No doubt you’ve noticed that it happens quite often that a celebrity dies prematurely from a drugs overdose (or, like Whitney Houston, from some accident that wouldn’t have happened without taking drugs).
Of course the same thing can happen to ordinary people too: but they don’t make the headlines. A celeb’s death just gets much more attention.
At Wikipedia, you can skim a huge, really impressive list of well-known people who died from a drug overdose. A random example from the list is the famous photographer Diane Arbus, who suffered from depression all her life, and died in 1971 from an overdose of barbiturates combined with slitting her wrists. Like several of the others, this was an obvious case of suicide.
But if you go through that long Wikipedia list, it will soon strike you that many of those overdose-related deaths are in a kind of gray area: for many of them, it will remain unclear forever if this was an accidental or an intentional (suicidal) death. Personally I think in some cases, the deceased’s family may have preferred to label it as an unfortunate accident, rather than as a possible suicide.
This kind of unclear overdose-related death is something of all times: it’s nothing new. History tends to repeat itself.
One of the best known and still intriguing deaths-by-overdose from history is the one of Elizabeth Siddal, in 1862, in Victorian England. Even today, her life and her death still get a lot of attention. Even today, she still has devoted fans. There are books and websites about her; I especially recommend Stephanie Pina’s excellent blog LizzieSiddal.com.
Elizabeth Siddal was a poet and painter, but as demonstrated by this somewhat crude self-portrait, not a unique artist herself. Above all, her contemporaries considered her a great, dramatically expressive, perfect beauty. Her looks made her into what we today would call a supermodel. She inspired poetry by others, and for all the important painters in England at that time, she was the single most popular model. She was depicted in both realistic and idealized ways, in many remarkable paintings. Probably the best known one is Millais’ 1852 Ophelia (more about that in a minute).
It’s a pity that because photography was still in its infancy then, besides all those paintings we have only two photos of her:
I will not give her complete biography here, even though it reads like a romantic tale (born from humble origins, discovered by a painter while working in a shop, career taking off and posing for many, stormy love affair with one of them, coping with weak health, intriguing death).
In Shakespeare’s 1603-1623 play Hamlet, the king’s daughter Ophelia falls in love with Hamlet but is rejected by him. After her father’s death, Ophelia appears to go mad. Eventually she dies by mysteriously drowning in a stream. According to her mother this was an accident (Ophelia falling from a tree she’d climbed) but other characters in the play discuss whether or not it could have been suicide.
In 1851-1852, John Everett Millais painted this mysterious Shakespearian death, with Elizabeth Siddal modeling as Ophelia. During the process Siddal became ill because she had to lie posing for hours in a bathtub, while the water was getting cold.
Ten years later, Siddal would die herself in a way just as mysterious as Ophelia. In 1860 she had finally married her long-time lover, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But she had for quite some time been a laudanum addict.
Laudanum was a strong and very popular medication in Victorian times: a predecessor of morphine or heroin. It was an opium product that was dissolved in alcohol (because opiates do not dissolve well in water). It was used as a cure in many situations: as a potent pain killer, as a tranquilizer, as sleep medication. The alcohol component made the opium effect even stronger, and laudanum was very addictive. Many people in the 1860s, among them Mary Todd, US President Lincoln’s wife, were habitual users.
Siddal had become very depressed after having given birth to a stillborn daughter, and in 1862 (at age 32) an overdose of laudanum was fatal to her.
Rossetti, her husband, was heartbroken and the family firmly upheld that it was an accident. But there also were unconfirmed rumors of a suicide note having been found. I guess the truth will never be known.
The story does not end here. At the burial, Rossetti had in a dramatic gesture put the only copy of some of his poems in the coffin with her. Seven years later, in a typical Victorian morbid twist, he decided he wanted them back and had her exhumed. Witnesses reported that Siddal’s body still looked remarkably intact, her beautiful red hair grown out and filling the coffin. Frankly, this makes me think of the tales about the miraculously preserved corpses of some Catholic saints…
Now what made the story of Elizabeth Siddal’s life and death so popular and appealing, what keeps it going even on several internet sites today, 150 years later? The romanticism of it all? Her beauty? The mystery? The sad end?
All of those I guess: coming together in a sense of ultimate tragedy coupled to glamor. The exhumation story poignantly illustrates how people wanted to view not just her life, but even her death as glamorous: how they wanted to keep her in mind as someone who would never lose her glamor, not even after death.
But – suicide or not – can depression and death ever be a matter of glamor? I cannot help thinking that the actual tragedy is that, in her own sadness, to herself, Elizabeth Siddal already must have lost her glamor before that cold February day when this overdose took her life. Depression is ugly; and so is death.
I think the real lesson here is not that beauty is immortal (although here, in a way, it has been made immortal) but that happiness is frail. Even if you happen to be a celebrity.
– As the only possible conclusion, here is White Fire Sky: Craig McDearmid and Victoria Siddoway, singer-songwriters from Newcastle, who recently wrote a beautiful song about the enduring legend of Elizabeth Siddal. If you like it, please go for more to their White Fire Sky page at the Reverbnation music site.
Click the “Play” button to hear them with The Ballad of Lizzie and Rossetti:
(if the player does not work, install Flash)
• tip: Considering suicide? Then also consider this. You are not a celebrity: apart from hurting your family and friends, your death will not impress anyone. So why bother?
• note: The 1852 painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais is in the Tate Gallery, London.