.
The majority of her tales consist of stories of famous suicides, divided into the categories “Authors,” “Actors,” “Musicians,” “Artists,” and “Powerful People.” Throughout these tales, similarities emerge both in and out of the divisions.
Suicidal types, for one, give many signs of their intentions, often years in advance. Hemingway, for instance, used to “joke” with friends about how he was going to do it, including actually putting one of his guns in his mouth, and explaining to them that “the palate is the softest part of the head.”
Friends of legendary photographer Diane Arbus, meanwhile, noticed that she was “tying things up” in the time before she killed herself, including asking them if they wanted letters they’d written to her returned. And performance artist Spalding Gray would leave voice messages for family members telling them that he’d jumped off the Staten Island Ferry long before he actually did so.
Strauss also breaks down similarities in how people in different areas of creative endeavor did the final deed. Several notable musicians and writers, such as Elliott Smith and Hunter S. Thompson, killed themselves with others in the home, while actors were more likely to take their lives in solitude. Artists, meanwhile, die by the blade far more than others, since the result of cutting oneself is “messy, bloody, and visually shocking.”
There are also several illustrations of how suicide, despite its tragic nature, does not always conjure the sympathy one might think. As Arbus’ boyfriend waited for the police after the creative visionary cut her wrists, her neighbors argued over who would get her West Village apartment. And after Sylvia Plath killed herself by inhaling gas, her husband’s new wife sent one of Plath’s friends the gas bill, with a note simply stating, “She was your friend. You pay the bill.”
While Strauss shows how suicide is often the product of a lifelong battle with depression, there is the occasional suicide that is simply inexplicable. Over the final 20 years of his life, Adolf Hitler had four different women attempt to kill themselves out of love for him.
by David Kaufman
Sept 15, 2009
Half history lesson, half celebrity exposé, author Alix Strauss’s new book, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious, is a pop-culture take on one of society’s most painful topics. Focusing on 20 famous figures who took their own lives, Death Becomes Them provides the backstories behind the tragic and manic last days of icons ranging from Kurt Cobain to Vincent van Gogh to Virginia Woolf. Equally sad and shocking, Strauss’s profiles help fans and cult followers better understand how these brilliant, tortured souls crossed the line from depression to self-destruction. TIME talked to Strauss about what it was like to report on death and the surprises she uncovered.
Why do you think there is such a morbid fascination with certain suicides, sometimes even centuries after they took place?
Because suicides are like riddles with the answers left out. So people are constantly struggling to find that “aha” moment — the event or encounter that pushed someone over the edge from sadness to suicide. There is this need to know what made them do it — and, perhaps, how it could have been prevented.
And Death Becomes Them is about filling in these gaps?
Exactly. Each of these characters left not only unanswered questions but unrealized talent and unknown potential as well. We’ll never know what else van Gogh might have painted. Or how another Diane Arbus portrait might have turned out. Or how a later Hemingway novel might have read.
Each story reads like its own mini–mystery novel. They’re incredibly fact-filled.
We didn’t just look at the events leading up to the suicides but at the actual pathologies of how each figure chose to end their life. So the devil here is truly in the details. Who knew that Anne Sexton had several glasses of vodka and put on her mother’s fur before gassing herself? Or that Abbie Hoffman was watching his favorite film, The Godfather, as he swallowed a fatal dose of whiskey and barbiturates? Or that when the police departed — and she was finally left alone with her dead husband’s corpse — Courtney Love dipped her hands in Kurt Cobain’s blood before eerily washing a piece of his blown-out skull?
Many of your subjects were also investigated as murder cases.
There are a lot of conspiracy theorists who insist some of these people were actually killed, and we address those questions. Some say musician Elliott Smith could not possibly have stabbed himself through the chest without help. And everyone from authors to filmmakers have long believed that Courtney Love was involved in Kurt Cobain’s death. Ultimately, we left it to the professionals. If the police report ruled it a suicide, we ruled it a suicide.
How was it researching and writing the book? Did all that death impact your life?
It felt like I was in this swirl of morbidity for six months. But the work was as fascinating as it was depressing. All of that depression, and the waste of life, made me want to make the most of my own.
Were any of these stories almost too painful to report?
As a Jew, [I found that] Hitler was very difficult to write about. Every other story here is a tribute and a celebration of someone’s life, so we struggled with whether it was appropriate to include him. Ultimately we agreed Hitler could not be overlooked.
Each story is obviously very different, but were you able to identify any unexpected patterns?
