Princess Luciana Pignatelli died in her seventies last October after taking sleeping tablets washed down with a bottle of gin. She had lost out on two currencies: her money and her looks. She could have managed with only one of them but not without both. “I can’t face being old and poor,” she told her friends after learning all of her investments were worthless. A memorial service was held two weeks ago in Rome for the woman who had once been the object of desire for Italy’s most dashing men about town, including Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli and his brother-in-law (Prince) Carlo Caraccioli, founder of the left-centre newspaper La Repubblica.
Older readers might recall her Camay soap commercials, described by Camille Paglia as “strangely somnambulistic.” There’s a 1974 one she did, when she was married to a cousin of photographer Richard Avedon, on YouTube. Her earlier marriage to Nicoló Pignatelli, a handsome, clever prince from Italy’s black aristocracy, gave her the name she kept. The New York Times Magazine’s beauty editor Mary Tannen profiled her in 2003, quoting from Pignatelli’s The Beautiful People’s Beauty Book: “I underwent hypnosis, had cell implants, diacutaneous fibrolysis, silicone injections, my nose bobbed and my eyelids lifted.” And that was just in 1970.
She was a silly woman, I suppose, but with a generous spirit. In my twenties I saw the Vogue photographs and the Life magazine cover of her. Such beauty. Her obsession resulted in its destruction through a myriad of operations. At one point, she lived down the street from me in London, still managing to exude an aura of brittle gaiety even when, on returning from some trip, she discovered that her entire apartment had been emptied by thieves posing as movers. Her final exit had some dignity—if washing down pills has any. She knew, I imagine, that her future was at best the shabbiness of Lily Bart’s rooming house in Edith Wharton’s novel House of Mirth.
Humans may be the only species to commit suicide while physically healthy. Kamikaze bees or beached whales don’t really qualify. This ability of ours is the dark side of our gift of rationality. But who will give in to despair defies all analysis. Currently, we focus on lives wasted by the financial meltdown. French businessman René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, 65, reportedly lost more than US$1.4 billion of his family’s and clients’ money in Madoff investments and slashed his wrists. German industrialist Adolf Merckle, 74, and U.K. financier Kirk Stephenson, 47, jumped in front of trains. Nothing new: in 1928 the Belgian entrepreneur Alfred Lowenstein (who made a fortune by joining up with Canadian-born financier Sir James Dunn) resolved a dodgy balance sheet by landing before his private plane while crossing the English Channel.
Neither youth nor beauty is a sufficient defence. In 1920, a 24-year-old Russian Jewess scandalously hanged herself after her rabbi husband had apparently schemed to have the marriage annulled, when on her arrival at Ellis Island she was not as beautiful as remembered. More recently, Ruslana Korshunova, 20, was on her way to becoming a supermodel. She had expressed nothing but joy with her life, when on a June afternoon last year, she inexplicably jumped from her ninth-floor Manhattan apartment.
Methods depend on what’s at hand. Relatives of mine used the domestic gas oven in Britain after the war. I thought this singular until I read that gassing accounted for more than 40 per cent of U.K. suicides in 1963 when coal gas contained carbon monoxide. Natural gas contains no carbon monoxide and by 1975 gas suicides had virtually disappeared. No surprise that entertainment celebrities spark more copycat suicides than political or economic elites. Freddie Prinze was more influential than U.S. Senator William Knowland or Eli Black of United Brands, who in 1975 spectacularly bashed out the window of his 44th-floor office with his briefcase and jumped, after hurricane Fifi had wreaked havoc with his fruit conglomerate and the SEC was about to accuse him of bribing the Honduran president for a lower tax on bananas.
Culture plays some role. Pre-war Budapest had the highest rates of suicide in Europe. Social historian Gabor Gyani speculated that it was the attempt of ordinary people to single themselves out from teeming crowds of metropolitan strangers. Whatever, the city gave birth to the song Gloomy Sunday, dubbed the “Hungarian suicide song,” composed in 1933 by Rezos Seress—who himself committed suicide—and popularized in America by Billie Holiday. Two suicides in 1922 Shanghai society made newspaper stories. One woman hung herself from the bedpost in response to her mother-in-law’s cruelty. The other, Xi Shangzhen, an office worker, had lost money after her boss invested for her in the booming Shanghai stock market. She hanged herself at work using the cord of an electric teakettle. “One is a family matter,” wrote the press, dismissively. The other, that of a “new-style” woman, was described as a problem for society and attracted great controversy as symbolic of changes in Chinese social and political mores.
Hurrying up death, a happening from which there is as yet no avoidance, seems mysterious no matter what the circumstances. “Death comes to the apple / Death comes to the cheese / Learning is amusing / Knowing brings no release,” wrote poet George Jonas in 1967. Sums it up.