Today marks Sylvia Plath’s birthday, and though it may seem strange to celebrate the birth of a famous author by considering her death, we think it appropriate. Plath’s lifelong depression and suicidal tendencies inarguably informed her work, and as such were part of what makes her writing so compelling, and morbid as it may be, part of what has made her an essential part of the American canon. With that in mind, we have collected some of the most famous author suicides in history, from the mundane to the strange, for your contemplation. Unfortunately, there are all too many authors who have taken this route, a trend that many have remarked upon over the years. Though we by no means mean to romanticize suicide, which is often the product of a long term struggle with depression, it can’t be denied that the deaths of these figures are part of their legacy and have worked their way into our understanding of their work and their lives. Click through to see our list of the most famous author suicides, and raise a glass tonight to Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” (The Bell Jar)
Though well loved and undeniably talented from a young age, the celebrated poet and novelist struggled with depression most of her adult life, making her first documented suicide attempt when she was just 20 and still at Smith College. In 1963, newly separated from her husband, she carefully sealed the kitchen with wet towels so as not to risk harm to her children, and placed her head in the gas oven, where she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. There has been some contention as to whether Plath meant to kill herself — she had asked her downstairs neighbor, Mr. Thomas, what time he would be leaving that morning, and some think she expected him to smell the gas and call for help. She had also left a note that read “Call Dr. Horder,” with his number. However, most sources close to her, in particular the aforementioned Dr. Horder and Plath’s best friend Jillian Becker refute these claims, citing the care she took in setting up the room as well as her previous attempts.
John Berryman (1914 – 1972)
“We must travel in the direction of our fear.”
Another wonderful writer who struggled with depression — as well as alcoholism — for most of his life, Berryman was one of the most celebrated American poets at the time of his death. In January of 1972, he walked from his home to the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, turned and waved to the passerby, and jumped out onto the frozen west bank of the Mississippi River, 90 feet below.
Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941)
“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”
Shortly after finishing the manuscript of what was to be her last novel, Between the Acts, Woolf experienced a bout of depression such as had been plaguing her for years (like Plath, she had attempted suicide before). One day in March, she put on her overcoat, filled her pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse, where she drowned. Her heartbreaking suicide note, which she left for her husband, read as follows:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008)
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
Anyone who has read Wallace’s fiction knows that he suffered from severe depression for many years, though in all his many essays he never published a single word that spoke of it. He tried various medications for many years, and though some allowed him the ability to work, none were totally effective. In 2008, he hung himself at his home in Claremont, California, leaving behind the mixed up manuscript that would be released as The Pale King.
Seneca (ca. 4 BC – 65 AD)
“Death: There’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing that comes before it — the fear of it.” (Letters from a Stoic)
Seneca’s suicide is stranger than most on this list. One of Nero’s advisors, he was accused of participating in the Pisonian conspiracy, which sought to have Nero killed, and ordered by the emperor himself to commit suicide. He did so in the traditional way, cutting into his body in several places so as to bleed to death, however, his body seemed to reject the concept. He ingested poison, which didn’t have much effect either, and finally was placed into a hot bath, meant to ease his pain, and supposedly suffocated from the steam.
Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
In Hemingway’s final years, he began to deteriorate both in body and mind, the former accelerated by the injuries he sustained in two successive plane crashes in Africa and the later manifesting in an apparent confusion. In November, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic, where he reportedly received as many as 15 electroshock treatments before he was released. When, a few months later, his wife Mary found him holding a shotgun, she had him returned for more electroshock therapy, which Hemingway found insufferable, complaining, “What these shock doctors don’t know is about writers…and what they do to them…What is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient.” That June, Hemingway shot himself in the head with his favorite shotgun.
Hunter S. Thompson (1937 – 2005)
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
Like Hemingway, Thompson killed himself with a gunshot to the head. On the typewriter in front of him was written only “Feb 22 ’05” followed by the word “counselor.” His official suicide note, which was reportedly written four days before his death and left for his wife, read: “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974)
“As for me, I am a watercolor. I wash off.” (“For My Lover, Returning to his Wife”)
More than a year before her death, Sexton told a reporter that she had written the poems in her collection The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with “two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.” She also told the reporter that she would not permit the poems to be published before her death. In October of 1974, with the manuscript complete, she met with poet Maxine Kumin to revise galleys of the book, set to be published the following March. She returned home from the lunch meeting, donned her mother’s old fur coat, poured herself a vodka, and locked herself in the garage with the car running, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Hart Crane (1899 – 1932)
“And so it was I entered the broken world To trace the visionary company of love, its voice An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) But not for long to hold each desperate choice.” (“The Broken Tower”)
By 1932, Hart Crane had developed a serious drinking problem that showed no signs of relenting. After spending a year in Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship, fruitlessly trying to write an epic poem inspired by the Aztecs, Crane set out to return to New York on the steamship SS Orizaba. However, when the ship reached the Gulf of Mexico, Crane threw himself overboard, reportedly yelling out “Goodbye, everybody!” as he headed for the side.
Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970)
“If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death? No death may be called futile.”
Mishima’s death, via ritual suicide by seppuku, is probably the most unusual on this list. In March of 1970, Mishima and four other men attempted a coup d’état to restore the powers of the emperor. When their plan failed, Mishima committed seppuku, the traditional Japanese suicide method of samurai who had fallen into the hands of the enemy. In fact, his biographer, translator and friend John Nathan has suggested that the coup attempt, which Mishima planned for over a year, was little more than a pretext to allow him to kill himself in this way.