By Abby Ellin, published on November 4, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
There she was in her Paris pied- á-xterre, lounging regally on the arm of a cream tweed sofa, her legs stretching to infinity. There she was around town—London, Paris, New York—at six foot three, towering over boyfriend Mick Jagger, her porcelain finish and cascading coif elegant counterpoints to his lived-large crags. When she was seen kicking up her heels, she was posed by photographers who know precisely how 42-inch legs make an exquisite ensemble—or just a pair of everyday pantyhose—look even more majestic. She was probably most at home in the New York atelier where she turned out fabulous frocks so artfully constructed that even the buttons were handmade.
But glamour, looks, talent, friends in high places, and even the ultimate rock-star boyfriend couldn’t save fashion designer L’Wren Scott. The woman with impeccable taste who clothed Hollywood elite—from neighbor Nicole Kidman to Sarah Jessica Parker—was found hanging from the balcony door of her uberposh Manhattan duplex last March 17. She was 49.
“I am still struggling to understand how my lover and best friend could end her life this tragic way,” said Jagger, her beau of 13 years. As composed, as imperturbable, as self-assured as she always appeared, her sudden death made what could be considered the ultimate fashion statement—that looks can be deceiving. Few had a clue to the psychological fragility that lay under the lustrous taffeta gowns she was known for.
Scott was with friends the night before she took her life; she hosted a dinner party. They were concerned about her, Cathy Horyn, a former fashion writer, reported days later in The New York Times. She had been acting a little strange lately, ducking phone calls, ignoring emails, taking off by herself for Mustique, the private island where Jagger has a home. “But, no, they didn’t think she would do something so desperate. Not L’Wren,” Horyn wrote.
Despite a life lived very publicly—she began as a model, became a stylist, and launched her own design house in 2006, enterprises all demanding visibility—Scott was a very private person. She was mysterious, with “silent boundaries” her friends knew not to cross, Parker said at the memorial service for Scott, held at Manhattan’s imposing St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue.
Scott left no suicide note and gave no intimations of anguish the night before she killed herself. Months later, her death still resounds—as a reminder of the ultimate unknowability of others, even those to whom we feel close. Yet this much can be said for sure: In a moment of despair she fell victim to her own exacting standards.
L’Wren Scott’s life was filled with artful fabrication from the start. Even her name was invented. She was christened Laura Bambrough by her Mormon parents, Ivan and Lula Bambrough. But that was not likely her original name. The Bambroughs adopted her as a baby and raised her in decidedly unglamorous Roy, Utah (population 36,884), with two adopted siblings, Jan and Randall. Laura was soon nicknamed “Luann,” which morphed into “L’Wren.” No one knows where “Scott” came from.
“I always got the feeling that at a young age she said, ‘I gotta get the f*ck out of town, I want to be glamorous no matter what,’” says Merle Ginsberg, senior style writer for The Hollywood Reporter, who first met Scott professionally in the 1990s. “Usually, it’s the least glamorous people who do that. The further away from the glamour you are, the more you crave it.”
Scott was very hard to know, “and she didn’t want to be known,” Ginsberg adds. Ginsberg dated Scott’s ex-husband, businessman Tony Brand, after he split from Scott in 1996. The writer remembers his talking about her “in very grand terms. He said she was bigger than life, that she had the most incredible style and giant dreams.” Even before Ginsberg met Scott, she says, “I had an image of her as someone extremely determined to be a sort of Mata Hari or Cleopatra. That’s the way she saw herself, and she was very determined for the world to see her that way.”
Ginsberg recalls a story she wrote in which she revealed Scott’s real name. Scott was furious. “L’Wren really wanted to be 100 percent reinvented as a glamour goddess,” she says. “She once said to me, ‘If I could wear couture gowns every day, I would.’ She did not want anyone to know that she came from nothing.”
For all her grandeur, Scott was also sweet-natured, kind, funny, and warm, friends say. A person who remembered birthdays and often went out of her way to help others. Someone with a “deep heart, especially for the underdog,” her brother Randy said at her memorial service.
