Tag Archive: suicide


Peg Entwistle’s Entropy

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.

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The Hurt of Depression

With fall and winter coming on, people are more prone to depression. Every year on average, nineteen million Americans suffer some form of depression. One in four adults will experience depression sometime during their life. An interested fact from Katie Couric’s new online talk show stated that people born after 1950 are ten times as likely to be depressed. Why this is I don’t know.

Three hormones in the body are believed to regulate mood: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When these hormones get out-of-whack, trouble ensues. According to Dr. Ellen McGrath who was interviewed by Katie Couric, there are three main types of depression: situational, seasonal (as in Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD), and a chemical imbalance in the brain. Couric admitted to severe situational depression after her husband died, but the more common form of depression, chemical, can be treated with prescription drugs.

Part of the problem in treating depression is the embarrassment of admitting that you are indeed depressed. People sometimes joke about mood disorders, as in, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.” Really? Does that mean you need to be hospitalized, or is this something you can handle on your own? A true nervous breakdown would most assuredly require a hospital visit.

We still don’t know what triggers a mood disorder episode, but the three factors believed to be involved include biological, psychological, and social components. To be diagnosed with depression, a person must experience symptoms for more than two weeks. Many people try to “wait it out,” rather than seek professional help. This adds to the feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I have learned, slowly perhaps, that exercise is a great way to combat depression. Exercise has been found to increase the body’s own natural antidepressants, called endorphins. The difficulty is getting out of bed and forcing yourself to start your day, but physical activity is definitely a great way to raise your mood.

Sometimes all you can do is hang in there, believing that even regarding moods and feelings, “This too shall pass.” A close friend of mine in despair committed suicide, not seeing the possibility of change. To me, suicide is the ultimate “screw you” to the universe. What suicidal people seem incapable of figuring out is how those closest to the individual, those left behind, will be affected permanently by the loss of someone they love. Our lives here on earth are so short; why rush toward the darkness? We can hope for life in the world to come, but there are no guarantees. As so eloquently stated in the film “Won’t Back Down,” just out in theaters, “What are you going to do with your one and only life?” Make your life matter. Are you going to trust your eyes, or are you going to trust your heart?

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

In Steel Magnolia’s the main character Shelby, played by Julia Roberts, says, “I’d rather have ten minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” 

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of famous writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, embraced this attitude.  She typifies the hedonism,  headiness of the Roaring 1920’s, self-exile, and spiritual alienation of the Jazz Age.  She is considered the High Priestess of the Jazz Age, but her life proves the tendency of those artists to self-destruct.

Surrounded by famous writers, artists, and painters like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway,  as well as Pablo Picasso, famous expatriates in exile in decadent, vibrant Paris, plus jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ma Rainey, Zelda Fitzgerald lived her life on her own terms until alcoholism and mentally illness beat her down.  Gertrude Stein coined the phrase the “lost generation,” but she probably didn’t realize how prescient she would turn out to be.  Hemingway committed suicide and Zelda Fitzgerald ended up dying in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in North Carolina when she was only 48.  She didn’t know how little time she would have to make her mark on the world, and she has since quietly slipped away into relative obscurity.  She never achieved the success she courted, and was eclipsed by her more famous husband.

At one point she pronounced, “I don’t want to live.  I want to love first, and live incidentally.”

Most of her life, she was a type of shadow artist, following in the wake of writers and artists who actively pursued their craft.  She may not have been content, but she settled for less, only writing her novel, Save Me the Waltz, while she was hospitalized.  It is considered to be a confusing novel, not a particularly great work of art.  She also obsessively tried to find her way as a ballet dancer, but again was thought not to be good enough.  She was in a race against time.  There is a lesson there for artists of all types.  Don’t wait to create!  You might not have tomorrow. 

Zelda even said, “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.”  Her novel chronicled her marriage to F. Scott, and he resented the barely fictionalized account of their marriage, even though he wrote Tender Is the Night, his version of their tumultous marriage of seething resentment and bitter acrimony, barely two years later, in 1934. 

In the sanatorium she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Nowdays she would be treated and released to live her life as best she could.  Doctors still rely on Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) in recalcitrant cases, but it is a last resort because of the numbing effect on memory.  She wanted to live a bohemian lifestyle but in the end was stymied.

She was a beautiful, ill-fated debutante flapper, born too soon.