There were actually quite a few. None of the women, for instance, shot themselves, though many of the men did. Poisoning was favored by people in positions of power, such as Hitler. Most of the actors chose to be cremated. And there was also the unusual discovery that authors who write in the first person are far more at risk for suicide.
Many of your subjects had drug problems.
Not just drug problems but full-blown addictions. Kurt Cobain was a daily heroin user. Michael Hutchence’s body was found surrounded by narcotics. Anne Sexton was a serious alcoholic. These were not people able to make the best decisions for themselves.
There is renewed interest right now in English mathematician Alan Turing, a World War II hero who killed himself in 1954 rather than face criminal charges for homosexuality. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently issued an apology for the “appalling treatment” Turing received.
Turing was clearly someone who was way ahead of his time and deeply misunderstood by the society in which he lived. His honesty about his life and loves would be taken for granted today, but more than 50 years ago it led directly to his death. Suicide is still a very serious problem for gays and lesbians, and Brown’s apology could certainly help people struggling today.
There is a lot of technical information in the book. Are you at all worried that it could be used as a how-to guide?
There is always that concern with any book that is dark and deep as well as informative. I want people to be engaged with the book — but certainly not that engaged.
by Elizabeth Williamson
Sept 15th, 2009
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.
Sept 15th, 2009
Author Alix Strauss has taken pains to insure that her book, Death Becomes Them, isn’t just your average celeb suicide chronicle.
As a matter of fact, Strauss kicks off her stories in the throws of the deed, but then analyzes all the moves leading up to that point.
The notable deaths range from writers Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway to rocker Kurt Cobain and the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud. All troubled, some less silent about their suicidal intentions.
Still, Strauss has produced a more detailed account and takes pride in delivering precisely what has been lacking in other narratives.
Plus, it’s a bloody-good read.
by the MORE Passions Editors
Fans of the E! True Hollywood Story series and Six Feet Under will delight in Strauss’s unapologetically morbid look at the suicides of celebrities such as Kurt Cobain, Dorothy Dandridge and Sigmund Freud.
by Jessie Schiewe
July 15th, 2009
While it’s not your average summer read, Death Becomes Them, Alix Strauss’ anthology on famous suicides, is a gripping novel indeed. Despite the somewhat cliché title, Strauss’ focus is both serious and in-depth. Aside from presenting readers with information on the most popular suicide methods (gunshot (57%) for males and poisoning (38%) for women), the book is replete with copies of suicide notes, diary entries, death certificates, and newspaper articles.
However, what is most appealing about the book is not the subject matter per se, but the motives behind it. While most people may assume that readers will be attracted to this book for its gory and gruesome details, it is clear that these were not Strauss’ intentions when writing the book. Covering such famous deaths as Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Kurt Cobain, Adolph Hitler, and Vincent van Gogh, her focus is not so much on how these celebrities killed themselves but on why. For each suicide, Strauss provides the expected factual information, but where she deviates is when she provides insight into their mental state. The book gives detailed information concerning their actions the day of their death, possible motives for their death, and evidence of their intent to commit suicide as shown through their works and actions.
While this novel is an anthology, it reads more like a detective novel with Strauss serving as the lead detective in a murder case. The novel is divided up into sections that group each suicide by their profession. The sections are divided into: authors, actors, musicians, artists, and powerful people.
One might assume that the further one reads of this book, the more bored one gets. However, this is not the case. Rather than encountering boredom, one encounters depression. And not depression for the obvious reason: that of feeling sorry for those who died. One feels depressed because the more one reads, the more one begins to relate to each suicide. Strauss has masterfully constructed her novel in such a humane way as to make the suicides of these once famous and unattainable people accessible to the public.
Although the book will not shock you with gory, stomach-churning details, your stomach will turn, as you soon will realize that underneath it all—underneath all the fame, glory, money, beauty, and brilliance—we are all the same and thus, all have the potential to end up dying in the same way.
by Jennifer Somerset
Sept 13th, 2009
Death is one of the great unknowns and because of this it holds this mixture of fear, curiosity, fascination and dread in each of us. To the more tortured souls among us, the thought of continuing and day to day existence is much worse than the mystery of death. The law of averages also seems to dictate that the more creative and in touch you are, the harder life itself is. When the realization that love and happiness does not necessary go hand in hand with fame and fortune, that anchor that some famous held onto on their climb up vanishes, leaving them lost and adrift. Mix that with the loss of strength in the vices for numbing the pain, and the light of a shining star gets extinguished much too soon in our eyes.
