Friday, September 18, 2009

The Final Exit

Every day on the calendar has seen a suicide at one time or another. The reasons for ending one's life and the methods for accomplishing the goal vary, but the end result for those who succeed — and not all who attempt it are successful — is the same.

And no single day is more or less prone to be the one when someone decides to end it all.

I started thinking about this when it was brought to my attention that today is the anniversary of two suicides separated by a year and a hemisphere.

Both involved women who were not famous on their own but had well–placed connections. Their success in killing themselves went against a trend that has been documented. More men than women kill themselves, but women make more attempts than men. Perhaps that is because men choose more efficient methods for ending their lives, or perhaps it is an indication that many women are driven by a desire not to kill themselves but to gain attention.

On this day in 1931, a 23–year–old woman named Angelika Maria "Geli" Raubal apparently shot herself in the chest, although her body was not discovered until the next day.

She was the half–niece of Adolf Hitler, the daughter of Hitler's half–sister. And she was rumored to be her uncle's lover. She spent the last years of her life living close to Hitler, and the nature of their relationship is baffling. Hitler was very controlling, but evidence of a sexual relationship is difficult to find. After Raubal's death, the physician who examined her body said she was a virgin when she died.

Prior to her death, Hitler and Raubal had a fight — at least one person alleged the fight was sparked by Hitler's "discovery" that a Jewish art teacher had impregnated Raubal — just before he left his apartment in Munich. Only one member of the household staff, a deaf worker, was on duty so there was no one who could claim to have heard when Raubal apparently shot herself in her lung with her uncle's gun. But it was established that the wound was self–inflicted because the door to the room where she died was locked from the inside.

Raubal's suicide was perplexing. For that matter, so was Peg Entwistle's.

Entwistle was a 24–year–old actress on Sept. 18, 1932.

She was modestly successful on Broadway. Successful enough, anyway, that David O. Selznick cast her in a thriller called "Thirteen Women" starring Irene Dunne.

I'm not sure how large or small Entwistle's role was initially, but, after the film received poor reviews following test screenings, the studio deleted some unnecessary scenes, which resulted in a dramatic reduction in Entwistle's screen time.

She must have felt that her career was over, even though it had barely begun, so in September 1932, she climbed the hill to the famous "Hollywoodland" sign (it was later shortened to "Hollywood"), removed her coat and shoes and left them with her purse (which contained a brief suicide note), ascended the "H" and flung herself off. Her body was discovered two days later.

A couple of interesting footnotes here:
  • Raubal and Entwistle were born around the same time. Raubal's birthdate was June 4, 1908. There seems to be some disagreement about Entwistle's date of birth. Some sources say she was born on Feb. 5, 1908, others claim she was born on July 1, 1908. Either way, though, the gap between their births was a few months at the most.

    I'd like to think Entwistle was born in July. That would mean their birthdays were separated by only about four weeks and their deaths were on the same date a year apart. It's kind of a stretch, but it would resemble the fates of two of Raubal's uncle's Nazi associates, Hermann Göring and Alfred Rosenberg.

    Göring and Rosenberg were born on the same day — Jan. 12, 1893. After World War II, they were convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. Consequently, they would have died on the same day, but Göring committed suicide the night before the executions.

    Apparently, he believed that hanging, a punishment that was typically reserved for criminals, was not an appropriate way for a soldier to die.

  • If Entwistle was born in July 1908, that means her birthday would have been in the same month and year as another actress who committed suicide, Lupe Vélez, who was born July 18, 1908.

    Known as the "Mexican Spitfire," Vélez had an extramarital relationship in the mid–1940s and became pregnant. A Catholic, she wouldn't consider an abortion, and she did not want to have a child who was illegitimate so she took an overdose of sleeping pills in December 1944.

    It has been speculated, however, that Vélez suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which led to her suicide.

    And, in yet another version of the Lupe Vélez story, Roz Doyle, in the series premiere of the "Frasier" TV show, perpetuated an urban legend and suggested that Vélez wanted to be remembered, felt her career wasn't going anywhere and decided to kill herself by overdosing. But things went awry. She got sick and wound up dying with her head in the toilet.

    The suicide, Roz said, was an example of how things can turn out the way we want them to even if they don't go according to plan.
I don't know which version of the story is the right one.

But I do know that Raubal, Entwistle, Göring and Vélez all took their own lives, and they did so for their own reasons. For the most part, those reasons remain unclear to others, even decades later. It isn't uncommon for survivors of a suicide to be bewildered, even if, in hindsight, the red flags were abundant.

As Jimmy Durante said of Vélez, "This little girl was a female Pagliacci. She seemed so happy, so full of life that you didn't think she ever had a care in the world. But they used to tell me at the time of [doing the show] 'Strike Me Pink' that she used to go to the bar at Frankie and Johnny's place and sit there all alone. Well, who can see into another person's soul?"

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