Scott grew up as something of an outcast, six feet tall by age 12, towering above her father, a World War II veteran who worked as an account executive for an insurance company, and her mother, a bank teller. People thought her freakish. “She was frequently made fun of because of her height,” childhood friend Julie Nichols Thompson has said. “She seemed to take it in stride. I wouldn’t say she was maliciously bullied, but she was often called ‘Stretch’ or asked: ‘How’s the weather up there?’”
Not long after her 18th birthday, Scott flew to Paris to restart life on her own terms. By this time she was six-three in her bare feet, more exotic than classically beautiful, and very, very thin. Although she knew no one in Paris, before long she was posing for photographer Bruce Weber and modeling for designer Thierry Mugler. Making the right connections was a particular talent of hers; she could go to a party, not know a soul, and end the evening as best friends with the most sensational person in the room. Over time, her visits home became rare. Although she was said to be close to her brother, she had been estranged from her sister for six years when she died.
After Paris, the small-town girl moved into a villa in the Hollywood Hills and transformed herself into a fashion stylist. She wasn’t just responsible for dressing famous charges, she also knew the history of fashion and design, literally inside and out.
She prided herself on turning her home into a small gem. It had a walled garden, and all the furnishings inside were painted avocado green. It was “stylish and very Boho,” Ginsberg recalls. And Scott, she says, “weighed about two pounds.”
The highly independent Scott married Brand in Hollywood in 1993, but the union lasted only three years. In 2001, she finally met her match: Michael Philip Jagger, otherwise known as Mick, the wild front man for the Rolling Stones. Now 71 and a great-grandfather, Jagger has never been hailed for his fidelity, but Scott believed she could tame him—or endure his lapses. Or maybe it didn’t matter; maybe it was enough to have a star of his wattage in her orbit.
Outwardly, Scott was a model of serenity, grace, and self-confidence. But by March 2014, inwardly her sense of self-worth may have been rocked by what only a few confidantes knew about—the impending closure of her design house.
When she killed herself, Scott was under major fiscal duress. In a tribute she wrote in The New York Times, Cathy Horyn revealed that Scott had been planning to announce the shuttering of her business (which Jagger had helped finance). Scott’s own spokespeople denied it, but according to the Daily Mail, records filed in England a year earlier showed that her company, LS Fashion Ltd., had a deficit of nearly $5.9 million, on the heels of a $4.2 million deficit in 2011. Scott was $7.6 million in the hole.
A few months before her death, Scott canceled her London Fashion Week show. She claimed production delays, but insiders said it was because her ultra-high-end business was tanking. The fashion industry, even at the rarefied levels at which Scott operated, is notorious for its ups, downs, closures, and reinventions, and anyone in it— especially if not backed by a company with pockets deep enough to weather a slow season or two or to provide the management expertise needed nowadays—must always be braced for the possibility of reversal. For someone as ambitious, as proud as Scott, the reality must have hit unusually hard.
Not that she would ever be destitute. She and Jagger shared homes in Paris and London, and her Manhattan condo was worth $5.6 million. It was owned by a holding company, Scottland Management LLC, which bought it outright in 2010. According to the Daily Mail, Scott had secretly mortgaged the duplex for $1.2 million, and in February of last year asked Jagger to help bail her out. The request spurred a vicious fight between them, gossip columns claimed.
“When she went into financial debt, the foundering of her business and her financial dive translated into such a plummeting of self-esteem that she no longer had the self-worth that she once had,” surmises New York psychotherapist Jane Greer, author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “Even though Mick Jagger was bailing her out, the fact was that she needed his help to survive. That was the beginning of the end. Her lack of self-worth was reflected in her finances.”
The crisis in identity and self-esteem that Scott likely suffered was probably born of a convergence of multiple factors. No one can say whether adoption was one.
Millions of well-adjusted, high-functioning people have been adopted. Nevertheless, “there are social issues that come up when one is adopted and putting together a healthy identity,” says Amy Hecht, a psychologist in New York who specializes in adoption issues. “It’s very difficult to say that some people never wonder about who they really are,” she adds. “That’s almost inconceivable. But some people feel very driven to find out the missing pieces, and there are others who, for a variety of reasons, choose not to find out.”
Much depends on the narrative the adoptive family creates for the child, observes Hecht. Was Scott told her history or was the subject taboo in her household? Was she abandoned in a box by the church or gently placed into the arms of a loving family?
