Suffering For Their Art: A History Of Writers And Suicide

Writers are a famously erratic bunch, but occasionally, this creative energy can lead to tragedy...
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If you were to travel to Provincetown, Massachusetts and head right to the end of Commercial Street, where the narrow road widens out to begin the 120 mile journey along Cape Cod to Boston, you’d find the former home of a certain Norman Mailer. If you were lucky enough to be allowed in, and led up to the third floor, you would find Mailer’s study, which is kept locked and remains untouched since the great man’s death in 2007. The study is small and dingy. Thick curtains hang over the window and a small cot bed stands in the corner. Piles and piles of notebooks are scattered across the desk and bookshelves overflowing with books on Hitler (research for Mailer’s planned next book) stand beside a weight machine.

What is most striking, and perhaps the most private aspect of Mailer’s study, is a road sign hanging above the stairs that reads simply, ‘Bellevue’. This sign was placed there by Mailer as a reminder to never let himself get as low as he did in 1960, when he was committed to the psychiatric hospital after non-fatally stabbing his second wife Adele in the back and abdomen. In his medical report of the incident, Dr. Conrad Rosenberg reports, ‘In my opinion Norman Mailer is having an acute paranoid breakdown with delusional thinking and is both homicidal and suicidal. His admission to a hospital is urgently advised.'

Such episodes are common amongst writers, and have become romanticised as part of the artistic experience. Thankfully, Mailer was able to recover from whatever was affecting him and live to the ripe old age of 84. However, a great deal of other writers have not been so lucky, and often suicide has provided the only way out from their tormented minds. Here are some of the most famous literary suicides.

Ernest Hemingway


Hemingway was a man who is equally notorious in death as he was in life and his life’s work, classics such as For Whom The Bell Tolls, Fiesta and The Old Man And The Sea, have a legacy just as enduring as that of Hemingway’s death, by suicide, aged 61. It was a death Norman Mailer claimed to feel as deeply as ‘the death of one’s own father’.

In 1961 there was little evidence to explain why Papa stuck a double-barrelled shotgun in his mouth. Three months earlier, Hemingway had checked in to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesotaafter reportedly acting ‘unusually hesitant, disorganized, and confused' . Treatment at the Mayo Clinic is rumored to have included electroconvulsive therapy, which would have done little to help what researchers now believe was a hereditary disease known as hemochromatosis which creates an inability to metabolize iron, leading to mental and physical deterioration. It’s also believed this disease led to the suicides of Hemingway’s father, brother and sister. Thankfully, Hemingway lives on in his books.

Hunter S. Thompson


Thompson taught himself to write by typing out Hemingway’s stories and once stole a pair of deer antlers from Hemingway’s Idaho home. It’s perhaps fitting then, that a writer who almost lived up to the heights of Hemingway’s career, would go out the same way, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, aged 67. Upon finding Papa’s body, Juan Thompson walked outside and fired two shotgun blasts in the air to mark his father’s passing.

Thompson’s suicide note, titled ‘Football Seaons Is Over’ was later published in Rolling Stone and 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’.

Thompson’s ashes were later fired from a cannon atop a tower replicating his famous Gonzo logo; a double thumbed palm clasping a peyote button. All of this was paid for by his good friend Johnny Depp who continues to champion Thompson’s work.


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Richard Brautigan


Brautigan was an American writer, best know for his novel Trout Fishing In America and short story collection Revenge Of The Law. After a surge of popularity in the 60s, Brautigan’s star waned in the early 70s. Fellow writer Thomas McGuane described this decline in popularity as the ‘baby being thrown out with the bath water.’ It was a slump that Brautigan’s career never recovered from and in 1984, aged 49, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a 44. Magnum.

Sadly, Brautigan’s body was not found until at least a month later, by which time it was partially-decomposed. Seconds prior to pulling the trigger, Brautigan had been gazing out at the waves of the Pacific Ocean and his spirit no doubt lives in Trout Rivers the world over.

Sylvia Plath


Plath had a long history of depression, describing her condition as ‘owl’s talons clenching my heart’. Despite the prescription of anti-depressants by her doctor, 30 year-old Plath was found dead in herLondonhome on the morning of 11th February, 1963.

Plath had turned on the gas oven, blocked the kitchen doors and placed her head inside the oven, whilst her two young children slept upstairs. A month earlier, her seminal work The Bell Jar had been published, detailing a semi-autobiographical decent into mental illness.

Plath’s former partner, poet Ted Hughes wrote about Sylvia’s death in a letter to a friend, ‘That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.’ After Hughes partner Assia Wevill killed herself and their 4 year-old child, accusations that Hughes was a woman-beater intensified. In 1970 feminist poet Robin Morgan published the poem ‘Arraignment’ in which she accused Hughes of the battery and murder of Plath.

Malcolm Lowry


Malcolm Lowry was an English poet and novelist. His best known work is Under The Volcano, the story of an alcoholic British consul in Mexico which was voted number 11 in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels List.

Despite his privileged upbringing as the son of wealthy cotton brokers, Lowry struggled throughout his life with his own alcoholism. He is reported to have taken his first drink aged 14, and to have not looked back since.

Lowry committed suicide in a boarding house in East Sussex, aged 37, with a combination of alcohol and barbiturates. He is buried in the church yard of St.John the Baptist and wrote his own epitaph, ‘Here lies Malcolm Lowry, late of the Bowery, whose prose was flowery, and often glowery. He lived nightly, and drank daily, and died playing the ukulele.’

Mailer Award Winner Tom Ward's own novel, 'A Departure' is out now.