Famous folk who killed themselves (and folks who famously killed themselves)

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Part 1 in a series

For the final project in my 11th grade AP English class, everyone was assigned a famous author. We had to learn everything we could about this person, both canonically and biographically, and then impersonate said author for a whole day at the end of the year: we had to dress up like them, speak like them, and be ready to answer any of of a battery of questions that our teacher, or anyone else, would ask us that day about our famous alter-egos. When the day came, we arrived at school, slightly humiliated by our costumes, and sat along the main hall in a long row. Elementary school classes would parade by us, instructed by their teachers to learn everything they could from us. They only had two questions:

"Were you gay?" "Did you kill yourself?"

I was William Faulkner, and unless you consider alcoholism a form of suicide, I had not. To my left, however, was Jerzy Kozinski (my friend Chris), who after writing The Painted Bird, Being There and some other wonderful novels had tied a shopping bag around his head after leaving a note that read "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual." To my right was Sylvia Plath, who had, famously, stuck her head in an oven. The kids danced around, delighted, chanting "Oven-head! Oven-head!"

Years later, I've finally come to the realization that famous suicides are pretty interesting -- and inherently bloggable. Here are some that surprised me:

George Eastman
Eastman patented the roll film camera in 1888, revolutionized (and democratized) photography and built one of the largest and most successful brands in the world: Kodak. But the last years of his life were marred by increasing depression as his body succumbed to a degenerative spinal disorder that threatened to put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life (as had happened to his mother). Rather than suffer the same fate, he shot himself in the heart in 1932, leaving a note that read "My work is done. Why wait?" He's buried on the Kodak campus in Rochester, NY.

Captain Lawrence Oates
oates.jpgAn explorer on Robert Scott's ill-fated 1910 expedition to Antarctica, he was part of a five-man team chosen to make the final leg of the trip from the ship to the pole itself on foot. On their way back, disagreeable weather began to irritate an old war wound of his, slowing the whole team down. Despite a coming blizzard and dwindling rations, his comrades refused to leave him behind even though his sluggish pace threatened to strand them all. When the blizzard caught up with them, he decided to take matters into his own hands and leave himself behind: one day he simply walked out of the tent where they had huddled to ride out the storm, saying "I am just going outside and may be some time." He never returned. It was his 32nd birthday.

Alan Turing
apple_logo.jpgOften called the father of modern computer science, Turing was a British mathematician who created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer and became an extremely proficient codebreaker during World War II, saving countless lives thanks to his decryption of the Germans' Enigma machine. He was also a homosexual, for which he was prosecuted by the British government in 1952, and forced to take libido-reducing hormones or face jail time. His security clearance was revoked, his reputation in tatters. Two years later, he was found dead in his house from cyanide poisoning; many believe he had eaten a cyanide-laced apple found partially eaten nearby, a kind of homage to his favorite fairy tale, Snow White. Some have said that the Apple Computer logo is a coded tribute to Turing's genius, and his persecution.

October 4, 2007 - 6:22am
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