What Killed Margaux Hemingway?
Margaux Hemingway seemed to have it all, yet a drug overdose led the actress to an untimely death.
By Hara Estroff Marano published December 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
She was six feet tall in her bare feet—five foot twelve, she'd say—with such a remarkable face and such a radiant presence and such an alluring name that when she walked into a room, conversation left it. If she shook your hand, you might think your wrist was going to snap. If she knew you well enough she might call you "boopsie" and haul you off on a hike, or a trip to India; of course, with her long legs came great lungs, and you didn't hike with her, you gasped for breath behind her. When she laughed, it came out big and childlike and innocent. Her looks were so distinctive that when she went to a club and left her purse at home, she could reassure an exasperated companion, "But I don't need any I.D. I have my eyebrows."
She started right at the top with the first million-dollar contract ever awarded a model. She wasn't even out of high school. She asked for none of it. She was just a wide-eyed bronco-riding speed-skiing adventure-loving kid from Idaho who was spotted by Errol Wetson, an entrepreneur who became her first husband, who knew someone who knew people. "No one," her father said, "could take a bad picture of her."
On July 6, 1996, her ashes were buried in Ketchum, Idaho, in the shadow of a memorial to her grandfather Ernest Hemingway, arguably one of the twentieth century's most celebrated literary figures. Like her famous forebear, Margaux Hemingway took her own life—the fifth to do so in four generations of Hemingways, and on the eve of the thirty-fifth anniversary of her grandfather's death.
The coroner's report ascribed her death to "acute phenobarbital intoxication." Her many friends have publicly voiced their disbelief. They contend that any overdose had to have been accidental; that she took the drug for her epilepsy, with which she had been afflicted since age seven; and that it would be just like Margaux to forget she had taken one dose and then down another. But the bottle of drugs found by her bedside was not prescribed. And the coroner's report put her body's level of the drug well beyond the therapeutic range.
What made Margaux Hemingway take her life is a great mystery to those who knew her. Hours before she died she was with a longtime friend, standing at a microphone in front of 500 people and singing her well-toned lungs out at one of Hollywood's hippest restaurants, Cicada; she longed to sing the blues like her friend Millie Kaiserman. After two decades during which her career had plummeted she was forced to declare personal bankruptcy, take on sexually kinky B-movie roles, and endorse a psychic hotline—it seemed to be on the rebound. She was doing work that was socially as well as personally meaningful as moderator of Wild Guide, a TV series about endangered animals. (The 13 episodes she shot can be seen on the Animal Planet cable network.)
But the kinds of things that make people commit suicide are not always visible to the naked eye. Like an underground spring, a vein of vulnerability can run through a life and claim it in a bad second. Families, too, have unspoken ways of designating members to live out their legacies, and no one could dispute that a legacy of doom hovered over the Hemingway clan the way the Sawtooth Mountains dominate the Idaho landscape where three generations of Hemingways frolicked, where Ernest blew his failing brains out, and where Margaux's father, Jack, the oldest of Ernest's sons, set up house, just down the road from Sun Valley.
By all accounts, Ernest Hemingway was a tormented man, much like his father before him, never at ease with himself. Drinking, insomnia, violent outbursts, a sense of dread, perpetual movement and traveling, and great guilt over his own roguish behavior—four wives, many liaisons—marked his personal life. Biographer Kenneth Lynn reports that by the late 1940s, when Papa, as he had long called himself, was in his late forties, "fantasies of suicide thronged his mind, intermingled with fears of insanity."
Helped by his huge physical presence, Hemingway had concocted the myth of his own toughness. "What is more likely the truth of his own odyssey," Norman Mailer has written, "is that he struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all his life, that his inner landscape was a nightmare." Although his own depression wasn't formally diagnosed until his last, paranoid days, because getting professional help went against the Hemingway persona, mental instability and manic-depressive personalities inhabit virtually every branch of the family tree; indeed, Margaux's older sister, Joan, whose nickname is Muffet, has been in and out of mental institutions since age 16.
It is undoubtedly a mistake to let a final act speak for a whole lifetime, but the death of Ernest Hemingway still unconsciously reverberates, despite the family's avoidance of the subject. Margaux could almost never be engaged in a discussion of her family history, friends said. Above all, the Hemingways are people of action; they do not give themselves over to introspection or emotions.
