ARCHIVE: Lady Death Has a New Haunt

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Alix Strauss, author of THE JOY OF FUNERALS and the new DEATH BECOMES THEM, visits the Performing Arts Center at Brookdale Community College this Thursday in an appearance tied to the opening of the annual Haunted Theater attraction.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 20, 2009)

While Alix Strauss never exactly set out to be branded as the “Death Lady,” it’s a shroud that she nonetheless wears with pride.

“I don’t mind, really,” says the “lifestyle trends” and pop culture journalist who previously authored a book on The Joy of Funerals.

The New York-based writer, who cuts a rather unlikely figure for a veritable Angel of Death, visits Brookdale Community College’s Performing Arts Center on the evening of Thursday, October 22 — for a personal appearance and signing event promoting the release of her newest nonfiction, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous and the Notorious.

Described by the author as “a tribute to, an understanding of, twenty big icons who happened to kill themselves,” the book examines the final hours of such figures as Diane ArbusKurt CobainErnest HemingwayAdolf HitlerVincent Van GoghVirginia Woolf and more than a dozen others; providing the documented facts on each case as well as the factors that may or may not have contributed directly to the subjects’ fatal decisions.

It’s a strange book, for sure — neither clinical nor campy, and written in an accessible style that remains respectful even as it bears just a trace element of ghoulish glee — as in its appendices of famous failed attempts, questionable deaths, and particularly gruesome exits.

While the book is not being marketed as a Halloween accessory, however, its author finds herself sharing the PAC at Brookdale with the opening night of the school’s annual Haunted Theater presentation, a hallowed tradition back for its sixth year under the supervision of PAC coordinator Sherri Vanderspiegel.

Populated with an all-volunteer cast of BCC students, staff and alumni — and showcasing the spooky sets, scars and special effects created by the school’s technical theater students — the Haunted Theater runs tour groups through its backstage maze of interactive fright environments on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through October 25, with “Fear Free” tours for younger crowds presented on the afternoons of October 24 and 25.

Strauss will be present at the PAC auditorium beginning at 6:30pm on Thursday, to sign copies of Death, field questions from attendees and discuss her work with Jacquie Dalton, the evening’s host and producer of the locally based BookMark It! Events. Jacquie, who previously brought baseball’s Daryl Strawberry to the Lincroft campus, clued us in recently on some potentially pretty hot irons in the fire, and  you’ll be hearing about them, it’s safe to say, right here in oRBit.

We rang up the Death Lady with some apprehension, but found her to be a cheerfully cosmopolitan type — disarmingly so, for one who toils in the drear graveyard that is the modern publishing biz. Continue Reading for the details (including the author’s pick for the next celeb suicide), that is, if you dare…

RED BANK ORBIT: So was it ever your intent to be known as the Death Lady? Having published two books on the topic, do you feel that you’re being nudged into a, well, hole?

ALIX STRAUSS: I don’t mind the title. I’ve always been attracted to the dark — and don’t forget, I also wrote a book on blind dates, which can be an even scarier topic. But I’ve always been curious about such things — the ways that people die, the way we mourn for them. I’ve always loved learning; I love forensics — I was into watching Quincy as a child.

Well, I’m going to tell you something that I rarely get to say to any of the authors we’ve interviewed here on our website — I finished your book! And I enjoyed it, if that’s the right word — I was impressed that it defied my expectations; I guess at first I was expecting something more gossipy and willfully tasteless, along the lines of Kenneth Anger’s HOLLYWOOD BABYLONbooks.

It’s about human behavior; the things that lead people to make the choices they make. It’s a tribute to, an understanding of, these people who killed themselves. And it’s about death as a part of life — something that we’re all going to experience, whereas not everybody gets to experience great love in their lifetime.

How do you feel about you and your book being positioned as sort of a Halloween attraction at the old walk-through spookhouse? Now I love Halloween as much as anyone, but I have to tell you it doesn’t seem like the most comfortable fit.

The book’s not Halloweeny per se, but I don’t think we’re being ghoulish here. Death, and the sort of things that Halloween stands for these days, shouldn’t be confused with each other. And if you ask a little kid, more than anything else Halloween is about the free candy. So maybe we all just embrace it differently.