Alix Strauss has focused on twenty such instances, covering genera’s such a writing, acting, music, as well as those known for their powerful presence in society in general. As Strauss points out, “As a culture, we are obsessed with death. As a population, we connect with one another by sharing the same experiences we are also addicted to the drama. We crave their stories the same way they craved their pills, liquor, coke and heroin. We want to understand the sadness they felt and the depression they couldn’t live with.”
Through meticulous research, Strauss provides us with the details of the last few days of such individuals that span numerous eras such as Ernest Hemmingway, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Dandridge, David Strickland, Kurt Cobain, Mark Rothko, Adolf Hitler and Abby Hoffman to name a few. The half truths that have been whispered around each of them are addressed and clarified. With some, unknown details are given that further help us understand the mindset of the individual and maybe understand a little better the why of the situation. The final section is devoted to what I think of as cocktail facts about the subject and a few “post mortem” about some of the individuals touched upon earlier.
Strauss handles such a delicate subject matter with a mixture of evenhanded mater of factness and compassion. The romantic notion that sometimes accompanies the thought of suicide has been removed and in its place are the statistical facts of the subject. With some of the people highlighted, we also learn that if they had been able to get past that last bleak day, the sun of good fortune would have indeed shined upon them once again.
by Alan Caruba
July 13th, 2009
After some fifty years of reading and reviewing, I am always searching for the book that offers a new look at an interesting topic. Such is the case of Death Becomes Them by Alix Strauss ($14.99. Harper Paperback Original) that will not officially debut until mid-September. It is a contemplation and report on why so many famous folk in the modern era committed suicide. Of particular interest to bibliophiles are the poets and authors such as Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Ernest Hemingway. Others include musician Curt Cobain, monologist Spalding Gray, and gonzo journalist, Hunter Thompson. There are others, but the common thread seems to be depression, which is to say serious mental illnesses, addictions, and the belief that life was just too unbearable. Ms. Strauss organizes her information quite well and brings the impassionate eye of a true reporter to each of the people in this fascinating book. As to suicide itself, she notes that each year in the United States, more than 32,000 people succeed in killing themselves. That's 86 Americans every day, one death every 16 to 18 minutes. Worldwide, about two thousand people kill themselves every day. She succeeds in going well beyond the numbers into the lives of those who enjoyed great success, but who also experienced great sadness and despair.
by Justin Shady
Sept 5th, 2009
For whatever reason, I’m deeply interested in the darkly morbid. Luckily, this book fits that bill perfectly! Author Alix Strauss dishes the dirt on the dearly departed, focusing on twenty celebrities who took their own lives before old age or an accident could do it for them. Some of the subjects were obvious picks (Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway, for example), while others were a bit more surprising. As odd as this may sound, it was nice to see photographer Diane Arbus make the book, just as it was to see author Hunter S. Thompson and painter Mark Rothko. Beyond the grim and gory details lies interesting character studies, digging deeper into the “whys” of each situation than the “hows.” (Although, admittedly, that’s the first thing we want to know when we hear someone committed suicide, isn’t it?) Death Becomes Them is an odd choice for a summer read (which is when I received my galley copy), but with fall and Halloween just around the corner, what better topic to read about as you drift off to sleep at night?
by Mark S. Porter
Sept 28th, 2009
We revel in reading gossip, the oft-florid accounts of the affluent and the accomplished abed in adultery or abruptly being introduced to their personal doom.
Our collective fascination with the famous and flashy is immeasurably intensified when the objects of our adulation self-impose their demise.
On our level of superficial adoration, we are incredulous that someone who’s achieved fame and fortune, fan-worship and wealth could commit suicide.
We perceive stars as sitting on top of the world, and cannot fathom when they jump off.
Alix Strauss figuratively jumps after them.
"Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous & the Notorious," is Strauss’ meticulous melding of crime-scene investigations, psychological examinations, detailed chronologies leading up to notables’ deaths, and myriad epiphanies on the means of accomplishing suicide.
She details the declines of dozens of actors, musicians, artists, poets, and writers, and "powerful people" who range from Sigmund Freud to Abbie Hoffman.
A Manhattan resident, Strauss will be crossing the Hudson River this Saturday, Sept. 26, to read from "Death Becomes Them" and conduct a book-signing in Watchung Booksellers — and perhaps discussing the notables who have fatally jumped into the Hudson and other rivers.
Usually there’s a quiz," Strauss jokingly said about her readings. "I like to give prizes."
She’s visiting Montclair in September, which coincidentally is National Suicide Prevention Month.