Margaux had only recently begun to crack her grandfather's famous books; dyslexia inhibited her. Yet this never stopped her from living her life in his footsteps. In 1988, Margaux went to the Betty Ford Clinic to overcome her addiction to alcohol. As she explained to People magazine shortly afterward, she had been stunned by her swift elevation to celebrity. "I loved to dance and went to Studio 54 at least twice a week. But I always felt nervous around the people there. I was in awe of that whole Halston-Liza Minnelli crowd. To me, they were the real celebrities and I was just a girl from Idaho. So I drank to loosen up. I never thought then that alcohol would become a problem. In my grandfather's time it was a virtue to be able to drink a lot and never show it. And like him, I wanted to live life to the fullest, with gusto." What Margaux didn't say was that at the time her drinking worsened, causing thoughts of suicide and frightening seizures, her mother was dying in Idaho; the two had never been close and now they never would be.
What makes the life and death of Margaux Hemingway so compelling is that this beautiful woman had many serious problems and she met them all with a brave face. She came from a family whose struggles, both public and private, belong to us as much as to her because her grandfather shaped many of us, too—influencing not only the way we write but the way many men see themselves and act. Generations of Americans (and especially Papa's three sons) grew up hoping to be Hemingway heroes.
What Margaux Hemingway inherited in her genes and what vulnerabilities—styles of coping, unspoken beliefs about the future—she acquired in more subtle ways, perhaps even through a kind of emotional abandonment, will never be known for sure. This much can be said: it must have been an awful burden because it overtook a lifetime of personal bravery. In this she was truly Ernest's granddaughter.
More likely no one thing killed Margaux Hemingway but, as with her forebears, suicide exerted a lifelong tug and triumphed in a dark moment that might have passed had it not presented itself toward the anniversary of the Big Death, when its gravitational pull is greatest. Here are some of the many factors that may have weighed her down:
* Her age. At 41, Margaux was at the stage of life when people begin to take stock of themselves, to confront their own expectations. Twice married and twice divorced, living solo, she was still, in many ways, in an unformed, unsettled phase of life.
Much speculation holds that she envied and resented her younger sister Mariel for her success, most recently as a TV star. But siblings always measure themselves against each other. Margaux, her friends say, didn't have a resentful bone in her body Most likely, she didn't begrudge Mariel her success—not just as an actress but in marrying stably and having a family of her own. Rather, Mariel's success was a reflecting pool in which she saw only her own deficiency, and felt disappointment in herself for failing to meet her own, and perhaps others', expectations.
"She knew her name was Hemingway," says close friend Stuart Sundlun, a New York financier and her ex-fiance. "It was more other people's trip than hers. She was working hard to be Margaux. She needed to do a good job for herself."
Moreover, Margaux was aging at the margins of a profession that applauds women for what they look like and tends to ignore them after they reach their forties. She was not an accomplished enough actress who could switch to character parts. She had once tried to make a comeback by posing nude for Playboy. She was still trying to obtain roles that capitalized on physical appearance. And hers was inevitably, visibly changing.
"When your looks begin to change and that's primarily what you were known for, what else do you have to base your self-esteem on?" observes psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.D., of New York, herself a former model. "When your friends, and your younger sister, seem to be filling their lives up with career and family, and you don't have either, you can't blow yourself up anymore by how pretty you look or by going to the next party. You need to find something inside." Sadly, like many models, "her inner self probably never developed that much."
If she couldn't hold back the clock, she could try to exert fierce control over her body. What better proof is there that a model-actress isn't "losing it" than if she at least remains thin. The bulimia that Margaux had battled on and off since adolescence seems to have staged a comeback. "Weight was something she was always concerned about," a close friend says. "She went up and down." The same friend says she had recently noticed Margaux's body: "When she was standing in my kitchen; it seemed she was a little too thin."
Although she never talked about it—her friends say she was always vague about a lot of her personal life, yet she would go on Geraldo Rivera and talk about her bulimia or epilepsy—Margaux had few options other than to hammer away at a performance career. Like Mariel after her, she never finished high school. Dyslexia made reading and math difficult, and at 17 a modeling career probably looked even bigger than the Idaho sky. Her parents modestly protested. Her father, after all, had never completed college and felt that the lack of a degree kept him from earning a living at anything other than sales, for which he felt ill-suited; he has spent most of his adult life fly-fishing, supporting his family on income derived from foreign rights to his father's works. Nevertheless, her parents did little to stop her from pursuing a modeling career.
