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

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.

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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