"Death Becomes Them" teems with fascinating, if macabre, tidbits about the methodology, motivations and even the madness inherent in offing oneself.
Every death "is paired with fascinating facts," Strauss told The Times. "What carbon monoxide does to the body, how many people have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, and what happens when the body hits the water."
Each chapter focuses on a different group — for example, artists or authors — and digs deeply into the reasons why and actions of about two dozen people in that group. Each chapter concludes with summaries of others who also ended their lives.
While we know the "who" and "when" in nearly every suicide she profiles, Strauss provides an array of "what," "where" and, most fixating, the "why."
Fans of the writer Ernest Hemingway know that, despite writing fiction that earned him the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, he killed himself. Strauss details Hemingway’s psychological and physical decline, providing vignettes of his personality and his deterioration that concluded with the author, in his Idaho house, pressing a double-barreled Boss shotgun into his mouth and pulling one trigger.
After summing up his sons’ discovery that Ernest had disinherited them, Strauss provides readers with an "Unearthed" subchapter:
"The leading method of killing yourself, a gunshot is easy, fast, painless, efficient, and accounts for approximately 52 percent of all suicides. ‘Pulling a Hemingway’ and the ‘Hemingway solution’ refer to killing yourself by placing a shotgun to the head. People often put shotguns or rifles in their mouths, since it’s a stabilized position and provides a direct route to the brainstem. Since most people are right-handed, guns are also usually aimed at the right temple."
The writer of lifestyle articles for newspapers and magazines, Strauss is the author of "The Joy of Funerals," a collection of short stories, and she compiled "Have I Got a Guy for You," an anthology of "mother-coordinated blind date horror stories."
Strauss described "Death Becomes Them" as a "follow-up to my novel, ‘The Joy of Funerals" I’ve always been interested in human behavior and how we grieve."
She wrote "Death Becomes Them" in about eight months of "14-hour days of research. It was just an enormous amount of autopsy reports and pathologists and police, one ‘-ologist’ after another."
The book may have a transcendent lifespan. "We are in discussions with both television and film," Strauss said. "They are ready to talk about a subject that’s been a little taboo."
As she introduces each suicide, Strauss provides a mini-biography, including details of the funeral and the "final resting place."
"It’s a front-row seat to an intimate picture of a person’s life," she said.
Of course, it’s the person’s sudden and self-imposed decision to conclude life that places them in her pages.
"These are people who made huge contributions to society," said Strauss, adding, "The devil is in the details."
Penthouse: Full Frontal: Reads
Death Becomes Them
by Rachel Kramer Bussel
If you have a thing for famous suicide cases, like those of Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, and Sigmund Freud (the father of psychoanalysis commited suicide; go figure), this book, from Harper Paperbacks, is for you. Strauss is a cheerfully morbid sort who divulges the gory details of each case, from the planning to the suicide note (if any) to the method of self-destructions. It's dark stuff, obviously, but she succeeds in giving us a glimpse of the human beings at the core of these legends.
by Karen F. Mrnarevic
Call it what you will – morbid fascination, macabre fixation, unhealthy preoccupation – but Alix Strauss calls it a recipe for literary success. Strauss has always taken a personal interest in the lives of celebrities; so much so, in fact, that she made it her profession, becoming a lifestyle trend writer for various national media outlets. But recently, Strauss’ focus has shifted slightly, away from the bright lights and constant media saturation of Hollywood personalities and their lavish lifestyles, toward the strange, diverse, sad and often bizarre ways in which so many of them met their ends. Her newest book, "Death Becomes Them," is an exploration of celebrity suicides, and Strauss plans to promote it and her two other books at a reading event on Nov. 5 at the Montvale Public Library.
Strauss says that she likes to begin her readings on a light note; and so she plans to engage the crowd at the Montvale Library with a reading from her book, "Have I Got a Guy for You," a compilation of true stories (sometimes horror stories) of women who have suffered through blind dates arranged by their mothers. "Everybody has a mother and everybody understands what it’s like to be on a bad date," Strauss says. "People really seem to bond that way."
Strauss’ first novel, "The Joy of Funerals," serves as a bridge between the two subjects that seem to dominate her literary imagination – love and death. "The Joy of Funerals" is a series of novellas about women facing the pain, confusion, humiliation and heartbreak of trying to find love, and in each story, love and death collide in unexpected ways. All of her characters exhibit a certain quirkiness. Some have what could be considered bizarre coping mechanisms and odd fascinations – from one woman who sleeps with men who are grieving in order to come to terms with the death of her husband to another who becomes obsessed with her boyfriend’s killer.