Today, adoptive families are encouraged to make “life books” detailing the moment of birth and other information about the adoptees’ past. But 49 years ago, records were almost always sealed and the facts kept under strict wraps.
Adult adoptees invariably tell Hecht that they wish they’d heard that it was OK to wonder about their birth families, to miss having the biological connection. But while research shows that, as adults, adopted kids have more abandonment fears, self-esteem concerns, and other troubles, she notes, “we don’t know if that’s because they were raised in an era that said, ‘Forget your precious history—your life didn’t exist before your adopted parents met you.’ That, and the inherent losses in adoption, can lead to a hole in your heart.” The human response to that kind of loss runs the gamut, as it does for any kind of loss, says Hecht.
The community into which one is adopted also plays a role—in Scott’s case, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scott’s parents were active members, and Mormonism doesn’t take kindly to sex outside of marriage. The Church states on its website: “Birth parents who do not marry should not be counseled to keep the infant as a condition of repentance or out of a sense of obligation to care for one’s own.” Although nothing is known about Scott’s birth parents, the message to the child of an unwed mother is clear: You’re not worthy. “If you’re told your mother was unfit, and ‘Aren’t you lucky, we good people adopted you and gave you a decent life,’ that makes it very hard to feel good about yourself,” says Hecht.
Perhaps nothing can make sense of what motivates a person to take that final fatal leap. “There is no psychological theory out there that really explains that gap between the fantasy of suicide and the action,” says Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, aimed at preventing suicide among college students. More often than not, it’s a mixture of neurochemical vulnerability, desperation, and circumstance. But identity, or lack thereof, is one of the factors cited by the American Association of Suicidology as a suicide predictor, along with substance abuse, anxiety, anger, and a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness, however temporary it might be.
In addition to identity concerns as a precipitant of suicide, financial distress plays a role. A recent report in The British Journal of Psychiatry reveals “a substantial rise in economic suicides” during the recent recession. There were at least 10,000 more suicides in North America and Europe between 2008 and 2010, when the recession was at its peak. Debt, the report explains, increases the risk of suicidal thinking.
For all the psychic burdens ordinary people must bear, those in the spotlight sometimes have more. They may be trapped under the weight of their own mythology. Celebrities must find a way to navigate the stark contrast between their own inner life—like everyone else’s, messy and complex—and their fairy-tale outer life. Additionally, many face the fear that if their real self were truly known, they’d be branded a fraud—or, worse, a failure.
For proud, perfectionist Scott, failure of any sort may have seemed a fate worse than death.
Nor is having a famous partner an unalloyed blessing. Having a rock-star boyfriend—the ultimate rock-star boyfriend—can be wildly exciting, at first. It can be a ticket to lots of good things, and it creates an opportunity to bask in reflected glory, which can enhance self-esteem.
Scott, not surprisingly, thrived on the fact that she was involved with one of the most famous men on the planet. “Once she got with Mick Jagger,” Ginsberg says, “it was very important that she was referred to as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend. She was getting very exalted on her own, but nothing could be more exalted than that.”
But after the hundredth night in a grungy backstage dressing room, the luster dims, especially for a woman so ambitious in her own right. Being with someone so illustrious can put one’s own life and accomplishments in the shadows. “I’m a fashion designer. I don’t want to be defined as someone’s girlfriend,” Scott once proclaimed. At the end of the day, it’s not a measure of your own worth. It provides little self-sustenance. And if that rock star is truly a rolling stone, with a notoriously wandering eye, there’s little comfort.
In fact, there were reports that Jagger had dumped Scott just before she killed herself (along with unfounded rumors that her responsibilities to Jagger included procuring women for him). Spokespeople from both camps have refuted the claims, but three months after Scott’s death, Jagger was spotted embracing 27-year-old ballerina Melanie Hamrick on a Zurich hotel balcony, and later, in Rome.
The headlines announcing Scott’s death identified her as “Mick’s girlfriend” rather than as a prominent and respected businesswoman. Twitter lit up with complaints from fans who were offended by the characterization, using hashtags like #everydaysexism and #disrespect.
Age likely figured into Scott’s death in some unknowable way. The former model was, at 49, aging in a milieu that worships young beauty and devotes massive resources to finding its next exemplar. Even if Jagger was faithful, a woman traveling in such circles inevitably fears that her appeal is waning.