If her father believed that the lack of a college degree was what kept him from succeeding, what must his daughter have felt about career alternatives given her lack of a high school diploma? Such a deficiency would matter little in an acting career that was well established or deemed to be based on exceptional talent, but that's not the position Margaux found herself in. At 41, with the years beginning to make visible dents in her looks, the perceived lack of other options must have weighed heavily on her. "I think that's what she was searching for in these last few years," one of her close friends, Gigi Gaston, a screenwriter, says. "A way to leave Hollywood. To find something else to do."
* Her family. Like everyone in her family, Margaux was a fabulous outdoorsperson. Like them, she could ski, fish, and shoot. But she felt little sense of emotional connection to her family. Her mother, Puck, died in 1988 after a long illness. Jack remarried, and there was not much communication between father and daughter, many friends said. Of all her family members, she was closest to Mariel, and she wanted more contact with her.
Margaux's epilepsy, and especially its timing, may have played a subtle role in distancing her from her parents. Her seizures first manifested themselves in 1962, when she was seven, shortly after her grandfather died. The family was still reeling from the tragedy and the stigma of suicide. Make no mistake about it, suicide was a stigma—the family had to settle for giving Papa, in the words of his youngest son, "a semi-Christian burial, omitting some of the service as is required for those who still have an option."
It's possible, family therapists suggest, that Margaux's epilepsy burdened the family in a new and terrifying way; more than 30 years later, epilepsy still carries with it significant shame. It's a mark of Margaux's courage that as an adult she publicly revealed her affliction and worked with epilepsy organizations to remove the stigma. Perhaps as a result of the diagnosis, her parents were awash with humiliation and guilt, and that unwittingly led them to emotionally detach themselves from their middle daughter.
Or perhaps Margaux's highly unpredictable condition caused her parents to withdraw their emotional investment in her. They had already lost one child, a son, before Margaux's birth and they may have needed to protect themselves against further disappointment. Besides, there were other things for them to contend with.
On the day of Ernest's funeral, Margaux's father received another shock: he and his brothers had been cut out of the will; no one knows why. Yet Jack's existence depended on his expected inheritance. A legal challenge was now being mounted.
And Mariel had just been born. She arrived prematurely, four months after the suicide. The pregnancy had been a potentially dangerous Rh-incompatible one, Puck's fourth, and each successive pregnancy increased the risk of harm to the baby. Margaux's father was preoccupied with what he felt was the "delicate" health of his wife. Mariel, her father recalls, "soon became the focus of everyone's attention."
Margaux's father is, by his own description, a veritable model of emotional detachment. He's the first to admit that when the going gets tough, he goes fishing, often disappearing for days on end. Moreover, around the time Margaux developed seizures, her father had still another preoccupation. He was deeply involved in trying to recover for his mother, Ernest's first wife, a beloved painting, Miro's Farm, which he'd grown up with. His mother had received it as a gift from her husband and later lent it to him. It had, through devious means, fallen into the possession of Papa's widow, his fourth wife, the one least liked by all of his sons.
Margaux once told an interviewer that when growing up, she thought her family had forgotten about her. She ascribed it to being the middle child.
Unable to feel connected with her family, she tried like hell to connect with God. Her intense need for a sense of belonging became a spiritual quest. "She was trying to fill this enormous hole inside of her," one friend recalled. "She'd go off to Hawaii to study with a healer. She'd go off to India and study with different gurus." And in Santa Monica she continued to search at the Agape Church of Religious Science. This, indeed, was her own movable feast.
Her spiritual preoccupation made her, one friend says, "the hardest person to ground. She was out there. Half of her mind seemed always to be elsewhere." Unfortunately, her friend reports, "so many of her spiritual gurus were charlatans. She was a bit gullible. There was a side of her that was a little too desperate to get spiritual fulfillment."
Exactly what was Margaux continually searching for?
"Family support is the theme," a close friend says. "Without family support, you wind up with this litany of problems—bulimia, epilepsy, alcoholism—then you're a pathetic lost soul. How can you deal with these things, some of them inherited from your family? And then your family's not there. Maybe her dad just wanted to live the rest of his life without dealing with another daughter with problems."
* Rootlessness. Margaux had no real home. "Her friends were her home," said one friend at her memorial service in Santa Monica. And her friends were scattered all over the world, about which Margaux moved unusually freely.
She was constantly on the go and she loved visiting new places. Of course, there was usually a commercial motive behind these trips. However diminished her name, her face, and her celebrity, she was still wanted for personal appearances around the globe: a store opening in South America, a film festival in India, a talk show in Italy. She'd suck as much pleasure out of the trips as she could, hiking and exploring and meeting people.