The main character of the book is a woman who can’t stop herself from crashing funerals. "You have this main character who is so lonely and so in need of connecting to others that she goes to other people’s funerals," Strauss explains. And while not too many readers can say that they have actually done such a thing, Strauss says that all of her characters are highly relatable – readers often reveal that they see themselves in these women. "The nine women in ‘The Joy of Funerals’ are very human and easy to relate to," she says. "They are dealing with their own demons."
Strauss finds herself feeling very attached to the women in her novels, but she says that she resists the temptation to impose her will upon them. She says it is almost as if they are real people with free will to develop and change without her influence. "The characters that I create are so incredibly real to me," she states. "Once I am able to distance myself from them, they can lead me."
But Strauss, being an entertainment journalist, seems to always return to reportage; she has an impulse to feed the public desire to know more about the people that connect all of us – celebrities. One of the things that Strauss believes binds everybody together in society is the basic need to feel a part of something bigger. Celebrities, she says, are objects of admiration, and sometimes hatred, that people of all walks of life share in common, and in that way they are as much a part of our lives as the people who are close to us. For that reason, a celebrity death has the power to both fix our attention and stir emotion we generally reserve for loved ones.
"When a celebrity dies, we come together as a nation, as a culture. We are able to be part of something greater than ourselves. We share that with everybody," Strauss says. "They become part of our lives, so our reason for wanting to mourn them is very real." Her motivation in producing a book chronicling the suicides of 20 celebrities, from the beloved to the infamous, was partly to scratch the itch that so many people share – the desire to get into the heads of these celebrities and understand why they ended their own lives.
"There is not one person that doesn’t remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, and in my generation, everyone remembers where they were when Kurt Cobain shot himself," Strauss asserts. At the same time, she says, many people share the sense of mourning and confusion when such things happen. Putting the details in one place may not answer everyone’s questions, but it can help readers gain a better understanding of the lives and identities of these often-dehumanized icons of popular culture.
Strauss says she learned a lot while researching for "Death Becomes Them," including many things that disturbed and frightened her. "I was horrified to know that Hunter S. Thompson was on the phone with his wife when he shot himself," Strauss says. "That Silvia Plath left bread and milk in her children’s room then put her head in an oven. That was fascinating, and disturbing."
And the author says that she also found herself challenged by some of the material she was forced to work with – specifically when it came to profiling Adolf Hitler. "We included Hitler, which was very difficult," she says. "We determined who made the largest contributions to society. For him, you can’t put into words, what a horrific unforgiving man he was, but his effect on society was massive I had a responsibility to document a madman."
All in all, though, Strauss says that the book is meant to pay tribute to the luminaries whose deaths it seeks to detail, if not explain or justify. "This is just a really fascinating project," she says. Hopefully, readers will be as enthralled as she is by the subject. "You are literally there when Spalding Grey is teetering on the ferry. We were able to break Kurt Cobain’s last days down hour by hour. It’s giving you a front row seat."
The book appeals to both youthful celebrity-obsessed readers as well as an older crowd interested in reliving the past. Regardless of how old a reader is, the book will, by turns, entertain, horrify and educate them. Strauss says that even in death these celebrities have the power to command our attention and pique our imaginations. Her objective was to paint a picture of them as people, rather than symbols, revealing them in all their blemished, unflattering, tragic glory. "People will be surprised about how humanized it is, and how captivating the lives are."
Death Becomes Them
by Jacquie Dalton
Throughout history, there've been a select few brilliant minds that hovered over the brink between sadness and madness but still managed to gift us with extraordinary works of art and industry. In Death Becomes Them, author Alix Strauss provides an important chronicle of 20 significant figures that were haunted by personal demons, ultimately took their own lives, and in doing so deprived themselves, and the world, of truer greatness.
Legends like Earnest Hemingway, Van Gogh, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sigmund Freud are among the profiled writers, musicians, artists, scientists, politicians, and leaders of thought who tragically committed suicide despite having profound depth of creativity and genius. Strauss conveys an important message by respectfully paying tribute to individual legacies, then candidly exposing the dark reality behind the methods and meanings of their demise. It's a smart approach to a sensitive subject: these are people who excelled in life not because of their challenges, but despite them.
While elements of the book are deeply disturbing, that seems to be the point—forcing the reader to deconstruct any ghastly notion that self-inflicted death is what immortalized these deceased. Strauss deftly establishes distinctions between the work of each luminary's life versus the emotional distress, mental instability, and personal tragedies that prevented them from continuing their life's work and making even greater contributions to society.
