There’s something about pursuing a life as an artist that can sometimes lead to acts of self destruction. Whether the writer drinks to excess, the painter cuts off part of his ear, or someone like actor James Dean crashes his sports car and ends his career after only three films. More modern examples abound, including Robin Williams, Amy Whinehouse, and even River Phoenix. I think we expect our artists to be both immortal and indestructible, and the truth is, Philip Seymour Hoffman, after years sober, can suddenly listen to the demons of addiction and overdose, ending one of the most prestigious careers of the modern era.
Still, when I worked in Los Angeles on a little known show called, Mysteries & Scandals, one artist stood out: Peg Entwistle. She had had a fairly successful career on Broadway, and definitely paid her dues, but Hollywood was not so kind to her. Her only supporting role came in a Myrna Loy/Irene Dunne, David O. Selznick vehicle called “Thirteen Women” that was released after her untimely death.
Peg Entwistle went for a walk one night and wound up in the Hollywood Hills with a suicide note in her purse. She claimed the letter H in the sign that then read, Hollywoodland, now just Hollywood.
I don’t know how much depression led to her suicide, how much alcohol contributed, and how much can be attributed simply to the impulse in some artists to self destruct. Robin Williams, one of my heroes for the way he lived life on his terms, unfortunately marred his legacy because of an intractable depression that came out of a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, but word has it he died sober. That saddens me even more. With a clear mind, he took his life, and didn’t in that moment know the amount of joy he had brought to millions.
I suppose none of us are immune to the Black Dog Days that Winston Churchill described as plaguing him at times. The best we can do is go to bed early, take care of ourselves, check in with our friends, and trust that those dark days do indeed pass.
I just wonder a bit about the artistic bent toward self destruction. I recently started reading, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work in an effort to understand how best to channel those creative energies.
That showed a more positive spin on how people organize their days to insure heightened creativity. The key, I think, is what to do to survive fallow periods when you’re not feeling creative. Self preservation is more important than any particular string of well constructed sentences.