She had just moved to a small apartment in Santa Monica from a place in neighboring Marina del Rey that she hated because it overlooked a parking lot. Installed happily in her new ocean-view quarters just a matter of days, she was ordered to vacate by the landlady; it's not clear why. And so she had to search all over again for a place to call home. On the day she died, she'd put a $3,000 deposit on a rental apartment in Marina del Rey, one friend says, proffering it as proof that Margaux couldn't possibly have killed herself—she was too money-conscious to needlessly spend a large sum. On the contrary, it's just such a setback as an eviction that can undo someone already feeling rootless, lonely, and deficient. These were feelings her friends rarely got to see; she always, they say, put on a positive face. "She was strong," says Sundlun, "and felt she had to be seen as strong." Home, even for a world traveler, is not just a place to nap between peregrinations. It's a highly symbolic refuge.
That Margaux was lonely was well known among her friends. She was hoping to find someone to share her life with. She had even recently asked an old friend—one she met at the beginning of her career—to marry her. And in the weeks before her death, she'd stepped up calls to friends.
It is not possible to sum up Margaux Hemingway by the appearance of limitations. She was much too spirited, much too colorful, always doing something outlandish. Gaston tells the story of their introduction: Margaux reached for her hand but shook her breast. Then they burst out laughing.
In all likelihood, Margaux died of the very bravado that her grandfather made so alluring. She added color to everyone's life and then went on to the next stop.
Much has been made of the fact that Margaux was not a reader and was unfamiliar with Papa's writing. But of all the Hemingways, and perhaps because those who do not master the past are doomed to repeat it (in psychology it becomes a repetition compulsion), she most lived out her grandfather's style, and style was what he had more of than anything.
Make no mistake about it, Margaux had great elan. She even changed the spelling of her name from the ordinary Margot to the more flamboyant Margaux, in honor of the wine alleged to have inspired her conception.
A longtime friend tells of Margaux turning up in France on the day the friend's daughter was to celebrate her third birthday. The daughter was terribly upset about not being home to have an American-style celebration. Fresh off the plane, Margaux announced, "Don't worry, boopsie, I have some tricks up my sleeve." She went into town, scoped out a costume shop, and, obviously inspired by the discovery of a bear costume, fashioned some sort of tutu for it. Before her transformation, she declared the circus was in town and that a very special guest had arrived for the party. And out came a marvelous Margaux bear. She danced. She leaped. She twirled. And she enthralled a room full of kids who didn't know her last name.
Sadly, Margaux couldn't openly show her own discontent and she couldn't get under the surface of it. God knows, she tried. But everything she tried was external; that Hemingway style becoming a curse. Without a turning inward—which, of course, would have been a cardinal violation of the Hemingway code, and for which she had no models in her family—the quest is conducted so as to guarantee no satisfaction. Or perhaps she finally succeeded in accessing herself and was overwhelmed.
The last person to speak to Margaux may or may not have been Caren Elin, a self-described teacher, chiropractor, and "reincarnationist." She had known Margaux for five years. They met over a mutual belief in reincarnation. Elin was not particularly chummy with Margaux. Margaux was a "spiritual friend" who, she says, wove in and out of her life.
Elin says she was surprised when, on Friday, June 28, fixed by the coroner as the probable day of death, she received a message from Margaux saying she needed help. On this all her friends agree—Margaux never before had asked for help.
Elin says she called Margaux back but she sounded upbeat, engaging Elin in a discussion of her very favorite subject—"over there." Elin had just been released from the hospital after a life-threatening infection and Margaux presumed she had had a near-death experience. "Isn't it wonderful over there," Margaux exclaimed. Elin says they spoke for half an hour about life and death and reincarnation. "I could sense that Margaux did not want to hang up. Maybe she wanted reassurance."
She also wanted Elin to use her contacts as a chiropractor to get her a couple of months' supply of phenobarbital. "She told me she was going to be away for a few months and needed it for her epilepsy," Elin says. "Until then I didn't even know she had epilepsy." Elin didn't furnish the phenobarbital; her contacts were out of town.
Denne Petitclerc is a writer who knew Ernest Hemingway, visited him in Havana, and first met Margaux there when she was a toddler. Over the years, they had had many discussions about "this great mystery she was passing through." They disagreed about reincarnation. But in Ketchum on the morning of Margaux's funeral, he was up before dawn, looking at the mountains. "What came to my mind was a vision of a cheetah in the Serengeti Plain stretching in the sun. And when she turned to look at me she had Margaux's eyes."