I’ve always thought of Halloween as a very creative holiday — I always indulged my creative side; made my own costumes, like Wonder Woman or Willy Wonka. And that sort of leads into what I talk about in the book; the way that creative people live their lives, and how so many of the people in the book could be considered creative types.

But you’d agree that there are people out there whose own lives have been affected by the suicide of someone they knew? People who just aren’t going to be on the same page as you — not that you treat suicide as anything amusing in any way — but people who just won’t accept it as a subject of fascination?

I understand how people would feel that way, and one of the things that I hope I accomplished with this book was to get people talking about the subject. I think that there’s been a persistent stigma about suicide, and I think that stigma is being lifted. But a lot of people are afraid to talk about it still. Families of people who commit suicide often don’t want it to get out, that this is how the person died.

But we need to talk about it. Even if we have to sort of take it lightly to take it seriously. It’s not a taboo subject, and it’s not a selfish act, as some people have suggested. I’m not sure I agree with that at all. The fact that the book focuses on celebrities helps to get the conversation going, I think. We’re all interested in celebrities, and the people I talk about in the book, most of them lived their lives very much in the public eye. We felt that we knew them, even if in the end we didn’t.

Another thing I try to do with the book is to place the reader on the scene in the subject’s final moments. You’re there with Spalding Gray when he decides to jump from the Staten Island Ferry, and with Virginia Woolf when she fills her pockets with rocks and walks into the river.

Those were two particularly vivid chapters.

Spalding was a man who lived in such misery — he had a history of depression in his family, and he had talked about and attempted to kill himself a number of times. Then even after that, he gets into a terrible car crash, and he’s badly injured but doesn’t die. It’s not how he intended to go, and he actually rallied and recovered as much as he could from the crash. But he continued to live with a lot of pain, and finally he was successful in jumping off the ferry.

Like getting a second chance just to end it all. People said that about DJ AM just recently.

All of the stories in the book are different in their way. You’ve got people who seemed to do something impulsive out of the blue, and others who had just talked and talked about ending it for years and finally acted upon it. I pair each death with relevant facts and statistics about the way that the person chose to take their own life — for instance, with Anne Sexton I have a section on suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

In one of my favorite old movies, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Edward G. Robinson has a great little monologue on various methods of suicide.

There are as many ways as there are people it seems. Life is hard, for so many of us. It’s hard just to get up in the morning and face another day sometimes. But the majority of people choose not to kill themselves — and of those who do, so many of them have been artists of some kind; writers, musicians, actors. Maybe they’re just more sensitive than most; more easily broken by circumstances. A big part of their art, their words or their music, comes from that dark place that they carry around inside of them.

Another thing that the book touches upon is the art of the suicide note. How it could be just a cryptic word or two, or what amounts to a whole book. Abbie Hoffman, before he OD’d on enough pills to kill eight people, left behind 200 pages worth of memoir.

Kurt Cobain’s story is another one that will continue to be talked about. He’s a guy who had everything going for him, it seems, including a young daughter, millions of fans. But then look who he was living with.

Well, there’ve been books and documentaries for a while now suggesting that his case was not as cut and dried as was reported at first. There’s a controversy there, more so than any of the other chapters in your book.

There’s a lot of controversy in the case of Elliott Smith also. I don’t know; something to do with musicians? Smith’s case was so botched from the beginning — they got his name wrong on the report; they messed up the fingerprints; the note didn’t make any sense. I mention all of this in the book, but cases like Marilyn Monroe, where there’s still a lot of argument over exactly what happened, don’t make the cut — people overdosed in many instances, without any indication that they ever intended to kill themselves.

Well, I have to ask you this, and you can answer off the record if you wish, but who would be the Death Lady’s pick for the celebrity most likely to commit suicide?

Amy Winehouse. Absolutely. It’s amazing that she’s lasted as long as she has. She loves to live hard, you know? She’s British and she’s glam rock and completely self destructive. It’s a recipe for something nasty.

And on that note, we’ll say see you at the haunted house…

It’ll be fascinating. My background is in acting, so I do a good read. And you’ll go away having learned something!

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