05 March 2016

Famous authors - their lives and awful deaths

Jim Bernhard’s book Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died started with the view that inevitable as it may be, death was unpredictable for most people. This quality infused death with a suspenseful frisson, guaranteeing that all humans thought about it from time to time. And it is a reasonable assumption to say that famous authors also knew that one day they would die. They may have even written about death and dying in their novels, poetry and plays.

The writers’ views about life and death were shaped by their own religious and philosophical beliefs, which ranged from polytheism and Stoicism in ancient Greece, to Christianity and Judaism, to agnosticism. Final Chapters told of a hundred famous writers’ acceptance or rejection of their families’ religion and spirituality while alive. And then described how the same authors prepared for their own deaths: with fear, uncertainty or calm acceptance.

These tall (gossip based) tales and true (well documented) of legendary deaths are worth reading. But keep an open mind. I am not sure whether the playwright Aeschylus was really killed by a turtle falling from the sky onto the unfortunate man’s skull.

For some of these well known writers, death was sometimes mundane and miserable; for others it came in startling and totally unexpected ways. Infections, strokes and cancers of course, and also suicides, murders, alcoholism and drugs. Alas Bernhard did not make it clear whether poets, novelists and playwrights were more vulnerable to preventable fatal accidents (fast driving, alcoholic poisoning, drug overdoses, suicides, starvation) than the rest of the population.

Naturally, since the book discussed only famous and somewhat eccentric writers, I have selected only the most interesting examples of their lives and deaths. 

Anton Chekov
brilliant life and miserable death 

Spanish Catholic author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) joined the Spanish military and fought against the Ottoman Empire, seriously wounding one of his arms. He was captured by Barbary pirates who imprisoned him in Algeria for five years and eventually had to be ransomed by his distraught parents. Later Cervantes went to gaol again, this time for financial irregularities in his dealings with the Armada. But at least the second time in prison was well spent – he wrote Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Alas his later years were impoverished. Despite suffering from oedema and heart failure, he managed to finish his last novel The Works of Persiles and Sigismunda and wrote a personal farewell in the prologue, received the last rites and died at his Madrid home at 69.

British Lord George Byron (1788-1824) was described as having a brief, tumultuous life, the embodiment of Romanticism. Born into an aristocratic Scottish family, Byron went to Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge but mostly involved himself in sports, large financial debts, a wild sex life and lots of published writing. Most famous would have been his the short lyric poem She Walks in Beauty (1813) and his long narrative poems Don Juan (1819-24) and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1819).

Did his unfortunate wife and his half sister send him to the Continent, as a punishment for having endless mistresses? In any case Byron got caught up in the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire and put his money into refitting the Greek Navy for the battles yet to come. This ex-Calvinist free thinker must have known about early death. He developed fever and rheumatic pains, and became infected with sepsis, dying at 36 still in Greece. Westminster Abbey refused to accept the body for burial, because of the young man’s history of wild debauchery. The Greeks, however, proclaimed Lord Byron a national hero.

Protestant Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was born in Dublin and brilliantly educated at Oxford. Life seemed fairly normal at that stage – he married and had children, had his poetry published, dressed like a dandy, went on lecture tours and saw his novel Dorian Gray do very well. By 1890 Wilde was becoming known as the most successful and clever dramatist of London’s West End.

However it all fell apart when Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, via his father the Marquess of Queensberry, caused Wilde to be gaoled for gross indecency in 1895. After his release, Wilde went to France alone to an impoverished life in a small hotel room. He began to drink absinthe very heavily, knowing it could kill him. Although he still managed to write Ballad of Reading Gaol and two other major works (An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest), Wilde developed cerebral meningitis and called a priest to convert him to Catholicism on his death bed. Wilde died aged 46 and was given a pauper’s burial on the edge of Paris. Years later friend later came up with enough money to move the remains to the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian Orthodox doctor and medical researcher who had studied at Moscow University. At the same time he began to publish short stories, to considerable acclaim. Then his best known plays appeared: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard; Chekov was feted everywhere.

Sadly ill health struck early. In March 1897, Chekhov suffered a major haemorrhage of the lungs while on a visit to Moscow. I don’t understand why he was so reluctant to enter a clinic since a] Chekov was a doctor himself and b] the dreaded tuberculosis had already killed his brother Nikolay in 1889. No do I have any idea why he joined Stanislavsky’s company in 1902 – surely it would have been exhausting and an even greater risk to his fragile health. 

When The Cherry Orchard opened in Moscow in 1904, the first night was a farewell tribute to Chekov, Russia’s greatest playwright, who was coughing blood and could not walk. Chekov travelled to a German spa town seeking relief, but died there aged 44. The body was taken back to Moscow where thousands of mourners lined the funeral procession route.

Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died
by Jim Bernhard
published by Skyhorse in 2015

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American reporter who volunteered for ambulance service in Italy during World War One. Seriously wounded, he returned home, married and began to associate with the Lost Generation of expatriate writers. In 1926 he published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, married wife #2 and converted to Catholicism. A Farewell to Arms came out in 1929, years before he travelled to Spain to report on the civil war there. For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 1940, the same year he married wife #3. During World War Two he covered the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge. And married wife #4.

Death seemed inevitable when on an African trip in 1952, two successive plane crashes left Hemingway with damaged kidney, skull and spine. He self medicated with alcohol and developed liver disease as well. Suicide was frequently on his mind, particularly as he developed paranoid manic-depression for which shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic provided only temporary relief. In the end Hemingway successfully shot himself in the forehead.


Joe said...

What about Virginia Woolf? Great writer, sad life, sadder death.

Hels said...


Jim Bernhard wrote that Virginia Woolf had been a victim of mental disorders for much of her life, from the time of her mother's death when Virginia was just 13. She and her husband Leonard bought a house, welcomed the Bloomsbury literary circle into their home and ran The Hogarth Press. But their house was bombed during WW2, so they moved to the country and depression set in, this time permanently.

In 1941, Virginia filled her coat with rocks and jumped into the Ouse River. She drowned herself in her late 50s. What a terrible end.

Mandy Southgate said...

What a fascinating post. I love reading takes like this - it reminds me that even the most successful of us suffer our demons. You might enjoy the book Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee," "John Henry," and Other Traditional American Folk Songs by Richard Polenberg. It is really fascinating. http://www.addictedtomedia.net/2015/11/hear-my-sad-story-by-richard-polenberg.html

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, This is a bit different from the usual Homes of Famous Authors type of compilation. Did Bernhard reach any conclusions about the relationship between writing and death, or are these apparently random examples? I wonder if he included any new information about the wry and sardonic Ambrose Bierce, who simply disappeared without a trace.

Andrew said...

I am pleased you added Virginia in comments, as her suicide was quite bizarre. Mental frailty and artistic talent so often seem to go together.

Hels said...


I rarely thought about death in my younger decades. Now it is different. Firstly most of my generation has lost parents, aunts, uncles and work colleagues, so there are constant funerals and memorials. Secondly once something goes wrong with our bodies (eg lower back pain, arthritis), it seems like the thin edge of the wedge en route to total collapse. But that seems normal-ish, don't you think?

What about the poor souls who are tormented by chronic depression and suicidal thinking? That must be excruciating.

Thanks for the reference. The historical events and true stories behind America's most famous folk songs broadens the search for inspiration beyond literature to music.

Hels said...


Bernhard chose authors to study because they were the people most likely to have left some clues about their attitudes toward death in their written works and in their interviews. But although he noted that death came in all sorts of ways (heart attacks, cancers, accidents, suicides etc), the mention of alcohol, tobacco and narcotics was brief. So I will go back into my post and add a question about whether writers (famous or otherwise) more vulnerable to early and miserable death than other people.

No mention of Ambrose Bierce.

Hels said...


Mental frailty and artistic talent really do seem to go together, but I am not sure which came first. Are talented young people with the early signs of depression or anxiety drawn into creative careers that are flexible but unreliable eg Janis Joplin, Virginia Woolf? Or is literature (or any other creative career) so chancy that even a stable personality can become dysfunctional?

Xuân An said...

help me, please

xuanan said...

I rarely thought about death in my younger decades. Now it is different. Firstly most of my generation has lost parents, aunts, uncles and work colleagues, so there are constant funerals and memorials. Secondly once something goes wrong with our bodies (eg lower back pain, arthritis), it seems like the thin edge of the wedge en route to total collapse. But that seems normal-ish, don't you think?

What about the poor souls who are tormented by chronic depression and suicidal thinking? That must be excruciating.

Thanks for the reference. The historical events and true stories behind

Hels said...


I hope you enjoyed the post. But was there a problem leaving a comment of your own?

Chify Jay said...

Death scares the "huffle duff" outta people though. These writers had really bad farewells.

Help a brother mention hiS "music blog". www.sugarmp3.blogspot.com

Hels said...

Chify Jay

*nod* absolutely as true today as ever in human history. Even though we live longer on average this century than in the past and even though we have better health care resources when things do start to go badly.

One of the elements of Jim Bernhard's stories was assessing if and what his famous authors did to prepare themselves for their own deaths. Did they have religious values that gave meaning to life on this world and the next? Did they write about their own mortality in their books, poems and plays? Were they surrounded by loved ones, when disease struck?