Along with her youth, also disappearing were her dreams of having her own biological family, her own flesh and blood. However demanding children can be, they are at the very least an anchor to the present and a palpable link to the future. Scott had confided to friends that she wanted kids, although she didn’t want to push Jagger on the issue. He already had seven children, four grandchildren, and a great grandchild, whom Scott welcomed into her life and homes.
Despite the proliferation of fillers and potions to shore up a sense of undimmed beauty and desirability, no one can hold back the clock. But beauty in Western culture is also defined as thinness, which is, to varying degrees, subject to personal control. Scott was always willowy, but over time grew progressively thinner, until she was all bones and angles. In the months before her death, she appeared downright hollow. “I don’t know how you can be that age and that painfully thin,” says Ginsberg.
Eating disorders are rampant in the fashion and beauty world—almost a job requirement. Models openly admit to anorexia and trade tactics. Scott may not have been formally diagnosed with anorexia, but she fit the inner as well as outer profile. Anorexics are typically driven, persistent, and detail-oriented. They crave order and control. They set standards for themselves that are nearly impossible to maintain. Scott, of course, created a world of exacting standards.
Anorexics also have an intimate relationship with, and threshold for, extensive pain. “While exquisitely attuned to minute changes in body shape, weight, or food portions, and perceived rejection/punishment, individuals with anorexia are often less sensitive to physical pain,” says Kamryn T. Eddy, codirector of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Their pain tolerance is manifest most notably in their ability to suppress or ignore hunger. It also shows up in high rates of self-harm behaviors like cutting.
Suicide, not starvation, makes anorexia the deadliest of mental disturbances. In a longitudinal study conducted at Mass General over the past two and a half decades, researchers found that women with anorexia are 25 times more likely to die by suicide than other women. Most of the women used extreme, violent measures—contrary to what research shows to be the traditional methods of choice for women.
In 2011, 39,518 people committed suicide in the United States, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men typically die by gunshot or self-strangulation. Women cut themselves or overdose on pills. Men are four times more likely to succeed at suicide, but more women attempt it.
“We have found that the more experience someone has with pain, the less fear they tend to show toward death by suicide,” says Edward Selby, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University who specializes in the treatment of suicidal and self-injurious behavior. “They’ve faced pain before, they’re not afraid to do so again. The inability to experience pain and the lack of fear are a particularly bad combination when someone starts to experience a desire for suicide.”
The pain tolerance and fearlessness may drive anorexics to employ particularly harsh methods of killing themselves, observes Jennifer J. Thomas, codirector of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Mass General and coauthor of Almost Anorexic.
Scott hanged herself with a black satin scarf and tie wound tightly around her neck. Her assistant, whom she had called earlier and asked to come over around 10 a.m., found her slumped on the floor. Although some friends believe that her suicide was an impulsive act, psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute in New York City, disputes that possibility.
“Without a plan it doesn’t work,” he says. “Those who are most successful have planned it out. With hanging you need a rope, not a string. You really have to think about that in advance.”
It does not help those who are struggling with problems that we live in a culture where disorders of the mind are kept quiet. People are honest about struggles with cancer or diabetes. They talk openly about injuries. But depression is a dark secret.
Ultimately, it is hopelessness that drives people to kill themselves. Hopelessness that their business will rebound, that their mate will love them, that anyone else will want them. Hopelessness that good things will ever happen again.
“Her identity was very tied into her profile—her line, her business, her identity as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend—and everything started to wobble,” says Greer. “It’s one thing to lose one engine; it’s another thing if four go.”
Feeling down is, ipso facto, alienating. It isolates a person from those who might lend an ear or summon help. Talking about her feelings most likely would have helped Scott, experts say. Except, of course, she was not a person who wanted to appear vulnerable in any way.
Scott’s funeral was held in Los Angeles in March; a memorial followed in New York two months later. The church was decorated with roses, cherry blossoms, and the glitterati. Jagger sang Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” and two of his grandchildren read Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”
Scott’s will specified that her siblings were not to get any of her estate, said to be worth $9 million. She left it all to Jagger. Her ashes were split between him and her family in Utah.
An avid Instagrammer, Scott had once penned a post: “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of life.” Sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to protect her.