Supported with statistical research, acute analysis, and a nod to modern-day medical advancements, the author draws respectable conclusions that identify substance abuse and mental illness left misdiagnosed or untreated as a primary catalyst. With noted exception to Adolf Hitler, who Strauss includes in the book solely because the magnitude of his impact on history, suicide in every case is portrayed for what it truly is: a tragic end that contradicts the purpose of humankind and the meaning of each individual's life.
In the final chapter, Strauss puts the final nail in this proverbial coffin by listing 57 luminaries who attempted to take their lives but in surviving fulfilled greater destinies, including some who continue to do so today: Walt Disney, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ludwig van Beethoven, Edgar Allen Poe, Cary Grant, Mike Wallace, Yoko Ono, J.K. Rowling, Halle Berry, and Drew Barrymore, to name a few.
Halloween can be creepy, with its morbid commercialization of death as portrayed by gruesome rubber artifacts and costumes putting blood and gore on parade; on the contrary, Alix Strauss and the publication of her new book, Death Becomes Them, deserves accolades for a well-written, honorable account that incites educated discussion about a very serious subject we should all make sure doesn't stay locked in a crypt.
Personally, I agree. It is only when we bravely explore what lurks in the shadows of life that we can consciously embrace our ghosts and guide them toward the light.
by Christopher Vola
Did you know that Hunter Thompson was talking to his wife on the phone when he blew his brains across the room? That you’re much more likely to kill yourself on a Monday than a Saturday? That before he intentionally overdosed on morphine, Sigmund Freud’s cancer-infested mouth emanated a gangrenous odor so foul even his dog wouldn’t go near him? Thanks to author Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals), these, as well as hundreds of other captivating nuggets of suicide-related minutiae are available to satisfy even the most morbid curiosity. Her latest effort, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous & the Notorious, is a darkly fascinating and painstakingly researched exploration of the lives and deaths of some of the most important and tortured minds in recent history.
The book centers on the biographical profiles of 20 famous artists, actors, musicians, and other society-shapers, from Elliott Smith to Adolf Hitler, all united by their successful bids to end their lives. In order to paint the clearest (and often highly disturbing) portraits, Strauss examined hundreds of suicide notes, police files, medical reports, photographs, and personal items. Knowing the facts surrounding the deaths of the “tortured brilliant,” she writes, helps us to understand their pain while feeling closer to them. And she’s right. These in-depth glances into the intensely private moments of some of our most public and in some cases legendary personas as they wrestle and finally succumb to a fatal decision that will come to define them creates a haunting intimacy, a touching gateway into their sadness and insanity.
Strauss’s brisk and occasionally glib ride on a runaway train of self-destruction doesn’t stop with the profiles. To satiate the true suicide junkies among us, herself included, she thoughtfully includes a large collection of short appendices, with subjects ranging from “Ten Most Notable Suicides of Sports Figures” to “Ten of the Most Bizarre and Gruesome Suicides” to a mammoth and surprising list of celebrities who tried to kill themselves but were unsuccessful. (Did you know that Walt Disney overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol and had to have his stomach pumped?)
The endless factoids and the connections Strauss finds between the 20 profiles and hundreds of other notable suicides—visual artists have a much greater proclivity towards cutting and stabbing than musicians or writers; men are much more likely to shoot themselves than women (none of the women profiled here opted for a bullet)—also underscore the universality of suffering, that the nightmare extends far beyond the gilded egos of the (in)famous few.
Although the book drifts so far into a sea of near-unbearable loneliness and despair, its pages manage to remain surprisingly uplifting. Reading (and inevitably re-reading) each successive tragedy only serves as a constant reminder that life is worth living, that no amount of sadness can equal the void felt by those loved ones left behind. Strauss continually makes the point that most of the luminaries—with the exception of Hitler, of course—were loved, and loved greatly. They weren’t able to see beyond the demons they’d so convincingly created for themselves. In its entirety, Death Becomes Them is a mysteriously entertaining and powerfully engrossing read, a pop-culture memoriam for the terminally gifted. The book is perhaps at its most touching when Strauss flips the mirror and reflects our own ravenous celebrity obsession back at us, bravely asking why we are so intently focused on the famous, then trying to find an answer. “We want to be wanted and loved,” she writes. “When someone has gotten that validation, and still commits suicide, we are puzzled. We want to know more.”
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